Another short story – romance this time…
A fairy curse is no laughing matter.
Neither is table tennis.
Nine Ankle Fractures
The worst day of my life started with a dance lesson.
The best day of my life started with a table tennis lesson.
On the whole, I think I should take up crossword puzzles or rubiks cubes, something that doesn’t take me out of my bedroom.
I left my dorm room that day (March 12) at 10am for my tennis lesson. It was starting to warm up and I was in shorts for the first time since fall. My legs (though shaved) left me feeling white and conspicuous as I walked through the gym to the rec room on the other side of the building.
I was taking table tennis purely to get my Phys. Ed. credit, and because archery was canceled. And as usual, after six weeks in class, the coach offered to give me a couple one-on-one lessons, to help me find a work around for my disability.
Now usually when a coach or gym teacher got to this point I politely declined their help, letting them off the hook for trying to get one more moderately disabled student up to par. And usually they gave me an A for effort and left it at that. But this coach…. Well, he was hot, okay? Single (not even dating anybody, I asked around), only a few years older than me, and funny. I’d been having a great time in his class.
In short, I was not opposed to a few extra lessons.
His name was Phil, and he was waiting for me, volleying a ping pong ball against the far wall, or whatever you call it when someone can’t sit still and starts to play a game with a wall. (Seriously, what is it with sports people? They’re always in motion.)
He grinned at me. “Five minutes early, that’s the spirit.”
He gave me a paddle and some pointers on returning a serve. “You’re clearing the table, see? Swipe it across and pretend you’re knocking every last thing on the floor. Or this way… yes, harder, push the air out of your way like water… okay!
“Now for your feet… let’s have you keep your feet planted, to limit your ankle movement. Normally that’s not… well, the way to make that work is to play further back. Let the ball come to you, you don’t lunge for it. It’s a more conservative game, but you can work it.”
I planted my feet as he indicated, and he went to the other side of the table, starting with a nice, slow serve.
We volleyed comfortable three or four times before the ball spun towards my left edge… and so focused on the ball, I stutter-stepped left and went down on one knee.
“Woah, you okay? That’s what I’m talking about. You could let that one go, keep your feet planted.” He came around to check my ankle.
I pulled myself up with a hand on the table, “Right, I forgot, sorry.”
He was staring at my legs, not (sadly) in an admiring way, but the way everybody with any knowledge of physical therapy stared at my legs – with frustration and doubt. The problem was that they could almost identify what was wrong, it lingered intuitively on the edge of their understanding, but it didn’t make any rational sense, so they never quite got there.
Which brings me to the worst day of my life.
It was a rainy day in November. I was thirteen, at a ballroom dance class with about ten other kids from school, and I was dancing with Robert, the teacher’s son. He was fifteen and a good sport about filling in as his mom’s assistant sometimes. He was a fantastic dancer (possibly gay, we suspected), and when I danced with him I was suddenly ten times better than normal. When you’re thirteen, that is some heady stuff.
Well, we were talking and sort-of flirting (also heady) and his mom kept shooting me odd looks. Robert ignored it and I mostly did until the end of class. I was putting my tennis shoes back on, Robert and his mom were talking by the piano, and the door to the hall closed with a slam.
I looked up, must have been a draught or something. But now I realized all the other students had left, and Robert and his mom were arguing about something. Awkward.
I walked as inconspicuously as possible toward the door, but suddenly she turned to me and pointed.
“May your feet be as iron!” she said in a ringing voice.
“No!” Robert said. “She’s perfect.”
“It’s done,” his mother said. Her face was pearly white and set and Robert’s face was grey like stone.
I stared at them. “Um. Okay. Sorry.” When in doubt, apologize. That’s always been my standard response, but I sure wish I could take that one back.
I stumbled out the door, not quite processing the fact that my feet were not working right. I was on the sidewalk trudging home almost before I’d processed what she said. I think when you see a fairy lose control it sends you into something like shock.
Anyway, when I came out of the mental fog, I realized that I could barely walk. My calf muscles were burning and my feet were dragging. I stopped, breathing heavily, and looked at my reflection in the full length window of the laundromat.
Iron shoes. That’s what I saw. My feet seemed to be incased in clunky, old fashioned ladies’ shoes (with lots of buttons) made of iron. I reached my hand down gingerly to touch them, but felt only my thick athletic socks and Adidas sneakers. But my reflected fingers were touching the top of heavy iron shoes.
Two near drownings, nine ankle fractures, and eight years later – I stood at the ping pong table and watched Coach Phil frown at my feet. I shifted them back into place and he looked up at me, smoothing his frown away.
I’ve learned to compensate for my ‘disability’ quite well, for the most part, but quick, small moves of my feet can still trip me up, particularly if I’m concentrating on something else, like slapping a tiny ball with a paddle.
Large motions are actually easier. A step is easier than a slide, and a lunge is easier than a shift. Tiptoeing is out of the question. I obviously never danced again, and Robert and his mother disappeared that same week.
Phil smiled, “Right. Let’s try again.”
After half an hour my serve was actually not bad, and I was getting better at gauging which balls to let go, and which to swing at. I hadn’t moved my feet much, which was always a plus.
“That’s good for today,” Phil said finally. “We want to stop while you’re ahead, or else you’ll get tired and start engraving mistakes.” In class he was always talking about ‘engraving’ perfect moves and ‘deep practice’ and ‘focused reps.’ I found his enthusiasm endearing, though usually I’m a very cynical person. (I can’t imagine why.)
“Want to grab lunch now?” he asked. “I’m going to Moody’s before my twelve o’clock class.”
Moody’s was a campus café, a popular alternative to the cafeteria. “Isn’t it kind of unhealthy?” I asked with a smile.
He held the door to the gym open for me. “If Marie is working she’ll throw together a great Reuben sandwich. Sauer kraut is good for you.”
I grimaced as we skirted the basketball court where two guys played. “Suaer kraut isn’t my favorite, gives you such bad breath. I mean, not you, personally – ”
“Hey, heads up!” one of the guys yelled.
From the corner of my eye I saw a basketball flying toward my head. I instinctively raised my hands, which was good, but I also instinctively tried to pivot towards the ball, which was not. My weighted feet moved badly, tangled – and I feel to the ground with a grinding pain in my left ankle. And the ball still hit me in the head. Typical.
Phil squatted next to me. “You alright?”
I winced. “Mostly.” He gave me a hand up, and I awkwardly got to my feet, putting most of my weight on my right foot. I tried to step and – “Shoot,” I said.
“Your left ankle?” Phil picked my foot up gently and I put a hand on the wall to keep my balance. He twisted my foot carefully one way and then the other. “Tell me when it hurts too much.”
“It’s – ouch, right there. Another sprain,” I told him. “I’m used to it.”
The basketball guy stood hesitantly nearby. “Really sorry,” he said. “Bad luck.”
I tried to shrug it off. “Not your fault, I have bad ankles.” And bad feet. Stupid fairies.
Phil’s hands felt cool against my ankle as he set my foot down. “I can wrap this in the clinic,” he said. “We’ve got all the athletic bandages and braces in there.”
Suddenly he picked me up, under my knees and around my shoulders and started carrying me back the way we’d come.
“Oh, hey, it’s okay, I can hobble in there,” I said. Not that being carried wasn’t everything the romance novels said it was… because it totally lived up to its reputation. Nothing makes you feel small and feminine like being carried, and Phil carried me really well. He was even stronger than he looked.
“it’s no problem. You’re a lot easier to move than a football player, you know. And it’s just around the corner.” He smiled and I admired his chin which was most of what I could see of his face from this angle.
He backed into the clinic, to avoid banging my head on the door, and set me heavily on a bench. For a moment we made eye contact, our faces only inches away. The silence in the room rang like a tuning fork, and I felt a tingle in my back.
Then Phil blinked and straightened up, looking bemused. He turned his back to me and started rummaging through a drawer.
“There’s, uh, some ace bandages or… um maybe an ankle brace.” He muttered disjointedly, sorting through the supplies.
Eventually he turned back to me, his smile and composure back in place. “Sorry, you’d think I’d never dealt with a sprained ankle before. Here we go.”
I slipped my sock and tennis shoe off and he knelt in front of me to wrap it tightly.
“You should get this checked with your doctor this week,” he said. He looked up when he was done and met my eyes again. And I swear, the silent-tuning-fork-thing happened again, and we both vibrated in the stillness. And then he leaned forward and kissed me.
Only for a moment, and then he jerked back. “Wow. Sorry. I shouldn’t – we shouldn’t even be alone in here. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
He sort of blindly shoved some crutches in my direction, and waited for me in the hall. I sat still for a second, savoring the moment, even the tension in my stomach… Then I sighed and got to my feet, using the shortest crutches. I was very good at these.
I planted them and stepped forward with my good foot and – oh my goodness. I almost yelled in excitement, but Phil might have misinterpreted that.
Was it possible… I pointed my toes. I lifted my good foot and then my hurt one (it still hurt, but who cared?) They were so light. I’d forgotten what it felt like not to have invisible weights always pulling me down. I felt like I could fly, like I could float, like I could dance…
A boy appeared next to me. He was handsome and pale and I would have recognized him anywhere.
“Robert?” I gasped.
He took in my crutches and my expression and a smile lit his too beautiful face. (I hadn’t exaggerated that in my adolescent mind, it turned out.)
“I made a note to find you, when you were free.” He took my hand. “Will you dance with me?”
“Will I dance – ?” I stuttered.
“With you?!” I seemed to be afflicted with repetition.
Phil pushed the swinging door open, “Are you okay? Did you say something to me?”
He looked right at me, his eyes didn’t even flicker in Robert’s direction. Clearly didn’t see him.
“I – Just a second.”
The door swung shut and Robert pursed his lips together.
“I see,” he said. “How predictable of Mother.”
He touched my lips and I pulled my head away.
“You’ve been marked by your man.” He sighed. “You would have been perfect.”
He disappeared as fast as he’d come, and I came as near as I’ve ever come to fainting. Fairies are freaking overwhelming.
When I finally pulled myself together and came out, Phil was still waiting.
He walked me back towards my dorm, and I must have been in a daze because I don’t remember what inconsequential things he tried to talk about. Finally he stopped walking.
“Look, I hope I didn’t scare you off or – or offend you. I don’t normally – I’m not some grabby coach that’s always making out with his students. I like you a lot, I have since I met you, but I didn’t mean to kiss you all the sudden – ”
I stopped him with a hand to his arm. “It’s fine. It’s – let’s just forget about it, and go get lunch. What do you say?”
He grinned at me again and I smiled in return, feeling the freedom in my feet, the feeling of a broken curse. If I knew anything of fairy tales, this meant one thing for sure:
Phil was totally my man, he just didn’t know it yet.
The second best day of my life began the day after we got married, when Phil gave me my first scuba-diving lesson on our honeymoon. Crossword puzzles are just not what they’re cracked up to be… I’m a lessons kind of girl.