Freedom of the Fall
Luke Marshburn

Luke Marshburn

It’s January. Florida winters are mild and I pride myself on wearing shorts in sixty-degree weather, but today I’m bundled in a jacket, blaming my shivers on the ice rink. I love figure skating—or, rather, I love watching it. The Winter Olympics changed my life: I finally understood why football fans flip tables and bodyslam at a touchdown. When Nathan Chen lands a clean quad in time to the music, I’m on my feet, hands in the air, iced tea spilled to the floor. Then I crouch in my seat and chew my nails, eager to see the next jump.

I am not Nathan Chen. On this tiny rink at the local fairgrounds, I try my best just to keep legs from locking. My shoulders shift, hips jerk left, then right. I have no balance.

My mother watches from the sidelines. She bites her lip, then hides the nerves with a thumbs-up to me and my brother, the ones willing to stand on ice. Miles has no trouble at all, he uses his toe pick to kick off, slush flies in his wake, his knees squiggle like noodles to propel him forward. Those techniques aren’t recommended for figure skating, or skating in general, but Miles has never been one to let rules and propriety constrain him.

As for me, I’ve read tutorials, watched “ice basics” videos, I have my best friend’s tips and tricks dancing through my brain: bent knees, march in place, push a foot sideways to propel, and balance. Everything needs balance. Balance and speed. But on this shrinking rink, with my brother and a half-dozen kids and lovebirds skating circles around me—my mother’s eyes on me—I can’t build up the requisite speed. My mind can’t leave Nathan Chen. When he lands the quad, all cheer. When he falls… What a cringe that brings, the collective inhale as his rump strikes the ice. Everyone squints, wants to look away, but can’t. The music fades. We stiffen, frozen in the skater’s fall.

My shoulders seize at the thought. When my blade scrapes sideways, I wobble, lock up. My arms fly out, knees dig deep, fingers grip the wall, I’m shaking. But I’m standing.

This continues for half an hour: a scrape, shaky glide, the wrestle for balance. My face looks like sad bulldogs, nose scrunched back, frown bunched into jowls. People keep asking if I’m fine. I wave them off. I can hang back when a kid skates in my path, I can hold still while Miles pelts me with clods of ice. I can’t push with pressure, but I haven’t fallen.

I must be fine.

Then my skate slips on a divot in the ice—curse my brother and his unorthodox methods. My knees sink, shoulders lurch, I see the ceiling. I know I’m falling. For some reason, however, I don’t think of Nathan Chen. Instead, I wonder why falling seems so devastating.

I answered that question half a decade back. Not on the ice. On my bike. The palm trees shake their fronds like raging fans.

I grip the handlebars like they’re a saddle horn, terrified my bike will buck me. Shifting left to right, one foot on the ground, one on a pedal, I wonder, is it the freedom of the fall, the weightlessness of gravity removed? Do I fear the surprise, or does pain motivate me to remain upright? I can practically hear the sidewalk laugh, it waits for the collision, eager to bruise my thigh and cause a concussion. When I muster the courage to push down the pedal, the tires bounce on a crack. I scream.

Mom keeps me steady. She always does. Her hands grip the seat, the frame. She pushes, guides me down the street, face red. She’s not petite, but I’m a pretty big baby. Even she can’t keep my body balanced for much longer.

I watch her fingers whiten, but hold firm, and know they won’t let go. I wonder if that’s why I tip, why I can’t bring myself to balance. If I could pedal my own way, then she’d sit under the palm frond shade, wave me on, stay

behind. Is it a fear of freedom that makes me wobble?

Maybe it’s the fall itself. If I sit tall on that bike, pump my pedals, let Mom release—but find no balance, stumble, tumble to concrete, what will she think? Will she cringe, will her breath suck in, the world halt? Her big baby broken on the stones. Can’t even ride a bike. Is that why my foot won’t push, why I can’t help but let her guide?

That might be it. But I don’t just watch her eyes. I watch them all. The man in khakis washing his car. The little girl skipping rope across the street. My eighty-year-old neighbor tending the roses along her white picket fence. I can feel those eyes even with their backs turned. If I fall, become broken, they’ll know. Like fans in a stadium, they’ll freeze as my rump hits the floor.

Falling in front of the audience, letting them see me break. That’s what I find devastating. I know speed is key, but I can’t push, not while all those people watch me.

That’s why, the next morning, I take the bike out alone. A cloudy day that threatens rain. Front yards empty. I haven’t told Mom I’m out. I just grab the bike, mount it, grip the saddle horn, dig into the pedals. Without a thought for the sidewalk below, I thrust my knee, and off I go, balancing all the way to the end of the block, past the cleaned car, white fence, no stumble, no scrapes.

Victory. I apply the brakes, throw my fists in the air and cheer, look over my shoulder. There I see just the palm trees clapping in the breeze. When the wind stills, they stop. I sit alone.

That day, I learned there was something worse than falling before the crowd. It’s being willing to stand, but only if none but God could possibly see it.

—I’m back in the ice rink, the freedom of the fall. Rump and ice collide. I skid on my arm, the yelp has left my lips. I cringe.

Skates stop in front of me. A child, young boy. He asks if I’m alright, wince on his face. But it’s a wince of concern.

I sit up, scan the crowd. My brother’s still making snow with his toe pick. My mother watches me. Her nose wrinkles. She smiles.

I do as well, because I’m fine. I am. I’m not Nathan Chen, but we both know the music plays on; before the skater even hits the floor, he’s rolling to his feet, getting back up to speed, not a step out of sync. The crowd doesn’t cheer, but the wince disappears. They watch, breath held in suspense, eager to see the next quad land clean.

I give the boy a thumbs up and shift to my knees. Still a bit shaky, shoulders still tip, but they’re loose. I push.

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