Skating Through Tough Times

IF only I had Rollerblades, life would be perfect. I'd glide along the beach, free as a you-know-what. I'd be taller than I am now, also thinner. I wouldn't have any worries. The wind would always be at my back.

Only $239 plus tax.

None of those cut-rate generic jobs for me. Not when they're going to help me make sense of my life.

We're moving. We just don't know when. For three months now, we have expected the word from my husband's company any day. It may well be another three months. Our landlord wants commitment. Our children want extracurricular activities. The rumor mill does its thing. The telephone does not. We stall the landlord and sign up the girls for soccer, gymnastics, Spanish, and Girl Scouts.

What's so bad about wanting Rollerblades? If it were car maintenance or even clothes, I wouldn't hesitate. Is mental equilibrium worth less? Aren't dreams worth more?

Twice a year, I get a small check from my grandparents' estate. Two years ago, I took that check straight to the bicycle store. Every time I ride, I know that it is good for both body and spirit. And I remember my grandparents. Why should Rollerblades be different?

My friend Nancy recommends renting several times before buying. Sensible, but I don't like renting. I like commitment. Doug speaks highly of memory foam and buckles. Frank and Lorraine stress practicality. They use skates for transportation. ``We take our blades whenever we travel,'' Lorraine says, ``It's the best way to explore a new city.'' Or perhaps to get to one. Frank eagerly described their upcoming adventure, blading the 160 miles to San Diego.

``We'll go halfway the first day, stay in a nice hotel - with a hot tub. Finish the second day and then take Amtrak home. Lorraine and I are training right now. We went 20 miles this morning.''

Frank has always been a little extreme.

``How fast do you go?'' I ask.

``With signals, it works out to about 10 miles per hour.''

Eight hours a day on skates.

``Why don't you and Jeff come along?''

My husband, Jeff, has no interest in skates. Who would take care of the girls? And despite an active life, I'm not at all sure about the eight-hours-a-day, 10-miles-per-hour part. Aside from a few spins around the showroom floor, I've never actually been up on blades.

Our landlord calls to inquire about our plans. Even to my own sympathetic ears, I sound evasive. She, however, is firm. The house is going on the market. Their realtor will call.

Instantly, my mind is filled with visions of monkeys and wrenches. What if the house sells right away? Will we have to move twice? With two young children, how can we possibly keep the house up well enough to be shown? More important, how are those children of ours going to react?

Our lives have always revolved around Jeff's job. To my knowledge, he has never compromised at work because of his family. The other way around, many times. Not in large ways, but in countless missed dinners, last-minute meetings, and weekends at headquarters. Saturdays he is too exhausted to do anything but nap. Sometimes I feel as though I'm raising the children alone.

Recently, however, Jeff's travel schedule has been unusually light. He's been home for dinner on consecutive evenings. He's played Word Munchers with Ariel and taken ice water to Jessamyn at bedtime. He's put out the trash a few times and even had the energy for occasional conversations. Normal things feel like luxuries.

My work as a writer is flexible and portable. The girls are in school. It's quiet. The computer hums in front of me, waiting for words. But how can I focus on a fictional world when the real world is so present and demanding? What's the point of submerging in a long-term project, only to be yanked immediately to the surface? And most important, am I going to go crazy if I can't talk about this?

Like many tenuous situations, ours is one I'm not at liberty to discuss. Instead, I talk Roller-blades.

The people at the skating store know me now. Do they think I'm serious? Am I serious? The sky is blue. The sidewalks are empty. The credit card is in my purse. My skates are there, last row on the right, the box on top of the stack. I ask to try them on, again.

``Sorry,'' the woman says, ``They're sold.''

``But the box is right there.''

``The woman who bought them wanted different wheels. She's picking them up tomorrow.''

I must have looked bewildered.

``I can order a pair for you. It'll take a few days.''

A few days? Do toy stores special-order teddy bears? Like a child, I want them now. The point is to skate out of the store with a smile on your face, full of confidence that from that moment forward life will be perfect.

WE are, in absolute terms, extremely fortunate. We have two beautiful children. A comfortable income. Satisfying work. Still, the frustrations - the ``for sale'' sign in the yard, the uncertainty - are impossible to ignore.

We tell the girls it takes ``months and months'' for a house to sell. Jessamyn, however, can read my mind. A year and a half ago, when we were in a similar state of uncertainty, she kept interrogating me. I brushed her off. She persisted. ``Something is wrong, Mommy, and you won't tell me what it is.''

Her insight makes me nervous. I'm better on traditional mother-daughter ground.

``If you get Rollerblades,'' asks Jessamyn, ``can I get some too?''

``I don't have Rollerblades.''

She knows a semantic dodge when she hears one. ``But you're going to get them.''

``I don't know that.''

``But if you do....''

``They're too expensive.''


``And your feet grow too fast.'' I cross my fingers and hope she doesn't find out about those skates especially designed for children with growing feet. If only they made something similar for people whose lives are in flux.

THE first few strokes I am tentative, aware of every wrinkle in the sidewalk and the fact that while not thinner, I am definitely taller. Like riding a bicycle, skating is one of those childhood skills that, once learned, is never forgotten.

After a dozen strokes, I try the brakes. Nothing.

I turn into a wall and catch myself. Since the skates feel like ski boots, instinct says to shove my ankles outward in a snowplow position. Forget instinct. Instead, I turn my feet to 90 degrees and spin around. That works, if I skate s-l-o-w-l-y.

As long as I stay focused - and don't have to stop - it's fun. The sky is a piercing blue and the ocean is a hundred yards off to the right. But I can't think about that. And I can't think about the fact that at this very moment, strangers are traipsing through my home, asking questions, peering in closets, appraising not only the size of the bedrooms but also the quality of my housekeeping and my possessions.

Yesterday when they showed ``the property,'' I took off on a bike ride. Today - now - it's the brokers' open house. The realtor says to expect four to 10 showings a week.

Big business makes up its mind only when it is good and ready. As a corporate wife of 13 years, I should know. Jeff reminds me that before we moved here, the discussions went on for five months. Yes, but then Ariel hadn't started school. We moved during the summer. The present crisis is always the worst one.

I am comforted slightly by our decision not to yank the girls out of school. If the telephone call comes, Jeff will go off on his new assignment, and I'll stay with the girls until a break in their school. Or until the house sells.

Whoa. A dimple in the sidewalk. What if I have to stop? I'm not setting any land speed records, but you never know. The beach is deserted. Most people are at work. Ordinarily, I, too, would be working. Instead, I'm rollerblading, which is precisely what I wanted ... and yet.

The shopkeeper gives me an after-the-fact stopping lesson. You're supposed to extend the foot forward as you brake. Better, though not wonderful. My bicycle has great brakes.

``Make sure and save this,'' the woman says, handing me a receipt for $6. ``If you buy skates, we'll credit you up to $30 for renting.''

First stop at home is the answering machine. It's Jeff. He's been invited to a party tonight. A party for Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor? But it's parents' night at school. We're both supposed to be there. I call Jeff's office. He's in a meeting, as usual. Parents' night has been on his calendar for weeks. I prepare the girls. They are not pleased, and Jessamyn calls Jeff's office to complain. He's away from his desk.

I am dressed, ready to head for school when Jeff pulls in.

``I thought there was a party for Elizabeth Taylor.''

``I was invited.'' he says, looking hurt. ``I didn't say I was going.''

The girls jump on him, all forgiven in an instant. They love each other so much. We love each other so much. I like it that the girls are young enough to jump up and down, to yell and scream about seeing their father.

``I got four tickets to the circus tomorrow night.''

The circus? Tomorrow? Instantly I think babysitter, clients, and boring. ``Who are we going with?''

``Us.'' He gives me that look again. ``The four of us.''

As we walk past the ``For Sale'' sign toward the school, it finally makes sense. I don't need Rollerblades. What I need is a sense that no matter what happens, we're in this together. And when I put it that way, the conclusion is obvious. Even if we're half a continent apart, we're in this together.

Like many men, Jeff does not make emotional statements easily or often. He feels uncertainty just as much as I do; he just shows it differently. He runs more often, paces the house at 2 in the morning, and gets circus tickets for us. The operative word is, and has always been, ``us.'' How many women know for a fact that they and the children would win out over Elizabeth Taylor?

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