The ice surface at the Mount Vernon Sports Complex—my home rink—was down for repairs that springtime Saturday evening in 1984. That meant I’d have to go to the Fairfax Ice Arena instead. If it hadn’t been for that bit of inconvenience, I would probably never have met Judy.
An hour into Fairfax’s public skating session, the truck-like Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine rumbled to life, chasing the crowd off the ice. As I clunked toward the benches, a young woman emerged from the milling clusters and approached me. Her skates commanded immediate attention: the boots had the unique tan color of expensive, custom-made Harlicks. The blades were top-of-the-line MKs. Whoever she was, this lady was a serious figure skater. I judged her age to be about the same as mine—late twenties. She was tall and slender, with a tremulous smile framed by dark, eager eyes and a swirling torrent of brunette ringlets. She was pretty, and that sent a nervous tingle crawling up the back of my neck.
“Hi, I’m Judy,” she said softly.
“Hello,” I replied with a hesitant smile. “I’m Pete.”
“I’m finishing nursing school in Pennsylvania,” she said, “I’m in DC for a job interview at a hospital and thought I’d check out the rinks while I’m here.”
I glanced around. Why me? I wondered. Of all the people here, why are you singling me out? After a moment’s pondering, my unspoken question answered itself: being an adult male figure skater, I was a rare commodity, perhaps even a curiosity. Probably more important to a good-looking single woman in a strange town, the glimmer from my wedding band would ensure that she could have a friendly conversation at a safe, arms-length distance. Essentially, I would be low-risk. I relaxed a little.
“This rink’s nice,” I said, “but Mount Vernon’s my favorite. Have you been there?”
“No,” Judy replied, her ringlets swaying as she shook her head.
“My coach there’s fantastic,” I said. Once again considering the seriousness of her skates, I added, “She’s always taking new students.”
Judy nodded. “Thanks.”
A moment later, she was gone, somewhere up in the bleachers.
When the Zamboni had finished its job, we all returned to the smoothened ice, and soon after that, I was lost in the intense work of jumps and spins. Judy became just another person to avoid hitting.
A few months later, on a Saturday evening in early summer, I was bending down to remove my blade guards before stepping onto Mount Vernon’s sheet of pristine white when a soft voice called from behind me. “Pete?… Remember me?”
Still bent over, I looked up at the woman—Judy. Her thin frame was outfitted in typical ladies’ figure-skating fashion: black woolen tights on her long legs; a tiny pastel-green skating dress; and a black wrap-around cardigan sweater.
“I got that nursing job,” she said with a shy smile. “And I took your advice.” She swept her hands in an arc that embraced the building’s interior. “This is my home rink now.”
“That’s wonderful,” I replied, straightening up. I stepped out onto the ice and glided a short distance, then stopped. The nervous tingling returned. It was always a delicate walk on the tight-rope—talking to, and sometimes befriending, an attractive female skater. It was especially so for a happily married man who fully intended to stay that way. And, temptation aside, in the world of skating, a juicy rumor could wipe out a good reputation faster than the Zamboni could clear the ice. On the other hand, Judy seemed okay. She was apparently just a nice person with an interest in skating to match my own. And she needed some friendship. I reasoned that sometimes you just have to put up the appropriate walls, do what you think is right and decent, and ignore the rumor-mongers.
Judy pulled up alongside me. We talked for a moment, then set out separately on the glassy surface. A hint of Zamboni exhaust still hung in the air as pop music began to flow from the PA system. A few other skaters joined us—so unlike the pressing crowd at Fairfax. This was how an evening skating session should be.
After a couple of warm-up laps, I hockey-stopped at “the boards,” the waist-high wall around the ice. After Judy passed by for the third time, I leaned back against the door of the penalty box and forgot about the practice I’d come to do. There was something extraordinary, almost magical, in her simple forward-crossover strokes as she flew around the rink, oblivious to the world, apparently lost in the music within her head.
A friend pulled up alongside me. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I replied. In truth, I did know. I just couldn’t find the words.
Suddenly Judy three-turned, now heading backward, circumscribing the rink in gigantic figure-eights—her slender legs pulling into powerful back crossovers, her hair fluttering in the cool air rushing past her.
These were simple, beginner’s moves—very common. However, the way she did them was entirely uncommon. The word perfect kept reverberating in my mind. Everything is just perfect. The precision of her movements. The set of her head on her shoulders. The positions of her arms. Her posture, body-line, even her fingers—all just so. Probably even her toes inside those Harlicks, pointing like a ballerina’s. Perfect. A faint, placid smile shimmered on her lips. Her eyes peered slightly upward at something beyond the bleachers, beyond the walls, perhaps beyond Washington, DC. No Olympian’s crossovers could have been more mesmerizing. There was something else to them, and it took a while to put my finger on it. Her strokes were silent—totally silent. When her blades dug into the ice, there was none of the usual scraping of knife-sharp steel slicing into rock-hard ice. Just smooth silence. It was as though she were gliding a hair’s width above the ice.
My buddy again skated up and tapped my arm. “What? Are you camping out here? C’mon, get going.”
“In a minute,” I mumbled. Then I nodded in Judy’s direction. “Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m eternally spoken-for and totally devoted to my wife. But I could watch those crossovers all evening. I don’t even need to see jumps and spins—although I’m sure they’re perfect, too.”
My buddy shrugged with a hint of, Yeah, right, then set off. A moment later, I pushed away from the boards and re-started my warm-up. After that, I immersed myself in the usual regimen of alternating between jumps, spins, and footwork, throwing in a lap or two of fast stroking and crossovers to get the heart and lungs pumping. First, I did the full set of old familiar moves, then worked up to the harder ones: the flying-camel spin and the double jumps I was just learning.
Skaters are constantly on the lookout to avoid collisions, so it was only natural that I would catch an occasional glimpse of Judy. She and I were technically at about the same level in our skating. That is, we were working on the same jumps and spins, which were at a difficulty level considered quite good for adult skaters, though far behind the young kids who were being groomed as serious, national-level competitors.
Beyond the technicalities, Judy and I were worlds apart in style and skill. Her single jumps—waltz jump, toe loop, Salchow—were magnificent. Smooth, unhurried, and big, as she vaulted and soared as high and far as any skater I’d ever seen. And there it was again, that perfection. Even in the air, every part of her body was in exactly the right position. And constantly, there was that other-worldly silence of her movements. Obviously, it was a sign of exquisite muscle control and flexibility, but she might as well have been made of gossamer.
At one point, she came racing toward the jumping zone near the curved end of the ice and lofted into a huge double Salchow. In the air, everything was marvelous. However, she couldn’t quite complete the second rotation, and on landing, her blade slipped out from under her. She flopped onto the ice and slid to a stop on her backside, never losing her air of dignity. She grimaced a little from the pain, but didn’t groan or curse, as skaters normally do. Instead, in only seconds, she was up and moving again, the smile having returned to her lips.
I went back to working on my own “double Sal,” striving to emulate her graceful power. Nevertheless, the skill gap between us loomed large. It would only be a short time before her double jumps were as magnificent as her singles. Then who knew what—triples? For an adult skater with a full-time job and fully ossified bones, that was the stuff of dreams. Except maybe for Judy. My own journey was unlikely ever to carry me as far, and every victory along the way would be a struggle. I felt no jealousy, only inspiration and a deep appreciation for the artistry I was witnessing.
Weeks went by and the demands of my Air Force job at the Pentagon began to intensify. That required careful life-balancing to protect the precious time my wife Marilyn and I needed to be together. On my priority list, skating would have to settle for a distant third place. Years before, when I took up skating, I’d hoped Marilyn might join me and make it a couple’s activity. As things turned out, her interests lay elsewhere, so I skated alone and she provided moral support.
During this hectic time, I practiced skating whenever my tight schedule allowed. Occasionally, I’d see Judy at the rink. Every time, her fluid, ethereal grace was just as intriguing and inspiring as it had been that first night. We became cordial friends, though not particularly close ones, and that seemed to suit us both well. “How are you, Judy?” I’d ask. “How’s your nursing job? How’s that double toe loop coming?” Her answers were always accompanied by that reserved, contented smile. At times, I detected a trace of loneliness in it.
One evening, I was just clearing out of the jumping zone when something brushed against my shoulder. Unexpected contact with another person, especially in the landing area, is enough to give any skater’s heart an electric jolt. This reflexive fear of a high-speed collision instantly conjures up images of broken bones, a concussion, or a muscle and tendon sliced by a twelve-inch steel blade. Sensing such a disaster had just been narrowly averted, I glanced behind me.
“Judy,” I said, gathering up the remnants of my composure. She had landed just behind me, with her customary softness and silence. This time, that wonderful quality had proven dangerous. I quickly concluded she’d only grazed me with her hand and I thanked God it hadn’t been a full-on collision.
“Hi,” I said, all other words eluding me.
There was no hiding my stunned expression, and she murmured, “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t watching. Did I hurt you?” She was on the brink of tears.
“You just nudged me,” I replied, finding my full voice again. “I barely felt it.”
“Are you sure?” she pleaded, as we began stroking down the straightaway.
There was no need to embarrass her and I couldn’t ignore her unspoken call for reassurance. “Yeah, I’m sure. And, by the way, you’re so close to nailing your Axel. It’s gonna be terrific.”
A hint of her smile reappeared and we went back to practicing.
An hour later, a buzzer sounded and the session was over. As I joined the crowd walking off the ice, Judy approached. She leaned toward me, her voice just above a whisper. “I’m glad it was you I bumped into over there.”
My mouth hung open. “Huh?”
She lowered her gaze to the rubber floor mat. “Anybody else would have yelled at me.”
“You’re kidding,” I blurted. “It was nothing, Judy, really.” I wondered what past experience might have prompted that remark from her—perhaps a serious collision followed by an ugly confrontation? I felt an urge to pat her shoulder, or clasp her hand reassuringly, or give her a friendly hug. Those possibilities were prevented by the arms-length distance my wedding band compelled—the distance that had allowed us to become friends in the first place. However, her implied compliment warmed and humbled me. For the rest of that night, I wondered how it could ever be possible for anyone, no matter how callous, to yell at such a sweet person with such a magnificent talent.
Over the next few months, my Air Force project ramped up to a fever pitch, with many long days and late nights of analysis and computer coding, so time for skating became harder and harder to carve out. Nonetheless, I did the best I could to prepare for the Washington Figure Skating Club’s upcoming annual competition, to be held at Mount Vernon. During that period, I rarely saw Judy.
When the day for the event arrived, I noticed that Allen, my good friend and toughest competitor, wasn’t on the roster for the adult men’s category. My coach Shirley told me he’d been injured. A tall, good-looking, warm-hearted fellow with dark, curly hair, Allen was a better jumper than I was, though my spins were a bit better than his. And I usually had the edge in the compulsory-figures part of the competition, the arcane variations on circles and figure-eights that skaters would trace before stone-faced judges, with fastidious precision and nearly-impossible slowness. I enjoyed the figures and practiced them as assiduously as I did the far more exciting free skating. Most other adult skaters I knew—including my competitors—found them boring. That generally worked to my advantage.
I sincerely hoped Allen would have a speedy recovery from his injury, but I had to admit that his absence that day would take some of the pressure off me.
Figures were held that morning, and they went well for me. I had a habit of never checking the scoreboard until the competition was over, so I didn’t know where I was placed after figures. Yet I was confident I was in good shape—probably in first place. When I left the rink for lunch at the nearby Wendy’s, I was full of nervous energy, eager for the free-skate part of the competition.
Back at the rink that afternoon, I changed into my program outfit, a striking navy-blue one-piece jumpsuit Marilyn had expertly sewn for me. Then I lugged my skate bag to the benches in the building’s anteroom, which was bordered with lockers, offices, a snack bar, and the swinging double doors leading to the rink itself. I was settling nicely into my competitive mindset, envisioning every move in my program, internally hearing the music—a cut from Hagood Hardy’s “The Homecoming” for the slow part, followed by Floyd Cramer’s vibrant piano rendition of the “Knots Landing” TV theme. Nodding my head to the music, I squeezed my right foot into the wood-hard leather boot and began lacing up.
“Hi,” a man’s voice rang out from nearby. It was Allen, in street clothes, rather than his familiar black competition outfit.
“Hey,” I replied. “What’s this I hear about you being hurt?”
“It’s just a pulled muscle,” he said. “The doc says I’ll only be out for a few weeks.” He paused and gazed into the distance. “Did you know I’ve been dating Judy?”
“No,” I replied. “But that’s great!” Nevertheless, in the strange way that men sometimes feel about such things, there was a faint echo of disappointment inside me. Logically, I had always known that Judy was off-limits to me—and I to her. Nevertheless, this was one of those odd moments when logic takes a momentary vacation.
I continued to lace up my right boot. I had to admit it was easy to picture Judy and Allen as a couple—maybe even as pairs skating partners. And it was heartwarming to imagine Judy’s loneliness alleviated by a relationship with a gentleman like Allen.
“Congratulations,” I finally said, in an attempt to clear out my feelings and reset my concentration on the task ahead.
Instead of evincing happiness, Allen stared at the floor, somber-faced. “I heard that she and you are friends,” he said hollowly.
Where’s he going with this? I wondered. Sure, I felt honored to hear him say it. Obviously, he’d have heard that from Judy herself, and that was a nice affirmation of my friendship with her. But why would Allen bring this up at a time like now? Had the rumor mill been at work? My inner defenses began to muster. No matter what people thought, I had carefully toed the straight-and-narrow path and had never done, said, or even thought anything inappropriate with regard to Judy. I’d remained faithful to my bride. What was Allen getting at? This was turning into a jigsaw puzzle where the parts didn’t fit.
“Yeah, she’s very nice,” I said. To steer the direction of the conversation toward safer waters, I added, “And what a skater…”
Allen swallowed hard before continuing. “Did you hear what happened?”
I didn’t like the new, downward tone in his voice. “What do you mean?” I asked as I cinched the double bowknot at the top of my right skate. To take the impact of landing the jumps, it had to be tight, though not tight enough to impede blood flow in the lower leg. It took concentration to get that balance just right—concentration I was now lacking. I looked up, not sure I wanted to hear what Allen was about to say. Whatever it was, I needed to be on the ice in just a few minutes, and now I’d been pulled out of my mental zone. I considered simply getting up and saying, “Let’s talk later.” Yet some haunting thing in his words compelled me to stay. “What happened, Allen?”
He continued staring at the floor. “She was driving to work a couple weeks ago,” he said softly. “They were filming a chase scene for a movie—in her neighborhood.” He choked and his eyes welled up. “They didn’t seal off her street. The car ran into her. She’s dead.”
The untied laces of my left skate dropped to the floor. “Oh, my Lord,” I gasped. Judy? Dead? My mind was suddenly a swirling maelstrom. How could this sweet person, this beautiful, ethereal skater be dead? And poor Allen—he has to be devastated. I felt helpless, short of breath, weak in the knees—knees that I desperately needed to be powerful, agile, and certain, as my time to skate rapidly approached.
There was nothing I could say.
With his head still hanging, Allen turned to go, then stopped short and looked over his shoulder. “Sorry,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t have told you right before you skate.” He forced a painful smile. “Good luck…. Go skate for Judy.”
I peered down at my skates, wondering how I could possibly go out and compete now. When I looked back up again, Allen was gone. Someone called my name. “You’re up!”
Numb and lifeless, I performed my free-skate program for the usual stoic judges and a small audience. When I’d finished and stepped off the ice, Shirley put her arms around me and squeezed my shoulders. “I’m so sorry,” she said. Somehow, she knew or had figured out the shock I’d been through. She had that kind of coach’s sixth sense.
In the dressing room, I changed back into my warm-up sweats. The only thing I could remember about the program was that, although I’d had no falls, it hadn’t been good. Undoubtedly, my high standing after figures that morning had evaporated. But I couldn’t have cared less. A short while later, I left the rink to go home, without checking the scoreboard to see where I’d placed.
Two years later, Marilyn and I moved to Colorado with our newborn daughter, Rebecca. Over time, I drifted away from skating. Perhaps inevitably, the sport itself underwent fundamental changes—changes that made it less of an old friend to me. Most strikingly, in 1991, compulsory figures were dropped from competition in order to enhance appeal to the audiences, who demanded the action of jumps and spins. And so, figure skating lost the very essence of its name.
Now, after three decades, four kids, several careers, and total knee replacements in both knees, it’s rare that I even notice my skates sitting in the walk-in closet, gathering dust—and my old competition outfits still hanging there. But once in a great while, usually late at night, I’ll take out those skates and stare into the dim reflections in their silver blades. Sometimes, in the glimmer, I see Judy: she’s gliding over the ice, regal in her unearthly grace, the silence of her strokes broken only by the echo of her words, “I’m glad it was you I bumped into.”
And that echo touches the hollow place in my heart where I keep the knowledge that this one split-second on the ice—with my mind overwhelmed by fear of a collision—was the only time she and I were ever to touch.
Peter McQuade writes essays and fiction from his home in Colorado Springs, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn. When he’s not writing, he’s also an aerospace engineer and professor of Space Systems Engineering. Granted, that’s not fiction, but it’s literally cosmic. He’s also a former competitive figure skater. Pete is a member of Pikes Peak Writers and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and an affiliate member of Mystery Writers of America, through their Rocky Mountain chapter.