Friday, November 26, 2004

The slippery slope of embarrassment

From the folks at diarist:

What's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you? You know... the story your "friends" just love to tell at parties to make your face turn red. A case of mistaken identity? A slip of the tongue? A public display of insanity? Set the scene and tell the tale the way everyone except you loves to hear it told.

What I discovered is, I am either sadly lacking in quality stories of embarrassment or I have so deeply repressed them that it is as if they never happened. I read Stephan the prompt.

"What about the time you got fired from the ice cream place?" he asked.

Yeah, but I love that story. Not embarrassed.

"OK. What about those speeches you had to make in junior high? You were embarrassed by those."

Well, yeah. Except it was just me being really bad at it, but it wasn't funny. It's not a story anyone asks to hear. How boring is my life? C'mon, now! We've known each other since we were 17! I did spring break in Daytona, I've had bad relationships, bad jobs, bad haircuts - where are my stories?

"What about that time on the ice?"

Paydirt! Knew I was right to marry that man.

I went to college at Cornell University, a beautiful school of deep gorges and steep hills that for nine months of the year is hidden under several feet of ice and snow. For reasons that no longer make sense to me, I refused to buy snow boots my freshman year. I had gotten by for years without them, so why start now? Each morning, my very long walk to class started by crossing a footbridge that led from my dorm to a corner of the Engineering Quad. It was my favorite part of the walk because of the little waterfall cascading down the far side of the gorge. In the warm weeks it sparkled; in the long cold months, it was frozen. At just the right time of morning, it captured a rainbow perfectly inside it and to this day I have rarely found any better motivation to get myself up and moving.

One bright morning the weather seemed innocent enough, but was in fact about to make the students hurrying to class pay for its shenanigans the night before. Like the Eskimos with snow, people who live in upstate New York have many words for weather. Weather discussions often open with, "What's it doing outside?" which lets any unwary downstater know that there is a shared understanding that it will be doing *something* outside. Rain, sleet, snow, freezing rain, slush, hail, powder. Something is forever falling from the sky or sitting on the ground. The bright morning in question had followed a night of alternating rain and freezing rain, which eventually turned to snow. All night long the ground had been coated in layer after layer of water, freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, until everything turned into one continuous sheet of ice which was then disguised under a thin coating of pristine fluffy snow.

I had my morning routine down to a science, rolling out of bed and out the door in 20 minutes. "What's it doing outside?" I asked my roommate.

"Not much," she said, peering out our tiny window. "Sunny, snow on the ground."

With my thick wool peacoat, soft plaid scarf, leather gloves, I was ready for the cold. The snow was fresh and crunched lightly under my sneakers as I made my morning pilgrimmage to the frozen waterfall. I took two steps onto the bridge before I realized that something was terribly wrong. I stopped, but the scenery kept moving as my whole body slid to the left. The wind always blowing along the gorge had pushed the water as it froze so by this point it was sloped a good twenty degrees. As I arrived at the edge of the bridge, I grabbed the railing, which was also frozen under a solid sheet of ice so that I had to wrap my arms around it like a long lost friend. Students trudged past me in their snow boots, their eyes downcast and their pace slowed. I watched the measured steps they took, the way they out their feet down flat instead of rolling heel-to-toe. Lesson learned, I regained my balance, released my friend the railing, and tried to take a step. My right foot flew out behind me in a move Bob Fosse would envy as my arms windmilled in the time honored tradition of falling on one's ass as gracelessly as possible. I crawled to the railing and hauled my cold, partially wet self back to a standing, rail hugging position. People steamed by me, neither seeing nor caring. Clearly I was going to die there.

Think! I urged myself. This is the way the dinosaurs died, my mind mocked me. I had visions of my skeleton being unearthed generations in the future, still clutching that railing. Just then, a large sure-footed man and small sure-footed woman turned onto the bridge. They walked close together, talking and laughing, stryfoam cups steaming in their hands. Without allowing myself to think about it, I reached out and grabbed a handful of backpack with each hand. As far as half-baked plans go, this went surprisingly well. My grip-of-death, normally reserved for boyfriends' arms during scary movie scenes, distributed the drag factor of my useless weight between my two unwitting human zambonis and I skated happily along the rest of the bridge. When the bridge ended, I thought, why let go now? The entire world was one big skating rink, my sneakers may as well have been greased glass, and I had a long way to go. With a puzzled expression, the sure-footed woman turned to smile at the student who seemed to be walking awfully close behind her. As her eyes flicked down to my hand, my guilt instantly let go of the fistful of her backpack.

For one perfect moment all was silent and still.

Then physics roared back to life, kicking my legs out from under me with enough force that I yanked yank the man's packpack hard enough to spin him around. Sure-footed enough not to land on top of me, he could only watch as I fell, pulling his backpack off and landing on the ground like an entry in a clumsiest thief contest. In the end, it was fortunate that the earth was too frozen to heed my pleas to open and swallow me up. The sure-footed couple hauled me to my feet and walk-dragged me to my first class. They even had the grace to make me feel as though they were laughing with me, even while they also laughed at me. Not an icy morning has gone by since that I don't smile and think of them while putting on my snow boots.


At November 28, 2004 at 8:19 AM, Blogger Robin said...

No one tells a story the way you do! How funny and scary! Ya, I bet you wear those boots all the time now!
Glad you survived to tell the tale.

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