Balance:
Fiction by Megan Giddings

Conrad presented Izzy a paper bag with hearts drawn on it. Inside was a bottle of great tequila, salt, and her favorite margarita mix. Soft, silky cheeses: the kinds she loved to smooth over toast and crackers. A bag of dark roast coffee beans. And at the bottom, cool to the touch, a container of sushi from Izzy’s favorite restaurant. The fish looked extra pink wrapped in the dark green seaweed and Izzy’s mouth watered.

“Weird breakfast,” she said. Izzy trailed a finger along all the containers. She saw the connection, but hoped they could avoid another discussion.

“I thought this could be something fun for us to do. You know. Indulge in all the things you might have to give up.”

“I’m not going to change my mind.” Izzy considered throwing the sushi out the window, have it hit the neighbor’s yappy Pomeranian right bonk on the head. She hunched over, knowing now was not the time to start laughing at the idea of knocking out a dog with a box of tuna rolls.

Conrad reached his hand out to touch her face and Izzy flinched. He crossed his arms instead.

Izzy wasn’t sure where it had all started. Was it Christmas shopping for his new nephew’s presents a few months ago? All those Lego sets and tiny hats. Did she wrong a baby somehow? Not smiled at it. Talked to it in a too stern voice. Did it wave its sticky fingers and place a curse on them? One of you will suddenly think his life is incomplete without a son or a daughter. She had found doodles on envelopes of kidney beans wearing booties, storks wearing monocles. Porn was disappearing from his browser history, replaced with parenting websites. He read stupid articles about being a good partner during pregnancy and beyond.

When they had started dating, they had both agreed, there were so many other things—owning, seeing, and making art, traveling to the Great Wall of China, not having to worry about money, going to a store without having to say, “Aidan, no. Did you hear me? Aidan. No.”—that they would rather do than have a kid.

“I’m not even interested in thinking about it,” Izzy tried.

She looked down at her pajamas and thought about buying a new pair. Navy silk with white edges. The balance between practical and impractical.

Conrad cleared his throat. He waited.

Izzy wished he would say something or even just scream at her instead of being so calm. Maybe if they just had a big fight, everything would be certain.

Conrad nodded. He gathered the food back into the sack and closed the door. After a few moments, she heard the front door creak open and slam shut.

Izzy wanted to go back to sleep, but the bed felt too big. She wished it was possible to feel one thing at a time. Take emotions out, smooth them on a table and view them from all possible angles before feeling the next.

On Conrad’s desk, Izzy found a drawing of her with a blank face and an x-ray vision version of her body. He had turned her into bones and heart and white space from chest on down. Instead of giving her hair, he had drawn a nest of children. They each had the same cheerful expression.

“Creepy,” she muttered.

She sat down and drew a dead mouse in her stomach, a barfing cat where her uterus should be, and a bat in her lungs.

“Creepier,” she said.

“What are you drawing?” Conrad asked.

Izzy jumped a little in her seat. Where had he gone? How had he come back in so quietly? She turned and handed it to him.

“I like the paws you gave the mouse. And the cat’s face is super funny.” He sounded like he was giving notes at work, but she still smiled at the compliments.

“Let me take you ice skating,” Conrad said when she didn’t respond, “I think you’ll like it.”

It was such an unexpected request that Izzy immediately agreed.

***

Izzy needed her skates to feel extra tight so she could feel secure.

“My ankles feel loose,” she said, “I can’t get these right.”

Conrad looked inspired. Izzy knew he was imagining pulling down one of her athletic socks to see silver screws. He would probably draw it when they got home.

Someone tapped her shoulder. It was a little girl wearing a hat with a large orange pom-pom and missing her two front teeth. Izzy wanted to make a joke about falling on the ice, but knew it would just come out weird.

“You look like Sorceress Giggle-Whale. Except your skin is brown not purple. Can you talk to my goldfish? I wanna know what she thinks.”

It wasn’t the first time a child had told Izzy this. Yeah, Sorceress Giggle-Whale could turn into a giant squid to fight evil and pollution and lived in the psychedelic Sea of Lights, but Conrad, when he was designing the character, had also given her Izzy’s hair and some of her facial expressions. If the girl was older and a frequent Tumblr user, she might’ve recognized Conrad and peppered him with questions about the sea, the pearls, the witches.

A woman pulled the little girl away. “I’ve told you to leave strangers alone.”

Conrad kneeled in front of Izzy and studied her laces. “How often does that happen to you?”

“I’m not usually around kids. So not that often.” Her voice came out low and clipped.

“Are you nervous about skating?”

The skate rental staff cheered. They were watching a hockey movie Izzy didn’t recognize. A man took a puck to his forehead on the screen. They laughed. Izzy thought they should hire themselves out to be audience members at sitcom tapings they were so responsive.

“It could be fun. And you were right. I needed to get out.”

Conrad bent over and pulled the laces tight. From that angle, Izzy could focus on his thick, black eyebrows without him noticing. Two years ago, she had never noticed them. His eyes, his fingers, his shoulders had held her attention. Now she sometimes looked at them, and was annoyed he’d never considered tweezing. And sometimes, she looked at them and was reminded of how much she loved him.

Izzy stared. They were just eyebrows.

He touched her ankle.

“Done.”

Izzy let Conrad help her up. Standing in skates was like, Izzy tested her balance, walking in a cheap pair of wedges. They walked out through the doors and stood in the small room before the rink.

It seemed as if almost everyone was wonderful at skating; a teenage girl was even texting. As she glided, her face was lit soft blue. Seeing the rink made Izzy want to sit down and go no further. She wished she had brought her sketchpad.

A song came on over the loudspeakers. It was a pop song Izzy heard often at work. It was about losing love over a real party beat. She had learned most of the words while creating a store window display of spring dresses meant to look like a garden.

“I have Stockholm syndrome. I love this song, but I also know it should rot in jail.”

Conrad laughed.

Izzy took his hand and they stepped out on the ice together. She almost fell, but he grabbed her arm and steadied her. Skating seemed to work best by being bent slightly forward and by turning your feet slightly inward, Izzy thought. Conrad grabbed her hand tighter as she tried to figure it out. She liked that he knew her well enough to know she would ask for help if she wanted it.

Two boys chased each other. One held what was probably the other’s hat and was laughing. They weaved in and out of groups making Izzy nervous. She stopped and grasped the boards after one almost crashed into her side. Izzy took a deep breath. Her nose felt cold, but the rest of her was warm from the effort of skating.

The little girl from before waved at Izzy. She had taken off her coat and was wearing hot pink mittens and a Sorceress Giggle-Whale t-shirt.

In Wizard Ocean, Sorceress Giggle-Whale would sometimes open oysters to try to find magic pearls. A dark green one could make her deathly ill. A pink pearl would let her control a bloom of jellyfish for a brief amount of time. A golden one could give her almost anything she wanted. If Izzy was offered a golden pearl at that moment, she thought she might wish for the boys’ parents to show up and be responsible for their children. Or maybe she would wish to be as good at skating as everyone else. All the other skaters seemed confident enough to not care about two reckless kids.

There was no use in asking for anything else. Even a golden pearl couldn’t make a person fundamentally different.

“I want to try one alone,” Izzy said.

Conrad nodded. He let go of her left hand and skated away. He was so comfortable on the ice. Conrad’s father had made him play hockey growing up because he felt boys that wanted to be artists needed to be tough. Izzy had rolled her eyes when Conrad first told that story, but now she wondered if her life would be better, or at least easier, if her parents had forced her to do things they considered character-building. She might be drawing more. She might have been the sort of person who suggested trying something new like ice skating; Izzy couldn’t remember the last time she had done something new. She might be able to say what she really felt.

Izzy’s first round on the ice felt like forever. She would pick up speed and then it would become too much and almost fall. Conrad did laps around her, although at one point, he turned and skated backwards to check on her.

“Show off,” she called, clutching the boards. Izzy noticed a younger man, probably still in college, was inching around the rink with his hand always touching the wall. Seeing him made her feel less stupid.

Near the end of her fourth time around, something snapped into place. Izzy was mostly steady from then on. She picked up speed and felt confident.

A woman wearing a Red Wings jersey said, “Nice form,” as she glided past Izzy.

Ice with skate marks was beautiful. The way it shimmered beneath the matte gouges. Around and around, her legs and feet making chevrons. A little boy with dreadlocks fell near her and what looked like his older siblings helped him up. The three of them started laughing when he was back on his feet.

Conrad skated to her.

“You’re doing great.”

“You were right. This is actually fun.”

“It helps me not think which helps me think.”

She took his hand. It was warm. They took another lap. It was almost harder now to skate with him, but she liked it. His hand in hers made it so she had to concentrate on both their bodies. Another lap. A soul song her parents used to listen to while cooking dinner came on. The words swelled on the tip of her tongue. They turned. Izzy wasn’t even aware of losing her balance. A blink and she was down on the cold.

“Wow, wow,” a little girl said, skating hand in hand with her probable grandfather.

Her left leg had taken most of the fall and it ached already. Conrad helped her up. Her palms were red.

“You OK?”

“I’m going to be bruised.”

“Do you want to keep skating?”

Conrad squeezed her hand. His eyes looked darker than usual in the white light of the skating rink. Izzy noticed they were a little bloodshot. There were bags beneath them as if he hadn’t slept much. She wondered—in a small, mean way—if he had suggested doing this to teach her a lesson. But if that was the case: what was she supposed to learn? That she needed him? That she should try new things? That he wanted to see her fall over and over on ice? Izzy shook her head. She was being paranoid.

“I want to go home.”

They made it to the exit and walked off the ice. They sat down side by side and unlaced their skates.

Being back in sneakers made Izzy realize how much her balance had changed in such a short amount of time. Walking felt as if she were stepping from wave to wave. Even Conrad with all his skating experience was moving in the same staggered way. Izzy kept wanting to glide rather than lift her feet off the ground. Wouldn’t it be nice, Izzy thought, if I could just skate forever? A life spent on ice skates and rollerblades. Izzy saw herself smooth and quick and strong. She would get so good, she wouldn’t need to hold on to anything.


My bio is Megan Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing and a contributing editor at Boulevard. Her work is forthcoming or has been recently published in Craft, Gulf Coast, Split Lip, and The Iowa Review. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com