"I am becoming a sorry excuse for a Romantic," Julia Emerson muttered to her reflection, as she pulled the hood of her Bronte cape up and swirled ninety degrees, checking over her shoulder to ensure that she had no pulled threads or snags. The black wool cape completely covered the brilliant green ball gown that she had spent the past four months making. Julia knew that although the dress wasn't historically accurate it was flattering, and when it came to deciding between looking great or being correct, vanity always carried the day. With her black hair and pale complexion, emerald was the best color for Julia and she wore it often and without shame.
Julia Emerson was high priestess of the Juniper Hills "Starving English Majors" book club and, thanks to her energy, dedication, and powers of persuasiveness, was on her way to the club's third annual Brontes, Booze, and Token Bachelors gala ball at the civic center.
The ball had been conceived as a lark by the club, but given the paucity of social functions in March, it had been a rousing success and had been adopted by most of the town's upper crust as a fun way to get through the longest month of the year and raise money for the library.
There was, however, Julia admitted to herself in weak moments, a certain hollowness surrounding this year's ball. Two years ago, when she and fellow bookophiles Maggie and Lars, had cooked up the event, she had been giddy with anticipation. Last year she had gloried in the success of a madcap idea that had won the approval of her friends and neighbors. But this year? Nothing but the blahs. Maybe it was the fact that her dress had taken so long to make and had all but preempted her Christmas. Maybe it was the fact that Christmas itself had seemed so shallow and commercial now that she no longer had any of her immediate family left to celebrate it with.
Julia sighed as she parked her car in the civic center parking lot, turned off the engine, got out, and looked up into a March sky that could have been made to order for a Romantic. The crescent moon was low in the sky, with Venus cradled in the crook of her arm. Last year, Julia would have thrilled to read in such a night sky a portent of love on the cusp. Now, she merely shrugged---she certainly wouldn't be looking for love among the Token Bachelors this evening. She'd put every one of them through the mill and found them sadly wanting. Maybe it was time to pull up her roots and leave Juniper Hills once and for all now that her mother had passed away.
Julia had come home three years ago to nurse her ailing mother, leaving Madison Avenue and a promising career as a copywriter. She had told herself that once settled in the little house on Grant Avenue she would finally have the time and space to write the great American novel that had been percolating in her brain since adolescence. She had told herself that she had been sidetracked by the advertising world. She thought that maybe reconnecting with her mother would rekindle the flame of artistic ambition. But nursing her mother had taken more time and energy than Julia had foreseen, and the book club, which turned out to be more of an occasion to drink wine with her favorite friends from high school than to reread the classics, was all that she had been able to put together in the literary department since her return to the small town in the Colorado foothills. Still and all, the Bronte Ball had reestablished her as the queen bee of the Juniper Hills culture crowd, such as it was, and Julia had been looking forward to it despite the emotional turmoil of the past winter.
Now, looking up Venus snuggling up to the sliver of a new moon and feeling nothing, she wondered if perhaps the muse of Romance had given up on Juniper Hills and was now waiting for her in a Paris café or a San Francisco coffee house. Maybe she should go on a pilgrimage---Haworth again, or Chawton. Her mother would have liked her to do that---Julia had read all of the Austen novels to her mother over the past three years, ending with Persuasion last November.
"If only I'd read Lady Susan instead," she thought aloud. She sighed. She knew in her heart that her mother hadn't died because they'd run out of Austen. She'd died because she'd run out of time.
Lost in her grumblings, she didn't notice the crowd assembled at the civic center entrance until she was overwhelmed by a throng of Regency-clad would-be revelers.
"Julia, thank goodness you're finally here," Maggie Friedman exclaimed, her auburn Grecian ringlets bobbing ferociously as she hurried up to Julia. "It's those blasted hockey players!" she shouted. "They've taken over our hall!"
"Hockey players?" Julia craned her neck to see over the sea of caped, cloaked and very angry ball goers. She pushed forward with Maggie on her heels.
"The quartet can't set up because they've moved the stage, and they've stacked the centerpieces in a corner," Maggie wailed.
"The centerpieces we worked on for the last three weekends?"
"In a corner..."
"But why? Who let them in?"
Julia reached the door to the ballroom that she and Maggie had booked in July and found the third member of their triumvirate, Lars Sanderson, gazing in dismay at the disheveled ballroom. What should have been a fairyland of twinkly lights, yellow roses, and cobwebby lace was a very prosaic jumble of industrial chairs, yard-high chrome trophies, plastic cups, empty pizza boxes and half-filled liter bottles of soda. About forty men, ranging from young teenagers to grandfathers, were slapping each other around and snorting in the way that sporting types do when herded into civic halls.
"What on earth--" Julia began.
"Where have you been?" Lars demanded, coming to life at the sound of her voice. Lars Sanderson, Julia's oldest friend and staunchest ally, was dressed as a pink of the ton, with skin tight cream pants tucked into high boots and a dashing blue cutaway coat set off by a neckcloth of monstrous proportions. "You should have been here an hour ago to tell these hooligans that the room was ours and to stay out."
Julia felt a flash of anger that once again Maggie and Lars were insisting on being doormats while expecting her to save the day. But instead of hotly reminding him that she had spent all that day decorating the room and the better part of the past year planning the event and had merely gone home to dress and psyche herself up, she surveyed the room looking for the alpha male among the intruders.
She spotted him---the only trophyless male in the room, which earmarked him as the ringleader. He was big and blonde and utterly banal. Julia swept across the room, her cape like a sail and she, a magnificent figurehead bearing down on her unsuspecting prey.
"I'm so glad you boys were able to have your party," Julia began, in a commandingly sweet voice.
The men, as a unit, stopped talking and looked at her. The big blonde flushed darkly, but Julia pretended not to notice, and smiled brightly at one of the teenage boys.
"And look at the size of the trophy you won," she said, her voice warm. "You must be a mighty good hockey player."
"MVP," the boy answered with a shy swagger. "Ma'am," he added, respectfully.
"I tell you what, Mr. Most Valuable Player, why don't you and your friends give me a hand. Seems there's been a little mix up over this room, and I and my friends are all dressed up and nowhere to dance."
Before the MVP could render assistance to his queen, the big blonde intervened.
"Sorry, miss, we rented this room for the whole evening. We'll be showing a movie in about ten minutes. You ladies..." he paused and cleared his throat as he scanned Lars from head to foot, "and gentlemen, are welcome to stay are watch Miracle with us."
Julia, swallowing an unholy desire to check the big blonde into the boards, ignored him and focused her sparkling eyes on the teenaged MVP. "I'll need a couple of strong men to move the tables to the perimeter. And the stage needs to be set up..."
The blonde laid a muscular hand on the boy's shoulder and said, "Chip, you move a table and I'll take back your trophy."
Chip paused and looked to Julia for further instruction. She calmly laid a manicured hand on his other shoulder, and felt him shrink under the weight of two equal but opposing wills. Every eye in the room was on her, every ear was straining to hear what devastating set down she would deliver---half of them remembered that she had played a devastating Lady Macbeth when she was a senior at Juniper Hills High and the thought still sent chills down their spines when they considered crossing her.
The room had now filled with gala attendees, who were freely mingling with the hockey crowd, most of whom knew each other well, as Juniper Hills was so small that it boasted but two high schools, nine churches, and a synagogue. Unfortunately it also boasted only one facility that had an assembly room large enough for a major event, and since both the Juniper Hills Hockey Association and the Starving English Majors happened to schedule their soirees, if a hockey awards pizza bash can truly be dubbed as such, on the same evening, and Doris Wilkins, the clerk who scheduled the rooms, was prone to hearing one thing and writing down another, it was really pure dumb luck that this kind of snafu hadn't happened before.
"Hey, Coach---the projector's busted. We can't show the movie."
Julia let out her breath. Doris strikes again! This time to her advantage.
"So sorry to hear that," she said sweetly, seizing the opportunity that presented itself. "But since you can't possibly watch your movie, perhaps you will let us proceed with our ball..."
The coach glared at Julia as if he would bet the Stanley Cup on the fact that she had sabotaged the projector herself. His hand remained on Chip's shoulder while the cement in his jaw hardened.
A long minute later he released Chip with an exasperated grunt---"Overrated tripe," he muttered at Julia's back as she sailed away with Chip happily in tow.
Half an hour later, Lars was announcing that the first dance of the evening would be a quadrille, followed by the Macarena. The hockey crowd had consented to not make a fuss about missing their movie if they were allowed to hang out at the ball---no one really wanted to go home since it was still March and there was nothing else to do. They would eat, drink, and make merry. Maggie was thrilled as most of those with tickets for the ball were women, and it would be a treat to dance with a man for a change. In no time at all, she had talked Lars into alternating English country dances with stuff like Y-M-C-A so as not to scare the boys too badly and she had mentally earmarked the men she would insist on asking her to dance.
Julia watched the couples lining up with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the spectacle would be interesting if nothing else. She smoothed wisps of her glossy black hair back into place and squared her shoulders. Romance might be dead, but that didn't mean ...
She turned and was shocked to look once more into the icy blue eyes of the big blonde, alpha-male, trophyless uber-coach whom she had bested earlier in the evening. A pair of soft brown eyes also swam into focus.
Rick Nash, owner of the Juniper Hills dinner theatre and enthusiastic supporter of the Brontes, Booze, and Token Bachelors gala ball, had accompanied and was now ready to introduce the hockey coach to Julia. Julia thought the gesture somewhat superfluous, given their previous encounter, but she swallowed the sarcastic remark that was trying to find voice and decided to make nice, which was good because she had completely misinterpreted the scenario. Rick wasn't introducing the blonde to her, but to a willowy twenty-something who happened to be standing near enough to Julia to cause the confusion in Julia's mind.
"Miss Morgan, may I present, Dr. Winthrop Adams. Win, Miss Cassandra Morgan."
Cassandra curtsied. Win bowed. He asked for this dance. She accepted.
Julia guessed that Cassandra was fearing for her feet, clad as they were in dainty dancing slippers. She also guessed that Cassandra was gloating over actually having a man to dance the quadrille with, though she suspected that Win Adams would make Mr. Collins look like a veritable dancing master.
She couldn't have been more wrong, however. Julia watched the first dance in amazement. Win Adams, alpha one on the ice hockey circuit, was a master of the dance. Graceful, powerful, and sure of every move, whether he was dancing Mr. Beveridge's Maggot or the Hokey Pokey.
Julia, watching Win lead Cassandra expertly through two sets, felt the tiniest twinge of regret that Doris Wilkins hadn't gotten the projector fixed so that the hockey types could've screened Miracle instead of crashing her party. The twinge developed into whole-hearted regret half an hour later when Julia chanced to overhear Win Adams waxing poetic over a glass of punch---"overrated tripe, yes, that's exactly what I mean. There isn't a woman writer now or that has ever lived who could write a decent story. Austen, Bronte, Eliot---they were all undersexed, overwrought females who should've left writing to the men. You can take my course at the University---‘course, it's wait-listed for two semesters..."
He'd crashed her party, danced the quadrille beautifully, and was now disparaging her personal pantheon to young, impressionable minds! Was there no end to the horrors that Win Adams would inflict upon her? Julia Emerson silently vowed that she would silence this boorish man if it was the last thing she did in Juniper Hills. She would strike a blow for Romance and show this Hemingway wannabe where he could park his hockey stick.
Sunday morning blew in grey and jagged. March still weighed heavily upon Juniper Hills, despite the respite from gloom that the Brontes, Booze, and Token Bachelors had afforded. Venus and her consort, the crescent moon, had long since retired in search of more Romantic venues in the cosmos, leaving Juniper Hills in the throes of a fitful Rocky Mountain spring.
Wrapped in her thickest and pinkest bathrobe, Julia wrote the last check for the gala---that for the quartet---and updated her balance sheet for the event. She had happily tacked a five percent bonus onto the check to show her appreciation for the flexibility that the musicians had demonstrated in fielding the various and sundry requests from the audience as the evening had progressed. She had promised the quartet a staid evening when she had booked them in January, and they had been delivered a rowdy, schizophrenic one instead where hip-hop ruled along with Strauss.
Julia took a long self-satisfied breath followed by a long draw on her coffee as she reviewed the totals on the spreadsheet. The Starving English Majors had raised thirty percent more this year for the library than they had last year. Of course, she had to credit some of the increase to the impromptu dating auction that Monica, the cellist, and Horst, the goalie of the all-city hockey team, had cooked up mid-evening. The fact that they had bid on and won each other seemed in keeping with the general free-for-all into which the evening had disintegrated.
Julia glanced at the kitchen clock---almost 10:30. Surely it wouldn't be too early to check in with Cassandra to see whether she would loan out her annotated Pride and Prejudice. The Starving English Majors were scheduled to lead a group read of the novel at the library's next Lunch&Learn session and Julia didn't want to be caught flat-footed should someone in the audience want to know precisely what an entailment involved or what the heck went into white soup anyway.
Cassandra's roommate answered the phone. Cassandra wasn't up yet. She had gotten home quite late from the ball, and then, according to the roommate, had stayed up even later "entertaining" the hunk who had given her a ride home ... he might be there yet. She wasn't sure...
Julia pursed her lips in disapproval, guessing the identity of the hunk but not quite admitting that her desire to check on the availability of the annotated P&P had been tempered by a curiosity as to whether Winthrop Adams had accompanied his dancing partner home from the ball. She sipped her coffee instead of gritting her teeth as she remembered the effrontery of Win---hijacking her ball was one thing, but lambasting her beloved authors was quite another.
Julia presented her check to the library on the following Tuesday, with Lars and Maggie holding court along with her. The board of trustees gushed. The Starving English Majors beamed as modestly as they could manage.
"This will just about enable us to complete our Great Courses series," chirped Miranda, acquisitions librarian, eyeballing the check with an eagerness that would have been immodest in anyone else. Miranda Martinson was Julia's favorite member of the Juniper Hills Library staff and had invited herself and her boss, the head librarian, to the meeting as soon as she had heard about it. She clearly loved books and loved sharing them with the good people within her constituency. Julia often stopped by the library when she was stumped so that she could enlist Miranda's help in navigating through the database jungles that so mortified Julia's soul. Julia wrote articles for a variety of publications and was building a niche for herself as a reliable purveyor of breezy tracts on rural sophistication---her piece on the emerging art scene in Midwestern towns had been so well-received that she had even heard a rumor that the editor of Life on the Spine had clipped it for her staff---but she hated research. Miranda loved it and was more than willing to fact-check anything that Julia threw at her.
Julia smiled benevolently at her own private Dr. Livingstone, glad that she could help her achieve the lofty goals she had set for the JH library.
"We so wanted to get Dr. Adams's lecture series on CD, you know," Miranda went on cherubically. "He has the whole academic world abuzz, and he's in our own backyard." The last was emitted more as a sigh than a statement.
Julia flinched with the effort it took to restrain herself from snatching the check back out of the head librarian's hand. Her money---that is, the Majors money---going to that fiend in a sweaty hockey jersey!
She swallowed and then managed to ask, "Dr. Adams from Boulder State? The one who hates Austen, the Brontes, and all that's good and decent in the world?"
Miranda laughed, her Bette Davis eyes glistening large with delight at seeing her friend nonplussed. "The very same, m'dear. Not to worry, though," she added, draping her large, fleshy arm around Julia's waist. "We don't need to hide our idols behind stone walls, do we? I daresay that Jane can fight for herself if we let her. Might bring more readers to the classics if she and Win have it out in public."
"But, Miranda," broke in Lars, "he's a ... a ... hockey player and Jane Austen is, well, dead."
"Well, yes, dear, right on both counts. Though actually Dr. Adams doesn't play anymore---just coaches, but he is a Rhodes Scholar. I think that almost gives him a fighting chance with a dead icon. You see, Win offered us the lecture series at half off and will deliver the first lecture live once the whole series is on the shelf. He told me he got the idea when he saw the flyer on the Pride and Prejudice group read that Julia is leading. He said that he was going to send down his freshman class to listen in on the Group Read---he said, and I quote, "listening to a Group Read discussion isn't better than reading the Cliff Notes but it may be more entertaining."
Julia closed her eyes to keep from exploding, and felt Maggie's reassuring hand steadying her.
Miranda smiled at the Board of Directors---three small men in dark suits who were relieved that the Majors gala fundraiser meant that they weren't going to have to ask the town council to increase the library's budget yet again in order to meet Miranda's three-year buying plan. Being caught between the town council and Miranda Martinson made the space between a rock and a hard place seem as spacious as Kansas on a long weekend.
The Board nodded in homage to Miranda. The meeting was over.
Julia prided herself on being a fast learner. She knew that she was bright, determined, and competitive, but until that morning she had also credited herself with being broad-minded and liberal. At the moment, she felt anything but tolerant. Her grinding teeth were testament to that, which is why Maggie steered her up the street from the library to the cozy confines of Java Jive, Juniper Hills' home-brewed alternative to corporate Starbucks. Maggie and Lars shared looks behind Julia's back ... maybe a high rev mocha latte would calm Her Royal Highness down.
Julie knew and appreciated what her dearest friends were trying to do. She silently blessed them for understanding her well enough to know that she needed to be outside of the library's sacred walls before she blew her stack and read Miranda her rights. As she waited for her cup of joe and the accompanying cranberry-orange scone that Lars was sure to procure for her, Julia acknowledged that she was truly galled at the curve her world had thrown her.
She knew in her heart that the thirty percent increase in gala funds over last year was due to the hockey players spending freely at the ball, for food, drink, dance tokens, and that appalling dating auction. She also knew that censorship was a one-way trip to perdition and that she should be applauding instead of reviling Miranda for filling the library's shelves with diverse points of view instead of canonized ones. But she was human. She had wanted to be a Lady Bountiful to the library. Instead she was cast in the role of possible spoiler. Not a role she relished. It had taken all that was strong within her to keep a civil tongue in her head as she and Lars and Maggie took leave of Miranda and the board. She wanted to insist that the gala funds not be spent on a lecture series whose premise was that women writers produced nothing but inconsequential fluff, but she couldn't without blowing her cover.
Now she gratefully took the steaming cup from Lars, smiled at the scone that he placed in front of her as if making an offering to a pagan deity, and said the words that she had been dying to say since Miranda dropped her bombshell: "Winthrop Adams is a ‘fusty nut with no kernel.'"
Maggie and Lars looked at her in astonishment, then Lars grinned---"'A paltry, insolent fellow.'"
Maggie sipped her own drink---chai to Julia's heavy metal--- and calmly added that "He's nothing but a ‘diffus'd infection of a man."
"I will leer upon him as he comes by."
"You'd leer at anyone, Lars," Maggie jibed, but her wink disarmed the insult, which Lars had already shrugged off and Julia had giggled over.
"He's a ‘dishonest, paltry boy, and more a coward than a hare," Lars added.
Julia rose in mock heroic stance---"'His breath stinks with eating toasted cheese!'" she announced in full Broadway voice.
Java Jive erupted in loud applause. Julia bowed to her friends and neighbors, and then sat down again. She no longer felt like grinding her teeth---caffeine and adrenaline were coursing through her veins. She had good friends, friends who read Shakespeare and savored his insults as if they were gems, friends who would help her prove to Win Adams that Austen wasn't just a blushing virgin who never wrote a decent story. She wasn't a sham---he was, and she would prove it.
"So what do we do?" Maggie asked as the three English Majors resumed sipping and nibbling.
"Hit him where he lives," Julia answered levelly. "He's sending students to break up our Lunch&Learn---he probably knowingly scheduled that stupid hockey party right on top of our gala, knowing that Doris Wilkins can't tell her right hand from her left---he already invited me to take his course at the university, so that he could correct my false notions, no doubt. He wants war. He'll get war. It's time for me to get my skates out of the closet and pay a visit to the Boulder State rink."
Lars smirked---"Sequins too?"
Before Julia knew Austen, she knew ice. She knew the cold, slick weightlessness when gravity is defied, if only for a second or two. She knew the heavy, humid odor of six a.m. when legs are slow and sleepy and breath comes sharply. She knew drive and ambition, talent and practicality. And she knew when it was time to unlace her skates for the last time and put on her guards and zip her skate bag and move on. And when she moved on, she discovered Austen and Bronte and Eliot and their ilk, and she didn't feel like she had made a bad trade. The world beyond ice was witty and wild and she fell in love with words in a way that made her love affair with ice seem juvenile and puppyish.
Her mother had wanted her to teach skating after she returned to Juniper Hills. She believed her mother had never really wanted her to stop skating.
"Those long legs of yours," she would sigh. "You always could jump higher and spin faster than any of the other girls, and you had a beautiful spiral and the prettiest layback. So much style..." And then her mother would shake her head as if Julia's A's in English lit and life on Madison Avenue were nothing compared to a pretty layback or a double axel-double loop. Julia felt the slightest bit irritated that her mother kept harping on what might have been instead of being relieved that Julia had packed it up before they had spent all of the family money on her skating. She wondered whether her mother had mourned that she had gone away to college, that she had outgrown ice-laden dreams. During the three years Julia had spent nursing her ailing and then dying mother, they had watched the movies her father had made of her during practice sessions and at competitions and shows. They had thumbed through albums and programs. Julia had offered to drive her to the Boulder State rink where Julia had taken her first lessons and then trained relentlessly, but her mother had declined. But that hadn't stopped her from encouraging Julia to drop by on her own and renew acquaintances and forge new alliances.
"And you're good with children," her mother would say, picking up on the second verse of the old song. "I'll bet you could handle those skating mothers better than any of that silly lot that call themselves coaches these days." But Julia hadn't really felt that she was good with children. They irritated her. She didn't feel that patience was necessarily one of her strongest traits, and she never felt that practicing it was a virtue.
Julie watched the public session grind along. The teenaged hockey players who patrolled the rink during public sessions were weaving in and out of the giggling pre-pubescent girls, unsteady on their skinny legs, and the older couples, sedately practicing dance steps that were all the rage fifty years earlier.
Julia turned and smiled up into the warm tanned face of Gilbert Matthews, head figure skating coach at Boulder State for the past five or so years, and her former pairs partner. She had outgrown him at about age thirteen when her body decided it was high time to develop into womanhood. Tall and strong as he was, even Gilbert couldn't lift and throw Julia once her hips and breasts started in earnest, and so she had been forced to pursue stardom as a singleton.
"Hello, Beautiful, yourself," she returned and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. He smelled just the way he always had---clean and expensive.
"You look fantastic, Gil," Julia said, giving him the once over---he was impeccable as ever. The man must have a wardrobe budget that was astronomical. "Aging suits you."
"Don't you just love the distinguished gray at the temples?" he laughed, smoothing his blown-dry hair airily. He put his arm around her and steered her away from the rink. "I was thrilled to get your call, Jules, never thought you would set foot in here again much less make me an offer. Let's go to my office and talk. Latte?"
"You mean I don't have to drink Melanie's coffee?" Julia teased. Melanie was a rink institution and had manned the concession time from time immemorial. The coffee she brewed was ghastly---watery and gritty at the same time.
"We move with the times, Jules," Gilbert said. "Starbucks now, though Melanie still keeps the hockey crowd in fries."
Gilbert's office was a reflection of the man. Tasteful, understated, with a flash of color here and there for accent.
"Speaking of the hockey crowd," Julia began, once Gilbert had closed his door and seated her on the leather sofa. "I've heard that it's leveled off, even declining."
"I wish," Gilbert answered frankly. "Marta says that I can't get more ice time unless I can bring in more revenue than they do. Between clinics and league play, and now all the old farts are reliving their glory days and joining the ‘seniors' leagues, I can't recruit learn-to-skaters fast enough to beat them at their own game. I hate to say it but I've seriously thought of moving to the Midwest, Bowling Green, even."
"But we've got the altitude, we've got the facilities, you should be training the country's up-and-comers..."
"You're preaching to the choir, honey, but if you were to come on board..."
"Not as an instructor, it's been too long, Gil, but I could market the place. I could market you, and with the amenities of Boulder State ... but it would have to be as a figure skating rink only. No hockey. I've run some numbers." She opened her brief case and pulled out a manila folder. "Here's the business plan. You help me target skaters. I haven't stayed up on who's who. And we target sponsors---I have a list a mile long from my advertising days. We target the USFSA. They've always wanted an Olympic training camp. I can run it as a business, and you can coach at the top, where you should be. But we have to bring in pest control and run the hockey players out. They've got four sheets of ice within a 50-mile radius. They just won't get these two sheets anymore."
"No hockey at all? Gilbert raised his eyebrows skeptically. "No rink in the country can operate at a profit without a hockey base. Not even one subsidized by taxpayers."
Gilbert leaned back in his chair and stretched his long legs. Then he templed his fingers, and screwed up his mouth the way Julia remembered him doing when they were kids and their coach, the late, great Enzio Molto, was explaining the physics of skating. Gilbert was the only skater who even tried to follow Enzio's lectures, though they were all required to attend.
"No," he said slowly. "I just didn't know what the full extent of what you were proposing when you emailed me your pitch. There's been hockey in this rink for thirty years, Julia. And while I get annoyed at them for trying to gobble up all our ice time, I don't know what it would do to the town to not have hockey games to go to come Saturday night. It's tradition."
"I know that, Gil," Julia said softly. "My parents' first dates were to the Saturday night games. But there are lots of places for the hockey players to go. Your career's on the rocks, sweetie. If you don't get some talent in here to teach, you're going to have to leave Juniper Hills in order to stay coaching. And that would be a tragedy. I can't imagine life here without you---you class up the joint something fierce."
"They'd tar and feather me, Julia, if I got Boulder State to run hockey out of here."
"Who would, Gil. Who? You're a hero in this town---the closest thing we ever got to an Olympian. No one wants to see you leave. But you'll have to and you know it. The hockey players have all sorts of options that you don't have."
Gilbert was silent. His face didn't betray the emotional struggle Julia was sure was raging inside. She knew that she was preying on his ambition, an ambition that had always taken a backseat to his loyalty and love for his hometown and the role he had carved out for himself there. After he had won the Junior Men's title at the National Figure Skating competition when he was seventeen, he had been courted by every big rink in the country but he had chosen to stay in Juniper Hills and kept Enzio as his coach, even though everyone in the skating world knew that Enzio's best days were now decades old.
"Will you pitch it to Marta?" Gilbert finally asked.
"Of course, Gil. I'll do the pitch. It can be my idea all the way, if you want. I'll call her office and get an appointment. Do you want to be at the pitch with me?"
"No." He shook his head. Julia knew that he couldn't verbalize, could barely acknowledge to himself the supremely ungallant fact that he would happily let Julia take the fall if the idea failed but would reap the rewards if it flew.
Marta Ingles had been the director of athletics at Boulder State even while Julia was still skating competitively, and the rink and both the hockey and figure skating programs were her pride and joy. But like Gilbert, Marta had a weakness for Olympian dreams that Julia knew she could tap into. If Marta believed the number in Julia's marketing plan, then Win Adams and his hockey thugs were out of commission because what Julia hadn't told Gilbert was that while there were four sheets of ice within a 50-mile radius of Juniper Hills and Boulder State, there was no room at any of them for the league that Win headed up out of Boulder State. He might throw his weight around at the library and commandeer the money that the Starving English Majors had raised; he might disparage her beloved authors and sneer at women writers all he liked; but she had only to get on Marta Ingles's calendar before Win would find himself without a rink to slap a puck around on.
And the whipped cream with cherry on top was that Julia now knew what she wanted to do with her life, at least for the foreseeable future. She would forget about writing the great American novel, not that that was a realistic goal anyway, she admitted to herself, she would run the best darned figure skating program in the country and put Juniper Hills and Boulder State back on the map. She would be partners once again with Gilbert Matthews. She smiled to herself as she dialed the number of Marta's campus office---skating with Gilbert had always made her feel like a million bucks, except that this time she would be doing the heavy lifting and presenting him as the main attraction. With a surge of adrenaline, born out of the thrill of competition, she talked Marta's secretary into giving her a slot with Marta for Tuesday next.
On her way home from the rink, she stopped by the campus bookstore and picked up a copy of Win's latest book "Why Women Can't Write."
Marta Ingles was a cake walk, Julia gloated to Maggie Friedman after her meeting with the Boulder State athletic director. Julia had called up Maggie and arranged a rendezvous either to celebrate if Marta bit on Julia's proposal or to moan if she threw Julia out on her ear.
Marta bit. She liked Julia's energy and track record. She liked Julia's detailed analysis of how the rink would prosper financially and the college would prosper publicity-wise under Julia's guidance.
"We have to compete so aggressively these days to woo students. They have so many options, and name recognition is everything when it comes to competing against all the other liberal arts schools that are out there."
And best of all, she didn't even balk at canceling the Juniper Hills hockey program at Boulder State.
"We're basically overflow ice time for all the youth leagues. And since Boulder State has only intramural teams, I've been thinking that it was time to move on. Juniper Hills is the only league that's based here, and I think all its players play in other leagues as well.
Julia floated out of Marta's office with a firm commitment to schedule a meeting for Julia with school administration. Marta assured her that with her approval, the admin would go for the plan.
"Julia," Marta had said in closing, "I like new ideas. I like people who dream and envision the future and then make it happen. Gilbert is a lovely man, but he was content to just float along with the current. He should thank his lucky stars that you think big. I've watched you since you came home a few years ago. It looked to me like you had taken early retirement. I'm glad to see I was wrong. I'm always willing to take a chance on people willing to take a chance on themselves."
The local newspaper wasn't so kind. The sports editor had a field day at Julia's expense, and letters to the editor railed on both Julia's and Marta's "underhanded treachery" and "desire to spoil and defile sports in Juniper Hills." Winthrop Adams, Julia noted, provided the one letter that supported the move that the Boulder State Rink was making and applauded Marta Ingles's foresight and ingenuity.
What was up with that!
Julia's life changed profoundly in the days following her meeting with Marta Ingles. She delegated the library's P&P group read discussion to Maggie, with severe reservations that Maggie would turn it into focus session on Jane Austen in Boca, which she loved past all reasoning, and the more nuanced themes that Julia had planned to highlight, namely those around parental monsters and sibling sirens in Austen's character development, would be swept under the library carpet and forgotten. But what else could she do?
She reneged on three magazine writing assignments that she had already accepted---one from Single and Smiling, one from Flatlander Arts, and one from It's a Doggone World--knowing that to do so would be to sign the death warrant on her budding freelance career, but Gilbert Matthews had told her flatly that she had enticed him out onto the limb of the skating tree with her proposal, handed him a saw in the form of a figure-skating only rink, and he fully expected her to get them both out of the tree before Marta Ingles found out that she was a fraud and ran them both out of town.
Julia told Gilbert to take a Valium and go shopping---they would be fine---but she cancelled everything else in her life all the same and buckled down to being a hard as nails business woman again. The first order of business was reviewing the contracts of the current skaters and weeding out the hobbyists from the true competitors. She wanted at least half a dozen home-grown stars that she could groom as local celebrities. The rest would be recruited from around the country, with a few international skaters thrown in to spice up the practice sessions and keep the Americans from getting too cocky.
"Rich family, but a hard worker nonetheless. Parents divorced but committed to making Amanda happy. Long legs, flexible, blond. Could be a better jumper with more upper body. The best spinner in intermediate girls. Will probably get distracted by a boyfriend within the next couple of years."
"Keep her?" Julia eyed Gilbert over her notebook while he pondered this latest decision.
He nodded, and Julia put a check next to Amanda's name.
"Talented. Cocky. Hates to work hard. Would rather skate shows than competitions but always comes through when he has to. Good double axel. Working on a triple sow. Could be a dynamite spinner but won't work on the fundamentals."
"We keep him." This time it wasn't a question.
Gilbert shrugged. "We need male skaters. He's a flake, but we keep him," he concurred.
And on they went, cataloging, itemizing, sizing up the horseflesh in the Boulder State arena with potential and return on investment in mind. In the end, they earmarked almost half of the contracts, or thirty-seven of the eighty-four skaters currently in the Boulder State figure skating program, for renewal and put the remainder in the pile to receive the short but polite letter from Julia, newly named as the executive director of newly named Go Figure skating program homed at Boulder State.
Once the letters were sent, Julia turned to the more interesting job of recruiting the nation's up and comers, or more to the point, their parents. She also had scrutinize and argue with Gilbert over who he wanted to fill out his staff. He already knew who he wanted for the off-ice dance and conditioning staff, and Julia couldn't argue with his choices there. But Gilbert was hopelessly arrogant when it came to adding to the figure skating coaching staff.
"Typical cat fighting," Julia muttered under her breath when she saw that he had marked lines through three-fifths of the names she gave him for consideration. She was starting to regret that she had delegated the staff choices to him.
"You have to have different styles within the program," she argued. "If you're all classical nuts then you're at the mercy of judging whims."
"We are anyway, love," he snapped back. "Skating is all about who likes what. Who sleeps with who. Whether gold or fuschia is the flavor of the month."
"That's skating. I thought you knew that, Julia. Surely you don't think that Go Figure is going to be somehow purer than Zamboni shavings, do you?"
"So what color are you going to go with for your ball gown next year?"
Julia stared at Lars---his questions were usually out of left field, but years of friendship had given her an inside track on figuring out what he was talking about. Lars had dropped by Julia's office at the rink---it was a lovely maple and ivory affair, feminine but strong, with views of the mountains to the west. He often stopped by with lunch, fearing that Julia would all but forget to eat while she was whipping her Go Figure program into shape.
"For next March's gala. Jules, you're not throwing in the towel on the library are you, just because you've gotten a new hobby?"
"This is not a hobby." Julia was appalled. How could he think such a thing. Granted, she had allowed herself to become consumed by her new job, but it was a demanding job. Sometimes she felt as if she had triggered an avalanche and was now being swept down the mountain and must keep her arms and legs flailing madly in order not to be sucked under the mountain of snow. Pushing aside any disquieting thoughts about why she had triggered the avalanche in the first place, she focused on the concrete.
"I don't have time to sew, Lars. In fact, I think it would be wonderful if you and Maggie organized the gala. I'll go, of course..."
"Why do you look so skeptical?" Now she felt irritated with him. She had been drifting. Now she had a purpose. She had come back to her roots. She was doing what she knew would have thrilled her dead mother. She was well on her way to becoming high priestess of the skating world, pouring her manifold sources of energy into grooming top skating talent. Just a few months ago, she had been a disgruntled Romantic...all dressed up and only a gala at a civic center to go to and now she was burning bright and hot and turning things in her hometown upside down. That was good, right? She was making a difference...right?
"Actually, Win Adams had a great idea for this year's gala."
Julia's head whipped around.
"Maggie and I have been auditing one of his courses."
Julia felt a fury building. "Don't tell me---the ‘all women authors are trash' course, right?" she snapped.
She turned her back for one minute and her friends deserted her.
"It's quite good. Not at all the way it sounds. Win really does like Austen and the other women writers, you know. He just picks provocative titles to get people like you to move out of their comfort zone. He likes to stir things up, get people thinking."
Julia sat down. Suddenly nothing seemed to matter anymore. She felt the wind coming out of her sails, and then she felt her sails sagging in the water. She felt her eyes filling with tears as she gazed at Lars, her old friend, her comrade, her confidant.
"I'm so far out of my comfort zone, I can't seem to breathe," she said quietly.
"What are you doing, honey?" Lars said, taking her hand. "What are you chasing?"
"I want the muse. I want to be brilliant, not just good. I want to matter. I want to make a mark and make a difference. I want to move people out of their comfort zone." She started to cry.
"I don't want people to have to move me out of mine," she added, almost as an afterthought.
Lars smiled at her. She always loved his smile---it was comforting in a gently mocking sort of way.
"You're still Queen Bee, honey," he said. "But you can't throw all the workers and drones out of the hive or they'll be no one to hang out with. You don't really want to be Queen Bee all by your lonesome, do you?"
She shook her head, then she sighed. "I wish I hadn't gone to Marta with the Go Figure plan. I wish hadn't gotten Gilbert all riled up. I wish..."
Honesty was hard.
"Go on..." Lars had swallowed the last trace of irony from his face.
"I wish I hadn't felt so threatened by Win Adams."
© 2005, 2006 Copyright held by the author.