In vicarious pairs skating, we always take the gold

PAIRS skating and ice dancing are favorite Olympic events for my husband and me. Our ostensible reason is the way the disciplines combine athletics with aesthetics: music, costume, drama, romance.

But there's another, secret reason that pairs skating intrigues me: It is fodder for fantasy, an invitation to imagine that Ken and I possess such skating prowess ourselves. My favorite permutation of this fantasy is fed by those skating pairs who, like us, are married in so-called "real" life.

I envision my spouse of 16 years and me on the rink, with millions watching. We're holding hands, waiting for our program to start - when reality intrudes. I look over at Ken in his Lothario costume, a jaunty bit of fringe dangling from his epaulet, and hear myself declare, "I can't believe you're wearing that."

As he in turn gives me the once-over, I glance down at my sequined dress, its flesh-toned net fabric scratching my neck and its nominal fronds of skirt wafting Hawaiian-like near my knees. I can't help but consider how unflattering such a get-up is on a middle-aged woman whose thighs seem better suited to speed skating (not that I'd relish wearing a skintight racing suit).

As the music begins, I dismiss these reveries and focus. We've practiced our routine exhaustively, Ken and I; we've got our twin triple-axels down cold. When he hoists me into the air in our first acrobatic lift, I hear him grunt and recall him asking, the night before, if I really needed that extra helping of linguine.

Now I hiss, through grinning teeth, "Whatever you do, don't drop me like you did during practice."

After some fuzzily imagined yet stunning choreography, the music stops.

Despite our dazzling proficiency, each of us has quibbles about the other's performance. We learned long ago, however, not to criticize each other in public (and to do less of it in private).

So we hold our smiling, stock-still poses during the deafening applause, finally dropping out of character to curtsy and bow. We hug each other, stroke a cheek, plant a kiss. The fact is, though, we're still performing. What he'd really like to say is, "You almost lost it on the corner, babe. I thought we were goners."

To which I'd reply, "Well, if you'd ever learn to switch hands before we go into that quadruple salchow...."

In fact, my fantasy falls apart when I extrapolate much beyond our brief habitation of the young athletes' costumed bodies. And except for their moments of glory, I don't envy skaters' lives.

Much as I admire the pictures they paint across my TV screen, I wouldn't want my marriage to revolve, so to speak, around a shared, all-consuming occupation. And I wouldn't forfeit - not for a stack of gold medals - what I've learned by having had more than twice the life experience than the average Olympic figure skater.

And so I emerge from my winter wonderland of skating fantasies and resume my role as admiring spectator. Who needs to nail a death spiral when I've got a catbird seat on the couch, a big bowl of popcorn, and my Romeo right beside me?

Sitting together, year-in and year-out, on our very own "kiss and cry" bench, he and I have shared hope, a few heartbreaks, and some glittering triumphs.

Best of all, we needn't gaze up at the marquee in an agony of suspense, awaiting our marks. We've been around this rink a million times; we know the score.

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