Josie Leavitt

When I was seven I learned to ice skate on the west side of New York City. In someone’s apartment.

My parents divorced when I was a baby, and my older brother and I grew up visiting our father every other weekend. Each weekend started with the question, “What do you kiddos want to do today?” My brother, Harris, always shouted, “Museum of Natural History!!” By the time I’d even considered the options, my childhood stutter would render me effectively mute. So, off to the museum we would go. Every. Single. Weekend.

Harris was difficult to be around. He had a low tolerance for frustration and had a hot temper that was often signaled by a narrowing of his eyes as he considered his options: fists or epic tantrums. Our 15-month age difference was just enough for him to best me at physical things. I learned to duck and cover but was always a target for things that had nothing to do with me. My father often did what Harris wanted because Dad didn’t want to deal with “one of Harris’s moods.”

One weekend, we were told the Great Hall at the Museum Harris wanted to go to was closed for renovation, and he punched the wall and stalked off.

So it was a wonderful day when my father said quite proudly, “We’re going ice skating.” As best I knew Dad didn’t skate, and I know we didn’t. My father had somehow found the best ice skating rink, ever. Le Petit Ice Skating Studio was on West 58th street. It was a tiny rink, 20 by 32 feet, in someone’s honest-to-god ground floor apartment. It was magic and so very child-sized.

I think it used to be their dining room and they converted it to a rink, and the back wall was all glass and opened onto their living room. I remember watching people eating brunch and having mimosas while watching us skate; it was weird and wonderful, like we were all in a movie. There was no front glass, so I always worried about skating right off the rink, which felt very high off the ground to me but in reality was less than a foot. I found my words on the ice, so when my father suggested coming back the next weekend I chimed in quickly: Yes, yes, let’s take another lesson.

We did take a few lessons. Harris was all left feet and fell a lot, causing hot tears and shouts of “Stop looking!” It was very easy for me to feel successful at the Le Petit, as we grew to call it. It turned out that skating appealed to me. I could go fast. I loved the feeling of gliding because it felt like flying, especially by the very open edge. Harris was not a good skater; he was full of fear and I never let him forget it. All those years of suppressed frustration at the Museum of Natural History came out on those skates as I whipped by him, hit the wall and turned quickly to do it again. I could see his fist ball up, and I’d just race the opposite way.

We told our grandfather that we had learned to skate, and he thought this was marvelous. He had a small pond at his house, and that winter he thought it was high time we all got out on the ice. Grandpa was a very smart man, but not a man of nature. The only way he knew how to test the ice was to drive his behemoth of a Cadillac onto the pond. “If it can hold the car, it can hold my precious grandkids.” I was touched at the sentiment, but even at six was aware that two children whose combined weight was well under 100 pounds was nothing compared to the Caddie and that perhaps this was overkill.

Grandpa drove onto the pond slowly and stopped in the middle. I could almost see him bouncing in the driver’s seat to really test the ice. We heard a deafening crack and then the pond ice split. My 70-year-old grandpa literally flew out of the car and hit the shore in time to see his bright red Cadillac sink into the pond. This was the funniest and scariest thing I’d ever seen. It was downright hilarious when he did the exact same thing the following year with his black Cadillac.

We moved to Long Island when I was eight, and we started skating with our mom at the local rink. Cantiak Park was close to our house and offered us a cool place to spend our summers. This was also one of the only things the three of us did together. We had become hockey fans, getting season tickets to the new National Hockey League team, the New York Islanders, so skating had another link for us.

I loved skating but hated the girl’s figure skates with their prissy white boots and the toe pick at the front of the skate. It all felt too girly; I wanted to be a hockey player. Had I been born 15 years later I could have been one, but as a 10-year-old there were no girls hockey teams, nor were girls welcome on the boys team. So I was relegated to the white figure skates of girls all the while wishing for the shiny black pair of skates my brother had.

One time we were getting our skates sharpened when the guy overheard me lamenting about the toe pick, “I can cut that off for you. Might make it easier for you to go fast.” I loved him. If I couldn’t have fierce black hockey skates this was the next best thing.

We would skate weekly. I would skate around and around in a circle, wishing I was playing or even skating with someone other than my brother and mom. I’d just skate fast, backwards, pretending to be my favorite defenseman, Dennis Potvin. I pretended I wasn’t a girl. I would do the very dramatic ice spraying stops just to piss off my brother, then skate away really, really fast, like I was going for a breakaway goal to win the Stanley Cup. I wore the jersey of my favorite New York Islander to school, and my classmates started calling me Truck Driver.

The summer I was 11 my brother was in the foul mood that seemed to be his new normal. His violence around the house had escalated. He spent much of his time in the woods cutting down a tree with an axe. It became his Hate Tree where he was supposed to get his anger out. One tree wasn’t enough. By the end of the summer he had not only cut down close to a dozen trees, he had chopped them to bits. All day, every day he was out there swinging away his rage.

For that entire summer I avoided him, at the rink, at home. When he wasn’t deforesting the woods, Harris spent a lot of time alone in his room eating salami.

When we went to the store and picked out our skates, Harris didn’t miss a chance to remind me that I’d never have hockey skates. He snarled at me, “What are you getting the white skates for? Those are for real girls.” The skate guy came over and as he was helping Harris lace up his skates he said, “What’s going on, Mr. Sunshine.” My heart skipped a beat. Harris was not one for being cajoled out of a mood.

Harris’s eyes narrowed as he smiled wanly at the man and then took his skate and accidentally-on-purpose sliced the man’s hand open.
I never skated again.

Until now, more than 40 years later. I am trying to skate again, not on rink but on the wide-open lake. And two weeks ago I was with my girlfriend when I bought my first pair of shiny black men’s hockey skates.