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Skating Backwards

The summer I turned 12, I taught myself to ice skate backwards. My family was spending the summer in Colorado but instead of hiking, mountain biking, or whitewater rafting, I decided to take up an indoor sport I could have pursued back home in Missouri. I took the bus to the rink every day to take part in the public-free skate hours. From 11:00 to 1:00 p.m., I skated by myself, watching others flip direction effortlessly while I propelled myself forward, stumbling awkwardly to a stop, or more frequently crashing wrists first into the rubber-topped railing.

My body was barely my own then, my breasts in a training bra as though they needed practice before becoming actual breasts. My shoulders were too broad—built like a swimmer, my mother said—but two days after joining the swim team, I quit. I preferred floating languidly to laps, and it felt pointless to traverse the same lane over and over again.

Here on the ice, everyone was also engaged in repetitive motion, forever circling. The good skaters twirled in the center, and the outer rings were reserved for amateurs, little kids, and couples clinging to each other, committed to falling together. I always skated alone and one day without thinking about it, I crossed my right ankle behind my left and felt my axis shift. I leaned into the turn until I found myself facing the other way.

What came next felt natural, like treading water: my legs pushing, knees bowed inward, my upper body tilting slightly forward, the resistance of the ice pushing against the angled blades. I moved about three inches, then I realized I had no idea how to undo what I had done or sustain it. The only safe course of action was to fall. So I squatted and tipped myself forward so my hands would hit the ice first.

I got back up and tried to turn backwards again immediately, but now that I was consciously trying to do it, I couldn’t. I had achieved something, accidentally, without actually learning it. It took me about a week to do it again and stay upright, another week to find the momentum to keep moving, and another to figure out how to turn myself forward again. I did not share my new ability with anyone; it was my secret to savor.

I haven’t been ice skating in years, but I would like to think the skill would come back to me if I tried, that my muscles would remember.

You might be tempted to read this story as some kind of metaphor, but it’s just a memory of my body when I was still getting to know it, and was stunned by its sudden grace. One moment of unearned balance before gravity brought me to my knees, face flushed, my pulse beating in my palms pressed on the ice.

KATIE VAGNINO is a poet who lives in South Minneapolis. Her first book, Imitation Crab, was published in 2021 by Finishing Line Press. She has an MFA from Emerson College and has taught creative writing in many places, including the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Loft Literary Center.


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