Figure Eights| July 27, 2021
She’d hidden her secular past, but it was emerging from the shadows
Her hip was acting up, though rain wouldn’t fall for another three months at least. The ache, an old enemy, crawled its way up her left leg, lodged itself firmly around the bone, and stayed there.
Gabi quietly scrabbled through Tylenol bottles, old syringes, and a nebulizer mask before locating the old yellow box she hoped was still full.
There were a few pills left. She popped two out of their blisters and swallowed them in quick succession. It was quiet, and she was reluctant to go back to bed until the pain surrendered. She walked out of the kitchen, noting the time glowing green on the microwave clock. 03:15. Hmm, there went her night. Was her limp more pronounced than usual?
Like a bee, Gabi’s phone gave three angry buzzes and died as she was trying to see if those unicorn pajamas Sarah wanted had come back in a size six. The pain made it difficult to pull herself out of the low settee to charge it, so she left it on the arm and hoped that with no alarm, Michel would wake her up in time to get the girls ready.
With nothing to do, she rested her chin on the gray serge fabric and looked at her reflection in the dark window. Her hand absently massaging her hip, she wondered why her old injury was asserting itself in the summer. Her days hadn’t been particularly stressful lately, unless your four-year-old having a meltdown on stage in front of all the other mothers at the end-of-year dance recital counted. But that was last week, and Ariella had calmed down enough by the end to take a charming little bow.
Maybe it was age. Gabi looked at her glass ghost and pulled a wry face. She didn’t think 32 could be classified as old enough to cause sudden bone pain. She hoped.
Maybe the pain missed bullying her. Curling up carefully as the medication finally kicked in, Gabi pulled the royal blue piqué blanket up to her shoulders and drifted off. A faint sense of unease followed her into a restless dream of which she remembered nothing when she woke, head aching, mouth dry, and a pert nose in her face.
“Hey, Maman slept on the couch!”
Gabi was still slightly fuzzy an hour later, but grateful she’d managed to get the girls packed up and out in time — a pity for them to come late on the last week of school. Even though theoretically Ariella could come a little later to gan if Sarah left before she did, the little drama queen then had too much time for countless emergencies. She suddenly needed the other drink bottle, and three different colored clips for her hair, but all of them had to be Hello Kitty. And then it was a miracle if she ever got to gan at all.
Michel had engineered a late start at the office on Tuesdays this year, and the extra time was used for a quiet breakfast together.
The Netanya humidity Gabi could never get used to rolled up from the sea and smothered them like a wet blanket, so they relocated from the deck to the living room, Michel holding a coffee so black and strong it made Gabi’s eyes water. Her own green smoothie was a source of no less amusement to her husband, so they poked mild fun at each other’s drinking choices.
“Ah, Michel, I forgot to tell you about this interesting letter my mother got in the mail.” She scrolled through some WhatsApp from the day before until she found the screenshot.
“Here it is! I’ll read it to you.” While Israeli Michel’s spoken French was near perfect — his parents had made aliyah from France when he was a baby — his reading of French was more or less limited to salutations and street signs. It was the opposite in English — his work in computer systems analysis meant he could read the language well, but he found it hard to carry a conversation.
Michel drained his sludge and leaned languidly against a throw pillow as if he hadn’t just consumed enough coffee to jump-start a Bugatti.
“Dear Gabrielle Lavoie,
“We are working on a documentary about Canadian former teen athletes and their trajectory into adulthood. Although your unfortunate accident prevented you from participating in the Olympics, your dazzling career until then touched the hearts of Canadians young and old.
“It is our hope that you kindly agree to participate in this important project. If you are interested, please contact Joelle Bouchard at email@example.com.
“What do you say to that, Michel? Out of the blue!”
Michel was suddenly perched on the edge of the settee, knee jumping up and down like a piston. Gabi was about to comment about the caffeine kicking in, but he spoke first.
“No, no, Gabi. We agreed.”
“We agreed?” She sounded stupid to her own ears, knowing exactly what he meant but caught off-balance by his vehemence.
“We agreed.” He was pacing now. “Nothing about Gabrielle the teen figure skater who became famous at 14—”
“Fifteen.” She tried to head off the stream of words, but they only intensified.
“ —nothing about you skating or Olympics or me in a chiloni school or Shabbat trips or anything we did until we got to where we are today. Le rien, Gabi. Nothing.”
Gabi tried to muster up an appropriate response, or any response, but her brain was empty. She felt curiously detached, watching Michel stalk up and down the gleaming porcelain tiles she hated to clean.
Eventually he came to stand opposite her, a look on his face she couldn’t decipher.
“Gabi, we can’t afford to go back there. Isn’t that what we’ve been so careful of till now? We have this now.” His arms flung out toward the bookcase with its seforim and crystal candlesticks standing proudly on their shelf. “And it’s the best place to be.”
“Yes, this is the best place to be,” Gabi murmured, wary of something undefinably ominous straining at the edges of their conversation.
“Okay, then.” Michel’s shoulders relaxed, his breathing slowed. He picked up his empty cup and gestured to Gabi’s smoothie. “Are you finishing your algae?”
When she shook her head no, he took both cups and put them in the sink.
“Have a great day! Ah, I’ll be home late, Gabi. Car needs a checkup before vacation starts.”
Gabi waved him off from where she was and stayed seated for a long time, hand resting on her hip, a tight coil of something sitting deep in her gut.
This is the best place to be. She wasn’t arguing with that.
Still. Michel’s reaction seemed a little… intense. Out of proportion, even. It wasn’t as though Gabi had told him she’d suddenly decided to display her trophies next to the candlesticks. Or that she was planning on attending a reunion of former athletes.
There was no one she knew in their entire community who would even notice a Canadian documentary about a group of people who had once pursued fame with single-minded dedication, made headlines, and poof! disappeared.
But Gabi would.
With the same sense of curious detachment slowing her every move, she pulled up Gmail and started to type.
Her scalp itched. But it was nice bringing her wig out of its box when the heat and Covid restrictions had forced it into quarantine. Gabi couldn’t remember when she had worn it last — there had been no occasion to torture herself for the longest time when patterned scarves were more popular in their social circle.
She adjusted the clips and combed her fingers gently through the sleek hair, then fiddled with video and volume settings. Scheduling this Zoom meeting had been less complicated than she’d anticipated, even with the time difference. The girls were sweetly slumbering in their butterfly themed bedroom, and Michel was at his regular Thursday night shiur.
“Salut, Gabrielle! Ça va?”
Gabi sat back a bit and squinted at the screen, puzzled. That informal greeting sounded less professional than she’d expected.
“Très bien. I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
An enthusiastic waggle of fingers, and the face drew even closer to the screen.
“Gabrielle! It’s Joelle!”
Joelle Bouchard, yes, that was the name of the person she was supposed to be meeting. That was something about the fame she’d hated — every stranger who avidly read about you in the press thought they had exclusive rights to some sort of friendship by dint of their following your progression from a toe loop to a double Salchow jump.
“Hi!” Mimicking the waggle of fingers made Gabi feel stupid. This whole thing was a mistake.
“Ha, you don’t recognize me. Joelle Tremblay? Fame made you forget school?”
“Joelle? Oh my goodness…” Gabi moved closer to the screen, trying to reconcile the blurry mental picture of her childhood best friend with this enthusiastic bespectacled stranger. Gabrielle and Joelle. The two Elles, they used to call them.
“Oui, can you believe it? What are the odds I get to work on a documentary featuring my old bestie?”
As Joelle took the lead, words gliding out in a sparkling stream, Gabi caught glimpses of the Joelle she’d once known — the glasses slipping down her nose, which she jabbed upward at the last second, the way she tilted her head to one side at the end of a question.
It was good to catch up. To speak of their husbands and kids was nice, but somehow it was more important to hear about each other’s parents and siblings, and then move backward down memory lane to remembering things like the time the school building caught fire and Mme. Lee lost her nerve and screamed louder than all the students combined.
Gabi glanced at the clock and saw with sudden shock that 45 minutes had elapsed. Michel would be home in ten minutes — just time enough to shut down and get the wig off her head. Her stomach tightened.
“Joelle, this has been amazing, really! Sorry we probably didn’t get to talk about anything you planned… should we schedule another meeting? I really must go.”
“Ooh, is that the time? Certainement, don’t apologize! It’s just as much my fault as it is yours. I’ll message you and we’ll set up a time when we can get down to business. But meanwhile let’s be in touch by WhatsApp. I’d love to see pictures of your family!”
Gabi was safely ensconced on the deck with a glass of water when Michel came in, but she knew that the clamminess across her neck and forehead didn’t have much to do with the humidity.
It was as though she’d created a hairline crack in the underwater vault locking away her past. Now there was no stopping the air bubbles escaping upward and breaking the surface. Gabi caught herself humming a bar or two of a song she’d once skated to. From underneath all her jewelry she dug out the tiny red velvet box that held the lucky diamond studs she’d worn to every competition, fingering them gently before stowing them away again.
And for the first time in what felt like an eternity, Gabi found herself wondering what would happen if she jimmied that vault wide open with a crowbar.
She’d spent her teen years being two different people: Gabrielle the award-winning figure skater, Gabrielle Canada’s glowing meteorite, and at home — Gabi the hard worker, Gabi the practical joker. Double existences didn’t scare her.
She was Gabi the doting wife and mother, Gabi the popular addition to Michel’s huge family. Couldn’t she also be Gabi the former athlete, Gabi the baalat teshuvah?
She slept poorly, hip throbbing as the painkillers tapered off in between doses. She was tired and crabby all Shabbat, and found herself snapping at the girls at the slightest provocation.
On Sunday, celebrating vacation’s start, they were invited to a pool party at Michel’s cousin Francine’s house. Sarah and Ariella capered about, splashing madly in sheer glee. Gabi’s heart swelled. She was thinking about forwarding some adorable candid photos to Joelle when a delayed reaction of guilt suddenly accosted her.
Where was Gabi the straight shooter? The Gabi who believed that nothing was ever worth lying for?
A fist clenched deep in her stomach. What had she done?
She suddenly wanted to get home and think.
“Francine, Ariella’s not going to stretch much longer — she’s not used to going to bed this late. It’s been amazing for them, Merci a thousand times!
“Sarah! Ariella! Home time! We’re going to invite Adi over this week and make sprinkle cookies. What do you say?” With a promise like that, their attempts to protest leaving fizzled out.
Gabi lay on the third bed in the girls’ room, softly singing Hamalach even though Ariella had fallen asleep as Gabi was getting her into pajamas, and Sarah had stayed awake just long enough to find the glitter wand she liked to hold as she fell asleep. The pool had exhausted them all. The effect of disrupted nights and the heightened vigilance of her kids near water made her words slow to a standstill as Gabi drifted off.
She was watching her teen self skate on a river before the spring thaw. Gracefully, she twirled and jumped, blades flashing in the sunlight. The Gabi observing admired the clean moves, the crackling energy. And then she saw it — tiny fissures forming along the ice on the river’s edge. They spread wider, forking off in all directions as an exhilarated teen Gabi went into a camel spin, oblivious. The cracks gained depth and speed as Gabi screamed soundlessly, until she heard Michel telling her to wake up, was she having a bad dream?
She slept fitfully, dozing off and starting awake, looking at the clock to see that only 15 minutes had passed. It was like the night before a competition, nervous nausea crawling from her stomach to her throat with the knowledge that she must sleep, even though it was beyond her.
There was a lot she wasn’t sure of, but one thing she knew beyond a doubt. Tiny fissures became yawning holes that spelled danger.
Gabi forced herself out of bed to find Sarah in hysterics.
She could not face shifting the bed and crawling underneath to locate the slim thing that had a way of disappearing down the crack between bed and wall.
“Oh, Sarah chérie, we’ll wait till Papa comes home and he’ll find it for you,” Gabi said in what she hoped was a soothing voice, but Sarah was inconsolable. Ariella started wailing too, upset at being woken up and always ready to create a scene.
“Hey, it’s vacation today.” She thought quickly about what kind of fun they could have. She couldn’t gather the energy to take them to the beach. Then she remembered the Gymboree in the mall. “Who wants to jump on trampolines? Ball pool! Ice cream!” Both girls pattered off happily to choose clothes, while Gabi threw some wilted greens into the Ninja and tried to center herself.
She needed to find some quiet time to speak to Michel. She pushed off Joelle’s request for another Zoom meeting, claiming her kids weren’t settled in their vacation routine yet, which was true. She’d signed them up for a neighborhood day camp that wouldn’t start ’til next week, leaving her to keep them happy and occupied. Or at least occupied.
There was no quiet time. The guilt sat heavily on Gabi, and she could sense a change in Michel, as though he was somehow mirroring what she felt. There was a something foreign about him — an evasive quality, even though she was the one who had something to hide. Once or twice Gabi noticed his gaze sliding away just as she was about to break eye contact.
Gabi needed to get off the ice before they all fell deep into black, icy waters.
She managed to make an arrangement with Francine — Adi would come that afternoon to make the sprinkle cookies as promised, and then all three girls would go back home with her for a kiddie barbecue supper.
Gabi wasn’t going to go crazy and prepare a fancy supper for her and Michel — that would be trying too hard. And anyway, even though Michel left an air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned car to return to an air-conditioned house, the summer heat made light suppers their preference. She toasted baguettes, sliced some cheese, and pulled together a salad with a lemony dressing and nut topping.
“C’est un surprise, Gabi. When was the last time we had supper by ourselves?”
“We should really do this more often.” Gabi hoped Michel hadn’t noticed how little she’d eaten. He hadn’t eaten much, either. She picked up her glass, opened her mouth.
All the carefully planned words flew out of her head. Gabi turned her face toward the sea and what was becoming a beautiful sunset and talked. It was easier than looking Michel in the face.
“Remember that letter my mother got about a documentary? Well. I know you said I couldn’t, or shouldn’t… but I did….”
She told him about Joelle, and the memories that had escaped their undersea vault. She told him about missing Gabi the teen skater; about wanting to free all the things that had shaped her into who she was today.
Finally, she turned toward her husband.
“Je suis désolé, Michel. It was wrong of me to do this without telling you. I just…” She swallowed, jammed her hand on her hip, and pressed, hard. There was nothing more to add.
Michel was still, staring off at the deepening sky and flicking his finger up and down his jawline as he always did when thinking deeply. Gabi waited.
Finally, he spoke, the words cracking slightly as though he hadn’t spoken for days. “The thing is, Gabi…” He coughed and tried again. Flick, flick. “I think I need to apologize to you.”
She inhaled sharply and started to speak, but he held up a finger.
“I was so upset when you told me about that documentary. We agreed to start our lives fresh, to tuck our pasts away. And it felt like you weren’t respecting our commitment. And then…” he coughed again and fell silent.
“I went surfing twice last week.”
She waited, puzzled. She’d seen the surfboard, his flip-flops; knew about his passion for the waves.
“I didn’t go alone.” He pushed the words out in a sudden rush. “Some of my old army buddies told me they were starting an early morning session at the Kontiki surf club where we used to hang out every summer. It’s early enough to be empty. And I missed the chevreh… so I went.”
Gabi wondered if she should be angry. Non, how could she be angry when she’d done almost the same thing?
She imagined Michel surfing, muscles straining as he kept balance while waves crested over and over again. The happy exhaustion afterward amid backslapping camaraderie unique to old friends who had traveled high and low tides together. Michel the Navy star, Michel the pride and hope of his friends and family, holding his own.
And leaving that other Michel behind and coming home as Michel the doting husband and father, Michel the computer systems analyst.
“And then I came home and felt like a hypocrite.” His voice was low. “Because now? I miss it even more.”
Gabi sat up straight. She suddenly knew what she wanted to say. “Michel, imagine my rehab. Gabrielle Lavoie, the Olympian candidate, the girl who would join the handful of people in history who had successfully executed the triple Axel, was now sweating buckets doing leg lifts.
“Instead of a coach yelling at me to tuck in my arms even tighter to increase my rotation rate, I had a therapist yelling at me to use that leg if you ever want it to work again! There were no promises of cheering crowds, of flowers on the ice. It was just me, working for me. And my exercises, pushing myself day after day after day, strengthening my core until my body could hold me.” Her hip twinged suddenly; the pain memory excruciating as if it had been only yesterday.
“And then the work on my soul, no less grueling. Day after day after day, working through the pain, letting go of everything I’d ever known to be important, developing my spiritual muscles, shedding the person I was… you know.”
Michel was nodding, rubbing his chin.
“But isn’t it disrespecting our journeys to pretend they never happened?”
“I wish I knew, Gabi. I always thought that we’re here in spite of our pasts. But recently I’ve been wondering why. Maybe we’re here because of them. If you hadn’t fallen in practice, would you be here today? Or would you still be out there somewhere, obsessing over scores?”
Gabi started. The question hung there, as familiar to her as though she had given it a voice. “I… I think about that sometimes,” she admitted.
“And I thought we had to wipe it all out. To start anew, to give our children the life we knew nothing about, to pretend we were just like everyone else around us. Now… I don’t know.”
“Michel. Maybe we were too quick to decide that we needed to forget the past. And who says we can’t ask? You see Rav Sebbag so often. So now we know how to run a kosher home. We’ve made Pesach and Succot and know where we belong. We’re happy and accepted in our community. Is that it?
“As Sarah and Ariella grow older, don’t you think we’ll have more questions? Isn’t it going to get harder to keep the old Gabi and Michel locked away? Or…” Her words slowed as a new thought struck her. “Maybe I’m wrong, and it will get easier? Shouldn’t this be a discussion?”
Flick, flick. The silence stretched long, lights twinkling on the sea as dark took over.
“You’re right, Gabi.” A glimmer of a smile. “As usual.”
She suddenly thought to look at her watch. “The girls!”
Michel seemed not to hear.
“One more thing.” He turned to her. “No more secrets. Nothing good ever comes from hiding things from each other. Let’s agree that it’s okay to have questions, as long as we share them. We’re on the same team, n’est ce pas?”
Three days later, Gabi felt like a different person now that she was sleeping well again, the pain medication tucked away high in a kitchen cabinet.
Glancing back at Sarah and Ariella starting to bicker as Michel drove a car stuffed with more vacation paraphernalia than they could ever need, she had a sudden idea.
“Who wants to hear a story?”
Two precious faces swiveled toward her.
“Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to skate….”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 753)
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