I still fondly remember my first attempt at ice skating. Gazing across the expanse of glistening ice through the fog of frozen breath, I waited impatiently as my Mom tied my skates. With an amount of confidence excessive for even the most exuberant four-year old, I KNEW I would be a bladed ballerina. In fact, I looked more like hungry, drunk penguin trying to navigate her way back to the ocean for a meal.
Some of us never graduate beyond the drunken penguin stage. Some of us become gazelles on shimmering metal hooves, and some are transformed into rhinos wearing razors blades. We call these rhinos hockey players.
As the love of skating is born on those cold winter mornings on gigantic outdoor ice cubes, so is the love of hockey. It's our favourite sport, our true national sport. If you were to ask, it's probably one of the first things that come to mind about Canada.
Paul was a rhino. I was somewhere between the penguin and the gazelle; maybe a gazelle with dull, rusted hooves. We met on that pond on a brilliant, cold day in January.
With the near blinding glare from the sun's reflection, I didn't see Paul until he crashed into me. When he tried to help me up, my first instinct was to body slam him to the ice, but his shy blushing grin made me rethink that plan. Who was this guy? Why wasn't the handsome dumbass watching where he was going?
He helped me back to my feet, and as I stood there contemplating what injury to fake, offered to buy me a coffee. “Ok then. I’m fine,” I decided. We went to a local bakery for coffee and conversation, discussing what a terrible skater he thought I was and what a pompous ass I thought he was.
For two people who’d just met an hour ago, we clicked; poking fun at each other, feeling like we’d known each other for years. It was clear from that first meeting we had a lot in common, most of all, our mutual love of being on the ice. It was also clear from that first meeting that it wouldn’t be the last.
Paul was a junior player and, at seventeen, was less than a year from NHL draft eligibility. It was his dream, his life, his reason for being. The day we met, he was in the city for a tournament.
Before we left the bakery that day, Paul asked for my number. In another circumstance, I’d be excited about that, but I lived in Newfoundland, while he lived 3000 kilometres away in Ontario.
“He was never going to call me,” I thought. I smiled and gave him my number anyway and laughed when he gave me his. As he drove away, he blew me a kiss which gave a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, I would hear from him again.
The following Saturday, as I was sitting at home watching hockey, the phone rang. It was Paul. Knowing we were both Leafs fans, he thought it would be good to watch the game together.
Over the next few months, we spent many a Saturday doing just that; talking on the phone while watching the games, cheering on our sporadic victories, but mostly suffering our shared pain of being fans of the most cursed franchise in the NHL. At least we could laugh. If there's one thing to know about being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, it's that you need to have a sense of humour.
The next time I saw Paul in person was on NHL draft day, six months after we met.
I boarded a plane to Toronto to join Paul and his family for a draft party, filled with the excitement of finally seeing him again, and the confusion of not really knowing what our relationship was other than a mutual love of the ice.
The day we met, we spent two hours sitting in that bakery talking. It wasn't all about hockey or what a terrible skater I was. Or was it? I stood at the arrivals section looking for Paul, getting more nervous by the second, and then felt a huge bear hug coming from behind me. Yeah, I remembered this guy. I could talk to him about anything.
Paul was a great hockey player but wasn't considered elite, so he wouldn't be a first-round draft pick - maybe 3rd or 4th. Surrounded by his family and friends in his parents’ living room, tension grew as the 3rd round started. When the round ended without the announcement of Paul's name, the anticipation was replaced by a veiled disappointment. It was ok though, there was still a possibility. Then the 4th round ended without Paul being drafted, then the 5th, then the 6th.
It was over, without Paul’s name being called. He was crushed. The dream he spent his life working toward was not to be. I tried to console him. It didn't work. His parents tried, it didn't work. I spent most of that weekend with Paul's family, without Paul.
When he took me back to the airport, he apologized for deserting me and I tried encouraging him never to give up, to look for other options. I even tried cracking a joke or two but his joyful spirit just wasn't there. When I hugged him goodbye, I was once again unsure if I would ever see him again.
I called him when I got home, to let him know I’d arrived safely. It was a short conversation, as the depression was still evident in his voice. We spoke a few more times over the summer, but not like we did before. Something was missing. The laughs were not there. The joy in his life was not there.
As summer wound down and the cool winds of fall began to settle in, I realized I hadn't spoken with Paul for weeks. He was no longer returning my calls. I stopped trying, feeling he would call me when he was ready.
Fall turned to winter, still nothing.
Mid-December, sitting in my room working on a presentation, I heard a knock on the door. After calling my brother to answer and getting no response, I angrily stormed to the door, muttering about being interrupted.
When I opened the door and saw Paul, I jumped into his arms and knocked him on his ass on the step. "Karma, baby," I exclaimed. We both laughed till our ribs hurt as I invited him in, offering him coffee, and punching him on the arm for not returning my calls. Seeing him happy again, made me happy again.
Paul announced he had something he wanted to tell me but insisted we go for a skate first. I hadn't been to the pond yet that year. Between working and university, there wasn’t much time leftover, but I couldn't say no to Paul. Meeting him on that pond was one of the best days of my life. Of course, I wanted to go back there with him.
What did he want to tell me? Was it about his hockey career? Was it about our relationship? We were heading back to the place we met. Was he going to propose? No, it couldn't be that, could it?
When we arrived, the sun was glistening off the ice, as it’d been the first day we met. As we sat on the bench and laced up our skates, I tried prying his secret from him, but he wouldn't bend.
We headed onto the ice, with Paul holding my hand as we glided around together. When I hit a rut, we both went crashing down, giggling like little kids, and when I tried to regain my footing, he scooped me into his arms and kissed me.
I thought, "Finally." But he stopped and said, "Sorry, I shouldn't have done that." I felt my face turned a brighter shade of red than even the harshest winter wind could cause before he finished with, "unless you want to move to Switzerland."
"SWITZERLAND?” I replied, "WHAT?"
I'm not sure what my expression led him to believe I was thinking. I was in shock. When he laughed and said he was kidding, I was overwhelmed with embarrassment and confusion. Did he say he was kidding because of the look on my face, or was our relationship never more than a friendship to him? Call it a lack of confidence, if you will, but I didn't ask. I was afraid being embarrassed again if it really was a joke. He was leaving the country, and frankly, I was too much of a coward to ask him where we stood or to tell him that I loved him.
One week later, Paul left for Switzerland. He’d been offered a contract with a professional team in Europe. It wasn’t the NHL, but was a professional league, meaning he’d be paid to play hockey. His dream was still alive, and if he did well, there was still a chance of making the NHL one day.
He was ecstatic. I was thrilled for him but devastated for me. As much as I wanted Paul to live out his dream, to kill it in Europe, part of me had selfishly hoped it wouldn't work out. He would be away at least three years, and I was staying home.
We spoke often in the beginning as he’d call after his games. The calls became less frequent as time went on, maybe once a month or less. The conversations were also different, not so much about hockey anymore, more so about how much he enjoyed Switzerland. I could hear he was happy and could tell something had changed.
The last call I received from Paul was about a year after he left. He was home in Toronto visiting his family. He was introducing his fiancé to his family and called me to share his news.
When the call ended, I hung up, knowing I would never hear from Paul again. This time I was right.
Sitting on a bench beside the pond is a different kind of beauty in late May. This past winter was particularly brutal. The long spring thaw is struggling with some still frozen patches even this late in the season. The grass in the meadow is a rich dark green from vibrantly lapping up the spring rains. The trees are in bloom, the scent of lilacs fresh in the air. Birds sing a joyous song of celebration as their long trek is over.
I notice a robin trying to pluck a meal from under one of the few icy spots that remain. She's having a tough time, but she’s determined.
My attention turns to my grandkids running in the meadow, and I begin to reminisce. It's been 30 years since Paul and I skated together on this pond. I hadn't thought about him much over the years, but more so since my husband passed six months ago.
I wonder how he's doing. Did he stay in Switzerland? Does he have children? Grandchildren?
Where would life have taken us if I’d summoned the courage to tell him how I felt that day? So many questions left unanswered. So many roads left unexplored.
My gaze returns to the robin as she spies a delicious treat in the mud just a few hops away. I sit watching her triumphantly devour her prey as my smiling granddaughter appears with a small bouquet of wildflowers from the meadow. I look into her beautiful brown eyes, marvel at her infectious smile, and know I am exactly where I’m meant to be.
The present is as it should be. The present is here in the sparkling eyes of a beloved grandchild; alive in the vibrant re-awakening of spring. The past is also as it should be - buried in the heart of love-struck teenager; left forever suspended on the glistening ice of a frozen pond.
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