I’m not sure if this is true for everyone or if only I think this way, but skating is like riding the bicycle — once you’ve learned it, you never forget. Sure, your legs are wobblier, your upper body aches and your glasses get foggy, but otherwise, when you step on the ice, it is like being a teenager all over again and the world slides by you in concentric and deceptively fast revolutions. Muscle memory, some call it.
This December, while we were in San Diego, I took my eight year old grandson Alex skating. My wife and I are trying hard to find meaningful things for him to experience almost every day after school — and after visiting all child friendly museums in Balboa Park, seeing the latest Disney movies, riding the trolley back and forth between our place and his house, spending a few afternoons bowling and playing at the beach, my wife discovered that a skating rink opened on Coronado Island, right by the ocean in front of the historic Dell Hotel. “We should take Alex there,” she suggested. “I haven’t skated in ages,” I said. “So what? I’m sure you can do it,” my wife innocently huffed. The last thing in the world I want is to disappoint my wife when it comes to her trust in my unusual physical abilities, so I shook on the inside, smiled on the outside, and said, “Yes, no biggie. Of course I can do it. Of course.”
The last time I skated was in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City with Ronit, my wife’s cousin’s daughter from Israel when she was sixteen. She’s 41 now. Before that, many years ago, I skated with my children at the ice rink in Oakland Mills in Columbia, MD where we live. I have no specific recollection of those times, but I must have done it, since both my son and my daughter declared they had skated in middle school, and I must have played a role. And before that I skated once with my friend Istrate — who is no longer alive — in Connecticut, in the late seventies. I remember that very clearly because I did it while on lunch break from work.
I have never been a great skater. I learned the sport on my own, in Bucharest, when I was a boy, and I stopped by the time I turned seventeen or eighteen. My first skates were actually a pair of blades that attached to the soles of my winter boots, each blade equipped with two clamps with wing nuts on the outside. This way, children whose feet grew each year, didn’t need to invest in expensive equipment. There were no ice rinks with artificial ice, and I skated at the Progresul Sports Park (‘progresul’ means progress in Romanian), where one very resourceful tennis instructor took a hose to a clay tennis court during the cold winter months (there were no indoor tennis facilities either) and covered it with uneven ice. He turned on two portable lights, put a record player and an old speaker on a court side bench, and, for a small entry fee, we, boys and girls from the neighborhood, benefitted from an ad hoc winter paradise that could be reached in a few minutes by foot. I learned how to keep my balance on ice and skate in a circle by holding on tight to the gloved hands of my friends. I also skated in Cișmigiu Park in the center of Bucharest, when the pond froze solid in the winter. Eventually in the early sixties, an open-air ice rink with artificial ice was built in Floreasca, an area mentioned in urban legends and literature as the Floreasca Pit, where the Gypsies and the outlaws found shelter before World War Two. Floreasca was now a model gentrified area with clusters of new socialist style apartment buildings on one side, a sports arena with an indoor swimming pool on the other, and a shallow valley with young trees, benches and alleyways surrounding the ice rink in the center.
It used to take me almost forty minutes to get there by bus — actually two busses, one to the center of town and a second one to the rink — but it was worth it. The ice was smooth, the music loud, and the rink was open daily until late spring. By that time I knew how to turn my blades sideways in order to stop and spray my gang of friends with flying ice, how to take the corners smoothly by bringing one skate over the other (which in Romanian we called ‘cutting the ice’), and finally how to skate backwards, by looking over my shoulder while moving both skates at the same time in a continuous snake-like undulation. I knew that there were different types of skates for figure skating, speed skating and playing hockey, and I even owned my own skates, the kind permanently attached to my boots, two size larger than needed on account of my future growth, that I wore with two pairs of thick wool socks to ensure adequate tightness. I was in middle school and then high school, and there was always a feeling of adventure and excitement associated with the skating rink in Floreasca, since young people from all over Bucharest frequented it, girls included. One never knew what romantic encounter the future could bring, and one’s hope lasted forever. Speaking of young people, I am ashamed to admit to the disdainful manner in which I watched the few older men who dared share the ice with us, usually in their forties and possibly fifties, much younger than I am today, who skated alone and respectful of others, attempting to recreate their younger years, and appearing totally out of place if not downright pathetic and silly in their controlled and futile efforts. We flew by them. Time held no meaning. We pushed, and jumped, and laughed, and pirouetted along, happy with each other, loud and untouchable. The smell of cold ice was in the crisp air, the hair blew with the wind, and we saw no barriers.
Sometimes nostalgia overcame me, when the winter night fell early on the city, the stars blinked above and lights turned on behind some of the windows in the adjacent apartment buildings. Other lives and mysterious forces touched mine, and I skated silently, swaying with the music.
I wrote my very first short story one evening before going skating — a two-page lament about a girl and a boy in love, and a suicide — love and death, the inescapable romantic youth saga. I read it that night to a girl from my class and she rewarded me with a kiss on my forehead, sealing my literary ambitions forever.
I saw my future wife at the skating rink one afternoon. She was there with a couple of friends of hers, and I skated with them and around them showing off and having no clue that in a few years we would start dating.
And I took part in a fistfight one night in the vicinity of the skating rink — the first and only one in my life. Now I am being generous with myself saying that ‘I took part.’ What really happened was that a group of Gypsy boys, proving perhaps that the old rumors about the Floreasca Pit were not completely unfounded, materialized in the park surrounding the rink as my friends and I were walking back to the bus station. They started harassing us, and we tried very hard to ignore them. Suddenly I received a fist to my chin, lost my balance and landed on my behind on the wet ground. I didn’t throw a punch back, and luckily the Gypsies ran away laughing, but my jaw refused to close properly for a few days afterwards giving me the slightly twisted face of an angry poet.
The ice rink in Coronado is small, located between the hotel and the beach and surrounded by tall, swaying palm trees. The ice is soft and glistening with pools of water. People are milling around it and two restaurants in the immediate vicinity are full. At first Alex declared he didn’t want to try skating. We decided to give it some time and walked along the beach in front of the hotel and looked at the ocean. A few surfers were riding the waves. When we returned to the rink, Alex saw people slide on the ice and his face lit up. He was ready to give it a try. We purchased the tickets and rented the skates — to my surprise nowadays they resemble downhill ski boots with multiple buckles. Once on the ice, the moves came back to me, and I was able to hold my own, glide and advance without grabbing the boards, one foot next to the other. Alex held the boards for dear life, with both hands. I stayed with him, guided and encouraged him. Gradually he began finding his balance and advancing carefully along the side of the rink, holding on to my hand. Then he ran into another boy his age — Justin from North Carolina, and that made all the difference. Like Alex, Justin was on the ice for the first time, holding onto the boards, hardly moving. He was in San Diego with his family for their winter vacation. The boys stayed glued to each other, threw snowballs, pushed and dared each other, and, with the ease that only young children have to learn a new skill, they began skating. Not long stretches and holding on, but still…
The afternoon flew, and when it was time to go home, Alex asked for five more minutes, and then five more after that, until the sun set in the ocean and rush hour started.
The second time we went skating at the Kroc Center. The size of the indoor hockey ice rink scared Alex at first, but he soon relaxed, and moved around on the ice, holding on to the boards, more and more determined to let go and allow himself to slide, catch speed and enjoy that feeling of floating freely that ice skating generates. I took his little hand in mine and we skated together, faster and longer each time, me cherishing that bond of complete trust that united us. Holding hands, he learned how to pass other skaters and stop by turning, without crashing into the boards. At the end of the session we lingered outside the rink for a few minutes and watched the junior hockey team warm up. Their skill and speed made them appear to us like gods frolicking and flying on ice, their moves elegant and efficient, the entire rink just a confining playground.
By the third time we went on the ice, Alex was able to skate totally on his own. My ankles hurt and I got off the rink and sat on one of the long wooden benches outside, next to my wife. Here he was, skating alone, one sliding step after the next, head raised, looking forward, a little unstable still but better with every move, happy, transposed.
Your questions, comments, lots of claps and shares are much appreciated. On Medium the number of claps reflects how much you enjoyed the piece.