The End of Roller SkatingDonna Miscolta
Leonard is back in his parents’ home—to die quietly, in private, and with whatever dignity is left to a middle-aged man whose parents sort and count his medications before their own. So when the cards and flowers and potted plants start coming, he watches with curiosity and suspicion. They’re from people he hasn’t seen or thought of in years. How do they know he’s back? How do they know he’s dying? he wonders to his mother, who says apologetically (because for years she has apologized for everything, including the weather), “News travels in Kimball Park.”
And Leonard imagines it in the passenger seats of cars, on the roofs of taxis, the back ends of buses, being towed by trucks—the traveling news that Leonard is dying.
What Leonard wants to know is why they want to see him.
Usually, he declines their visits, and lets the gifts accumulate on the coffee table until it looks like a department store display at Christmas. His father wanders in after his nap, pulling his oxygen tank behind him like a leashed puppy, and views the growing pile as if he, himself, were considering a purchase. He picks one up, a scarf or a picture frame, appreciating its contour and texture the way a green grocer does a squash. “Pretty nice stuff,” he says, looking down his bifocals at it, because he needs to say something after all those years of saying so little about anything.
Leonard answers, “Thanks,” as if his father has paid him a compliment.
Every so often the gifts are whisked away with no trace of their whereabouts through some ingenuity of his mother’s arthritic limbs. It happens without a word to him and he rather enjoys this sudden disappearance of things, so neat and clean—no ruins to mourn.
When his mother first told him that Sheila had called and wanted to visit, Leonard felt a small pang of indigestion, despite his bland, ascetic diet. After thirty years, Leonard holds the smallest of grudges. A tiny bitterness in the scheme of things, especially now, given his condition. And yet, there it is—a hard little calcified nodule, a kidney stone of blame.
Leonard and Sheila had been paired when they were sixteen, a time when Leonard was waiting for the pivotal moment of his life when some metaphorical light would shine upon him and illuminate his path to… something. Leonard admitted even then, it was a dramatic way to view things. But drama was in his veins. It was in his roller skates.
But that was 1965—the year My Fair Lady won eight Academy Awards, the year the Beatles met Elvis, the year two roller skaters might have claimed the state dance championship for the Kimball Park Roller Rink. Might have.
“You don’t have to see her, son. You don’t have to see anyone,” his mother told him, even though it was she who first suggested it might be pleasant to have visitors.
Sometimes Leonard wished his mother would not be so accommodating, so bent on making up for the years when, as she put it, she and Ray were terribly unwise. It was his mother who had accompanied him on his skating trips. They stayed in cheap motels and ate their meals from the cooler she packed with cold cuts. Except for that one time, the last time he ever skated, his father never came, unable, he claimed, to get the time off from work. He would wave at them from the driveway. Be aggressive, he would advise as if Leonard were going to play roller hockey, rather than spin and glide to a recorded waltz or a bossa nova. He means be confident, his mother would say. His father was at least glad Leonard was skating with Sheila, and not “twirling around on the rink by himself,” as Leonard had once overheard him say.
“I can tell Sheila no,” his mother said.
Now that his body is falling apart and he is incontestably dying, he doesn’t want to yearn for that time in his life when he was lithe and graceful, when he spun so lightly atop the hardwood, grazed it in splits at the end of his routine, took bows at its center.
He never dwelled on the loss of the gold medal, but he never altogether prized the silver one, embedding it and its red sateen ribbon in the background of a multimedia collage that hung for years in an unlit corner of his living room and now lay packed in newspapers in his parents’ garage. How could any of it matter now? Roller skating was dead. Kicked the bucket a long time ago. He had moved away from Kimball Park, away from skating. And as if in retaliation for turning his back on it, roller skating as he had known it had disappeared. The Kimball Park Roller Rink was shuttered for years, then dusted off once and reopened briefly as an indoor soccer arena, but eventually it was razed. A Vietnamese nail salon, a Filipino gift store and a Mex-Insur agency sit in its place.
It was a blip, that episode in his life. But a niggling blip. So he told his mother, “Yes. Tell her no.”
Yet it nags him, more now than ever, as if being back in Kimball Park, home with his parents, who are nothing if not affable (as affable as any housemates he’s had over the years), has produced an irksome flutter in his abdomen. Not unlike the jitters that used to terrorize him before a skating performance, when he fought his fear that somehow the music would end before he completed his moves. So today at breakfast while “Macarena” is playing on the radio above the kitchen sink, he watches a glop of honey settle slowly into the chamomile tea his mother has brewed from fresh petals and says to his parents, “I think I will see Sheila after all.”
His mother looks up from laying out his pills, her finger holding her place in the line of vials that serves as a centerpiece to their mostly liquid breakfast. Leonard nods at her before a question can form amid the wrinkles she still powders each morning. His father makes a soft, approving grunt as he slurps his coffee.
Always anxious, these days as ever, to do his bidding, his mother goes directly to the phone and calls Sheila. He stirs his tea and listens to his mother greet Sheila, ask about her health, her family, and then, like a secretary, inform her that Leonard would be available to see her after all. “Today?” she says, rather loudly into the receiver as she raises her eyebrows at Leonard.
Leonard, taken aback at the speediness of Sheila’s response, gives an involuntary shrug.
“Yes, today,” his mother says back into the phone.
She returns to the table and resumes counting out his pills. “Well,” she says when she’s done, the lines in her face multiplying even with her weakest smile, “won’t it be nice to see Sheila,” and his father nods for him.
Sheila Newkirk, pert-faced, pony-tailed, and blonde—the girl next door. Not next door to Leonard, of course. And even though the Newkirks lived in Kimball Park, Sheila had attended a private school in Bonita Heights, a semi-rural suburb where people owned horses, swimming pools and ski boats. Sheila had been to Europe twice by the time Leonard met her. She’d bought suede boots with fringes on Carnaby Street, sipped cappuccino on the Left Bank, even rode a camel in Morocco. Yet Sheila roller skated.
After breakfast, Leonard lingers at the table long after his father has trundled his oxygen tank onto the patio, where he sits each morning in his hopeless battle to stare into submission the caterpillars steadily munching at his apple tree. Today, the neighbor’s teenage grandson, Cooper, waves a weed whacker around the edges of the lawn. Leonard recalls with shame his fits of temper at being made to do an hour of yard work back when he felt his skating should have priority, the fights he had with his father, the names they flung at each other. Through the sliding glass door, he watches his father taking his steady purposeful breaths from his tank, while Cooper buzzes the grass nearby, bopping his head and shoulders to the tune that plays in his ear phones.
“Did you know that Cooper’s a skateboarder?” his mother asks as she finishes scraping the last crumbs from the table into her hand, trailing most of them onto the floor before she reaches the garbage can.
Leonard, not knowing what to do with this information, replies that, no, he didn’t know.
The doorbell rings and they both look at the clock. Of course, it’s too early for Sheila. Someone unexpected then. That happens sometimes with the visitors. Calling ahead commits them. Better to just drive by, circle the block, park a few houses down and rehearse their words of condolence in the car. Until they hit the doorbell, the possibility for escape remains. Though more than a few times, his mother or father has been summoned by the two-tone peal, only to find an empty porch and a minute trembling of the wind chimes.
His mother looks at him and Leonard nods. He is willing to have an unscheduled guest, a warm-up for Sheila. Besides, the time will come when he will no longer see visitors, when he will say no to everyone.
His mother goes to the door and comes back with Arnie Galarza bearing a potted geranium.
It’s Arnie’s second visit. The first time ended clumsily and Leonard wonders if Arnie wants a do-over. At the end of a brief but pleasant enough chat about their school days, first at St. Jude and then at the public high school, Arnie had touched Leonard’s chest.
It was an accident, of course. Arnie hadn’t meant to poke his finger into Leonard’s nipple, only to pat his shoulder, but Leonard, responding to an itch on his bottom, had shifted his position. Arnie had mumbled, “Sorry.” “Apology accepted,” Leonard said.
Decades ago, they were both gangly, pubescent Boy Scouts. Once, after a meeting at which badges for Citizenship in the Home were presented, they went to Arnie’s house, where he pulled a Playboy centerfold from a shoebox in his bedroom closet. They masturbated there on the Indian rug with the Beach Boys playing on the radio. When they were done and lay spent, Arnie crumpled up the centerfold and aimed it at Leonard’s crotch. “You weren’t even looking at it,” he accused, for which Leonard had no response, except to remove the ball of paper from between his legs so he could zip up his pants, a task that seemed to require his full attention. Finally, he said, as much to himself as to Arnie, “But I was thinking about it.”
“Sit down, Arnie,” Leonard says as his mother pours a cup of coffee and unwraps a package of donuts stored in the cupboard for guests.
Arnie pulls out the chair opposite Leonard. He makes a point of sprawling casually, though he reaches for the coffee and donuts as soon as they are placed in front of him. Before Leonard’s mother slides open the glass door to join his father in his vigil on the patio, she pats Arnie’s hand. “Enjoy your visit, now.”
Leonard had told his mother of Arnie’s embarrassment after his last visit, the dismay at the accidental contact. There had been the old sarcasm in his voice, and for a moment his mother had actually looked pleased to hear it, as if he were his old self again. But then his mother sighed in sympathy with Arnie, “Oh, the blunders we make.”
Leonard watches Arnie stir sugar into his cup. Arnie’s hands are long and slender. There has always been something spidery about him, his legginess, the way his arms never seem to extend all the way straight, but kink at the elbow. Finally, Arnie stops stirring, takes a sip, gulps louder than he surely intends. “So,” he says. “How’re you feeling?”
Leonard figures people do not really want to hear that he feels like shit, that he vomits frequently, pisses blood on occasion. “Not bad,” he says. “You?”
“Not bad. Either.” He bites his donut, and then reconsiders his answer. “Fine. Pretty good.”
Leonard appreciates Arnie’s self-editing.
They had been friends until high school, when they went their separate ways, Leonard to join the cheer squad, turning back flips and hoisting girl cheerleaders in the air, and Arnie to run in the middle of the pack on the cross-country team. Before that though there was Leonard’s skating. It had come about by chance. The summer before high school, they spent Saturday afternoons at the open skate hour at the roller rink, Arnie intent on velocity amid the recreational and social skaters, and Leonard putting himself on display as the music rumbled from wall speakers and thundered in his blood. One afternoon, just as open skate was winding down and the dance teams were waiting their turn in the bleachers, Leonard was approached by a man in black pants and stretchy t-shirt. “You’re a natural,” said the man who Leonard learned was the coach. “I could spot what you got a mile away.” It was the same figurative distance that soon separated Leonard and Arnie.
“I was in the neighborhood,” Arnie says, finishing off his donut.
“Nice of you to drop by,” Leonard says, eying the geranium, the kind sold in supermarket parking lots.
Arnie rotates the plant to show its lanky flower to best advantage. “I bought some for my patio and thought one might look nice in yours.”
They both look though the sliding glass door where Leonard’s parents sit side-by-side in patio chairs. They’re in profile, and Leonard watches their mouths move in silent conversation. Even if he were a lip reader, it seems that old people’s syllables, affected as they are by dentures and slack jaws, must be indecipherable or at least much given to misinterpretation.
Leonard looks back at his visitor. He nudges the plate of donuts toward Arnie, who hesitates before pinching a cinnamon one between his long forefinger and thumb.
“You still run, Arnie?”
“Yeah,” he says sheepishly, his mouth full of donut. He swallows. “I don’t usually eat this stuff,” he admits. “Sorry.”
“Well,” Leonard says, “we really should stop pushing that crap on our guests.”
Arnie brushes cinnamon from his chin.
Leonard sees he is preparing to speak, so saves him the trouble. “Well, what’s new?” he asks. After all, it’s a question that only makes sense for Leonard to pose.
Arnie runs a print shop, so he talks about the things he’s printed recently—real estate flyers, political signs, retail inserts. He’s on a roll and Leonard wants to stop him and say, really, none of this is necessary, except that he, himself, isn’t entirely convinced. So he lets Arnie ramble on.
After high school, until Leonard moved away, their paths crossed only once in a while. At a party, at the Lucky Market, at the swap meet, Leonard would offer a drag off his cigarette to Arnie, who would suck in a brief lungful of the nicotine, as if he owed Leonard something and could only pay by accepting the familiarity of a shared Kool.
“Well, thanks for coming, Arnie,” Leonard says finally. If Arnie was still seeking absolution now and Leonard could give it, he would.
Arnie looks relieved, but rises hesitantly from his chair until Leonard holds out his hand. Arnie takes it and they shake, a clean handshake without miss, and say goodbye, and when Arnie leaves and closes the door behind him, Leonard says aloud in the empty kitchen, “Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
His mother comes in to clear away the donuts and Arnie’s cup and to assess the geranium. “Better to keep that indoors.”
A loud thud in the garage preempts any response from Leonard. A donut slides onto the floor from the plate his mother has nearly let topple from her hand. They look at each other. Leonard feels how vulnerable they all are to an intruder, how their infirmities make them useless against trespassers and bullies, which have increased in number and boldness over the years in Kimball Park. His eye is drawn to the donut on the kitchen linoleum. Then his mother lets out her shrieky laugh that was once an embarrassment to him, but now seems perfectly pitched in its nervous mirth. “It’s only Cooper. I asked him to straighten out some things in the garage.”
She bends down and picks up the donut. “Aren’t we a pair of sillies,” she says, and then sighs at the waste as she drops the donut in the garbage can.
“Go rest until Sheila comes,” she says.
Leonard obeys his mother, this seventy-year-old woman who still dyes her hair black and wears earrings that dangle to her shoulders. Leonard’s own hair is gray and as he makes his way out of the kitchen, he toddles on his cane.
He knows though that if he goes to sleep, his mother will not wake him when Sheila comes. “Visitors can wait,” she says, despite her view of them as therapeutic. Sometimes they did wait until he awoke. Other times, the only sign of them was another potted plant.
He stops in the living room, choosing to rest on the couch instead of in bed. Lying on his back, he listens to the faucet run in the kitchen, the clink of plates and silver in the sink. When his mother finishes the dishes, he hears the patio door slide open and the rattle of his father’s oxygen on wheels. There is the scrape of chairs and he knows his parents are at the table for another cup of coffee, which they will sip a few times and then let go cold, as if they were just a retired couple enjoying their golden years of leisure.
He hears them shake out their blood pressure pills.
“This house is a regular hospital ward,” his father says. But he says it in the jolly tone that matches his looks. Ray Pontz has white hair and ruddy skin and a perpetually smiling face, which Leonard knows is due not to constant cheer, but a hearty belief that it exists somewhere, somehow.
“Oh, Pontz,” chides his mother, who has always called his father by his last name, making an endearment of the graceless sound.
Leonard Pontz. Leonard says his own name softly, thinks how long it has taken him to love it. His last name and big nose from his Polish-American father and his dark hair and olive skin from his Mexican-American mother, had somehow combined to invite anti-Semitic remarks. This proved to be convenient, being mistaken for a Jew. It distracted those who otherwise would have heckled him for the cheerleader stretch pants he wore in front of the whole school. Then there was roller dancing and more stretchy pants. But there was also Sheila Newkirk, her all-American appeal a shield for deflecting the taunts that had so often sideswiped Leonard.
“Do you know,” said Sheila as she skated warm-up drills in his arms to Strauss, “that the Blue Danube changes from green to gray to yellow to brown. Never to blue.”
Leonard had to take her word for it, since he had not ventured beyond Kimball Park except for the skating rinks in Downey, Bakersfield, Fresno and other unremarkable tournament destinations. He was a scholarship dancer, which meant his entry fees were paid courtesy of donations from other families, like Sheila’s, whose signs for Newkirk Realty were planted with regularity throughout town.
Leonard listens to his parents talk of the weather, traffic in the neighborhood, the grocery store specials. His mother keeps the shelves in the garage stocked with canned chili, cases of grape soda, boxed macaroni and cheese, not because anyone in the house eats them, but because she has coupons to redeem. Maybe that’s what Cooper is doing in the garage, taking inventory. As if to confirm this hypothesis, another thud sounds, which he ignores this time. He hears a lesser commotion and turns his head slightly to the far wall.
His parents begin to sneak quietly through the living room to the bedroom where they will tune in to The Price is Right and play along, compete against each other for a dinette set or a pair of water skis. They shush each other as his father’s wheeled oxygen rattles the floor lamp and his mother hisses a warning.
Leonard lifts his head. “It’s okay. I’m awake.”
His parents pause, appear disappointed at the failure of their stealth. They seem to regard the bedroom door longingly. His father clears his throat. “What do you think? Your mother’s going to make applesauce later. Cooper salvaged some of the apples off the tree.”
“Good news,” Leonard replies, preferring the image of his mother’s once strong wrists rolling out dough for an apple pie, rather than her now birdlike hands putting mashed apples through a strainer.
“Do you want to enjoy some TV with us, dear?” his mother asks.
“You two go ahead,” Leonard tells them. It was too odd, the idea of the three of them propped on the king size bed, their rheumy eyes trained on the TV at the foot of it.
He watches them make their way to the bedroom. Soon after his mother closes the door, he hears the TV roar with the latest on the O.J. Simpson trial, aborted abruptly by the sounds of the game show. His parents call out estimates of the value of a stage full of merchandise. But in between, there is the muffle of normal talk, and he strains, but fails to make out the words above the clamor of the TV audience.
He feels guilty about forcing his parents into their bedroom, but he likes having the living room to himself, and much prefers it to the time he spends in his bedroom, the room where he grew up and that seemed then, as it does now, too confining.
His mother’s living room, done in green with orange accents, has always offended his aesthetic tastes, but now he welcomes the worry it wreaks on his eyes. He knows there is a chance he will fall asleep there and that when Sheila arrives, she will see him stretched out gaunt and motionless. As he settles himself deeper into the couch that is always draped these days with a sheet, he decides it is a risk his visitors take, is almost anxious for his visitors to be confronted with the sight of him. No reason to exempt Sheila.
From his parents’ bedroom, his father shouts, “Twelve hundred.” His mother counters with a higher price. The television rumbles with guesses, and when Leonard nods off to sleep it is to dream of contestants viewing parts of his life laid out like props on a stage and barking out estimates of their value. The contestants invariably outbid him and walk away with the piccolo he played in the junior high band, the close-fit trousers he turned somersaults in as a high school cheerleader, the roller skates he wore, the prize he won and the one he didn’t.
Leonard wakes babbling to find Cooper in the living room with him. Sometimes he takes a cruel pleasure in the awkward meetings with his visitors, whose strenuous eye contact comes from a fear of seeing his wasted body, but Cooper is not a visitor, and Leonard is embarrassed at being caught making sounds of sickness. He sits up too quickly, and reels from the head rush, Cooper a momentary smear on his retinas.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry. I need to use the, you know, men’s room.”
His focus restored, Leonard stares. He’s never really seen the kid up close. Despite Cooper’s polite reference to the toilet, he seems all smugness and insouciance—skateboarder cool. It makes Leonard think of the waiter, though it was really confidence in his case—exuded like a strong aftershave.
“So how you doin’?” There is more curiosity than compassion in his question. Death comes in video games, and illness and old age are light-years away for this moppet, thinks Leonard.
“I’m dying, you know.”
“Yeah. Sucks, man.”
Cooper’s hands are in his pockets so he tosses his head to fling his hair from his face. He wrinkles his forehead, making the ring in his eyebrow glint. “So, like, you in pain?”
“I have drugs.”
Cooper seems relieved at this, as if otherwise it would’ve been up to him to ease Leonard’s condition. He looks around. “You need anything? A drink of water?”
Leonard is suddenly overcome. Embarrassed, he can only shake his head. He points around the corner, his voice a hoarse whisper, “Bathroom’s that way.”
A few minutes later Cooper is in front of him again. He smells of the antiseptic soap from the dispenser on the bathroom wall. “Well, back to work,” he says, walking backward toward the door that leads to the garage. “You folks have some monster piles of shit in that garage of yours.”
“Yeah, we do. A lot of it’s mine.”
“Don’t worry. I’m being real careful with all of it.”
Cooper turns to leave the room and Leonard catches a glimpse of red, a sliver of fabric escaping from his back pocket that bulges with a perfect circle. Leonard’s mouth opens, but neither speech nor yip nor gasp escapes it as he realizes the little shit is stealing his silver roller skating medal, because another image fights for his attention and Leonard gives in to it—the wavy brown strands skirting Cooper’s nape.
The night before the state championships, the one and only time his father came to see him skate, Leonard and his parents had joined Sheila and her parents at the Sizzler across from their rooms at the Howard Johnson motor lodge. The grown-ups ordered steak and salad, and Sheila and Leonard ordered burgers and fries, and over dessert they discussed the competition to come. Their waiter was a wavy-haired, clear-eyed young man, attentive and polite, barely older than Leonard. He deftly balanced plates, refilled water glasses without dribbling on the table, and made eye contact with each of them when he asked if everything was all right. Could he get them anything else? Leonard found himself admiring this combination of confidence and deference, and suddenly he was blushing as he realized he had been staring at the young waiter. He excused himself to the men’s room and when he came out, the waiter was there, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette.
“I’m on break,” he announced.
The waiter blew smoke upward, exposing his Adam’s apple. He extended his hand. “Good luck tomorrow.”
Leonard took his hand, was enjoying the collegiality of shaking it when he suddenly felt himself being pulled forward by the waiter’s grip. He had time to register the soft beginnings of a mustache before the waiter’s mouth covered his. Instinctively, he closed his eyes, and though he felt a dizziness that bordered on blacking out, a neon brightness filled his skull, flared through his lungs, lifted the arches of his sneakered feet.
When the waiter pulled his mouth away, he brushed it against Leonard’s ear. “Break a leg.”
The waiter was gone before Leonard could catch his breath, and though the blood was drained from his limbs, he rushed on wilted legs down the corridor just in time to see his father nearly trample the hostess as he left the restaurant. His mother trailed behind, her napkin clutched to her chest in appeal.
The bedroom door opens and his father’s snores leak out. The Price is Right is over. His mother tiptoes out, carrying her knitting. She gently shuts the door, muting the snores.
“What did you win?” Leonard asks.
“A barbecue grill and an RV.”
“An Alaskan cruise.”
His mother giggles. “Oh, it’s all in fun.”
She goes to the kitchen and comes back with a can of grape soda and a plate of crackers. “For Sheila,” she says. “It’s almost time.”
Except when his attention is called to it, Leonard avoids time, or least its measurement in hours, which are either too brief or without end. His mother’s daily schedule is a reminder that there is a pulse to their existence.
“Time for a little sunshine.” She’s at the front door, knitting in hand, her large, floppy-brimmed hat on her head. “I’ll send Sheila in when she gets here.”
Leonard watches through the living room window as his mother settles herself into the lawn chair in their treeless front yard. Her back is to him, but he knows by the rhythm of her elbows that she has begun to knit.
Knitting was what she was doing that day when he returned to their Howard Johnson double plus fold-out room, which sat above the kitchen where the smell of onions seeped into its four corners. His father was nowhere to be seen though the fan was running in the bathroom. His mother clacked a few more stitches onto her needles, before everything, seemingly on its own, fell into her lap. She looked at him, apology in her eyes. “I guess we always knew, but knowing for sure—it’s a shock. You know how they say, sucker punched? All this time we were looking, but not seeing. You know?”
Leonard, still reeling from the kiss, said he did.
His father drove home that evening and never saw him skate. The next day, his mother sat alone in the stands and pretended to hide her disappointment with his second-place performance.
A powder blue sedan pulls into the driveway, and Leonard turns away from the window, breathes deeply, and waits for Sheila to come through the door. Moments later when she does, she moves toward him with hardly a pause, as if their meeting was an everyday occurrence. She sits down beside him and slips her arm through his, completely unsettling him and he can only stare. He has imagined over the years the different ways Sheila might have changed—a failed Weight Watchers client, a tired housewife too fond of Merlot, an amputee from a motorcycle accident. Not that he wishes her ill. It’s just that a person’s life could take any number of possible turns, suffer any number of possible mishaps. But here is Sheila, still Sheila after all these years—older yes, but with her pertness essentially intact, her blondeness suspiciously so. Her once girlish figure is now fittingly mature. Leonard runs his free hand through the wiry gray at his temples, clears his throat to cover up a wheeze.
“You’ve hardly changed,” he tells her, ashamed at the grudging tone of his words.
“We all change,” Sheila says.
Her refusal to accept his observation irritates him. He shifts sideways. “Some more than others.”
“So sorry, Leonard.”
“Not your fault,” he says.
They grow quiet. “Have a soda,” Leonard says, but Sheila ignores him.
“Tell me how you’re doing. Tell me about your life,” she says.
No other visitors have demanded such a thing and he is caught off guard. “You first,” Leonard says. “Tell me about yours.”
Sheila clasps her hands at her knees. She’s wearing white slacks and a white sleeveless blouse and a mild tan that was earned, not bought. Her hair is pulled back, not in the high ponytail of their skating days, but lower, so it fans out at her shoulder blades, a quiet embellishment. The lines in her forehead and at the corners of her eyes make her more interesting than he wants her to be. He’s relieved when she tells him she’s lived an ordinary life.
“I married a dentist. We raised three children. I teach ballroom dancing to middle schoolers.”
He smiles at this, because somehow it touches him, this image of thirteen-year-olds waltzing.
“Now you,” Sheila says.
Leonard clears his throat to dislodge the tremor there.
“I fell in love a few times. I worked as an event organizer. I was good at it so I was always in demand. Always. I had a house with a view of Alcatraz and it was filled with bibelots and antiques and handmade textiles.” The words fall lovingly from him. “I took vacations to the wine country. I went to Bali once and Hong King twice.” He knows he is bragging, so he concedes, “I never made it to Europe.”
“It sounds like a good life.”
“It was,” Leonard says, two small words that as he speaks them make his rib cage seize, and he keeps himself very still, almost holds his breath.
Sheila remains quiet too. Ray’s burly snores reach them from behind the bedroom door, and they listen for a while as if to some song, the name of which escapes them no matter how hard they try to remember.
Finally, the snores cease and Sheila asks, “Any regrets?”
Leonard speaks softly. “Once, when I was young, I was a skater and I almost won a gold medal.”
“We should’ve,” he says, feeling the pebble-sized blame ballooning in his gut, ready to burst.
He feels wobbly-limbed, the way he had felt for their final performance when he and Sheila skated to the center of the rink, when he knew he was not the same person he was the day before the waiter or the day before that or the day in Arnie’s room when he really didn’t understand what he had or hadn’t felt as they beat off to the full-color spread of Miss July. Leonard spun Sheila to a stop, smooth and razor-sharp, and her ponytail slapped his chest where his heart was already racing to some new and unknown place. He could not rein it in. As he struck his ready pose next to Sheila, as they waited for their music cue, his touch at her waist and elbow grew firmer and he leaned his head slightly to her ear. “Stay with me Sheila,” he whispered.
But it was he who wouldn’t stay with her, his muscles charged as they were with the fear and joy of discovery. He could only hope that the unevenness of their performance was perceptible only to them, and it might have been if only, in their penultimate spin, Sheila’s skate had not glanced Leonard’s, jarring them both for the tiniest of moments. When they took their bow, Leonard knew it was all over. Leonard knew it was just beginning.
Leonard stares at Sheila. “I skated differently that day,” he says, belatedly astonished.
“You did,” Sheila confirms, a little righteously.
But Leonard is still marveling at the revelation. “It was my fault about the gold medal,” he says.
Sheila is looking smug. “And?” she prods.
“And,” Leonard says, evenly, because he thinks it might be rude to shout, “it was worth it.” He’s wobbly again, this time from relief.
He falls back into the sofa cushions. Sheila does the same and he presses her hand the way he used to when he guided her around the roller rink in the push and pull of the dance. “Tell me about the middle school dance students. Do they rumba?”
“Yes,” she laughs gently, “they rumba.” And for the next forty minutes, she tells him stories of the early adolescent boys and girls learning to dance, making him smile until he is too fatigued to smile anymore, and he has to ask her to leave.
“Can I come and visit again?” she asks.
“No,” Leonard says, because he knows he is done with visitors. “But thank you.”
Sheila leans over and kisses him lightly on the forehead and he closes his eyes to remember the long lines he used to draw in the air with his body, the space he once filled with his large and lithe movements.
He doesn’t open his eyes until Sheila is out the door. Through the window, he watches her hug his mother in her lawn chair, getting tangled momentarily in his mother’s knitting. Behind him the bedroom door opens and his father shuffles himself and his tank of air next to Leonard. “There goes Sheila,” Leonard tells him.
“Yes,” he says, “I know.”
Together they watch Sheila’s car back out of the driveway. His father draws in some extra gulps of air and for no reason takes Leonard’s hand in his. They watch his mother gather up her knitting and rise from her lawn chair just as Cooper saunters toward her from the garage. She pulls some bills from the pocket of her sweater and Cooper tucks his pay into his back pocket.
His mother turns and sees them through the window and smiles. Leonard waves, and Cooper walks away with the red ribbon and the perfect circle.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.