Couples only

SPRINKLER Arena glistens with wide, watery swaths which have not quite dried after the ''ice machine'' has done its work. But several skaters are already skimming across these patches, like people presenting wild arguments that prove, after all, to be sound and convincing.

The boldest skaters seek the center of the arena, which is like the power position on a chessboard: The faster you get there, the more force you can exert in any direction. They are obsessed with speed. They streak by, swirling in brash, impetuous arcs, their skates raking the ice. They pivot like cavalrymen guarding an outpost or a flag.

Except for one or two figure skaters who are utterly oblivious of all this vehemence, and several young children showing amazing skill, the rest of us take to the perimeter and the rails. We are like an exodus of peasants fleeing the homeland, or like that long column of gold-seekers climbing up to Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the trail to the Klondike - heavy-footed on the savage incline, some dropping in their tracks, getting up slowly from the snow.

My daughter, age 10, is not doing so badly! She reaches for my hand - for support, or is she helping me? We help each other. Now, for one euphoric moment, we're gliding along to the music, until Sonja discovers that her skates need tightening. In that moment I have traveled a long distance.

I'm back in Wisconsin in a town surrounded by lakes, and it's winter. It's years ago, and I'm sitting with my dad in the boathouse, which is used, in winter, as a warming house for skaters. There are gouges in the boards going down to the frozen lagoon. We're walking down the sloping pier on our skates. Now we're skating - away from the crowd on the lagoon. We're going under the stone bridge and out to the lake. We can no longer hear the voices of the cheerful crowd. We can only hear the wind coming over the snow-dusted lake. It makes a sweeping sound that is more like silence than noise, and it leaves a pattern of thin snow ridges like ribs of sand on the dark ice.

It's snowing, and the freezing wind blows a million cold specks of snow against our faces, stinging like sand. We're skating across the lake to a place where in summer we rowed and found beds of watercress. Will we make it all the way? The snow is falling more heavily now. It's lonely and scary out here, even with Dad. Why are we out on the lake in this snowstorm? . . .

Sonja is asking me to buy her a rope of red licorice. The cold-drink machine is already nearly depleted, but soft drinks never tasted so good! Skating is so strenuous, we agree - the work and the art of it. How long before we can do it with perfect ease?

They're dimming the lights now, and it's ''Couples only.'' For a while there's no music, just voices and the clacking of skates, a comfortable sound like the clucking of hens at evening or croquet mallets hitting wooden balls.

''C'mon! We're a couple,'' Sonja says.

''So we are,'' I answer, and the music begins.

And then we're out there with the graceful ones, and half the crowd is watching. It's ballroom dancing again. It's music recitals, where hysteria can so easily set in. Will something happen to spoil it - a weakened ankle or a collision, some form of public humiliation? No, it's all too pleasant and enjoyable, and we're skating better now.

The last song is being played: ''I'll Never Cry Again.'' Then we're sitting on the bench amid the scramble and noise, and we're putting our grateful feet into cold, comfortable shoes. We're walking across the parking lot under the stars.

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