Thin Ice

‘Oh, shit, here she comes.’

It was too late to cross to the safety of the other side of the street. She’d been spotted. A wave, yes, she most definitely had been spotted.

‘Shit. Oh no, don’t hurry your pace to catch- she fell. Shit that looked painful.’

Emma ran to Susan who lay writhing on the sidewalk.

“You alright, Susan?”

“My knee…” Susan was fighting back tears and losing.

“Here, get up from the ice, you’ll freeze.” Emma offered her mittened paw, which Susan grasped with her naked hand, painted pale purple by the slap it took to the ice. She groaned in misery as she tried to take to her feet. Instead, she slipped again, toppling Emma on to her. Emma’s boney elbow jabbed Susan smartly on the side of her skull.

“Ow!” Susan cried.

“Sorry!”

“No, no, my fault. My fault.”

Both women pulled themselves off the ice on their own, gingerly.

“Sorry, I’m no good to you,” Emma said to Susan, as she rose to her feet, wincing.

“Forget it, it was my fault. I’m sorry I pulled you down on me.”

“I’m sorry about the elbow to the head.”

“Would you stop apologizing? It’s not your fault. Anyway, I’ll live.” Susan offered a little laugh as to prove it true.  “Where you going?”

“Nowhere. Home.”

“Wanna grab some cocoa? You in any rush?”

Her only rush was to get as far away from this woman as fast as possible. But, this would arouse suspicion. “No,” Emma answered without enthusiasm.

“Great! How bout cocoa?”

‘Cocoa. She even calls it, ‘cocoa’. She must be the only student in the country to invite another for a hot cocoa. Everyone else is drinking coffee or beer.’

Emma had no choice but to accept Susan’s offer. “Sure, cocoa,” she resigned.

“Great!” Susan slipped her arm around Emma, lasping them together, and began walking them towards the closest Tim Horton’s. Susan felt the other woman’s body tense. She could feel Emma’s back become hard, her spine taut. “I spent a summer in Korea. This is how all the women walk there. Neat, huh? So much more personal. Everyone’s so stuffy here, don’t you think?” Emma grunted noncommitedly. She preffered stuffy walking. 

‘A summer in Korea. Big deal.’ Emma scoffed silently. ‘Now I suppose you think you’re Korean, or an expert in the culture. That’s why you walk like this, to slip it into conversation that you’ve been to Asia. Big deal. I fucked your boyfriend last night, how’s that grab ya?’ As soon as the thought crept out from the dark recesses of her subconscious, it burnt her conscience.

They sat at a counter looking out the front window at the grey and white limestone campus. Even the white was grey, everything was grey this scaldingly cold December day. The sky, the snow, the library across the street, the sidewalk, even the students’ faces, carved by the cheerless wind. The Doom of the Christmas Exam Judgement Days hung over every head. The seriousness of these upcoming tests chiseled into their limestone faces.

Emma sipped her black coffee. It tasted especially acidic since Susan had treated. Emma focussed her eyes forward, pretending to take special interest in the swayings of the icy branches. Beside her, Susan licked the whipcream off her hot chocolate. She swallowed and spoke: “What are you doing for Christmas? Any special plans?”

Emma shrugged, looking straight ahead. “Same as every year since the divorce. Go home, see my Dad Christmas Eve, and my Mom Christmas Day.

“Your parents are divorced? Oh, sorry, I didn’t know.”

Another shrug from Emma. “Aren’t everybody’s?” Susan dipped back into her drink. Emma supposed it was her turn to ask. “What are you doing for Christmas? You going home?”

“I’d like to, but, I can’t afford it. Too far.”

“Oh, right. You’re from Vancouver, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been home for Christmas in four years, since coming to school here.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah, it’s been pretty shitty, but, this year’s going to be great. Steve’s parents have invited me to their place, so, that’ll be nice. I love his family. It’ll be great to wake up Christmas morning surrounded by people I actually love. Last year I spent Christmas with my cat. My cat’s great, but, it’ll be nice to have people.”

“Do all your housemates go home?”

“Yeah. Just me and Kitten.” Susan laughed then sipped her hot chocolate.

“That must’ve sucked. Sorry.”

Now it was Susan’s turn to shrug. “Yeah, it did.”

“What did you do all day?”

“Felt sorry for myself, mostly. I had big plans to cook a nice dinner, not turkey, you can’t find a turkey just for one person. I was going to cook chicken, and stuffing and all that, but ended up just ordering pizza. Pathetic, huh?”

“There’s a pizza place open on Christmas?”

“Apparently. Jim’s Pizza was open. When the guy came to the door it made me feel worse. I felt worse for him, having to drive around delivering other people’s pizzas on Christmas. I invited him in, but he said he had to go make more deliveries. Guess there’s a lot of people eating pizza on Christmas.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. But, this year’ll be fun. I can’t wait, actually. Steve says his family has a whole bunch of traditions they do every year, just like my family, which’ll be nice to be a part of. Every year my Mom, Dad and I hang our stockings above the fire place on Christmas Eve, then have eggnog. I hate eggnog, but, I drink a cup every year cause tradition. Then, Dad plays some Christmas songs on the guitar and we all sing. Pretty cheesy-”

“No-”

“But, fun. I really miss it. yeah.” Susan cleared her throat, smiled softly, then drank her cocoa. Her eyes moistened; Emma didn’t think she could take it if she started to cry. Susan cleared her throat again, then asked: “How about your family? Do you have any special traditions you do every year?”

“Not really. Not any more. We had a whole bunch before the divorce, but now, no one’s in the mood.” This last sentence came out much more confessional than she had wanted.

“That’s really sad. Sorry. When did your parents get divorced?”

“Ah, four years ago, right before I started here. They actually told me the night before I came, like, as I was finishing packing, if you can believe it.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, nice going away present, huh? I almost didn’t come.”

“I bet.”

“I woke up the next day, just… and I went down for breakfast and I saw my Mom and Dad in the kitchen and they were, like, totally ignoring each other and like, throwing all their attention on me, like, talking to each other through me and treating me like a delicate flower and I just couldn’t stand it. Even then I could see that that was how it was going to be from then on and I started screaming right in the middle of the kitchen: ‘Take me to school! Take me to school now!’ Like at the top of my lungs.” (Now she laughed at the memory.) “It really scared them. My Mom was going to drive me in the early afternoon, cause she had to work, but they knew they owed me big time, so she called in sick and we left ten minutes later.” Another laugh followed by another sip of coffee. Her coffee was almost gone. She had been using her coffee as the hourglass to this conversation. When the coffee was gone, she would be, too.

“I’m really sorry, that must have been really shitty for you. I can’t imagine how you got through that first year after that. Hmm.”

Emma hated that Susan’s sympathy sounded sincere. She wanted to hate her, it would make her actions from the night before easier to swallow. She started to choke as she spotted Steve in line at the cash register.

“You ok?” Susan asked, placing a hand upon her shoulder. Emma continued coughing, hoping to distract attention away from Steve onto her. Maybe Steve would see them before being seen by Susan and slip out quietly.

“I’ll get you some water,” Susan rose from the stool, turned and squealed, delighted. “Steve!”

‘Shit. Shit. Shitty shit shit.’ Emma looked over to see Steve’s expression switch from pleasant surprise to pale horror, mirroring her own reflection.

Susan was too busy being happy to sense the drop in both their barometers. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “I didn’t think I’d see you today! I figured you were studying all day.”

“Study break.” He looked at Emma in disbelief. She looked away. It made her feel spiritually bankrupt to see them together. Steve sat at the far end of the counter from Emma. Susan sat between them.

“How’s studying going? Accounting tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Yup.”

“You ready?”

“Nope.”

“You’ll do great.” She caressed his cheek. “He always worries and he always aces everything,” Susan said, gushing with pride.

Emma faked a smile. Steve bowed his head, blushing. They sat in silence. Emma gulped the last mouthful of coffee. It gave her heartburn. She stood.

“Well, bye.”

“You’re going?” Susan asked, obviously disappointed. Emma didn’t look at Steve, but, she could have killed him.

“Hey guys!” Emma turned. Brian Samaguchi stood holding a large coffee to go. She feared where this could lead, so she tried to hasten her exit.

“Hey, Brian. Gotta go, excuse-”

“Wait, how you feeling from last night?” His gaze shifted from Emma to Steve, then back to Emma. Susan followed his eyes, her brow furled with consternation. “Were you as wrecked as I was? Shit, that was crazy.” Emma felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She wanted to run, but her feet were frozen to the floor. Steve was suffering far far worse. Susan was afraid that she would soon suffer.

“You went out last night?” Susan asked, unable to hide her condemnation.

“Ah, just for a beer.”

“Just one? Really? Shit man, when I saw you, you were slurring like crazy.” Brian was entirely insensitive to the cat he had just let out of the bag. The cat was a panther and it was rabid. He fed it more scraps. “You both were, falling all over each other on the dance floor, you two were hilarious,” (to Susan) “you should’ve seen them… where were you? Why didn’t you come out?”

“I wasn’t invited.” Steve reached for her hand. Susan pulled away, folding her hands in her lap, clearing her throat.

“Oh.” Now even Brian could sense that something was wrong. “Ah, well, I’ve gotta get back to the books, I can hear them calling: Brian! Brian!” he said, trying to be funny. He was the only one who laughed. “Anyway, see you guys later.”

“Bye.” Susan spoke for them all.

“I gotta go, too,” Emma spoke up after Brain had left.

“Ok. Bye bye.” Susan flashed a toothless smile, eyes full of fangs.

“See you later.” Emma was slow to leave, because she felt questions were forthcoming. They were being saved for Steve. Emma had taken a step when she heard Susan say something in Korean.

“Ship-pal-nom.”

Emma turned back to her. “Huh?”

Ship-pal-nom. That’s Korean for goodbye.”

Ship-pal-nom? Pretty.”

Emma pushed the door open, repeating the Korean words over and over, trying to commit them to memory, so she could later find out what Susan had really said.

‘Ship-pal-nom.’

She looked it up on line. After a bit of editing and guess work, she found the meaning on an English-Korean website. 

Emma turned off the computer, wishing she’d never tried to help Susan up from the ice.

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