Read an Excerpt
The music in my head swells to a crescendo, the timpani rolling like a summer thunderstorm. I push hard into the ice and turn, the wind whipping pieces of hair into my face. I position my arms for an arabesque. I look over my shoulder. I bend low at the knee, suck in a deep breath, and leap, spin, spin . . .
And land hard and fast to a cymbal crash only I can hear.
“Damn,” I mutter. I wanted a triple, but once again, I missed. I wussed out at the last second and doubled it, a move that is quickly becoming my signature. And the landing was total crap. I can practically hear my mom’s voice in my head, bemoaning yet another failed jump.
I stand up straight and skate a wide circle around the center of the ice with my hands on my hips, shaking first my right foot, then my left, my standard “Get it together, Sloane” move. In two hours of practice, I only managed to get two halfway-decent triples, and both times I was sure I was going to snap my leg in two with the force of the landing.
The fear I’ve had since I started practicing again a few months ago is becoming more and more real: I lost it, and it’s not coming back.
I execute a low, fast camel at dead-center ice, as if the physics of the impossibly fast spin will send the fear and doubt flying out into the empty seats above me. I straighten up from the spin a little bit dizzy and am immediately annoyed that I didn’t spot properly, something I learned to do when I was just six years old. What is wrong with me?
A beam of light pours down from an open door high in the last row of the stands. I see Henry shuffling down the stairs from the mezzanine level in his standard-issue jeans and threadbare wool sweater. His gray hair peeks out from a black wool beanie, and I wonder, as I often do, if it’s the same one he’s been wearing since I started at this rink when I was five or if he replaces it every few years. Even though it’s a balmy eighty-two-degree Washington, DC, day, Henry wears long pants and wool year round, and he’s never without his hat. I guess that’s what comes of a lifetime maintaining an ice rink.
He makes his way down the stairs, until his nose is nearly pressed up against the glass that surrounds the rink. I pick up the pace and go for one last triple, just for him. I barely land and have to step out of it a half second after I hit the ice, but Henry applauds anyway.
“Hey there, Little Bit,” he calls to me, his pet name for me from back when I actually was a little munchkin of a skater. He doesn’t care that now that I’m five four, one of the taller skaters out there, and sixteen years old, the name no longer applies. “It’s closing time. Off the ice.” Henry may be my biggest fan, but he’s also a stickler for the rules.
I skate toward him, then throw a hard hockey stop like James taught me when I was little. The blades give a satisfying SSSSSSCHICK across the ice as I skid to a stop inches from where Henry stands. “Okay, okay, I’m going!” I’m breathing hard from the last jump, which was probably one too many for this session. I can feel my thighs starting to turn to jelly.
He just shakes his head and smiles, then opens the little door to let me out of the rink. “Don’t you have school tomorrow?”
“School’s out, Henry,” I say. “Last week.”
“So I guess I better get used to shooing you out at closing for the next three months, huh?”
“Nope,” I reply. “In fact, this is the last you’ll see of me, Henry. I’m off to Montreal in the morning.”
“They shipping you off to some fancy finishing school or something?” Henry chuckles. He likes to pretend I’m some prim and proper lady circa 1955, and I like to pretend like I’m some kind of rebel skate punk. He’s a little closer to the truth than I am.
“Worse. Skate camp. ‘Four intensive weeks of training with former Olympians, surrounded by more than fifty promising young athletes,’ ” I say, quoting the brochure.
“A fate worse than death, I’m sure. For someone who’s here every dang night, isn’t skate camp the perfect summer plan?”
“Here the only person I have to impress is you, and you’ve been clapping for me since I first learned to skate backward,” I say.
“You put too much pressure on yourself,” he says. He lays his heavy hand on my shoulder. “It ain’t a big deal. Either you love it or you don’t. Either you can do it or you can’t. And, kid? I been watching you for years, and I know you can do it. The question you gotta figure out is, do you love it?”
It’s a wonder my jelly legs don’t collapse beneath me immediately. Henry knows the question is way too big for me, though, and he doesn’t even wait for an answer. He steps onto the ice behind me and makes his way slowly to where the Zamboni lives.
In the locker room, I remove my skates, then strip off my leggings and leotard and replace them with a pair of holey jeans and a white T-shirt. After spending hours spinning in spandex, there’s nothing better than throwing on baggy, soft, comfortable clothes. Actually, there’s one thing better, and that’s slipping into a hot bath. But according to the voice mail Mom left for me earlier, that’s not on the agenda tonight.
I wad up my skating clothes and wedge them into the front pocket of my black skate bag, making a mental note to take them out when I get home so they don’t ferment. I pull the elastic out of my bun and check the mirror to see if I can do anything with what I see, but my long black hair, normally shiny and stick straight, is a sweaty, frizzy mess. I wind it back up into a pseudo-bun and secure it with the elastic. Mom will be here to pick me up any minute, so there’s no time for the shower and blowout I’m sure she’d prefer.
With one final look in the mirror, I lug my bag over my shoulder and push through the heavy blue door that leads into the lobby. I walk across the shiny linoleum and out the front door, but there’s no sign of the shiny silver sedan Mom drives, a gift from Dad on their twenty-fifth anniversary. I dig my phone out of my bag and see that she still has ten more minutes. Mom is always Right On Time. She’s always right, period.
I head back inside to wait.
I settle in on one of the benches in the narrow corridor across from the trophy cases. I’ve probably spent days of my life sitting here. Between my lessons and training sessions and James’s hockey games, I feel like the rink is my childhood home, not the two-story brick colonial in Alexandria. I root around in my skate bag, searching for my summer reading book, but it’s not there. In my mind’s eye, I can see my copy of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on my nightstand. I hate being without something to read. I get up and wander across the floor.
The trophy case takes up an entire wall of the lobby, and even though I’ve looked through it a hundred times, I can’t stop myself from scanning the photographs of various skate teams from the past decade. A small, gangly girl grins cheesily in every one, a mile-wide gap between her two front teeth. Her jet-black hair, cut in a severe wedge, shines in every shot. In some she’s raising medals to the camera, in others she’s executing spins, and in one she’s even mid-salchow. In all of them, she looks completely blissed out, like she’s the queen of the ice.
I step back and shudder at the pictures of my tweenage self. Thank God for a growth spurt, several thousand dollars’ worth of orthodontia, and finally ditching that awful bob haircut my mom always said was “so CUTE!” If I had more of a juvenile delinquent bent, I’d break the glass and burn those pictures. I can just imagine what the papers would have to say about that.
The last picture is of me at sectionals, age thirteen. I’m wearing a navy-blue dress with tiny silver rhinestones around the collar and a short, flouncy skirt. It was my lucky dress, I had decided, because it brought me a first place at regionals. I’m holding a bouquet of red roses nearly bigger than I am and hoisting a gold medal over my head.
I’m glad there’s no picture of me from junior nationals that year. It would show me in that same navy dress, skidding across the ice on my butt after failing to land a double--a double! And that moment, three years ago, was the end of my competitive career--until now.
My mind is already going there, to that disastrous routine. I’m picking up speed, I’m bending, I’m leaping, I’m spinning, I’m--
I turn around. Through the glass doors I can see my mom’s silver Mercedes. I shake off the memories, grab my bag, and rush out to the car.
“Sloane Emily Jacobs, do you have to dress like a street urchin every time we go to dinner?” Mom swings the car out onto the road and instantly hits traffic. Her voice is high and severe, the way it always gets in DC gridlock when she has somewhere very important to be.
I would love to know the last time my mother actually encountered a street urchin, but I keep that comment to myself. It would most certainly be followed by a remark about my “smart mouth.”
When I don’t say anything or apologize for my appearance, I see her hands tense on the steering wheel. “Honestly, why can’t you just play along this once? It’s our last dinner as a family before you go off to camp.”
I flinch at the word “camp,” which for me does not conjure up images of archery and swimming and making fun arts and crafts with glitter. No. This summer is going to mean blisters, ice packs, morning workouts, tights and leg warmers and gloves and earmuffs, trying to stave off runny noses during eight-hour sessions on the ice. It will mean pressure from coaches, pressure from fellow campers, and even worse, pressure from myself. There will be glitter, but it certainly won’t be on fun arts and crafts.
“Is James coming?” I ask.
“Yes, James is coming, he’s a member of this family, and apparently the only one who knows how to dress like a civilized member of society.” She sighs.
If James is coming, then this dinner is definitely not about celebrating my trip to the Glitter Gulag. James has been unofficially exiled from family dinners lately, ever since he announced his plans to double major in biology and international affairs with a goal of achieving “a green and peaceful future.” When my parents aren’t screaming at him about a lifetime as a broke hippie tree-hugger or “what it looks like” for my father, they’re simply swimming along in total denial. In Dad’s latest appearance on Fox, he told that uppity Nina Shelby with her crisp suits and her helmet hair that James was premed.
So this dinner may be about family togetherness, but only the kind that looks good in front of cameras. My stomach tightens into a knot. We’re putting on a show for the press, probably to help certain blind items on Washington gossip sites about a senior senator getting frisky with a pretty young female staffer.
This is the kind of togetherness that makes my family feel like it’s splintered right down the middle.
“Please, Sloane. Can you just . . . fix this?” Mom waves a hand in my direction. I’m not sure whether she’s signaling my outfit or me, generally, as a person.
But there’s no use in arguing. There’s never any use in arguing with my parents. Besides, Mom has enough to deal with. I almost feel sorry for her.
I hunt in my bag until I find a plaid wool blazer and a camel-colored pashmina, both only slightly wrinkled. It’s the best I can do considering the circumstances of the surprise dinner. Mom glances over from the driver’s seat and simply snips, “When we get home, those jeans are going straight into the trash.”
There’s no point in telling her the holes were placed there, strategically and fashionably, by the fine people at J.Crew, and that in fact I paid extra for the holes. But if she had absolutely no problem tossing a pink leather Marc Jacobs miniskirt that cost enough to feed a family of four for a month, she won’t think twice about my eighty-nine-dollar jeans. Like I said, I almost feel sorry for her.
I wind the scarf around my neck and nearly strangle myself with it as Mom banks a hard right onto Pennsylvania Avenue, floors the gas pedal, then screeches to a halt at the valet stand outside the Capital Grille. In one quick move she’s out of the car, slipping her purse over her shoulder, handing the keys to a red-vested attendant. I unfold myself from the passenger seat. My muscles are already starting to tense a little after all those jumps and landings.
The valet pulls the car away, and Mom, clad in an impeccably tailored ivory pantsuit, gives me a final up-and-down. I get the anticipated sigh, this time with a bonus eye roll. “Button up that blazer,” she says, then whirls on her heel and steps through the revolving door.
Before I can follow her, though, I take a deep breath, square my shoulders, and try to ignore the bad feeling coiled in my stomach. Jacobs family dinners tend to look pretty good from the outside, but they feel like a Guantánamo interrogation to the insiders. Two hours of Dad. Two hours of Mom and Dad.
Thank God I’ll have James.
Inside the dimly lit restaurant, I head toward the big table near the center of the dining room but close to a large window facing the street. It’s the place to see and be seen, and it’s been our regular table since Dad graduated from junior senator status five years ago. I rush for the coveted “hiding seat,” the one whose back faces the window. Here, I can usually prevent my photograph from being taken. Luckily, James still isn’t here or he would have snatched it. We used to spend hours wheeling and dealing over who’d get the chair. I usually won, but I did a lot of laundry and washed a lot of dishes to make up for it. Never mind that my mom employs a full-time maid; Dad says chores build character.