I’m The Ice In Beijing, Maker And Breaker Of Dreams

Six and a half minutes. That’s how long we have together, during which I decide if I’ll let the figure skaters remain upright or send them sprawling. They arrive having trained on my brethren in Lake Placid and Moscow and Montreal. They’ve plotted the angles advantageous to their toe picks, the angles that launch four rotations in the air.

But I–as many commentators have remarked–am slippery.

In fact, I’m a slippery nightmare. My less ruly brethren fill hospitals in the winter, taking intact hips and shattering them. Newscasters warn of freezing rain, sending salt trucks revving before dawn. It’s February, and chains go on tires, cleats on shoes. Tara and Johnny pack seventeen suitcases. Days grow longer while growing colder.

Skaters fly across the globe and greet me like an old friend. They remove their guards–sheaths covering precious blades, sharpened to pierce me–and step gingerly, one foot at a time. They take off, speeding in an oval, leaping, twirling. Toe picks dig. Edges crunch. They warm up to my give, my take. “It’s soft.” “It’s hard.” “This ice is perfect.”’ (Why thank you, I blush). They tear up when they see the Olympic rings painted beneath my surface. Then they eye me, plotting their victory. Axel here, lutz there. A final pose aimed at the judging panel. In practice, they eye the judges, naive as to who is the real arbiter of their fate.

Every hour they try and tame me. They run me over, melting my top layer, expecting me to refreeze. I comply, knowing I will still have the upper hand.

“Steer clear of the ice,” the newscasters say. “The hospitals are already full.” But these are the folks who eye me and scoff at danger. Who use me for speed, use me to defy gravity. Who fall, and fall again, until their hip blossoms purple and they ask the concession stand for a cup of ice, crushed. Who nurse the wounds I give them using my cousin, born from the same pipes.

I have a week of practice to decide who I like. But I am slippery, unpredictable.

And then one night I’m blinded by the lights, defended by the crowd. The Games are here. Six and a half minutes after a lifetime of practice. It’s fools who embed their hopes in my tricky surface. The skaters have spent years collecting medals, crying tears, telling reporters, “But I landed it in practice.” They skate their hearts out. I watch some from afar, admiring from five feet below, but others come crashing, sliding. My shards cling to their costume but then they’re up-up-up with a forced smile. I grimace. 

You see, I, too, hurt every time a skater crashes. And not just physically. In truth, I hold my breath along with the crowd. I’ve had the best seat in the house all week, and while I’ve developed my favorites (the ice dancers, whose toe picks stab me the least), I love them all. They’re the reason I wasn’t used to brew coffee or wash windows or kill succulents. My raison d’etre.

Champions are crowned. Medals are awarded. Ice is slippery, the commentators repeat.

And then the skaters board their planes, clutching medals, mumbling regrets. I’ll have launched a dozen conspiracies and a dozen more TV specials. I’ll have tricked a three-year-old into thinking that ice might not be as slippery as she’s been told …

My work is done. The thermostat is raised. I begin to melt. 

I cry, feeling the pain of my brethren, the sheets in Greenland, Antarctica … 

And melt. 

Ice is slippery, until it is gone.

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