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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

When the sun disappears for the day and the street lights cut through the dark, there is a bewitching calm in the air. In winter, that calm is powerful and mysterious. There are no birds calling in the night, only dogs howling to get back inside. That’s when I head out to the skate trail; a winding tree-lined figure-eight path in the middle of the city.

After my first week on the ice, I can declare with some certainty that people do not change on ice. Skates hug our feet and squeeze our true selves up and out into the world, demanding honesty in exchange for balance.

The skaters who challenged my skills the most were the boys who played games on the ice that no one knew the rules to. They were as unpredictable as firecrackers in a barrel, changing direction on a whim – giving you an elbow in the back, or a helmet in the pelvis. These will become the guys in your office who say “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” or swear it’s called the “16th chapel” believing there must be others, named 1 to 15. These ones require patience and must be allowed to skate freely, feel important, but be reminded that when they want to slow down and ask questions, they will be heard. Breaking through their madness I found the lone boy, skating in the opposite direction; the thrill of facing everything head-on fuelling his drive. This is the boy who will grow up to imagine a different way of doing things and marvel at the Sistine Chapel.

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Before long, I met a wall of young girls, arm-in-arm, like one long creature. They laughed, tugged on the line, hip bumped, and yelled at their friend three arms down, never letting go, occasionally breaking into song. When one lost a hat, they all stopped, arms still hooked, and bent down, one at a time, like links in a chain, until someone was low enough to pick it up. This is what friendship among a group of women looks like at the beginning and metaphorically, at the end; arm-in-arm, picking up the pieces together and singing for no reason. I waited until the path widened to go around them. I knew they needed to stay in formation – for reasons they have yet to realize.

Then – booof! I was hit by a blonde bomb. The wild skater cut me off as she tried to take a shortcut. Instead of knocking me over, she reached out and grabbed both my arms, pulling me in tight. She was laughing so hard she couldn’t speak let alone apologize for dragging me off course. We slowed down before she released me then yelled back “Sorry!” with a “Whoa!” and a “Yikes!” as she continued on her path of near misses. This is the woman you find yourself with on an impromptu trip to Graceland or screaming in pain with at a tattoo parlour in Montreal while a pink poodle gets inked on your calf.

I slowed my speed and ducked in behind “the Couple.” The girlfriend skated a few paces ahead of her beau and periodically looked back over her shoulder, the designer tuque sitting just low enough to show off her eyelashes. The boyfriend feverishly snapped photos on his phone and directed her hair tosses. The day my husband spends an afternoon taking my photo as I skate is literally the day hell freezes over and there is nothing else to do but skate. They might be the ones who get bored often and spend too much time creating happiness instead of feeling it.

As I pushed past them, the “Jersey Buddies” flew past, the sound of their hockey skates cutting the ice is like helicopter blades hitting concrete. They raced along like NHL players, weaving in and out, taking sharp corners, and swearing at the top of their lungs. I suspect they hadn’t worn a hat or gloves since grade school, for fear of showing weakness. These are the guys who are always looking two moves ahead, making bold choices, but in the end, are loyal to a fault and leave no one behind. For them, actions speak louder than words – except today.

I spent the rest of the week continuing to observe. It was a few days before the drinkers showed up; a nice group of gen-something-or-others that had booze hidden behind a tree and after every lap, pulled over for a swig. Some of them will have a hard time growing up; others will have to leave the group in order to reach their potential and friendships will be fractured. I listened to the two men who gabbed about TV shows and balsamic vinegar. Their hands brushed sweetly against each other from time to time. These are the people who will stay up with you all night to help you through a tough time because they know a thing or two about difficult.

And then I studied the dads. I could have melted in the cold every time I looked at the dads who skated happily, unnaturally hunched over, holding their children up as they went from stumbling to stable on their first pair of skates. That first day of college will be hard on these men. I watched the mom’s constantly adjusting hats and mittens and knew immediately, they would be the moms who ask their adult children if they’re eating properly and follow up with an invitation to dinner.

All week, I skated around like a ghost – disturbing no one, only watching. I wondered for a split second if I had become the invisible woman, suddenly unseen; not exciting enough to matter. I wasn’t with my husband, my friends, my drinking buddies; boys weren’t giving me the side-eye any more and no one needed me to hold them up. I had been skated into or around but had not been part of any group. I felt sad for a moment then let this stereotype blow away in the cold wind. On the ice, as in life, I am a woman on the move – always circling the present and future simultaneously. I am not on the ice to be seen. My “things-I’ve-yet-to-do” list is longer than any skate path and it pushes me toward experience now more than ever. When I am on the ice, weaving in and out of other people’s lives – it might not be that I am invisible, it might just be that I am unstoppable.

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Carol Sloan lives in Toronto.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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