by Mark Brazaitis
She appears in my dreams as a tornado. The settings vary. A dusty plain. The downtown of a major metropolis. My backyard. Although I never see her face, I know who she is. I feel the wind in my hair. I feel the danger and thrill of her nearness. I feel so close to death I know I am alive. And always when I wake up I am disturbed by how still the air is.
I’ve seen Alice Maravicious—Alice Marvelous is her nickname—do scratch spins, lay-back spins, Biellman spins—the figure-skating equivalent of tornados—at the end of Learn-to-Skate sessions, for which I signed up my daughter, having failed to interest her in bowling and basketball. Alice’s spins are designed to show the young skaters she instructs what they, too, could do one day. During the actual lessons, Alice and her assistants skate between four- and six- and eight-year-olds, preventing them—and sometimes failing to prevent them—from falling. Some of the children fall so often Alice allows them to use walkers like old people would. They shuffle around the ice like miniature residents of a retirement home.
At Learn to Skate, Alice doesn’t wear the sleek, glittering dress she used in competitions. (Photos of her on-ice triumphs, including a fourth-place finish in the U.S. nationals, decorate the lobby of the Sherman Ice Arena.) She wears a Russian overcoat, like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. She could be in Red Square in winter. Often I imagine myself meeting her in a world apart from the heavy world I inhabit. She is twenty-five years old and I have more gray in my hair than black. I am old enough to be—I hate to consider the math and hope my calculations are off—her father. But in these worlds I envision, I am ageless.
I am married to my second wife. Ten years of wedded bliss. Or less-than-bliss-but-better-than-loneliness. Or better-than-I-deserve. Or come-to-think-of-it-downright-good-maybe-even-great. We have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful house. Even our dogs, a pair of golden retrievers who might have stepped out of a hunting calendar, are beautiful. My wife and I both have good jobs. We have good friends. We buy good wine and watch good movies and have good, albeit infrequent, sex.
I cannot be having a mid-life crisis. I had my mid-life crises toward the end of my first marriage, manifested in a new car, a new career, and—the marriage killer—a new woman. I am supposed to have arrived at serenity. At Learn-to-Skate sessions, I should be checking my email and index funds. I should be gabbing to other parents about football and 401Ks and global warming. Hell, I should be comfortable and contented enough, as I sit under the warm air tumbling from the box heaters above the bleachers, to, every so often, close my eyes and drift into tornado-free sleep.
I am not supposed to sit like a rapt pilgrim at a holy shrine, studying Alice’s movements as if each spin were a hieroglyph or a piece of scripture.
Sometimes I wonder if my dreams are about heaven. Alice’s swirling presence might suggest the obliteration of my sins and the chance, in the beyond, for a clean slate and a glorious afterlife. Sometimes, however, I worry my dreams represent my incapacity, my impotence. She is the life force I no longer have—and now fear in others.
I used to see a psychologist. But in his absence—he and I parted ways after I remarried, when I thought my dark days were over—I share my dreams only with good people gone from my life who live on in my head: my third-grade teacher, who assigned me the seat in front of her desk and shared her lunch with me; my uncle Joe, who drank too much but listened to whatever I told him; my first girlfriend, whom I dumped because I was young and stupid. Sometimes they tell me my dreams have no meaning but are only the random videos the YouTube of my mind plays. Sometimes they joke with me, say The Wizard of Oz must have stamped itself on my subconscious. Sometimes, most times, they simply smile at me, as if they haven’t heard what I’ve told them or as if they, too, don’t understand—or understand and don’t wish to share what they know.
Sometimes I imagine telling Alice about my dreams. I imagine her revealing she has the same dreams, except in them she is swirling around a still point. “You,” she says in this happy fantasy, “are the still point.” In her dreams, I am what cannot be moved, the counterpoint to her tornado, as strong in my stillness as she is in her whirlwind. “Yin and yang,” she says. “Thesis and antithesis. The unstoppable force and the immovable object.”
To the real Alice, I say little beyond, “My daughter’s learning a lot from you.” And: “She isn’t falling down half as much as she used to.” And (joking): “A few more weeks and she’ll be ready for the Olympics.”
Do I want Alice to fall in love with me? Do I want to sleep with her? Of course not. Of course not.
Of course. Of course.
But more—or less—I don’t know—I want her to explain her presence in my dreams. No, to assure me my dreams are good omens. No, to sweep away my loneliness and leave me satisfied with my own company. No, I want. . .
Perhaps the tornado is my confusion.
The days disappear.
At the end of the penultimate Learn-to-Skate session, fortified only by the drinks I’ve imagined myself drinking, I decide to tell Alice about my dreams. I will make fun of them. I will say, “Maybe I’m obsessed with major weather events. Tonight I’ll probably find myself in a flood.” I know—of course I know—that there is something strange and inappropriate about what I am about to tell her. But if I don’t tell her, I might never stop dreaming of her.
Maybe I am hoping she will reveal to me something I could never have suspected.
When the last Learn-to-Skate student steps off the ice, Alice follows. I catch her in the near corner of the rink. I stutter, lie, tell her I want to discuss my daughter’s progress. (My daughter, meanwhile, has slipped into the lobby to warm her hands by the gas fire.) My words tangle, collide—they swirl like the tornadoes I’ve dreamed of. Alice waits, a patient smile on her face.
A moment passes. Alice looks at me questioningly, as if for permission to excuse herself. Now I tell her—do I? do I actually say this?—I tell her I love her. But I don’t mean it in the way she thinks I mean it. I mean it in the way one might say “Help” when one isn’t in any immediate danger but feels the presence of something foreboding approaching on the horizon or in the way one might say “Lightning” and not be referring to what blazes across a thunderous sky but to a horse one dreamed of owning in childhood, black save a white zigzag across its forehead, a horse capable of bearing its rider past every danger.
Or perhaps I mean it as a surrender, an acknowledgment of language’s inability to describe what I don’t understand. Perhaps “I hate you” would have been equally as inaccurate. But, no: “I love you.”
“I’m glad you love what I’ve taught your daughter,” Alice replies. Has she misunderstood what I’ve said? No, she is offering me a passage back to respectability. There is such grace in her gesture, I bow. She blinks twice, as if to dismiss the entire scene, and slips into the lobby. For a long time, I stand in the cold rink, listening to the hockey players who have stormed the ice like soldiers into a vulnerable city.
The final Learn-to-Skate session will culminate in a show dubbed “A Festival on Ice.” All of the Learn-to-Skate students, including twin six-year-old boys who wear hockey helmets and like to smash each other against the boards, are to perform brief routines to their favorite songs. The Learn-to-Skate instructors, Alice’s four teenage assistants, are to perform as well. So, too, is Alice.
The Festival on Ice is to be held three weeks before Christmas, two weeks before Hanukah, some time before or after Kwanza and Ramadan and Diwali. Alice asks the four fathers who regularly bring their daughters to lessons—“the gentlemen,” she calls us, perhaps because she doesn’t remember our names—if on the night of the festival we will string holiday lights around the rink. She asks the mothers if they will run the bake sale. One mother balks, deciding on her role: bouncer.
The day of the festival is bone cold, its skies filled with full gray clouds. Working with the efficiency of an elite bridge-blowing unit, the three other fathers and I hang our lights in thirty-seven minutes.
My wife joins me a minute before the show starts. She explains her tardiness: a meeting at work, bad traffic, etc. . . etc. . . This is the third time in the past two weeks she has shown up at the last minute to an event. I might be suspicious and suspect an affair. I might even desire such a scenario; it would serve as an easy explanation for my unease. But I know my wife isn’t having an affair. She simply works too hard; she always has. I must search elsewhere for the source of my disquiet.
The first twenty-nine routines preceding Alice’s are filler, white noise, droning previews. In my mind, I cross out each performance as it occurs, even my daughter’s. I am counting down to Alice’s performance. Twelve skaters to go. . . eight. . . six. . . three.
When the oldest of Alice’s assistants leaves the ice after her program, the lights dim and a hush falls over the arena. Or perhaps the hush is in my heart. In the window at the far end of the rink, snowflakes light up in the darkness like white fireflies. Alice skates to the center of the ice and holds a pose. The lights slowly come up, showing her in a white blouse and black poodle skirt, her hair in a pair of ponytails. She has put twin suns of rouge on her cheeks and her nose is red from the cold. Her white skates seem disproportionally large on her feet. If I were capable of thinking it, I might think she looks like a clown.
No, I am the clown: a man who is too old to be so adrift, so baffled by life. Disgusted, I excuse myself. “Bathroom?” my wife asks. I nod as Alice’s music—not “Send in the Clowns,” but something playful and light, like a breeze or a whistle—begins.
I don’t need the bathroom, but I go anyway. I stare into the mirror above the rust-stained sink. I see a middle-age man who thinks his dream of a tornado is some kind of portent or promise. But it’s only the swirling dust of his mind.
I return to the rink, stand alone against the Plexiglas at the far end as Alice finishes her program. As she curls into her final spin, the flag below the scoreboard shudders, snaps. The Plexiglas trembles, threatens to shatter. From the crowd come cries of astonishment and awe. I close my eyes. The entire building shakes. My dream, I realize with satisfaction, but also with fear, was prophecy. Some kind of end of days is upon us. But when I open my eyes, the rink is still, the applause diminishing to silence. I have imagined everything. The crowd files into the night.
Minutes later, my wife finds me. “Coming?” she asks.
I remind her about my duty to the lights.
“Right,” she says.
With the same efficiency as before, the three other fathers and I remove the lights from around the rink. My fellow fathers are, I realize from their banter, good friends. As our task concludes, they mention grabbing a beer at Don’s Underground and ask if I would like to join them. I decline, tell them I’ll finish up our job. I watch them march out of the arena and into the snow-filled night. I stow the boxes of lights in the giant cupboard at the west end of the rink. After I lock the cupboard, I gaze out at the empty ice.
I’ve failed to understand something. Or I’ve failed to realize there is nothing to understand. I laugh like someone pretending to laugh.
I step outside into snow. The falling flakes are as large as hands. In the distance, at the end of the parking lot, I see a woman in a black coat crouched beside her car. The snow in her hair makes her seem ancient, a witch, a crone, but I hear her softly crying like a child. I plow toward her; there must be half a foot of snow on the ground. When I am within a few feet of her, she looks up.
“I’ve lost my keys,” Alice Marvelous says, sniffling and swiping her ungloved hand across her nose.
As if a curtain has been opened in front of me, I see her not as a mystical life force, a tornado capable of sweeping aside all my problems and bearing me up and over my limitations and into a land of rebirth more glorious than Oz—no, I see her as everything she has been and is and will be, from an infant to a beautiful figure skater and a kind teacher to a white-haired woman. Perceiving her like this, I see myself in a similar way, as someone who, although living in a middle-aged body, carries everything I’ve once been and am and will be within me—in my soul, in my psyche, in my memories and presentiments, even in my body—and I realize, in the kind of epiphany too obvious to celebrate, that I am the tornado, that we all are, everything past and present and future whirling in one concentrated force, mortal but freer from time than we think as we move across life’s landscape.
Like the good father—the good husband, the good son (Alice’s snow-white hair makes me feel youthful by comparison)—I was and am, I kneel in the snow and stick my bare hand under her car’s left rear tire. It isn’t long before I touch her keys. After standing, I hand them to her without ceremony. She throws her arms around me, a quick embrace, perhaps a pardon for my words of the week before. “Thank you, thank you!”
She thanks me again before she opens her car door, slips in, starts the engine. She waves as she drives off.
I should feel blessed or absolved. I should, at least, feel relieved to be at the end of a mystery. But even as I pull in a deep, satisfied breath, the snow swirls around me, clouding my eyes. I wave my hands but nothing comes clear.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. To learn more about him, visit his website: www.markbrazaitis.com
Image credit: Benson Kua on Flickr