I want to tell you that I have no idea what I’m getting myself into. I’d like to absolve myself of any accountability in the matter, and act as if this task was assigned to me by some outside force. But the truth of the matter is that this is all my fault—my dumb idea. I know exactly what I’m getting myself into: ice-fucking-cold water.
Sitting in my London dorm almost two months ago during a term abroad to study “inglish li-trah-chuh,” feeling the full brunt of the British “winter,” I’d forgotten what real cold felt like—the burn of a -2º wind-chill on exposed flesh, the peculiar sensation of your nose freezing from the inside out, the involuntary gasp as the first lungful of icy air floods your throat. That is cold. But in the land of winter weather advisories at 40ºF, the decision to go polar plunging upon my return to the States as a winter adventure seemed not only exciting, but manageable… safe, even. I knew that I’d have to do something to break myself back into the Vermont lifestyle, but the idea of “cold” was relative, and I was relatively deluded.
So here I am, back at school, shivering in Vermont, hunting for thick ice, calling strangers with chainsaws and asking them to cut me a hole.
“What for?” one Matt Boudette asks me.
“Well, um, to jump into.” I reply.
“I’ve never cut one big enough for that, but I should be able to help you out,” he says. These are the kinds of things I have to look forward to now.
As it happens, jumping into ice water is considered far more dangerous than walking in, in both a physiological-shock sense and the whole getting-stuck-underneath-ice sense. So the other day I went out with a fellow amateur adventurer, Joe (the official polar bear plunge coordinator for our school’s outdoor activity club), in search of potential accident sites places to make a splash. We stomped around the frozen shores of Lake Dunmore. As Joe hacked into the lake with his saw, checking thickness and stability, I mostly slid around, crunching air pockets with the toe of my boot, kicking rocks, throwing rocks, filming—generally dicking around (but in the most contemplative sense of the term). I was brought back to an earlier time in my life… a time I don’t bring up all that often. Back in the day, say, between the ages of 6 and 11, I busied myself with toe loops and axels. I practiced edges and hand flare (you can’t do an entire routine to ELO’S “Fire on High” without a little hand flare… I mean, come on). I was a figure skater in what I can now say must’ve been some sort of half-conscious rebellion against the gender roles that were becoming rapidly apparent at the time. When what seemed to be all the other boys went to the Natick Outdoor Store for their first pair of cleats or hockey skates (“why would a boy need figure skates?” they asked at the Outdoor Store, turning to one another and laughing as my mom tightened her grip on my shoulder), I ventured out of town to Ice House Sports for a pair of elusive young men’s figure skates. As they strapped on their padding, helmets, and gloves, my game-day attire was a flowy maroon shirt, black slacks and a dash of pomade. Oh, and don’t forget the fact that I was what GapKid considered to be “husky.”
Why bring any of this up? you may wonder. Well, like I said, as I was dicking around, I thought back to the colorful nugget I once was, and it struck me that I was, in a way, returning to the ice this month, changed—I no longer skate and now shop for Gap “slim fit”—but not all that different. On the ice I had found myself. It was in lap after lap of practicing posture and balance that I met my body—learned to move as me. In the ice I want to lose myself—to throw away my cares, inhibition, and clothing; plunge into the unknown, and emerge perhaps more alive than ever. I think.
There’s a history to this ice-water-bathing business—lunatics have been doing this for ages all around the world (well, less so in equatorial regions). Basically, it’s broken up into two factions. There’s the holistic, spiritual, ritualistic traditions of ice swimming, dousing, and religious diving. Then there’s the unofficial legacy of drunken he-man stunts… I primarily assume that the drunken he-man stunts span back in history because of the amount of drunken he-man stunts one finds today (thanks to the internet), and modern technology’s ability to preserve Darwinian no-go’s. In other words, there must be some mathematic or bio-statistical principle which states that because I can watch a GoPro-clad Norwegian skate directly into open water, vodka in hand, there must have been even more drunken he-men jumping into frigid water before we had modern medicine to save them. I only bring this up because I probably fit somewhere between the Japanese monks seeking ultimate mindfulness, and the inebriated idiot jumping in on a dare.
Either way, my adventure falls somewhere within a tradition. And while I may not understand either sides of the tradition fully—(I loathe cold water)—I have let the sense of tradition enable me to do daring things in the past. I’ve eaten donkey out of a dirty street stall, gritty tripe in a grey broth, and andouilette (pan-fried intestine-filled intestine) because of tradition, because others did and others lived (and enjoyed). I’ve launched myself down a steep mountain pass on two wheels because of tradition, because of tire tracks that continued on beyond my point of trepidation. And I think that I’ll be dunking into some ice-cold water in the near future because of tradition—because for years, people have gotten some something out of it.
And to ensure that I give myself a fighting chance at that some something, I’ve enrolled in CRWR1005, Adventure Writing, hinging my academic reputation on my frigid aims. At the end of this month, I’ll either have a 20-page paper and 4-minute video documenting my success, or a tale of woe and a dramatically reduced GPA.
A very real part of me is still trying to pretend that this project doesn’t exist; but I’ve never felt so dead-set on doing something I have seemingly no interest in experiencing. I have no idea what I’ll really be facing as I pre-plunge stare into that black, splashing passageway, but I think that’s a testament to where I’m at in my life—I’m up to my own challenge.
I’m in search of something that most closely resembles nothing. I’ll only find my some something once I’ve taken the plunge. But you know what? I think I’m ready.
* * * *
“It’s for you Charlie…” my mom says, passing the receiver of the old landline my way, “Kerry.” Kerry towers above me in person. A natural-born athlete and professional makeup artist by day, she embodies a terrifying mix of brute force and glamour. Her gelled, snakelike black curls reach down to her elbows. Her dark eyes pierce through my 10-year-old soul, framed with violently long false-lashes and electric sea-foam eye shadow. Big, straight, white teeth. Faint freckles. A long face with a flared upper lip, neutrally positioned in a semi-snarl (don’t get me wrong, though, after two years of training together, I do believe that Kerry loved me… just, think Grendel’s mother-kind-of-love). I take the phone out of sheer obligation, looping my fingers nervously around the warped coiled cord, and greet my coach with the least anxious “hello?” I can conjure up.
“Hey kiddo! Happy Birthday!…haven’t seen you in while,” she tacks on—aggression already seeping out of her words. She knows what is about to happen. I’m coming off of the routine summer break from my lessons in the month of August; but this year I’ve held off into early September—all the way to my 11th birthday—from resuming training.
“So, how was the Cape?!” she starts.
“The Cape was nice, thanks.” I tell Kerry.
“Good, great. So, when are we starting back up?!” she chimes. I know that the enthusiasm of “…starting back up?!” is an intentionally thin layer of foundation over a menacing growl. The small talk throws me as the real question hangs so heavily. All I can hear is quit, quitter, quitting, you are quitting.
* * * *
The first week of class has passed and I’ve yet to attempt a plunge—until now. The text reads, “YOU’RE ON!!!” It’s an immediate response to my last-minute invite to a last-minute trip to swim in Dunmore in the last hour of daylight on an abnormally warm winter day. Twenty minutes later she arrives five minutes past our decided meeting time, approaching the car from behind and startling me as she opens the passenger door scream-laughing “he-LLO!” It’s difficult to describe what Alexa does with her voice and words as merely talking—it’s as if she creates every word that she speaks out of sheer excitement for that exact moment. Her “he-LLO!” quakes through her shoulders and into her dancing arms. Her head shakes from side to side as if “he-LLO!” were her favorite song. Her eyes squint up in pleasure and remain that way for the next few moments. “How ARE you?!” “WAIT, this is SO exciting!” and then a kind of soprano yawp proceeded by tight giggles. Deep breath. Dramatic exhale. “Ok, so… AHHG! I’m SO EXCITED!”
People often meet Alexa with a reasonable amount of skepticism. “Is she for real?” they’ll ask. I remember one of my first encounters with her, arriving at our shared dorm for a summer internship in Louisville, Kentucky. She’d packed what an LA-native might’ve assumed was everyday attire in the South—cowboy boots, straw hats, cutoff-denim everything, American-flag-print halter tops, etc. This, of course, fell within the preceding LA-enabled misconception that Louisville was even in “the South” (“Bowling Green, that’s where the South starts… we’re still sensible up here in Louhvull” I was told later that summer). Alexa, decked out in the aforementioned attire, greeted me with that same “he-LLO” that day. My New England cynicism bubbled up and sat ready to pounce on the first trace of insincerity. “I’m so excited to spend the summer together! We’re going to have SO MUCH FUN!” That same giggling and squinting. It is a little difficult to trust that someone finds meeting you for the first time as humorous and enthralling and novel as it seems to be with Alexa…but for her, it really is.
“Grab the bull by the horns” doesn’t quite cut it in this case. It’s more like “Meet the bull for the first time, spank it on the ass and invite it to take a shot of tequila with you, then drop everything and go to literally the next country music concert occurring within a 100-mile radius together” (as Alexa did with several individuals on the same internship that summer). That’s Alexa—she was an obvious choice when the time came to find plunge companions. The allure of something “outdoorsy,” let alone adventurous, let alone dangerous—the threat of cardiac arrest, the promise of a mind-altering adrenaline spike, the mystique of a frozen lake—would rope this post-private-school-rebel in like two lawn tickets to Toby Keith and full tank of gas.
In all seriousness, though, there are some real risks to jumping into nearly frozen water—not that Alexa was preoccupied by these details or anything, but they are worth mentioning. First and foremost is the principle of the cold-shock response. In the grand-scheme of dying in frigid water, this is the body’s attempt to conserve what heat is left by constricting its vessels and drawing blood into the essential internal organs. The heart and lungs go into overdrive and you find yourself hyperventilating, at which point you may or may not inhale a giant swig of water, drown, and die. In our case, the shallowness of the water and brevity of the plunge were chosen to combat this risk. There’s also the more charming threat of underlying health conditions suddenly becoming apparent during a cold-water plunge. In other words, there are few better ways to find out you have a heart condition than stressing the body into cardiac arrest within the icy death-bath of 35ºF water. These initial worries aside, it would take potentially hours for an adult human body to cool to the actual point of death; but that situation ignores the inevitable muscle failure and subsequent drowning that would occur in as little as 30 minutes after submersion. Alexa cranked the radio as I tried to drag her down to my level of anxiety. 101.5FM prevailed.
* * * *
Water drips onto my head from the ancient roof of the town rink. I touch the spot and feel a wet grit—my fingers are covered in a rusty brown flecks of the ceiling. I look up to the ceiling for further investigation and feel immediate dizziness, my feet shift back and forth over the ice, my knees go rigid and one by one, each leg shoots out from under me. My first trick: the ass-to-ice. High marks for technique.
A stout, jaundice woman with a clipboard, pink ski jacket, dark roots, and bleached curls tells us to arrange ourselves along the red line. “Welcome to the first session of weekend group lessons this winter. In order to get you into the right group, I’ll be calling out a series of skills. Skate forward and show us if you know it, remain where you are if you don’t. If you have been tested already and know your level, please do not try to skate beyond your current ranking. Thank you.” I stand at the red line as best I can, dancing in small, wobbly steps, trying to avoid collapsing and causing a scene.
“Inside and outside edges! Two on each foot please… give each other room!”
I stay at the line, focusing intensely on remaining upright, on appearing calm.
“Second level footwork sequence!”
I’m doing it, I’m standing… I’m sweating profusely beneath my red pull-over, ski mittens, and wool hat, but I’m standing.
“Show me a back spiral!”
I begin to feel the grip of my skates’ edges. I push them into the ice, the pressure holds me up. I stand beautifully.
“Okay now the triple axel!… just kidding! Our advanced skaters can go over with Lisa, you know who you are..”
My row, the very first row, the row still standing at the red line, “beginners,” is ushered over to a quiet corner by the Zamboni’s garage. Amy, our instructor, juts out ahead of the group. Her frizzed hair fans out like the plumage of a tired, middle-aged bird of paradise and she caws, “your first lesson!” With swift, precise movements, she creates a sharp scraping noise, “bend the knees, toes point inward and you… stop.” Ice shavings spray off the edges of her glimmering blades as she rides her outside edges to a halt, “You all try!” Slowly and unsteadily we glide and scrape our way over to Amy, tripping over the unfamiliar toe picks, getting caught in divots, knocking into neighbors. I manage to stay uprights as my peers drop, slowly coming to a stop right before Amy. A girl with enormous front teeth trips right before a successful stop. She turns to me, “my mom’s boyfriend is going to beat you up,” she growls.
“Well then, let’s check out the cost of private lessons,” says my mom.
* * * *
We pull up to the lake and turn off the engine. Alexa cannot contain the laughter, “This is CRAZY! wooHOOOO!!” Her eyes squint up again, “Is it time?! Is it happening?!” We strip down to our plunge attire, Alexa donned in a bright floral print bikini. She collects her auburn hair into some sort of style that says, “there are bigger things at hand than perfect ponytails…and… I’m SO EXCITED!”, grabs her camera and a towel, slips on her winter boots, gives one more WOOOHOOO out towards the lake, and slams her door shut. “Let’s DO this thing!”
We push our way through a layer of prickly winter branches and find ourselves at the water’s edge. The ice is melted in this one spot from a flow of water that runs from the hill behind us. The resulting lagoon is on the muddier side of things. Vacant lake houses surround the area—their windows storm-shuttered, their docks pulled in, their boats covered—they’ve turned from the water for the winter. Alexa finds the setting to be “awesome,” stated in the way only a true California girl could. My teeth already begin to chatter, but Alexa seems to be dancing again to a song only she can hear. We might as well be setting up for a day at the beach. Any minute now she’s bound to grab the cooler of Corona or grab me for a game of paddleball.
The cameras are set. I’m first.
The location is such that we only have about two and half feet of water to dunk into, which requires the plungee to essentially perform a gentle belly flop once far enough in. I start to wade in.
* * * *
I skate out in long controlled strokes, just as Jeanie has instructed. Knees bent, hands poised, chin up, back straight, everything intentional. “You only need six strokes for each side of the rink,” she tells me, “three strokes from the face-off circle to the center line, then three strokes to the next face-off circle.”
I glide as simultaneously calculated and natural as possible… 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… then powerful crossovers around the corners. Lunge, bend, get low to the ice, ride the edges, fly around the corners…1…2…3…4…5…6… I maintain my place in a line of five—four girls and me. While I technically have no competition, being the only boy, the pressure mounts with every lap. Our warm-up ends and we file off the ice.
The announcer calls my name, Jeanie presses down on my shoulders from behind. I’m first. “Go get ’em!”
I step onto the ice. Three strong strokes, stop.
Remember, control, position, posture, pace, trust.
* * * *
My ankles instantly burn… it’s as if they’ve been submerged naked into frigid waters…wait. I need to see someone else not die before I can make myself go in.
I turn to Alexa. “You want me to go I’ll go I’M GOING!!” she says in one breath as she walks into the water and flops right in without hesitation. She surges back up, arms rigidly outstretched like a baby taking its first steps. “OOOoooOoOOOOOOO AHHH!!!!!!!!!” she screams. “THAT. WAS. AMAZING!” (more screaming). And in that exact moment, seeing Alexa walk right in and plunge, I realize that I’ve been standing with my ankles in the water for the past month and a half. If I allow myself one more second of hesitation—one more minute of testing the water—I’d destroy the moment. So, to the background of much-needed cheering and WOOHOOing, I channel whatever warmth, bravery, or insanity that surges through my friend, walk right in, plunge under, and then get the hell out of there as fast my panting, panicked body can carry me. “YOU DID IT!”
“We NEED a picture!”
* * * *
One hand on my hip, the other in the air. Remember, style. The music starts. Now skate.
I’m coming off the ice, my cheeks burn hot, I think I’m smiling. “Good work, guy!” says Jeanie.
I stand on a plywood podium. The jaundice woman with the dark roots pulls a gold medal from the rack set up near the front office. My grandparents cheer and snap photos in a sea of skaters running to locker rooms, parents buying snacks, siblings playing arcade games, and hockey players finding space to park their massive bags until practice. The flanking podiums remain empty but my family simply orients the camera to shoot in portrait.
I can remember my two competitors in five years of competition.
* * * *
“Well, thank you for not dying,” my mom says on the other end of the line, “thank you for not telling me until you did it and for not dying… You’re done though, right?… you only had to go once?”
* * * *
“When are you going next? I’m coming. I’m DOING IT!” says Emma. She interrupts any chance of a reply with “…but is this shirt too chesty for class?” as she places her plate of eggs and bowl of mixed fruit and granola down and takes a seat.
“Monday. We’re going Monday,” I reply, “…and the shirt” (a modest long-sleeve cotton tee) “is fine.”
“Ok, Ok. Just checking, I dunno.” Emma, svelte and of average height, exists as a composite of polar opposites: the smooth conversational intonation of a lounge singer, frequently interjected with billowing hood slang, bound to the strict training regimen of the long-jumper, housed in what could be a muscular middle-schooler. Even as she asks about her cleavage, you’d be less than surprised if her next point of discussion involved an invite to her bat mitzvah.
* * * *
Leaving the rink at 6, when free-skate turns over to Junior Comet practice, I occasionally see a familiar face from school amid the sea of hockey sticks. My lime-green skate-guards clack-clack-clack over the concrete—our eyes might meet for a second or two. I see them seeing me—my colorful fleeces, my shape, my toe picks—and know that they don’t know what to make of it. “Figure skating’s gay” one tells me during a math exercise in Ms. Klay’s 1st grade class, “gay” being an appropriate description for anything outside of knockout during recess, soccer/football/baseball after school, and hockey at night. Gay.
* * * *
Cat takes her seat beside Emma (who now closely inspects her impending bite of yogurt and apple) with a ritual “Meow.” No one’s exactly sure which came first, the meow or the nickname “Cat” (shortened from Cathryn). What we can be sure of is the fact that both just work. Beyond her meow, it’s often difficult to keep track of when Cat arrives or leaves—she slinks off like her feline namesake, purring in conversation one moment, gone the next.
“How are you all?” she asks, you all, marking her Kentuckiana negotiation of southern and northern dialects. “What are you all talking about?”
“We’re doing Charlie’s plunge thing!” says Emma, “You gotta come!”
“Don’t you need a fundraiser for that?” says Cat.
“You can jump into cold water without fundraising for anything,” says Emma.
“If we aren’t fundraising, then what is it for?…”
“…Adventure!” says Emma. I nod agreement, not wanting to indulge Cat’s inadvertent poignancy, still not entirely sure why I’m actively pursuing a second plunge. Emma’s enthusiasm is more convincing than anything at this point.
“Is it cold?” they both ask.
“Well, yeah.” I say. Well yes, it is very cold. Nothing feels right about what you’re doing as you step into the water. Your skin burns, your toes sting and then go immediately numb. You get butt-shivers… have either of you ever felt your butt shiver? It’s weird. You stare down at the water. It looks like any water. If it weren’t for the fiery sensation on your feet, you might trick yourself into thinking it’s a mid-summer swim. But no, you know exactly what’s happening in every second leading up to the moment you put everything aside for one instant—mute it all—and drop forward, let gravity take over. You submerge and everything is almost fine. Then you push back up out of the water and breathe. Everything tightens in one instant and your eyeballs feel like they’re going to pop as you pant like a dog. A grid of cold and hot reverberates across your skin and your insides tremble. You can see and talk and hear but everything is sensation. And then, it’s all fine, great, even. You’re warm, you’re alive, you radiate. “No yeah, it’s cold.” I clarify, “but it’s fun.” Sparse on the actual detail is best for recruiting purposes.
* * * *
“Yeah the blisters are going to happen for a while, your feet need to toughen up still,” Jeanie says, my foot held between her knees. She pulls out a gel-lined cloth sleeve and cuts it down to just cover my heel. She marks the spot on the sleeve where my blisters—the swollen, bloody, continuously raw wounds—continue to form, and cuts a hole in the gel. She pulls out a thin sheet of what looks to be lime Jell-O, peels back the protective plastic, and scoops just enough to cover my blister. “This will dry it out and seal it up… my friend gets it for me from the hospital.” she covers the goop with a Dr. Scholl’s bunion cushion, secures that with a generous wrapping of medical tape, and slides the gel-lined sleeve back over the heel. The look is perfected with black women’s dress-hose, the only thing thin enough to fit between my bandaging and skate boot. “…And the pain here,” she prods just below the blister at the base of my heel, “is probably just a bruised growth plate… softer bone… it’s all part of the game, my friend.”
* * * *
“Yes, mom, I’m going again tomorrow.”
“Oy… you’re taking other people’s kids with you?… don’t let them die either….I saw a special this morning on the news about falling through ice and dying.”
* * * *
Throughout Eastern European countries such as Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, the intrepid and devout within the Orthodox Christian faith join around a frigid stream, seashore, or hole in the ice to perform a special ritual for the Epiphany. A friend and professor of religion, Maria Hatjigeorgiou tells me that the Epiphany marks the day of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. In the longstanding tradition (only made popular, though, following the cultural resurgence after the collapse of the Soviet Union), participants dive to rescue the Holy Cross, tossed by a priest into the numbing waters. The individual who is strong/bold/lucky enough to retrieve the cross is said to receive a year’s blessing. While not actually ordained by the church, the common belief is that the icy water absolves its bather of sins. For this reason, variations on the cross-fetch include a ritual submersion into a blessed, cross-shaped hole in the ice of a frozen lake. The individual submerges a symbolic three times, emerging pure and… freezing. Maria told me that the “Epiphany,” comes from “Theophany or θεοφάνεια”—roughly translating into “the ehh…eh, showing up, ehh… of GOD” (read with heavy Greek accent). She says that this is the single instance where we see the Trinity unified in one place—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “It is eh, a very… BEAUTIFUL moment in the scripture!” she says with hands circling around in meaning.
I email a Russian Orthodox church in the Montpelier area, hoping to come across some hearty polar-bearing Vermonters who’ve adopted the tradition of the of their Slavic predecessors. The parish responds, “Not here in the U.S. but possibly in Russia. You can try looking it up on the internet. Good luck.” Less than fruitful.
In all honesty, I was hoping a group of locals with a story about faith and personal sacrifice, even salvation, would be able to take over and add some depth to my adventure. Instead of the Holy Trinity, it looks like it’s just me, Emma, and Cat, bathing in “the Lake Dunmore.”
* * * *
The sight evokes nothing of St. John gently leading Jesus into the river, but it nonetheless has a definitive air of gravitas. Emma takes cautious steps towards the water’s edge. Cat stands back a few paces and watches, her face contorting in preemptive anguish. Emma looks skeptical more than anything. Out of nowhere, Cat surges forward, grabbing the wobbling Emma by the arm, and leaping past her into the water. Making a muddy splash, Cat lands in the first foot of water, feet planted. Emma stumbles behind, still involuntarily attached at the hand to her new master. Cat lurches into the murky slosh of branches, rocks, and water. With one firm pull, Cat drags Emma straight down, face-first into the ice-water. She lets go of her victim and scampers deeper into the wading area—Emma emerges and makes a quick exit, gasping and “oooo-ing” as the sensation of her sudden immersion blooms into perception. Cat wanders further into the water, yelling incoherently, “WHAT IS ah THIS…COLD, ah SHIT, WHAT IS THIS ahh SHIT? …WHO? the WHAT is ahh WHERE DO ahh I… IT’S ahh…COLD…THIS SHIT!”
She dunks. “Almost,” she notes afterwards. “I didn’t get my head under,” she says, letting out a tight laugh. “I’m never doing that again.” Cats hate water. Emma remains quiet, still recovering from the shock of her forced plunge. Given the act I have to follow, I take what will be my second plunge with little occasion as the pair towels off. We head to the truck and drive off.
* * * *
I skate through three years. Jeanie shows me tricks and I repeat them, over and over. She teaches me footwork and transitions and variations. The jaundice woman with the clipboard walks onto the ice in cross-trainers and watches me. “You’ve passed, you’re an Alpha…” then “Beta” then “Gamma…” and “Delta.” At each level I receive a little green and white patch form the ISI (Ice Skating Institute). Then, on to the Freestyle levels, “You’ve passed Freestyle 1…2…3…4…”
I continue to train, compete, and perform. My mom makes a shaggy white vest for my “I Got You, Babe” pair routine, and finds the perfect Hawaiian shirt for me to fake a “hang-10” during my solo to the Hawaii Five-O theme song in a thrift shop. I get my own special Sock’em Bopper-clad sequence in the Rocky Medley, skate in a tux through a line of can-canning pre-pubescent French maids while “Be Our Guest” rings through the speakers, and sport a plaid cummerbund and ruffly shirt at the center of an otherwise-female pinwheel during an ice-tribute to Riverdance.
Ice camp in the summer, post-practice snack bar visits, one trip to a sports M.D., four solo-routines, monthly skate sharpening—it all becomes routine to the point of inertia—I glide off of the momentum of strokes long-since passed, moving across the ice, through a sport, through years. And then I am stopped.
* * * *
“No, yes. They’re both fine, mom”
“I can imagine Emma having a heart attack… not so much Cat… Well I’m glad they’re both fine. At least you’re done… right? Lots of cold weather coming your way this week.”
* * * *
Jeanie straps me into the old harness at the far end of the rink. I’ve only seen those I consider to be the “good skaters” using the contraption to pull off what seem to be impossible feats of height, momentum, and grace. I stare blankly at Jeanie, wondering what on earth I could be doing with such a device.
“Today’s the day, Charlie. We’re trying the axel.” Holy shit. Up until this moment I’ve been an excellent boring skater—my waltz jumps untouchable, lutzes and toe loops on command, even a decent Russian split jump, but the axel—the full 360º turn off of an edge, the ice-mitzvah, the frozen walkabout—was something I’d put off in my mind to an indeterminate, post-pubescent, stronger, lighter future. And here it was at not-so-long last.
“Just skate out like you’re doing a waltz, but go for the full rotation… I’ll help you get some extra height and keep you from falling, but you’ve got to trust me.”
I skate out like she says, go in for the jump, lift and—mid-air I go limp, hanging like a rag-doll as poor Jeanie takes the full brunt of my weight suspended mid-air. She lets me down slowly with a grunt. “You have to trust me, Charlie. Just go for it.” We try again, this time I make the rotation and go limp on the landing. Jeanie catches me with the harness just before I break myself. Pupils dilated, face pale, I stare at her. “Charlie, I wouldn’t have you do this if you weren’t ready. Trust me. Trust yourself. Trust the harness.”
We try once more. I go limp mid-approach. Jeanie doesn’t realize and pulls down as if I’m jumping, sending me rotationless into the air like some nauseated Peter Pan knockoff. “Ok, Ok, we’ll try again tomorrow. Good work though.” I look up at her in disbelief.
* * * *
Plunge number three. I’ve pulled together the remainder of my swayable friends for what will be the third and final plunge of my winter adventure—it has been the easiest group to assemble by far. The sheer momentum of the project—the two previous plunges, the subsequent emphatic dining-hall accounts of the thrilling cold, the general intrigue of a winter “adventure”—has made their participation seem requisite . They’ve simply appeared in my car as a byproduct of the past two weeks. We even add a last-minute vehicle to the carpool from campus to the lake as additional friends join in (they’d allegedly been planning to join “all along”).
* * * *
Normally we exit the rink in relative silence. Today, we leave the rink to the jarring greeting of another coach. Jeanie and I look up in disbelief as Diane, queen of the northwest corner of the rink, addresses the two of us. “He’s looking pretty good out there, right, Jeanie? Saw you guys workin’ on that axel.”
“Yeah, well, you know, we’re trying…” Jeanie replies. I stare.
“Well keep it up! Right?” she chuckles, a toothy grin pasted onto a tight, bulbous face.
* * * *
I’m joined by five close friends for the last plunge. Up to this moment, we’ve shared travels, hungover brunches, hours of laughing, months of tension, break-ups, hook-ups, “I love you’s,” “fuck offs,” Cinco de Mayo citations from a campus police officer, slices of dining-hall pizza, and countless viruses. And here we are on the snow-covered bank of Lake Dunmore, pasty, shivering, silent.
Drew rushes in just as I get the camera going. He runs out of the water, straight past the group, through the brush, into the heated truck. Then Anne, then Kelsey, Dev, Holly, and finally, my turn. One by one they walk in, plunge, gasp, exit (curse me) and run off to the car. Fine. They all look fine. Freezing, but all right.
I’m suddenly nervous—today is 28º colder than the previous two plunges. The concept feels new again—I’m the beginner, the wimp… yet somehow I’ve managed to assure three groups of virgin plungers that “it’ll be fun!” They’ve all trusted me—trusted that they won’t die, that it will be fun, that they can.
I stand at the water’s edge, frozen. They think I’m just being funny. What’s he waiting for? He’s done this twice already. They’ve dried off, Anne mans the camera and Drew stands at the ready with a towel.
I cannot move.
* * * *
On the drive home my mom speaks: “They say you need a new coach.”
“The other mothers… god, they’re insufferable. And they want you to pair with their daughters.”
“They know you’re going to grow soon… I saw Diane talking to you.”
“They might be right, Charlie. Are we sticking with this?”
“I think so…”
“What do you think of Kerry? Margie says she’s a fantastic coach… and she’ll definitely push you.”
“We could try that.” Goodbye, Jeanie. Goodbye, harness. Goodbye, axel.
* * * *
“Just go!” they yell. They’re becoming confused. Why doesn’t he go? But I’ve lost all momentum—I’m back on the harness and Jeanie is yanking to no avail—I can’t budge from the shore. I’m reduced. I feel the pressure of every jump, plunge, competition, everything, all at once. Nothing matters until I submerge into the water this time. They’ve all plunged on my encouragement. Fail now, discount everything.
Under the protection of semi-anonymity among acquaintances, not to mention the aid of slightly warmer air temperatures, the first two plunges were mere practice-runs. With these people I knew decently well, but perhaps had yet to bare my soul to, I had flexibility—I could fake it. I could jump in and they would accept it, accept that I was someone capable of overcoming the temperatures, someone brave, spontaneous, tough, even. But this last time is different—these guys know me. They know the complete Charlie, the Charlie that—somewhere—has traces from that day on the harness.
I was ready for the axel that day—physically—Jeanie had been training with me five days a week for three years, she knew what I was and wasn’t capable of. I’ll never be sure what Kerry saw when she coached me, but she never asked me to try the axel. Perhaps it was a matter of pride—needing to reteach me the foundations in her way before allowing me to attempt the big one. Or perhaps it was always me. Perhaps Kerry simply waited for me to ask her… which, of course, I never did. Today I jump for real.
* * * *
“Tell her” my mom mouths from across the room. I furrow my brow and grit my teeth.
“What’s up, kiddo?!”
“So I think that with soccer and everything now I really need to focus on one sport and last season skating gave me the really bad tendonitis and that made soccer hard and I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything because I love skating and you’re a great coach but I think I’m going to focus on soccer for now for a while” I blurt.
“Oh yeah, hey! No worries, kiddo. We’ll talk soon!”
We both understand that this is the absolute end of knowing one another.
“Bye, Kerry. Thanks for calling.”
* * * *
I turned away from the ice on that birthday, telling myself the axel wasn’t for me—that I couldn’t jump. Telling myself that my talents lay elsewhere. I went on to play squash, afraid to compete against strangers or use a drop-shot. I went on to play soccer, able to outrun most defenders, but never ready to shoot on the goal. I eventually found myself on the teams of the same kids that once stared at me as I left the rink, more or less an equal—a peer—but never ready to seal the deal inside. Never ready to “JUST SHOOT!” or “FINISH HIM!” or “MAKE THE MOVE!”
* * * *
“Just go! Quit being a bitch!” Anne heckles.
“Ok. Ok. Ok…. Ok.” I respond. I stare at the water.
You’ve done this. You can do this. Trust.
The harness pulls and my feet lift, one by one, into the water… 1….2….3, 4, 5, 6 steps in and forward. I embrace the moment. My heart pounds and my hands hit the water. My elbows, my knees, my stomach, my shoulders, my face, my head, my back. Face-down and weightless in the water for an instant—absolute stillness. And then I kick down into the rocky bank, push up with my hands, surge up and inhale the frigid air.
I turn, panting, smiling, crazed, and trip out of the water into the waiting towel. I feel my blood pumping as my heart regulates—renewed, reset. My audience laughs with approval as I scamper towards the warmth of the parked truck.
It is done. It is all behind me now.