Carmen Memories: Dreams on Ice

This piece was first performed in 2007 as part of 2nd Story’s storytelling festival in Chicago. I’ve realized I write a lot about coming to grips with who you are and what you want and following it, even when you get off course. There are a few fictionalized elements to this story, but the heart of it – the trolley company, the mean dude who yelled at me, the ice skating and Katarina Witt obsession – those are straight up real, folks.

***

A long time ago I was on this blind date. A friend of my brother-in-law’s cousin or something. I was excited because the guy was really cute: at least a head taller than me, dark hair, big dreamy blue eyes.

So heck yeah! I’m thinking at first, but he kept talking about trying to do something with his degree in business– boring! – and then he mentioned that one of his old frat brothers was getting married and he could hardly believe it. You know – the fake stuff everyone talks about on a first date. Frat boys? Yuck! I didn’t really peg him for a former frat boy, but he was kind of athletic. I mean, I watched him walk to the bathroom and I wasn’t disappointed, know what I’m saying?

Anyway, then he asked, “So what do you do?” And if he had asked me that a few weeks ago, I would’ve answered “trolley driver.” When I worked at the trolley company, I used to talk about it on dates to really impress a guy. You know, that killer anecdote that let’s your date know, I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m driving this date. I’ll decide if we’re having date number two because I’m in charge.

And my story is this: I used to handle nine-ton, 20 feet long, trolleys. I used to drive and give tours at the same time. And I absolutely hated it. Nothing will make you tired of tourists quicker than hearing “Which way is Michigan Avenue” 17 times in an eight hour shift. And also – people are just plain mean.

They have these free trolleys all over – free transportation downtown! – and people would complain when they didn’t get a seat and had to stand. Oh, I’m sorry, is this trolley not free enough for you? Maybe you’d prefer a $12 ride in a cab that smells like armpits.

One day, I was doing a charter at the Merchandise Mart. See companies and, well, anybody really, can rent trolleys for anything at all: wedding transportation, a conference, a bachelor party, you name it. And this charter involved a ton of trolleys doing a four-hour loop from the Mart to a bunch of downtown hotels. I was trying to pull up to the north entrance of the Mart when the trolley in front of me stopped short and I inadvertently cut off another trolley next to me, a private dinner charter trying to leave.

I’m waiting for the trolley ahead of me to move when I hear a knock on my door. The guy standing there – red-faced and wearing an expensive suit – is totally irate. Apparently, he was the guy paying for the trolley I cut off by accident. I found out later he owned a greeting card company, or something about trinkets, or ceramics or something. Regardless, the guy was loaded and totally pissed.

“How could you possibly treat your colleague in this manner?” he asked, but didn’t wait for my response. “You’re so inconsiderate that you can’t possibly let him go before you blocked our way?” he rattled. “You should be ashamed of yourself young lady!” Clearly, this dude needed to get laid.

I didn’t want him to see me cry so I told him in a shaky voice, “You have no right to speak to me that way.” Then I shut the door to the trolley, accidentally backed into a cab and drove away.

Leaving a charter was the worse thing a trolley driver could do. And not only was I leaving a charter, I was driving aimlessly around downtown, crying, behind the wheel of a very large vehicle. This wasn’t good.

I pulled the trolley over on Michigan Avenue – yes, that Michigan Avenue – threw the flashers on and got out, wishing I was the kind of person who smoked. I was across from the Millennium Park ice rink and watched a young couple teeter across the ice. I seriously contemplated leaving the trolley running on the side of the road and skating the rest of the night away.

Because this! This crap job. Who wants to be a trolley driver? No one – not for any length of time, anyway. I thought it would leave me lots of time to write. I thought I’d have hours to slave away on my fabulous novel about a tortured young woman and her circus performer boyfriend. I thought I’d be living a glorious bohemian artist’s life. But I wasn’t doing anything. Nothing. And staring at the rink, watching the people go by, it seemed like getting on that ice was really something. It seemed real and honest and clean. Because, you see, ice skating means something to me.

 ***

It was the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Calgary, Canada.

The event: Women’s Figure Skating.

Now, 1988 was the golden age of the Olympics. The iron curtain was still down. This meant that athletes who lived and breathed their sport – people from snowy places without the distraction of TVs and rock ‘n’ roll and indoor plumbing – showed up to blow everyone else out of the water. The Russians. Good God, the Russians! The Germans. The Hungarians. The Romanians. And you know what else? Professionals couldn’t compete back then like they can today. It was pure back then. Pure, I tell you.

And the epitome of this iron curtain purity?

Katarina Witt.

Oh my goodness, do you remember? I was an elementary school runt during those Olympics and I remember watching her skate as I sat on our living room floor in rural Illinois. I had never seen ice skating before and I just couldn’t get enough. Katarina was so beautiful, so graceful, and she was just like me: She was tall and German, I’m tall and German. She had brown hair, I…used to have brown hair. Anyway. It was like looking in a mirror.

She skated to “Carmen” for her long program, right? And it was suuuuuch a scandal because Debi Thomas, the American skater, she was also skating to “Carmen,” – The Battle of the Carmens! – so it was like, whoever has the better choreography is gonna win, you know? And Katarina, puh-lease, she had it all. Her hair was pulled back into a bun, and she had on this red red Spanish outfit with black spangle-y shiny things and she flamenco dances – freaking flamenco dances – on the ice during that castanets part…and maybe she doubled one of her triple jumps, but she landed everything flawlessly. And at the end – you remember, right? – at the end, when Carmen dies, Katarina clutches her stomach and spins around as she drops to the floor and she lays on the ice, her eyes closed, her stomach heaving because she’s so out of breath.

It was absolute freaking perfection.

And of course she won. Like Debi Thomas even had a chance. I mean, she tripped on her triple toe, triple toe combination. Like she was gonna win after that.

I finished watching that competition and there was no question: I was going to be an Olympic figure skater. True, I had never once in my life been on the ice. But that wasn’t going to stop me. Within days, I had my mom conned into letting me take lessons. I had it all planned: if I skated every day for the next six years, I just might make it to the ’94 games in Lillehammer. And I was going to be just like Katerina.

She and I are twins. Sorta.
She and I are twins. Sorta.

Do you remember when you first saw your idol? Maybe for you it was Jimmy Hendrix or Bruce Lee or Aretha. But you never forget it, right? You imagine doing whatever it is they do and you become such a virtuoso at it that years later, when your idol is old and decrepit, you’ll meet them and they’ll smile and say, “Kid, you remind me of myself” and you’ll smile sheepishly and nod, but inside, you’ll be going “Hell yeah! My hard work paid off!”

And that was going to be me and Katarina. We’d be in the Gold Metal Club together, we’d have lunch with Brian Boitano and she’d give me one of her old Vera Wang costumes and we’d be like sisters.

It was going to happen, I tell you. I was relentless, and my mom, God bless her, played along. She carted me off to lessons session after session. She wrote down the moves I needed to do to pass each level, rented ice time for me before class and sat in the bleachers, bundled in a sweater and armed with strong coffee and checked off the moves as I practiced them.

Bunny hop? Check. Two-foot spin? Check. Snowplow stop? Check.

I pretended I was Katarina. I loved to wear this black and white polka dot dress with leggings. I didn’t have her grace – I mean, I could barely pick up a foot off the ice – but in my head I was freakin’ amazing.

I don’t quite remember when I stopped taking lessons or when I forgot about the Olympics. I mean, because no surprise, I never made it to the ’94 Olympics. Or any of them for that matter. But you – do you remember when you forgot about that far-away childhood dream? Why was it? Was it becoming a teenager? Or was it later? Did it have something to do with money? College? With picking a major?

I really don’t know.

So I was standing on Michigan Avenue trying to remember why I stopped skating, and as I stood ther, feeling miserable, I started to worry the trolley would get towed. Then I decided it didn’t matter: I’d be quitting that night anyway. I pulled the trolley into a cab stand in front of the Cultural Center, called in to base that I was on a code yellow – their ingenious name for a pee break – and made my way over to the ice rink. The woman behind the counter gave me a beat up pair of black skates.

It was kind of awkward stepping onto the ice at first in my khaki pants, trolley polo and green jacket, but after about a half-a-time around, the blades seemed to dig in and find the ice. I could push off with a little bit of force and the breeze felt so good on my face. I started leaning into the turns, hips low, knees bent, doing nice, slow crossovers. God I was flying, I was flying and no one could catch me now. Not that dickhead at the Merchandise Mart or base or anyone. No one. I kept going around and around, dodging the occasional couple or little kid and I don’t know how much time went by, but I knew I had to get back to the trolley. When I finally made my way back, the radio was going nuts.

Base to 803. 803, come in.

I, not surprisingly, was driving trolley 803.

“803, what’s your 20?”

“15 minutes from the barn,” I said. “15 minutes from quitting. That’s my 20.”

 *****

So I’m on this date – the date with the cute but maybe kinda boring guy – and he asks me what I do for a living and since I’m not driving trolleys anymore and I want to forget all about it, I just say:

I’m a writer.

“And what do you do?” I ask him and he chuckles a little bit and seems maybe a little embarrassed, but for the first time, seems like he’s being real, you know? He says, “Well, at the moment, I’m a coach at this rink in the suburbs. I teach ice skating.”

!!!!!!!!!!!

I am speechless. I have no clue what to say.

“Really,” I say, trying to contain my dumbfound-ness. “Ice skating.”

“Yeah,” he says, “I really wanna own my own rink some day and be a trainer…I was six during the Sarajevo Olympics and fell in love with the sport. Scott Hamilton was just amazing. Do you know he did five triples during his long program? Nobody did that back then.”

“No, I, I didn’t know that,” I stammer, realizing that I absolutely, am not the one in charge of this date.

And for once, that seems to be ok.

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