Every rink in the world had the same smell: old sweat in the locker rooms, coffee from the canteen cradled by tired parents and coaches alike, the sharp cold of the ice itself that made your nostrils open just a little wider. To Fern Riel, the rink smelled like home. She liked getting to the rink early so she could watch the junior dancers who had ice time before her, curled up around her own coffee. It reminded her of the awkward months it had taken her and Chris to learn how to move with each other instead of just next to one another. She’d been all shyness and knobby knees, Chris had still been shorter than her and hated it.
That had been, what? Ten years ago? Fern still felt a little shy around new people, and Chris was still grouchy about being one of the shorter men in Ice Dance. But now dancing with him felt natural, and Fern smiled to herself, grateful she’d been lucky to find such a good partner. Someone who was patient and a good friend on and off the ice.
There were a few new pairs on the ice that morning. Kenisha, the youngest of the Denali girls, had her hair in two poufs and kept letting go of her new partner’s hand the moment she could. The boy was coach Julia’s nephew, his ears almost as bright as the mop of ginger on his head.
In the pocket of her jacket, Fern’s phone buzzed. Pulling it out, she glanced at the time and dismissed her alarm with a swipe of her thumb. Time to start warm up so she would be ready for their ice time. Chris would probably be late getting to the rink, but Fern reminded herself that he always made it onto the ice on time. Still, she wished he was more punctual. Every time there was only ten minutes to go before they were due on the ice and he was still changing out of street clothes, her chest would knot itself up all tight. It’d take at least another ten minutes or more for her to calm down after she stepped out onto the ice.
Already, she could feel the tightness starting to build behind her ribs and she was just thinking about it. Fern made a face and forced herself to take a slow, deep breath and hold it. She counted to two, then exhaled slowly through her mouth. It took another deep inhale and exhale before she could feel her ribs ease back into place, no longer stifling her lungs.
Pursing her lips, Fern looked at her phone again, and unlocked it. She didn’t usually send Chris reminders, but this was the first on ice session for the new season. It couldn’t hurt to nudge him just this once. Just to start the season off on the right foot. It was an important year. For the first time they had a chance at qualifying for the Olympic team, but they’d need to really put in the work and step up their game.
<Hey! ice time at 10! See you soon?>
Fern winced. Too many exclamation marks. Deleting her message she tried again.
<See you soon!> Better, but what if he didn’t remember what time they were due on the ice? Deleted.
<Skates on for ten.> God, that was worse, she wasn’t his mother. Deleted.
Fern was still in the process of trying to find the right way to text Chris the reminder when she heard Julia clear her throat. Her coach had walked up on the bleacher row below her, and had a strange look on her face. Behind her glasses, Julia’s perfectly mascara’d eyes were knit up in concern.
“Sorry!” Fern said, shooting up in her seat, back ramrod straight. She should have started to warm up. How much time had she spent trying to write a text?
“No, no, it’s okay,” Julia said. “I’m just glad he told you, but Fern, why are you here today?”
Fern felt her ribs snap shut around her lungs like a bear trap. She wanted to ask who told her what, but the air she needed to speak stuck in her throat. Fern swallowed the air, blinked, and stared at Julia like the idiot she was. Why wouldn’t she be here? They had ice time, it’d been in Fern’s calendar for months. She’d set up reminders one week, one day and one hour beforehand so she wouldn’t forget.
“He didn’t tell you,” Julia said. She took her glasses off and pinched the bridge of her nose. That was never a good sign. That usually meant that they were doing something wrong that they should have mastered. Or that Fern wasn’t emoting anything other than the ‘serial killer stare’ as Chris called it.
“Tell me what?” Fern managed to squeak out. She couldn’t take the deep calming breaths right now without interrupting Julia, so instead She squeezed the phone in her hand until her knuckles were white.
Julia looked at her, and with a heavy sigh, sat on the bleacher bench in front of her. “Chris called and cancelled your practice. A week ago. He said he was going to talk to you,” Julia put her glasses back on, and they magnified her mascara so it looked more like spider legs than eyelashes.
Fern held onto her phone, feeling the edges bite into the meat of her palm.
“Why?” Why? They were going to go over ideas for the new routines! There was so much work to do, so much to talk over and plan, and Fern had a whole playlist of options for songs and three Pinterest boards of skating outfit ideas and-
Fern squawked as the answer punched the air out of her. The sounds of the rink were getting loud, the normal comfort of blades scraping over the ice now were nails on a chalkboard. Parent chatter was suspicious. How many people knew? How many people knew before she did?Fern stared down at the phone, shaking fingers releasing it so she could check if she’d somehow missed something. A missed call, a text, email, anything?
“Fern, are you okay?”
Fern nodded, sucking down gulps of air and hating how her eyes were already prickling with heat. She needed to get out, she needed to get away before someone saw her crying.
“I must have forgot,” she said, standing up so quickly she knocked her travel mug over. It fell to the concrete floor of the bleachers with a loud clang. Fern put on a tight smile and bent down to pick it up. “I forgot, he told me, but I was distracted because I had a call with Mom.” The lie was thin even as it tumbled out of her mouth. She prayed that Julia wouldn’t call her on it, and let her have the flimsy excuse that she hadn’t been the last person to find out Chris didn’t want to be her partner anymore.
“Okay,” Julia said. “When you’re calmer, we can talk about options for you. But-“
I AM calm. I am FINE.
“But this affects the season, I know,” Fern said, not able to look at Julia as she shoved her mug into her bag and shouldered it. The phone went back into her pocket. “It’s fine, Julia. I just forgot.”
Fern was not fine. Somehow she managed to get out of the rink and all the way to her car before the full anxiety attack hit. She fumbled with the door handle, trying to get it open as the world closed in on her. Everyone was staring, everyone knew. Everyone knew she wasn’t worth the stress of putting up with her subpar skating and the stress of dealing with her.
She yanked the door open, hitting her thigh with the edge of the door. Fern barely felt it as she threw her bag into the passenger seat and herself into the driver’s. She sucked in a deep breath and slammed the door closed behind her, putting a barrier between her and the staring eyes and whispering skate moms and judgmental coaches. It helped but only just.
Fern put her hands on the steering wheel and pressed her forehead to them. She had to ride this out, just keep breathing. Deep breath in- God her chest hurt, it felt like it was going to crush her- deep breath out. Repeat. Slowly, breath by breath, she unwound the coiled trap of her ribs. She still hurt, but Fern knew that would follow. Slow the heartbeat, relax the diaphragm, keep breathing.
As the anxiety eased, Fern felt a strange thought pop up through the needle-fog. Had she cried? Not quite, her eyes were watering, but she wasn’t sure if that was from the anxiety-pain or the emotion-pain.
Pulling out her phone, Fern kept her head pressed against her remaining hand. She checked her notifications again and spotted a new message from Chris.
< Hey. Julia called and yelled at me. I’m sorry, I couldn’t deal with how you’d react.>
She typed an answer and only had to redo it five times before she hit send.
<I wish you’d at least sent a message. I felt like an idiot.>
The reply took too long, the stupid little ‘typing’ icon cycling it’s animation as she waited for him to reply. And waited. Was he typing up a list of everything she’d done wrong? She’d been the reason they didn’t place in the top ten nationally last season. She’d frozen up, lost them marks on performance.
<Sorry. My heart isn’t in it. I know yours isn’t either.>
Any other day, and Fern would have been floored by a statement like that. But after the revelation that Chris didn’t want to skate and couldn’t even be bothered to tell her, it bounced off the growing numbness in her heart.
<I love skating.> She replied, her head aching as she frowned slightly. How she had managed to get a post-cry headache without actually crying was a mystery, but that thought could wait until she got home to the Advil.
Chris replied with a rolling eye emoji.
<Sure, Fern. I’m going to ask you to leave me alone now.>
<Okay. For how long?>
Fern waited. But after twenty minutes and still no reply, she checked Chris’s Facebook. He’d unfriended her. Twitter: unfollowed and blocked. Instagram: blocked. Fern didn’t bother checking Discord or WhatsApp. A surprise urge to throw her phone out the window swelled up. Staring at the thumbprint-smudged screen, Fern imagined how good it would feel. Then, extremely carefully, she reached over to her duffle bag and slid the phone into it’s outside pocket.
She couldn’t afford a new phone.
The numbness that was cushioning Fern from what was happening had a shelf life, and Fern knew she’d need to drive back to her apartment before it dissipated. Driving during a panic attack was unsafe, and she wasn’t sure how long the next one would last. Turning the ignition, Fern reached to change the radio station as a love ballad came on over the speakers. She tried a few of her favourite channels before settling on classic rock.
The brash guitars, thick with grunge, chased away the lingering thoughts and questions that were swarming her brain. With the music on, Fern knew she’d be able to get home, but once she did… then what?
What did you do when your future gets nuked in the course of less than an hour?
“Get home, then break down,” she told herself. With a last steadying breath, she shifted the car into drive, and pulled out of the parking lot. Once she was home, she could dissolve and hide in bed for a day or two. Or have a bottle of wine. Or order pizza. Or just try to sleep so the world didn’t hurt so bad.
“Just get home.”