Ankle Pressure

I never thought I could do this.

The equipment is the coolest part, really — at least to start out. I spend nearly a full minute looking at myself reflected in the car windows: Snugly fitting hat, orange-tinted visor diagonally elasticked just above my forehead, jacket white and orange and waterproof with pockets everywhere. Two sets of gloves. Thermal underwear (no one can see that, of course, but it’s still cool) underneath dark blue waterproof pants. I look like I belong in a movie. I look invincible.

Then I start to walk. The boots I’m wearing, with metal locks embedded in their soles, are designed to keep your ankles snug and still. That’s where most of your power comes from in snowboarding. It’s not that I know this myself; my friend Mina has just told me. Her snowboard is cooler — it’s black and gray with a red dragon curling in the middle and “RAGE” spelled out in sleek crimson letters on the bottom — but I think for a brief second that maybe I wear the equipment better.

You’ve had this happen to you before. You may not be able to relate to the snowboarding, sure, but you can relate to the feeling that your own problems are the only problems that exist in the known universe. You can understand the idea of scaring yourself shitless with, if not snowboarding, bungee jumping, tandem skydiving, or being a passenger on an airplane. Just so you don’t think about anything else for an hour, maybe two. These things, these problems, are obstacles that must be hurdled for you to find happiness, so you have to give them this much thought. They have to be handled right or you’ll trip, you’ll stumble, lose time, lose chances. You want to be better at something other than tripping, than stumbling, than losing. So maybe you can be good at this.

I’m not sure if it matters who looks better in their equipment, really. I’m just happy I look sleek in my borrowed coat, my borrowed pants, my borrowed hat and visor and boots and — yes, you guessed it! — even my borrowed thermal underwear. Most of it is Mina’s, since she has two of everything. She’s more prepared than I will ever be. I won’t divulge who the thermal underwear is from.

Simple things are what I’m worried about now. I’m worried about walking up the hill to the lodge. Then I’m worried about clicking my metal-bottomed boot into its slot on the snowboard. “Your front foot,” Mina tells me. “Lean it at an angle so it digs into the snow, so you have some control, and just sort of slide forward.”

This is in preparation to get onto the lift. Two-seated chairs swing around like little love seats stripped of their padding, with no pause on their ascent up the mountain. We have to stand behind the red line; then, as soon as a chair passes, we have to scoot out into the next one’s path, snowboard attached only to our leading foot. We have to look back over our left shoulder and let the lift clip us in the back of the knees, into a perfect sitting position. We have to lift our snowboards up with our free leg.

I’m nervous. I remember that I’m wearing padded pants in addition to the thermal underwear, in addition to the snow pants. They’re padded in the knees, and most importantly, in the butt. “I have two asses,” I proclaim loudly as the lift ascends higher over the bunny hill. Mina knows that I’m nervous and laughs; she’s never seen me quite this outspoken.

Mina has tendonitis in and around her wrists. She got it from years and years of typing and mouse-clicking at a job in Seattle. Sometimes the pain is so bad that she can’t even drive, can’t even keep the wheel steady without wincing. Snowboarding seems perfect for her: Most things in her world involve arms and wrists, but snowboarding is almost entirely based in the legs and ankles. She doesn’t have to worry about hurting her wrists because she doesn’t have to use them.

I don’t know about you, but I’m mostly worried about relationships — about friends sometimes, about women most times. I’m worried about missed chances, about unresolvable conflicts, about rejection. These things are significant to me, because at least three out of every four days, all I want is to be important to someone. To help somebody learn about themselves. Their strengths, their weaknesses, food allergies, favorite movies, most sensitive inches of skin. I want to be a safe place for somebody.

And kissing is good, too. You can’t deny that kissing is something you think about.

I’m worried about being a hopeless romantic, about thinking that anything can and should be surmounted for the chance at love. I’m worried that this isn’t true.

This is, in part, why I agreed to go snowboarding in the first place. If I wasn’t a hopeless romantic, why would I — a boy who cannot roller skate or dribble a basketball or set a volleyball — say, “Yes, I’d love to go snowboarding”? If I wasn’t a hopeless romantic, how could I believe that I could do this?

Simple things are what I’m worried about. I spend most of the first day trying to stand. Gravity is not my friend. I just learned how to ride a bike two years ago, and I haven’t ridden one since. Mina’s patience borders on sainthood: She curves slowly across the mountain, stops and falls gently to her knees or her back and looks over to see how I’m doing, to give me advice. She tells me to keep my knees slightly bent and my back straight, to keep my body above the board, to not lean too far when I’m trying to turn.

The toughest part is learning to put equal amounts of force into both ankles. I have to do this without lifting the fronts of my feet. It’s an interesting exercise, and I practice some during the copious amount of time I’m on my ass, snowboard upright in front of me, hands splayed out behind, like I’m dangling my feet in a pool. I press into my heels. I minimize the lift of my toes. I have to have balanced pressure because the way to stop is to put a little more effort into my back ankle so the board swings forward, horizontal with the mountain, so that I skid on the back edge, spraying an arc of snow out in front of me. I find it’s much easier to stop than it is to go forward, much easier to be unequal than balanced.

If I stop too gently, my front edge will dig into the snow and I’ll topple headfirst into the mountain. If I stop too hard, I stop completely, and since it’s incredibly difficult to balance on an edge less than half an inch thick, I fall.

And I lied before. The toughest part isn’t pushing into both ankles equally. The toughest part is getting up.

Turning is an exercise in moderation — unequal pressure, but not on the back foot, and not enough to completely swing the board horizontal — so I don’t do very well at it. Mina tells me, “When you want to turn left, hold out your left arm a little bit and your body will follow. If you want to turn right, hold out your right arm at a slight angle, pointing downhill.”

She’s right: the simple motion of moving my arm, pointing towards the ski lift or the lodge, makes it much easier to move left or right. I manage to get within 20 or 30 feet of the ski lift before falling over, unhooking my left boot, and slowly side-walking to Mina’s side. “Again?” she asks, smiling.

“Again,” I say.

You will be on one side of this argument or the other.

Mina has decided to swear off relationships altogether. She isn’t sure what she wants, she says, and she needs to figure that out. There’s so much to worry about right now, with applying for jobs and writing a thesis and taking classes. She thinks she throws herself into situations that are inevitably hurtful, and it is a developing pattern she’d really like to escape. She wants some time to herself.

As far as I’m concerned, I have too much time to myself. I couldn’t swear off relationships any more than I could swear off arm hair or breathing.

Are either of us less worried? You might think Mina is, since she’s sworn off relationships, but I’m sure she worries about whether that was the right decision, and whether she can maintain such a fast. You might think I’m not worried about jobs or classes or collections of short stories, but I’m sure it comes up often, the synapses in my brain firing off bullet points, grocery lists of duties. It’s just that I have a dominant concern. And that makes it seem all the more important, all the more unique.

Does swearing not to think about something make you less worried? You might think so, but then you might be driving home after your roller coaster ride, or your haunted house, and a friend a lot like Mina might say to you, “It was nice to do that for a few hours. It was nice to not think about anything else for a while.”

And you’ll turn to her and remember that there are other things to think about, just as she has. “Yeah,” you’ll say, “It was nice. I think that was the longest period of time I’ve spent in recent history where my brain wasn’t rushing over a hundred miles per hour.”

There is a second time we go up to Mt. Spokane to snowboard. It’s excessively powdery, and the snow has been heaved into hills and valleys scattered across the mountain. We watch someone catch his front edge and go tumbling down 20 feet, end over end. We see him lie still for a few seconds, then brush himself off and get up, unharmed.

We go halfway up the mountain the second time, enough distance to be unable to see the end of the run from the beginning. I stay upright for a little over a minute, curving down a moderate slope, watching as others whiz by me. Mina calls back, tells me not to fall, that it’s dangerous here in a space that’s a little too thin for people to deftly maneuver around my sprawled body. I tell her that’s easy for her to say. I’ve never seen her fall.

Mina is something of a snowboarding pro to me, even though she refutes such a lofty claim. She’s been doing it much longer than I have. She’s been teaching me and I’ve been learning. I feel bad for making her take her time. I feel bad that she always has to carve wide paths across the mountain, going slowly, always stopping to see if I’m alright.

There is a third time, too. As we drive by the mountainside, looking for a parking spot, we can see setting sun glinting off the snow, packed hard and slick as ice. There is no powder this time. There is very little margin for error. We agree that this is okay, that neither of us are speed demons, that we drove this hour to escape and to learn, and we’re going to go for it.

We go further up the mountain the third time, Chair One, all the way to the top. The lift crests over the mountain; if it weren’t so dark, we could probably see Spokane from here, an hour away.

We go slowly. There are turns up here that are gradual but entirely necessary, and I find it difficult to go the direction I want to. Mina spends minutes lying on the ice, waiting for me as I try to turn towards the moderate trail, away from the black diamond path with its large black square proclaiming “Most Difficult.” I’m cursing, I’m punching the snow and quickly regretting it.

“Remember your arms,” Mina says as I kick my left boot back into its slot after having to walk to where she’s sitting, hopelessly uphill. “If you want to go left, tell yourself to go there, direct yourself. It’ll work, I promise.”

I take a deep breath, nod. “Alright. I’m ready.”

I push all my weight into my heels, keep my ankles steady, and I stand. It takes me a second or two to realize that the toughest part is over, that even though this is my third snowboarding trip, standing is still the most difficult. Ahead of me, Mina smiles, weaving to the right. I need to do that too. I push out my arm like I’m opening a door and my body follows the blunt edge of my gloved hand to the right, down the mountain. I’m working in moderation. I can slow down and then move my board back to a vertical position, gaining speed. Mina and I swerve paths in front of and in back of each other. I only fall occasionally, after solid minutes, and we make it to the bottom, down the bunny hill, down the glacial expanse of frozen snow to the ski lift.

I am invincible. I want to try the bunny hill just once before we go, because I’m sure I’ll be able to stay upright almost the whole time. I will own the damn hill.

Mina says that there’s nothing like flying down a mountain on a snowboard, turning on your front edge, going so fast that you lean down to keep your balance. You’re leaning down so far that you can touch the side of the mountain. The wind is whipping past as you spill snow into the air, into your face. It’s like cresting a wave, she says. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and dangerous. You can’t think of anything else because you’re focused so hard on not killing yourself.

You probably have one, or two, or three things in your life that can completely distract you from what you’re thinking, that can empty out your cluttered head and make you exist in the moment. You probably find Mina’s description of snowboarding interesting, since such a feeling of danger shouldn’t be, in any sense, comforting. But snowboarding is one of the things Mina does to keep her mind off of everything else.

It happens when Mina is using her front edge. At first it’s surreal, a dream: I’ve stayed standing for most of the bunny hill, I’m steering away from the lodge, and suddenly I hear my name called by a voice that sounds familiar. I fall gently to my knees. Behind me, Mina is lying on her back, like she’s waiting for me, but her head is almost flat against the ice, her helmet pushed a little forward.

She’s saying something that sounds a lot like “I think I broke it” over and over again.

I kick both feet out of the snowboard, stand up on wobbly legs. It takes me a few seconds before I shout “Little help over here!” at the top of my lungs. I only say it once, and thankfully that’s all it takes. Men in black hats and red coats are running across the mountain towards her within seconds.

I shuffle on my knees, uphill to where she’s lying. The first thing that occurs to me is no, this shouldn’t have happened to her. It should’ve happened to me. The second thing is that it’s my fault, that I wanted to go up the bunny hill a second time, that I should’ve recognized snowboarding on a sheet of ice was a bad idea, that I should’ve prevented this.

The third thing that occurs to me is that all my worrying, all my guilt from making Mina go slower than she wants to, all my misguided heroics in wishing there were some way to have kept this accident from happening, mean at this moment precisely shit.

I wait as they support her left arm as comfortably as possible, move her onto a blanket, lift her onto a toboggan and sled her down to the Ski Patrol. I try to be calm and comforting as they wrap her arm in bandages and cardboard. I drive her the hour down the mountain, through the outskirts of Spokane, into Sacred Heart Hospital. I’m not thinking about anything. Anything at all.

There are several things you could come away with from reading this. You could come away with a sense of irony, when I tell you that Mina was using her front edge, the edge by her toes, when she overcompensated and toppled backwards down the hill, her hands splaying out behind her, the entire weight of her body pressing down on her left wrist as she fell against the ice. You could feel angry at how unfair the accident was when I tell you it happened on the bunny hill, only 20 or 30 feet from the lodge that signified the bottom of the mountain, the end of the night. You could feel sympathy for Mina when I tell you that her radius was shattered into five pieces, that she now has a steel plate and numerous screws holding the bone in place.

You could remember that your own problems, however gigantic and important they seem, are only your problems, which are a small part of your life, which is a small part of the known universe.

But if there’s one thing I want you to take away from the story, it’s this: When you’re sitting in an emergency room near your friend, after their accident on the roller coaster, or their harsh landing after skydiving, and they tell you it’s fine if you want to go get something to eat, or just get out for some fresh air, my hope is that such an option won’t even cross your mind. Your synapses will fire past all the insecurities and obligations and people you usually just can’t get out of your head, all of your thoughts being left behind in fury of bioelectrical energy.

You’ll shift in your seat, turn to your friend who’s a lot like Mina, and say to her, “That’s okay. I think I’ll keep you company until you’re done.”

Article © 2004 by Sean Woznicki