My teammates flung open the locker room door and marched heartily toward the ice. Music blasted from the rafters. Roommates, parents, roommates’ parents, and drunken fraternity guys cheered from all 360 degrees. The coach gave each player a hearty pat on her shoulder pads as she leapt on to the ice, clacking her stick and making wild circles around the rink. I deliberately stepped, more than leapt, on to the rink and then did my best to avoid stopping to the left, which I had never quite gotten the hang of. When the warm-up ended, we skated into the center for the National Anthem with me silently praying, God, if you can do anything for me today, just please, please do not let me fall down during the National Anthem. Please? And with that, I grabbed the rink wall for support, pushed off, and stretched forward like a wobbly deer.
I was a skidding, sliding, semi-skating bag of bones in a kelly-green uniform, and I was playing varsity hockey for the Bowdoin Polar Bears.
Previously, the only hockey I had played was with my father on the old reservoir. I had been more engaged in watching our dog skid around the ice than shooting the puck. And yet, earlier that year, when my dorm mates left to try out for the hockey team, I tagged along in a newly made vow to be spontaneous. I was going to do the opposite of what I was comfortable doing, which was to stay in my room writing letters to my friends back home. I thought I would be happy with myself for trying. But then, somehow (perhaps my coach’s soft spot for underdogs), I made the team, which meant that I was not happy with myself for trying. I was freakin’ panicked.
I was officially on the team, which meant I had problems, starting with getting dressed. How could I ask my teammates how to put on my equipment? Nobody wants a teammate who doesn’t know how to put on a uniform. It doesn’t instill confidence. I was an imposter with big skates to fill, starting in the locker room. Hmmmm, I noted. The piece of plastic goes over my pelvis. It doesn’t look like something I should leave out. And the wooly things? Looks like I put them on my legs before the skates.
The ice glistened with a watery sheen when the Zamboni pulled away, signaling the start of practice. This meant there were no piles of slush with which I could slow myself down. I always loved a slushy rink; I felt much safer. While I recovered from getting dressed, I already had to figure out what was happening in the rink. What was I doing? What did the coach mean by, “It’s all in the wrist?” And why could I only stop when I skated to the right?
Every day, I trudged through the snow to the rink and fumbled my way through getting dressed. Every day, I listened to my coach speak the language of hockey, as if I were a foreign exchange student dropped into an advanced English class. Vamonos? Donde esta? Merci? I had no idea. I used every ounce of brainpower to figure out what I was doing and every ounce of physical ability to stay upright. Throughout it all, I revered my teammates who skated circles around the rink, smiling beneath their helmets. And they could stop. In either direction.
This scenario continued for five months. The season ended in March, and I practically melted with relief. I was no longer committed to those hours of uncertainty on the ice each day. Eventually, spring came to Bowdoin, and I was happy to spend my spare time lying on the quad, rather than scrambling around the rink.
The more time I spent away from the rink, the more the idea of going back scared me. I forgot that there had been moments when I had felt improvement and those when I had relaxed enough to enjoy the camaraderie. I convinced myself it would be better to call it quits. When the next tryouts came, I panicked and hid until they were over. I remembered the months of fear, and I didn’t have the energy to sustain a smile for that long again. I told my teammates I had too much going on to play, but I didn’t have too much going on to play.
I had been part of something intense and riveting, and now I had opted to stay in the bleachers. I watched my former teammates swirl around the ice, and I missed hockey the way one misses an ex-boyfriend, with an unexpected twinge or sudden tightness in the chest. How could I miss something that caused me such torment? Just like one does with an ex-, I listed all the things I didn’t like about hockey and all the reasons why I left. But, even with my list of the fear of the National Anthem and the Zambonied ice, and the frat guys watching, I still got that ache.
Because I knew.
I knew if I had stuck with it, the deer legs would have been a little less wobbly, I would have figured out what was “in the wrist,” and I would have learned at long last to stop in any direction.