Wordy Wednesday (“This Is How You Learn to Breathe”)

Goodness, I got so wrapped up in doing my homework I almost forgot to post this week’s Wordy Wednesday. (<–That’s the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written.)

This is a short story I wrote for my creative writing class last week–so far I’ve been squirreling away all of my stories from the class to use in competitions and submit to magazines and all that fun stuff, but I figured it was time I shared one with you. It’s weird because I’ve never been big on short stories–I’m definitely more prone to noveling than any other type of writing, and I barely wrote short stories at all before Figment’s competitions got me going–but I’ve been really enjoying writing so many stories for this class.

**********

The moment my skates touch the slick, well-worn ice, my feet almost come out from beneath me.

“Whoa, Tessa,” Regina says as she glides up from behind. “Hang on a sec, let me help you.” She grabs my elbow and leads me, stumbling, over to the wall. I wrap my fingers around the worn brass lip jutting out from the scratched Plexiglas and feel the cold bite into my skin. My cheeks feel especially warm as the brass leaches the heat from my hands, and I have to close my eyes for a moment and take a breath.

“You okay?” Regina asks. I can hear the apprehension in her voice as clearly as I can imagine her brown eyes wide with surprise and her thin dark eyebrows low with worry, so visible in my mind I am positive she is giving me that exact look right this moment.

“I’m fine,” I say. But there is no mistaking the way my left leg quivers beneath my weight, or the way I can’t seem to get my foot to turn straight. There’s the sharp slicing sound of skates carving through ice as Regina moves in front of me, and when I open my eyes again she is right there before my face, her expression exactly as I thought it would be. She stands with her arms at her sides, casual and in control. I feel like someone has kicked me in the stomach; like all the air has gone out of my lungs in a gasp. Like I am waking up in a hospital room surrounded by machines, beep, beep, beeping about how I am alive, all over again.

Regina does not need the railing. She does not need any help at all.

And I do.

“I’m fine,” I repeat. “I just need to get the hang of things again. Don’t worry about me.”

I try to sidle past her, to shift away from the wall and glide over the ice like I used to be able to, but the moment I put my full weight on my left leg, my knee buckles beneath me and I can’t regain my balance. My entire left side—my elbow, ribs, my hip—feels like someone has doused it in kerosene and struck a match against my bones. I am silent as I fall, Regina watching in horror beside me, and the next thing I know I am splayed on my back, tailbone tingling. The ice is dry and sticky, like a Popsicle fresh out of the freezer, and I am aware that it burns against the exposed skin at the nape of my neck and all along my hands, but I cannot feel a thing outside of the needling, burning pain in my leg; my knee, my ankle, my foot. All of it on fire.

“Mrs. Montgomery!” Regina calls from above me, hoarse and breathless with fear. “Mrs. Montgomery, Tessa fell! Tessa’s on the ice! Mrs. Montgomery!” Her voice is echoing and far away. I close my eyes and try to force a smile, but there’s a sound in my throat like a grimace or a groan.

I open my mouth to tell Regina I’m fine, but there’s no air in my lungs, like the fire has stolen all the oxygen straight out of them. “Reg—” I start to say. I cough and then gag, and then I am silent.

“Mrs. Montgomery!” she says again. “Mrs. Montgomery!” My mom must be in the office right now though, because she does not come running, and Regina and I remain the only two people in the rink.

When I can finally breathe again, I brace my palms against the ice, feel its cool sear into my skin, and say, “Regina, I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ve fallen thousands of times before. Don’t worry about me.”

Regina stares down at me and bites the corner of her lip, arms crossed over her chest. Her dark eyes are screwed up with tears, like she’s the one on the ice instead of me.

And, as if the accident stole my memories instead of crushing my leg, she then feels the need to remind me, “You’ve never fallen just skating before, Tessa. You hardly ever fall even when you’re learning a new move. You aren’t fine. We should really get your mom. This is the first time you’ve been on the ice in four months.”

I don’t mention how three of those months were spent recovering from a car accident, and the one month before that was spent teaching five year olds to spin, so falling wasn’t exactly an option or even an easy thing to do. Instead I just say, “Believe it or not, I’m not Superman and I was on the ice plenty when I first learned to skate,” and force myself into a sitting position.

I say, “You know the doctors told me I’d have to learn all over again, just like I had to learn to walk. It makes sense that I fell. I’m serious. Don’t worry about it.” I stretch my legs out before me so the scuffed blades of my favorite pair of skates glint under the stark yellow rink lights, high above, and roll my ankles to make sure they’re okay. Pain like a shard of glass runs up my left leg, but I try not to let onto it.

“I’m fine,” I say one last time. My voice catches, but I smile it off.

Regina nods, wiping at the tears under her eyes, and then holds out a hand to help me the rest of the way up. The ice is a branding iron, claiming me. I have to hold my breath as I peel my right palm from its sticky dry surface and place it in hers, the skin raw and burnt the same shade of pink as her frilly little skating dress. I place my left hand against my thigh as she pulls me up, and the pink contrasts against my black leotard and tights. It looks redder there—a singing scarlet. More blood than skin.

They say I lost so much blood in the time between the collision and the ambulance arriving that I should’ve been dead before I made it to the hospital. They say my heart was beating so slow, a less hopeful EMT would’ve thought it had stopped altogether.

My palms and neck tingle as I stand, coming alive again with the refrigerated air breathing over them, so much warmer than the ice. I let myself lean against Regina as she guides me back to the wall, and then I grip the railing with both hands. My left leg shakes beneath me, even as I try to shift as much of my weight onto my right foot as I possibly can without unbalancing on my skate. My knee has turned traitor, my ankle turned rogue. The ice feels foreign beneath my feet.

Probably it’s the fault of all the pins and rods that now hold all the fractured pieces of my leg together; probably, in part, it’s because of my muscles, rendered weak after months on stable ground. But at the same time, the rawness in my throat and on my cheeks feels wrong—different from how it used to. Like the dry air and the slippery ice has betrayed me as well.

Ice is supposed to preserve. It’s supposed to protect. But something has broken within me, and now there is fire burning under my skin, calling me away. Forcing a barrier between me and the cold, and numbness, and separation. The calm skating used to provide.

It used to take me away from life. Now all I can think about is how close I came to death.

Regina was in the car too, when it happened. It was a whole bunch of us, coming back from a competition over in Ridgeview. The girl driving, Candace, she’s gone. I was sitting right behind her, with my leg pressed against the door to make room for the sports bag between my feet. The other three girls in the car came away barely scratched. Candace died and I became this.

I’ve imagined this moment a thousand times: my first time back at the sports center, skates tied to my feet and the ice smooth and soothing beneath me. I imagined it in hospital rooms and operating rooms, in wheel chairs and on crutches. I imagined it in the waiting room of the rehab center and in the car on the drive there every day, staring out the window as we drove past the sports center—slowing down at the stop sign, so tantalizingly close, and then driving on and beyond and past it until it was out of sight and gone.

I imagined this moment for three months. Every day. I imagined it so many times there was a sense of déjà vu as Mom drove Regina and me to the sports center today, stopped at the stop sign, and then pulled into the parking lot for the first time in months. But this is not the moment I imagined.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s good that this is not what I imagined. Because what I imagined was being numb. What I imagined was everything being the same—just for an instant, a heartbeat—when I know, I know that it’s all changed. All of it. Every single part, beginning with the way Candace should be here along with us as I test my footing on the ice, and ending with the way I now want nothing more than to leave the ice behind and never see it again. The fire in my leg spreading throughout my entire life like a forest fire. The heat of the truck searing, gnashing against my skin as it stole my world away.

Skaters get injured all the time. It can happen to anyone, at any point. But no one ever tells you how it doesn’t have to be a skating accident that breaks your body and kills your dream. No one ever tells you that a drunk driver can do it just the same, and that sometimes the ice isn’t enough to stop the burn.

“I can’t do this,” I say. It’s a realization, the words coming out of my mouth before I’ve even really wrapped my mind around what I’m saying. I’m gripping the brass railing so tightly my knuckles have turned a ghostly white and my fingers ache for release.

“Don’t say that, Tessa. Of course you can do this.” Regina glides backwards so that she’s beside me and wraps her arms around my shoulders. “You’re right. You just need to learn how to do it again. With time, you’ll regain your strength, and maybe with more rehab they can work on turning out your ankle again, and—”

“No.” The word is quiet and my tone is measured, but it echoes loud and clear in the vacant rink, and Regina stops babbling. I feel her arms stiffen around me. “No, it’s not that,” I say. “It’s… I don’t want to do this.”

“Come on, that’s just the fear talking,” Regina says. She smooths back some hair that has come loose from my ponytail and then steps away so she can face me. “This is your home, Tessa. Skating is what you do. You can’t let an obstacle like this stop you.”

“But I don’t want to skate anymore,” I say, and it’s the truth. The ice is foreign. I don’t belong on it anymore. My tights are too thin, and my leotard is too tight, and my left skate fits wrong; it wears against the base of my heel and makes me feel like I am off-balance, off-kilter, about to fall down. The air in here is too dry to breathe in, too thin to live off of. Not anymore.

“I don’t need this,” I say.

“But skating’s what—”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. I feel a smile etch itself onto my lips. Regina’s eyes go wide in worry and her thin eyebrows scrunch low with surprise. The smile drops off my face. “No,” I say, sober. “No, I don’t need this. I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to, and I don’t want to skate anymore.” I pause before adding, knowing I have to say it even though I don’t think I’ll ever touch the ice again, let alone do twists and leaps and spins over its glossy surface at competitions, “At least not today.”

Regina lets me go, and the ice does too. My skates scissor slowly, laboriously over it as I find my way back to the door and let myself out onto the grooved rubber flooring beyond. I wobble my way over to the bench and pull off my skates and pull on a pair of shoes. And nobody tries to stop me—not the memories or the cool; not the skating rink or the fire.

Outside, the air is warm and humid, full of bird song and the sounds of cars passing on the road, blocked from view by a row of oak trees, branches full and heavy with broad green leaves that twirl in the wind. The cars almost sound like running water; like a waterfall breaking free from the ice at the top of a mountain, dancing through the air. Like a skater performing a particularly difficult leap, or someone walking away from a dream that is no longer theirs.

As I wait on the curb for my mother to pull the car around and take me home, I can finally breathe. The heat is delicious, and I can taste the humidity on my tongue. I take the warm air in and count to three before letting it back out. It’s like I’m learning to breathe all over again. It’s like I’m learning to be alive.

**********

28

I’m evidently going crazy here, if this is the picture I’m using this week. Somebody please rescue me from my pile of homework. I think if it gets any bigger, it’s going to come to life and try to eat me in my sleep.

 

~Julia

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