Setting foot on the ice during Saturday morning advanced classes requires steady nerves of steel.
The chaos weaves with the rise and fall of activity, as children gleefully scrape across the ice in brightly coloured helmets. Two groups of youngsters are neatly supervised by coaches, running through drills of new skills with varying degrees of success.
A third group is contained in the corner of the rink, its boundaries defined by bright orange cones with yellow chains draped between them. Inside, students “practice” their skills from their class. For most, however, practicing involves chasing each other at breakneck speeds, in toe-pick-heavy motions. Each seems seconds from falling even as the students giggle, arms outstretched to tag their friends.
One lone skater eschews the disorder.
The small eight-year-old girl is dressed in sleek black layers that insulate her from the chill, tights pulled neatly over her clean white boots.
Standing still, her head is slightly cocked. Faintly, if she concentrates, she hears the strains of music that must be filling the arena. But it’s quiet murmurs between crescendos, dullness accented by strong bass beats that hit her skin and skitter along it. Her eyes close as the sound washes over her, and she delicately examines it, picking out the strains, the rhythms.
Her eyes flutter open, blinking against the harsh bright lighting of the arena. On an exhale, her body moves, a single pump of her leg generating speed.
A beat there, accented by a strong toe pick. A crescendo she spins along, tightening as it gets louder, and arching out of gracefully when it dies away.
Soft strains she knows must be singing, the sounds mushing together into nonsense, are accompanied by the swish of her blades carving through ice. To create rhythm, she leans one way, then the other, each edge accompanied by a vibration that travels through her soles, up her legs, into her body, filling it with purpose. Her fingers dance to each side of her body, light strumming movements twitching out unheard details high above the strong curve of her blade on the ice below. She feels the slight missteps, the foot placed down a little too quickly, the edge that’s not quite under her weight, the lack of a knee bend, but to her, she’s improvising that gold medal-worthy skate.
The song ends with a loud bass chord, held until it fades out. She strikes a pose – hands stretched above her head, apart, outstretched as though celebrating in triumph, her left leg crossed behind her right, the toe pick digging into the ice sharply – and closes her eyes, letting the chord continue to reverberate through her body. When it falls away, silence slips in, embracing her in its grasp.
It’s like coming home – it’s a curse and a blessing all at once.
Her eyes stay shut even as the next song starts.
A tap on her shoulder causes her to jump backwards, startled.
It’s a boy, with dark hair hanging shaggy around his head. He wears baggy shorts over his leggings, she notes, and his grey t-shirt is a hand-me-down that’s two sizes too big, Ilderton Hockey emblazoned in loud red letters across the front. She recognizes him: a good skater, in the other advanced class, with edges she tries valiantly to copy. He’s about her age, she thinks, maybe a couple of years older – just a tad taller than her, but brash, confident. His stance is wide, and he shifts comfortably on the ice, letting his skates scrape the surface. And too late, she realizes, as he waves a hand in front of her face and frowns, he’s been talking to her.
“Sorry, what?” she says.
As he speaks this time, she studies him closely - his lips remind her of someone, she thinks, but she’s not sure who, she’s trying to figure it out even as she listens - and the words spring into her mind, just milliseconds after he says them. “The Zamboni’s trying to get on the ice.”
She wheels around, and sure enough, a slightly overweight man stands on the side of the rink, arms crossed over his chest. Her cheeks redden; trust her to get lost in the silence and forget the real world exists. “Sorry,” she mutters softly to the boy, her head hanging low, and then to the man by the Zamboni, even though she knows he can’t possibly hear her.
She sprints off to the side and into the stands. Tears prickle in her eyes as she flees. It’s just so easy to forget sometimes, that she needs to keep her eyes open, she needs to listen, needs to stay aware.
Sitting on the bench, hunched over, fists pressed to her eyes, willing the tears not to fall, a hand taps on her shoulder. What have I missed now?
The boy stands next to her, a slight furrow to his brow. “What’s wrong?” he asks, and she shrugs. She doesn’t like to tell new people if she doesn’t have to. She doesn’t see why she can’t be normal , if she could just pay close enough attention, just listen well enough. Her mother tells her that she is normal, but she thinks her mother might be just a tad delusional, her own hearing loss colouring her judgment.
He moves her duffel bag with her skate gear from the seat next to her. . In the newly cleared space, he sits, looking out towards the ice. She wants to look away from him, wants to bury her face back in her hands, or watch the Zamboni smooth away the imperfections on the ice, but he might start talking again.
Sure enough, he does. “My name’s Scott,” he says, and it clicks. Oh! Scott Moir. Of course, everyone knows the Moirs at this rink. Huh, she thinks. He talks like his aunt, not his mother.
He turns and looks at her, and she remembers she’s supposed to reply. “I’m Tessa.”
She smiles brightly at him in response.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
A long silence lingers as Tessa considers her reply. Boys are loud and they like to tease; and she wants him to think of her as normal, just like him, just like everyone else, for a little while longer.
But his face is open, his eyes watching her carefully, an easy smile on his lips. Maybe this boy will be different; maybe he really wants to know.
Sighing, her hands move over the signs as she speaks the reply. “I’m hard of hearing. Sometimes I forget to use words.”
Scott’s eyes widen for a moment, a brief moment of innocent surprise, before a grin spreads across his face. “Hey! I wish my brothers didn’t speak so much! You think you could teach them?”
“Or maybe you should speak less,” she replies, a small smile teasing at the edges of her mouth, and he laughs out loud.
“Oh ouch!” His laughter demonstrates he’s not truly insulted. He grabs her right hand, before pulling her up the stairs to where his aunt Carol, her coach, stands.
“Hey Scott, Tessa,” she says, her gaze immediately falling on their joined hands. Tessa smiles and smooths her free left hand over her clothes, wanting to look put together for her coach.
Scott squeezes her hand tightly once as he speaks. “Is this who you wanted me to skate with?” he asks. Tessa furrows her brows, confused. Skate with him? She wasn’t aware she was supposed to be skating with anyone. He’s such a boy , with that weird shorts and leggings combo, the messy hair, but his smile is nice. She thinks she wouldn’t mind too much if she had to skate with him.
While she’s lost in her thoughts, she misses his aunt’s reply, but his reply is loud, excited, dancing at the edge of her hearing. “Alright!” he exclaims. He turns to her. “When they get off the ice, want to race around the edge?”
She smiles back at him. “Do you really think you can catch me?”
His laughter warms her skin. “You’re on.”
Slowly, Tessa and Scott learn to skate together. They learn that partnership is not about who can skate faster, or complete more rotations in a spin, or jump higher. (Although, Tessa thinks, competition sure is what makes it fun.)
Partnership is about moving smoothly as one, supporting each other and creating a singular picture. Carol chooses to teach this lesson by using a single finger, a stern look on her face as she holds it up in front of them. “Unity,” she declares, the words solemn and serious.
From behind his aunt’s back, Scott peeps around, holding up a single finger, and mouthing “farts”. Tessa immediately doubles over, hands on her knees, as laughter shakes her frame.
“In order to create cohesion,” Carol continues, swatting her nephew behind her back until he skates up next to Tessa, “you must communicate. Only through communication can you blend from Tessa and Scott into “Tessa-and-Scott”, an ice dance team.”
A frown plays across Scott’s face, but his eyes sparkle. “Alright then, Tess,” he says, and they go into hold, before he grabs her hands and skates backwards as quickly as he can, dragging her behind him. “Let’s blend by going at warp speed!” Giggles sound out from the two, before Tessa squeezes his hand gently, conveying they should start the pattern for real.
Even as they swing across the ice, they still giggle to themselves, squeezing each others’ hands, trying to outdo their partner’s edges. Carol shakes her head from the boards, but watches them carefully, noting the things that should be improved on the next run through.
Their communication is laughter and smiles, but Carol wants it to be serious and pointed.
Tessa thinks that might be more feasible if you spoke the same language.
They adjust, slowly. Hours on the ice in dedicated coaching sessions bleeds into on-ice “practice”, then bleeds into off-ice adventures.
One day, Scott informs Tessa he will now touch her on the arm before he speaks, when she’s not looking at him already; he’s figured out a solution so that his truly spectacular jokes will be adequately appreciated.
Tessa smiles at him, but can’t resist a jab. “I’m not sure I want to be hearing all your jokes, Scott.”
His face turns solemn, a hand over his chest. “I cannot stand the fact you might miss something so important as my jokes!”
Tessa rolls her eyes at him, but he follows through on his promise. Every time his hand rubs her arm, warmth spreads across her chest. None of her other hearing friends do that for her.
Tessa, too, adjusts; her language becomes increasingly vocalized. No longer does she have to rely on the tingling of her fingers to tell her to speak; words come to her tongue and her fingers together. It bleeds into her whole life. Before, days would go by without her saying a word aloud, but now she speaks along with her signing everywhere but at home.
Understanding Scott becomes easier and easier too, learning the nuances of his expressions, the idioms he uses. She delights the first time he tells her he’s just talked to her without saying a word out loud – likes the feeling of it being a secret between them, that she knows his lips well enough to read them like letters on a piece of paper.
Carol challenges them to take on their very first competition, a Western Ontario Sectional event where they’ll need to perform three loops of a swing pattern. Tessa and Scott exchange a quick glance, before eagerly saying yes.
Over the following weeks, they dutifully practice the required swing dance. Tessa becomes obsessed, dancing through the hallways at school, through her bedroom, memorizing the exact timing of each move of her feet, each swing of her upper body. Scott, on the other hand, is confident in their ability and limits his practice to the ice.
Even there, much to Tessa’s dismay, he insists on his normal antics. Tessa places her hands on her hips and fixes a fierce glare on her face, as Scott skates in wide circles around her, before he swings close and grabs her hand. “Let’s race,” he says.
“Scott, we’re supposed to be practicing!” she admonishes.
“I promise, after this, ok?”
Tessa sighs. Her body tenses in anticipation, even as she pretends to still be put out. “I don’t know,” she drawls, before quickly she adds, “How are you going to take it when I win?” She heads out at a sprint, leaving Scott struggling to catch up.
He does and they cross the line together, before Scott catches a toe pick and topples forward, head over heels, skidding across the ice. She rushes towards him, but he looks up at her with a grin on his face, and she skids to a hockey stop, spraying snow over him.
“Alright,” he says, as he brushes the snow off his clothes. “We can practice now that I won.” Tessa rolls her eyes as she offers her hand, pulling him to his feet and into position.
Tessa learns to allow Scott moments of levity, learns that they give him the space he needs to focus..
And, Tessa learns, it would be helpful if she memorizes his steps as well as hers, as she feels them slipping into the wrong pattern during the competition. “Scott! It’s the swing!” she hisses. His face reads dismay as he mouths back to her, “I only remember these steps!”
Their second competition, they decide, will go better. For once, Scott assures her he knows his steps this time, his tone apologetic. And if he doesn’t, she assures him as they step on the ice for the warm up, she knows them for him.
They’re the first to skate in their group, so they spend their last minute of the warm up at the boards. Tessa’s hands smooth over her dress one final time, before arranging her guards neatly on the boards. Scott stands next to her, his leg jangling against hers each time he shakes it out. He’s babbling away to his aunt, a low murmur in the background.
She ignores it, focusing on the steady stream of air rushing through her lungs. Her hands rest on the boards, and she wants to memorize their feeling below her hands. She feels the hum of the cooling machines through the boards; it’s comforting, as though it’s speaking to her. She thinks for a moment that Scott would do well if he could tap into this, if he could feel the low vibrations that rumble through the world, rather than the loud chaos he seems to embrace.
She tugs on his hand then, making him turn to her. He falls silent as he looks at her. She presses her hand to her chest, before touching his. It’s a wordless gesture, but he knows what it means, grinning down at her. He signs the words then - “thank you” - and she breathes deeply before a brilliant smile spreads across her face. It’s the first thing he’s ever signed to her. “Thank you,” she signs back, and then he’s squeezing her hand three times, their signal that their names are being announced, and she skates to center ice, his hand in hers.
He signs it again when they’re on the podium in first place, stooping to receive the medals around their necks.
Tessa never wants this feeling to go away.
During an afternoon practice session, Carol, Alma, Paul MacIntosh, and her mother stand together at the boards, heads bent towards each other with serious expressions on their faces. Tessa nudges Scott as they stroke around the rink, easing into another run of their pattern. “What do you think that’s about?”
Scott shrugs. “Probably us moving to new coaches.”
Tessa stops, letting go of Scott’s hands. “New coaches?” she asks. “Why?”
“Yeah, I overheard my mom talking about it, that we’re getting too good for Aunt Carol and if we want to keep going, we gotta get serious.”
Thoughts whirl through Tessa’s hand as Scott reaches out for her hands and starts the pattern. She supposes it makes sense – they couldn’t stay in this little local rink forever – but it’s a shock, and she resents the fact that Scott already knew.
But, by the end of the pattern, she’s smiling, because they’ve just executed it perfectly, and she knows this is the right move.
Paul MacIntosh is the obvious choice, already working with Danny and Sheri, and the choice is cemented after a single trial run at his rink in Kitchener-Waterloo. Scott latches onto Paul’s meticulous eye for detail, and he considers it a personal victory every time he’s able to make the man laugh. Tessa, for her part, immediately warms to Paul’s assistant, Suzanne, when she notices Suzanne restraining Paul’s critiques until Tessa is watching, a small nod signaling Paul cancontinue.
“A grand new adventure!” Scott says, bouncing in the car as they head back to London afterwards. Tessa smiles, Scott’s energy infectious, and looks out the car window at the scenery rushing by. A grand new adventure, she thinks, and a coach who’s watching out for her specifically.
That night, the families gather, and Tessa displays a poster presentation on why this is the best choice for them, as Scott bounces around the room talking about the intricacies of Paul’s technical coaching and Suzanne’s artistry. It’s that weekend when they get the call that Paul’s willing to take them on, and immediately the families say yes.
In the end, Tessa’s not sure whether they agreed simply to stop them from annoying them any longer.
The move means early morning rides once a week, the duties split between the four parents so each has one day of shuttling the two young ice dancers the hundred kilometers to Kitchener.
On their first morning practice, Tessa and Scott establish their routine. Once they’re both properly situated, they count out one, two, three fingers, before leaning into towards each other, pillows sandwiched between them, and promptly fall asleep.
Alma, who hadn’t wanted to miss the first session, looks at the children in the backseat and smiles. “These are our children,” she signs to Kate.
Kate smiles, as she replies, “We love them.”
It takes no time before Tessa’s fully in love with Suzanne. She copies all her mannerisms and follows her around at the rink. She studies how Suzanne writes her letters and in her homework she tries to copy that exact loop of the “y”, the fact every “r” is capitalized.
Suzanne is the first person who instinctively understands how Tessa skates. They’re choreographing a program, and Tessa cannot get a step right – can’t feel how it fits into the low sound piping out from the speakers. It doesn’t match, not to her. Paul makes her drill it, over and over, but it’s not a matter of not knowing how to do it. She can’t understand why she should .
Tessa swallows against the emotion bubbling up when she messes up for a tenth time. She can feel the annoyance radiating from Scott, but she’s not sure how to vocalize what’s wrong, so she pushes away from him and heads to the boards.
A hand smooths along her back, and she looks up at Suzanne’s kind face. Tessa averts her gaze back down to the ice. “I’m sorry. Your choreography is beautiful; I promise I’ll figure it out.”
Suzanne kneels, forcing Tessa to look her in the eyes. “You don’t feel it, do you?”
Tessa nods. “It just doesn’t fit.”
Suzanne studies her, before pulling out the remote for the speakers. She clicks the music on again, and increases the volume slightly. “Show me.” Tessa breathes deeply, before beginning to move. She runs through the existing choreography, but instead of the short hop that’s prescribed, she places a long glide there, looping together the two strong drum sounds in the music playing overhead.
She stops when the song ends.
Suzanne studies her, a curious look on her face. “Can we try another piece of music, Tessa?”
She nods. Suzanne cues up something. Tessa stands still for a moment, trying to see if there’s anything familiar to tell her what song it is. There isn’t, so she shifts to looking for the common beats. There, and there, and there. The music floats, in and out, along that constant pace. She starts to move, skating towards the far side of the rink, and slowly circles into a step sequence. She flicks her blade, shifting to a backwards outside edge on a down beat, extends her free leg out horizontally during the silence, and curves into a spin when the music lifts again.
Suzanne smiles at her when she stops. Even Scott and Paul have ceased their conversation and are watching her. Scott’s mouth is slightly agape, and it makes him look foolish, childish. Tessa could laugh at it, but she’s suddenly exhausted, drained and exposed. When Tessa gets to Suzanne’s side, the woman pulls her in for a hug, arms tightening around her, before pushing her back, hands placed firmly on each shoulder. “Tessa Virtue, you are an artist.” Tessa feels the colour rising on her cheeks.
Suzanne’s hands squeeze her shoulders slightly, accenting the words. “Any time you think there’s a movement we should change, tell me, okay? And we’ll change it.” Tessa nods, solemnly. She knows this is the height of a choreographer’s trust.
She pulls Suzanne closer again, her cheek pressing against her coach’s warm torso. It feels safe here, safer than trying to stand out there on the ice alone.
Safer than trying to explain to people who don’t understand.
Shortly after her ninth birthday, on the day of her annual audiology exam, Tessa learns that her whole life could be different.
It’s an ordinary Wednesday - almost too ordinary to register at first - a check-up under the glare of fluorescent lights, with the faint smell of disinfectant around her. Her audiologist, Dr. Rebecca, sends mechanical sounds through the little soundproof room she’s been closed into - she imagines there’s a lock on the door, no possibility of escape – and Tessa raises her hand dutifully to signify, yes, she’s heard that one . Her audiologist’s face changes on occasion, a raise of the eyebrow, after she raises her hand - or fails to - and she stresses over the possibility of a wrong answer.
Since it’s not a particularly engaging task, Tessa’s eyes wander around the booth, picking out the lamp she’s seen there since she was a baby. She thinks that maybe at two years old it was a comfort, but now she knows she’ll have to see that creepy egg lamp with a painted face grimacing at her each year. She stares at it in resentment while Dr. Rebecca tells her she’ll be reading a list of words out loud and Tessa is to repeat them back to her, best as she can. It’s easier to stare at an egg that Tessa imagines could easily come to life, murder them all - but first her, of course, locked into this small room - than to stare at the piece of paper covering her audiologist’s lips, keeping her from understanding.
Eventually, she’s released from her prison. She sits in the office as her mother and her audiologist discuss the results. Her legs swing as they hang from the chair, her gaze ping-ponging between the two adults, following their hands in rapid motion.
Dr. Rebecca is adamant. “She’s hearing more than you think she is.”
Tessa watches as her mother’s hands fly, anger clouding her expression. “Just because you think the only way to operate in the world is to be hearing…”
Dr. Rebecca cuts in quickly. “No! What I’m saying is it’s an option for her. Her hearing loss is moderate to severe, not profound. She could be part of the hearing world in a way that’s not an option for you or your other children.”
“She is Deaf,” Kate signs. “I won’t let you take her culture from her. We’re done.”
She tugs Tessa’s hand strongly, and ushers her out of the office.
Could I hear? Tessa thinks to herself. What would that be like?
That night, she lies in bed studying the ceiling tiles. She remembers the sound of conversation humming around her, the feeling of wanting to reach out and hear it more fully when it dances at the edge of her consciousness. It’s like having something in the corner of her eyesight – and all she longs to do is to turn her head and be able to look at it more fully.
She wonders what Scott’s laughter sounds like. When he laughs while her hands rest on his shoulders, it rumbles across his body, low – what would it be like to hear that sound fully? Does it sound like an earthquake, trembling? What secrets are hidden inside of it?
That night, she dreams of thunderstorms – the lightning cracks open the sky and instead of the rumble of thunder, she feels Scott’s laughter, all around her.
The next day, Scott comes to the car, a large, clumsily wrapped present peeking out from behind his back.
Tessa’s lips quirk when she realizes the paper’s been ripped, or maybe crumpled, and that someone’s put copious amounts of scotch tape over these sections in a valiant – and ultimately fruitless – attempt to save the wrapping.
“Here,” Scott says, his eyes meeting Tessa’s and then darting away as he thrusts the huge gift out in front of him. “I saw it and I thought of you and Mom let me buy it with an advance on my allowance.” He grins then. “You better like it or else I’m making you come over and help me with the chores.”
“Thank you, Scott,” she says, ripping into the packaging with relish. Out spills a Marvin the Martian pillow, and she smiles down at it, hugging it slightly. It’s a little odd – nothing about her particularly screams Marvin – but it’s soft and cuddly.
Scott scuffs the ground with his shoe. “You know, we do all this driving and sleeping, and I just thought you should have a pillow of your own instead of whichever odd one is lying around.”
She hugs it a little tighter then, burying her nose into the fabric. It’s new, but it still smells faintly of the Moir home – she wonders if Alma washed it first in their detergent. “I love it, Scott.” Her hand outstretched, he takes it with a grin. “Let’s go test it out.”
Tessa thinks it may have been the best she’s slept ever slept in the car.
The envelope in her hands is larger than she thought it would be, and thicker too. Her fingers trace the ridges of the embossed logo on the envelope, swirling over the cursive letters. National Ballet School of Canada, it spells.
She had applied on a whim, really. Her ballet teacher had told her she should consider it, and she loves her ballet teacher, so she did.
Her mother is the one who rips it open and reads the cover letter, fingers shaking slightly when she puts it down. “You’re in,” she signs, and Tessa doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She never thought she’d get accepted.
But it’s the National Ballet, and she says yes, and then she tells Scott at practice that she won’t be there for the entire summer session, even though they’ve just started working with Paul and Suzanne. Instead, she’ll be spending the month of July in Toronto, dancing.
“Alright,” he says, and she thinks it’s the least he’s spoken to her in years.
“Alright,” she replies.
His hand feels foreign in hers after that, and she longs for the smooth wood of the barre.
It’s when she’s there, at the barre, with all the other lucky children around her, and she shivers, and expects to feel strong arms wrap around her and rub up and down her arms, that she realizes she doesn’t want ballet anymore.
She wants him, and her skates, and the cold of the rink, and big gloves, and bombastic music, and set patterns, and endless twizzles.
Her first love has been replaced by her second.
It’s easy, then, to turn down the National Ballet’s offer when it comes that fall, forego being the first Deaf student they’ve ever invited to join them – something they remind her of gently in a second follow-up letter, as though she’s not already aware that she’s the first – in favour of stroking around the rink, pursuing excellence with Scott.
She tells Scott this during his birthday party. They sit high in a tree in his parents’ backyard, hiding from Danny, the reluctant seeker in their game of Hide and Seek. Scott’s back is against the trunk of the tree, knees pulled into his body, and Tessa lies on the curve of the branch, her legs wrapped around the limb to keep her steady.
Silence stretches between them, as they hear shouts from in the house where someone must have been found.
Tessa breaks it first. “I got the spot in the National Ballet,” she says.
Scott’s eyes turn dark, and he pulls his legs closer to his body, but his words betray nothing. “Hey, congrats T. You’re a born dancer; they’re lucky to have you.”
“No,” she says, and he looks up at her. “I turned them down.”
“You what ?” His eyes are wide, incredulous.
“I want to skate with you,” she says. She’d turn down the National Ballet School a hundred more times to see that smile on Scott’s face, brightening his expression.
“I want to skate with you,” he replies.
“So we’re agreed? We’re skating together.”
“I’d give you a handshake to seal the deal, but I think we might both fall out of the tree,” Scott jokes.
The silence falls between them again, but suddenly the air seems alive with possibility. Tessa daydreams, her eyes closed, of the wind in her hair as they flawlessly execute their dance, the cheers of the crowd urging them on. Maybe, she thinks, maybe they could even win a gold medal like the Russians did at the Olympics.
Her eyes open, and she studies Scott, who is very carefully peering over the edge of the branch, his arm wrapped around the central trunk to keep his balance. Nah, she thinks, they might never get Olympic gold. But having a partner is worth it – even when he’s swearing at his brother below, who must’ve found them.
“Danny found us,” he grumbles, “but he won’t come up to seek us properly. Coward.”
Scott extends his hand, helping her crawl closer to the trunk and down onto the one below. Tessa’s foot slips slightly as she struggles to find purchase on the branch below, and Scott’s grip on her wrist tightens. “I’ve got you.”
Yes, Tessa thinks, having a partner is worth it.