Two-Man Luge: A Love Story

On the occasion of the 2014 Winter Olympics, we present this excerpt from Claire Battershill’s forthcoming collection of short fiction, Circus. The story of one man’s life in luge.

CLAIRE BATTERSHILL won the 2008 CBC Literary Award for Short Fiction...
 
||Via AP/John DiGiacomo

It wasn’t the sport I would have chosen. That’s the thing about being an Olympian, or any kind of serious athlete, musician, or artist. You don’t decide. Maybe your parents do, or your teachers or your coaches or your friends. One well-timed suggestion and the course of your life is set. But it’s never really you who makes the call. Many people, I’m sure, can’t fully explain why they do what they do for a living. Or they might have a great deal to say, but none of it gets to the heart of the matter. Maybe someone says she became a doctor to help people. But there are lots of useful jobs. Postal workers are immensely helpful, for example. That’s why I find it bewildering when people ask: “Why did you become a lugist?” I just don’t know how to answer that question. I embarrass myself every time. All those repetitive hours of training, those doleful looks from friends who wanted to hang out during sliding times, and I simply have no answer. I didn’t even like toboggans or crazy carpets as a kid, which is a reply I’ve heard my teammate give. No, luge is not something that occurs to a child when he’s at swimming lessons or riding his bike in endless circles in the driveway so his grandmother can keep one eye on him and one eye on Coronation Street. Hockey is the stuff of childhood fantasies. Kids dream of snowboarding, skiing, and speed skating, even. But two-man luge?

*

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve always been an athletic family. My dad was a champion hammer-thrower in his day, and my mum is still freakishly good at cartwheels and handsprings from her time as a high-school cheerleader. We went to all the sporting events we could and cheered just as hard for the six-year-olds competing in the potato sack race at the fall fair as we did for the sweepers at the provincial curling championships. So it was just another family outing when my parents, grandparents, and fourteen-year-old me piled into our van and drove to an elementary school in the next town to see my ten-year-old cousin, Jessie, perform in a fundraiser for her Jump Rope Demonstration Team. We cheered her on as we watched her master the double-under, skip backwards with her eyes closed, and kneel atop a human pyramid while turning two ropes in opposite directions. There were little girls bouncing all around, chattering like wind-up toys. They were barely listening to their coach, an older lady who was head-to-toe Eighties in her neon pink, blue, and white tracksuit, with her hair gathered into a voluminous side ponytail. She seemed to be chewing an entire pack of gum with her back molars, which didn’t stop her from hollering tips from the sidelines: “Smile, Becky! It wouldn’t kill you to grin a little!” The gym was enormous, and the basketball hoops, volleyball nets, and gymnastics equipment were all folded against the walls as if to give centre stage to the event of the moment, the other sports tucking themselves away, quiet as moths. “Baby Love” by the Supremes seemed to be playing on a loop. The girls were performing in small groups all around the gym while their families followed the skippers from station to station. It was like a workout circuit for supportive parenthood.

My cousin’s show-off move was “The Wounded Duck,” and I whistled as she started jumping with her toes together and then clicked her heels back and forth as the rope swung over her head. It was a wonky, sped-up version of the Charleston, and it was somehow graceless and miraculous at the same time. Jump rope was like that: all about the bravura gesture, the one trick that no one else on the team could perform. One tiny red-headed girl did a somersault into the double-dutch set-up and skipped while sitting on the floor, bouncing her bum over the rope while two other skippers turned the long ropes for her. No matter where you were in the room she was the one you couldn’t help watching, the one who held your attention even in a crowd of twenty-odd teammates popping up and down around her. At the end of her routine, she pulled herself up into a perfect bridge position (still skipping), then pushed into a one-handed handstand (still skipping). The crowd stamped their feet and shouted their love and I found myself spontaneously hollering enthusiasm for her along with everyone else. She couldn’t have been older than eleven, but already she must have known that she would always be the best at these tricks. I guess it must have been the same for my dad when his hammer hit the dust way ahead of everyone else’s, or for my mum when she stretched out her arms to make her body into a perfect letter K. What did it feel like to be so skilled? Would I ever be that good at anything?

While the red-haired girl took a break after her routine to greet her adoring fans, I lined up to make a donation at the pledge table, which was manned by volunteers from the grade five boys’ basketball team. They were drawing tattoos on each other’s biceps in ballpoint pen and taking turns throwing their empty juice boxes into a distant garbage can as if they were shooting three-pointers. A boy my own age joined me in line and we signed $1 pledges for heart health and received red skipping ropes for our contributions.

“What are you going to do with yours?” he asked, flicking me playfully on the shoulder with the coiled jump rope he’d just been given.

I told him I’d read that boxers use them to stay agile on their feet. I was trying to sound tough, even though my arm was still stinging from where he’d hit me. “And Floyd Mayweather is the best skipper of all time,” he said. “True story.” He grinned at me as he unfurled his rope and started to skip, first on one foot and then the other, boxer-style. Although he was still a little lanky, he had the swagger of a champion fighter, and his feet danced quick and light as the rope fluttered faster and faster around him like a blur of tiny wings. The way he skipped, his triceps flexing as he pulled the rope over his head nonchalantly, had all the grace and ease and finesse that the little girls lacked. He was literally jumping for joy, which made me want to join in. The more I watched him, the more I felt as though my own feet were hovering just slightly above the ground. Eventually, he twirled the rope to a stop, slung it over his shoulder, and as he gave me a gentle punch on the arm, he said he was glad he’d come to the demonstration.

He said it as if we’d had a choice, but if you knew any eight-year-old girl in the whole Peace River region, even simply by name, who could skip double dutch or cross her arms over or do the grapevine, you were there. Them’s the rules. It wouldn’t occur to me until much later that I could have said that to him. Made the conversation last a little longer. Still, if I hadn’t tagged along with my family for a day of Razzle Dazzles and Turning Rodeos, I wouldn’t have met him that first time.

*

Of course, I’m not the first to question my vocation. There are newspaper editorials all the time attacking the Winter Olympics and questioning what they mean as an institution. Sports like two-man luge, or “doubles luge,” as it’s sometimes called, get the wrong end of the stick in pieces like this. “Luge: A Death Trap for Dummies?” is my latest favourite headline. “Luge is the fastest and most dangerous of the Olympic sliding sports,” the journalist writes, “with athletes travelling at speeds close to 160 km per hour and experiencing centrifugal forces of up to 3Gs – equivalent to those faced by NASCAR drivers – on tight corners. Common injuries include broken bones and concussions. Accidents resulting from poor track maintenance can be fatal. In light of the sport’s dangers, we have to ask ourselves: Why are we spending millions of taxpayer dollars so that athletes can slide down icy man-made tracks at ridiculously fast speeds?”

My mum often asks the same kinds of questions. She wouldn’t let me play rugby when I was in grade ten because she objected to any sport where you have to tape your ears to your head so they don’t get ripped right off. But in luge we keep our chins tucked in to minimize resistance, which doesn’t seem so different. There are helmets to protect our noggins, so that’s something. I’ve never been hurt badly, but bruises are part of any athlete’s job. For us they blossom in the smalls of our backs, right where the body meets the sled. Of course, there are occupational hazards in any job. I’ve been lucky; my injuries have been relatively minor, but you never know what’s going to happen when you push yourself to be that split second faster. That’s the goal, to subtract more and more time from every run so you’re speedier than you think you can be. Sure, there’s always the chance that you might push it too far, might fly off the track, but you have to take risks if you want a shot at that one great run.

*

The next time I met the jump-a-thon boy was at a regional track meet three years later. We were both seventeen, nearly through high school by then, and running the 1500m. I loved running long distances on my own. It was a way to test the borders of myself, to see where the ground beneath my feet ended and I began. Eventually, I found it hard to think without the thud of my running shoes striking the track. I liked running until my legs were numb and my body felt as though it were a sort of watermill, moving of its own accord. I liked varying my speed and distances and testing out my legs to see what they were good for. I liked going until I was past my limits and my whole body gave up and I had to throw up in the bushes and stagger home. I even liked circuit training at six in the morning, doing crunches with a twenty-pound weight in each hand, holding the plank position until I buckled, and, yes, skipping rope. I disliked homework, house parties, and snow shovels, which were the other things I spent a lot of time with. I was bad at saying no.

I had no idea how I would do at regionals because I ran by myself every day after school, with just Coach Bradley, his stopwatch, and an enormous bag of Jujubes waiting for me at the finish (though Coach would eat most of the candy, leaving just the black ones for me). The meet took place on a blue asphalt track with the lanes newly painted in white. All the teams were warming up in the soccer pitch in the middle, some wearing matching warm-up suits with their last names embroidered on the sleeves. I wasn’t even wearing a school jersey for the race, just a Canucks T-shirt and some old soccer shorts. “I Get Knocked Down (But I Get Up Again)” was playing on a wheezy megaphone, and families were setting up picnic blankets and portable cushions on the bleachers. I could see my mum and dad, sitting beside a Tupperware bin of orange slices that was large enough to fuel a whole team.

I heard him before I saw him, could almost hear the grin in his voice: “True story.” He was telling his teammates about a flavour of ice cream that combined bacon and cinnamon, and the eight of them were swinging their legs in circles or bouncing up and down, doing what I would later discover was a plyometric warm-up. My warm-up consisted of a series of static stretches I’d memorized from a handout Coach had photocopied out of an old military fitness book. I sat on the cold ground with my feet sole to sole and my knees pointing outward like French quotation marks, then leaned forward until my nose touched my sneakers. I bobbed up and down a little to intensify the stretch. I know now that my butterfly stretch was disturbingly outdated, exercise science–wise, but I did what I was told. I was wondering if the jump-a-thon boy would remember me when Coach came up behind me and pressed his palm in the small of my back, pushing me deeper into the stretch. “You’ve got this, buddy. Don’t worry about the Eastcreek High jumping beans over there. You’ve got it.” I’m lucky I never tore a hip flexor.

When it was time for the 1500m, the motivational music cut off abruptly and the megaphone crackled our names and schools. The eight of us approached our starting lanes and stood waiting for the horn to sound. The start was my favourite part because the race was all still ahead of you. As soon as you take that first step, the whole sky is in your lungs and you’re the one making the world turn under your feet.

He was four lanes away in slot number two. I could just barely see him lean forward, his fingertips on the ground, as we took our marks, poised like jungle beasts ready to pounce. When the horn sounded, I was off. The scraggly groups of parents and coaches and spectators dropped away. The air felt clean and full in my lungs and my breathing was even. All the other runners eventually fell back and grew small in the distance, leaving just the two of us out in front. We were alone, and going so fast there was no visible landscape at all beyond the asphalt surface of the track. In the last few metres he was so close I could hear his heavy breath and actually feel him right behind me. As we crossed the finish line together, they announced our results, first place for me, second for Paresh Banarjee. During the ribbon ceremony, we shook hands and he grabbed my elbow for extra emphasis, like he was happy I’d won instead of him. But I still couldn’t tell if he remembered me. I wanted to say something. But what? “Hey, remember me? We met three years ago when we watched those jump-ropers doing the Caboose Shuffle?” Before I could think of something less embarrassing to say, he walked away, and I could only watch dejectedly as he headed back to the bosom of his team. I’d turned to make my way slowly toward my mum, Coach, and the Jujubes when I heard an exuberant, clear voice start to sing “Baby Love.” When I looked back, Paresh’s whole team had gathered in a huddle around him and joined in as he kept singing, thinking the song was for his second-place ribbon. I nodded back at him, and hummed the saxophone line in response. Then, once again, we went our separate ways.

*

The only way I can really explain how I got into competitive luge is by talking about inertia. Once you start down the track, there’s nothing you can do to stop, even if you want to. There’s no pausing the sled and hopping out for a breather or a cigarette or a pee break or a little reflection on life. But if you can stay calm and completely in sync with another person for just under forty-five seconds, before you know it the race is done, and your left ankle is wobbling from an old injury you pretend doesn’t bother you, and then you’re up, sled in hand, and sliding off the ice track. After some heats, you leave the track slowly with your head hung low, like Charlie Brown, staring mournfully at your aerodynamic booties. At other times, you hoist your sled up above your head like it’s the Stanley Cup. But that’s competitive sports for you.

*

The spring before I graduated high school, Coach showed up at our house, interrupting the dinner hour to place a crumpled brochure for a winter sports recruitment camp in my mother’s hand. “This is serious, Mrs. O’Farrell. Could be the chance of a lifetime. He’s no runner in the competitive world, not beyond high school the way he’s growing up. But winter sports are a real possibility. We’ve got to put those beefy shoulders to good use.” To give him his due, Coach was very persuasive in convincing my parents that sports would “open doors” for the future. (“There are scholarships!” he said, chowing down on the cookies my mum had offered him.)

“Is this something you want to do?” my mum asked, and I’d said yes, though I had no idea, really, what I wanted.

During my first week at the camp, I made my first slide on the ice track. I held on tight as an experienced lugist settled me into the sled and then climbed in himself. He grabbed the start handles on each side of the track and pulled the two of us forward and back and forward and back and forward and back. Then he gave a final pull and we were launched out into the half-pipe tunnel, the coach’s helmet resting just beneath my chin. I couldn’t help but close my eyes. All our velocity seemed to settle in the back of my neck and I held on to that feeling, anchored it there, and for seventy-five seconds I was less a person and more a straight bolt of light, disappearing into the track. Even on the first try, I felt like the Flash. The screen at the finish blinked 65 km/h. Not bad for a first run, though with practice I’d eventually reach speeds of at least 145 km/h. The coaches assigned me to the two-man team for competition, too. If you’d asked me before the sports camp, I would’ve said I wanted to do singles luge, to be alone out there on the ice like I was on the running trails. But once I realized how it felt to add another person’s weight to the ride, there was no going back. The only thing better than the kiss of the speed is having someone else whiz around the track with you.

It wasn’t until I was leaving the training centre for the night that I discovered that Paresh also had been enrolled in the winter sports camp extravaganza. I saw him standing by the entrance of the Ice House, chatting with an ice dancer who trained in the rink next door. His cerulean speed suit gleamed against the corrugated iron siding of the building and his neck was arched slightly downward, as if he had wandered out of Picasso’s blue period. I didn’t want to interrupt, so I just gave him a little nod as I passed, but I hoped more than anything that he would be my partner, and that we could spend our lives careening down icy slopes together. The thought of it made all the hair on my body stand at attention. Imagine the dead feeling, then, of all those hairs flopping right back down in the lawn chairs of my pores when I realized that my partner would, in fact, be a gruff former javelin thrower with veiny arms and a face pocked with acne scars. Ron was twenty-three and had been on the team for five years. His previous teammate had quit luge to study engineering at university, so Ron was in need of a new partner.

Ron had a habit of arriving at practice wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt printed with small umbrellas and green plaid pajama bottoms over his training clothes. His outlandish wardrobe alone lent him an air of lovable eccentricity, and when he laughed, which was basically every ten seconds, his eyebrows shot up like the ones on a ventriloquist’s dummy.

“So, you’re gonna be a luger?” Ron asked when we met.

“Isn’t is lugist?” I said, missing the joke.

“Luger! Loser! Get it? Ha!”

Ron’s theory was that you had to own the teasing, otherwise your buddies from home would hassle you all the way to the Olympics. He nudged me and winked in an exaggerated way. “We play it up in public so they can’t give us crap. Give ’em what they want to see and forget about it. Cool?” He put his arm around me and kissed me jokingly on the cheek.

I didn’t know what to say. I could feel my ears burning. “Cool,” I said, after a long silence in which I managed to wriggle my way out of his embrace.

“No, dude. Don’t blush. That’s, like, the worst. You might be a natural at the athletic shit, but I can see we’ll be training you on the comebacks.”

Don’t get me wrong: Ron and I had some good times on the track, and he was a nice guy and everything, but he didn’t have Paresh’s sparkle or charm. He didn’t, as far as I knew, have a history of attending elementary school jump rope contests and remembering all the words to the songs. But as the top man on the sled, Ron was in charge of the major steering, the kind that meant we wouldn’t hurtle around a corner to our deaths. So that was important, obviously. Safety first.

Ron’s unwavering friendliness meant that our dorm at the athletes’ village quickly became the social centre for all the winter sports teams. We didn’t get much free time in our training schedules, but whenever he got the chance, Ron would turn up the music and start a party. On those weekends, Ron left our door unlocked, so people would come in and out at all hours, and, after a while, no one even thought to ask if they could eat things out of our mini-fridge or do physio exercises on our floor or treat my bed as a couch. There were frequently banana peels all over the place because Ron liked to offer everyone snacks. “Gotta fuel up!” he’d boom, hugging his armful of fruit close to his body. “Carbs make dreams happen!”

[page]It was like living on the set of a sitcom, except that instead of producing witty jokes about my boss and being greeted with canned applause, I was the guy who came around to adjust the sound equipment and then grumpily shoo the cast off set. I needed to keep to my sleeping schedule, because if I lost even a fraction of a second of sleep, I might gain that fraction of a second on the track. I thought the way our coaches had trained us to think. Still, I continued to hope our ridiculous thoroughfare of a residence would one day entice Paresh to come see us. He had been picked for the bobsleigh team. The scout who ran the camp put us on the same sort of surface but in different vehicles. I still hadn’t actually talked to Paresh – not during the recruitment camp or during the long training period that followed – but I let myself believe he wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see him.

If you wish for something without doing anything to make it happen, you’re leaving too much to luck. Paresh didn’t stop by any of Ron’s parties. He never showed up to drink milk straight from the carton or shadow box against a ski jumper, and I hardly saw him at training. But I came to know his body so well from a distance that I could tell him apart from all the other athletes no matter how far away he was, which is no mean feat in identical suits like ours. I consoled myself with the thought that if I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t come to these shindigs either. I would be in bed, visualizing Ron and me pre-rolling into a dished curve on the track. I also spent a lot of time thinking about what Paresh might be up to at any given moment. Since I didn’t know much about him beyond his having a reasonably tuneful singing voice and a certain level of athletic prowess, my fantasies of him making up his own dance routines alone in his dorm room probably didn’t map so well onto his actual activities. Nor did my hope that he was imagining what Iwas doing all the time, and, like me, was just too shy to do anything about it. After a couple of months of waiting, I began to focus on the broken hearted part of “Baby Love.” That is a rough break, by the way, as far as songs to have stuck in your head for three years running.

*

As competitive athletes, our days are decided for us. Every day at the training ground is more or less the same. We practise our starts in the morning, taking off over and over again on a little shortened track that ends almost as soon as you and your partner are in the sled. After the starts we do everything we possibly can to make ourselves stronger, which means hours of weights or cross-training. In the afternoons, we do full runs together on the long track. We measure time in 1/1000ths of a second, but each forty-five-second run holds countless hours of work inside it. With every passing year, each run we take holds the weight of more and more time. After a while, you can feel all the hours spent building upper body strength, monitoring our food, and fashioning ourselves into the perfect lugists accumulating, building up, hard as muscle under our skins. Eventually, if you follow all the instructions, even learning to breathe in a rhythm with your partner, you begin to feel like an extension of the sled. Let’s face it; humans are not the best at speed. Machines have us beat every time. So I do everything I can to make the mechanics of my own body as efficient, graceful, and invisible as possible. The more your body instinctively knows what to do, the more you feel like you’re part of the motion. You become part of the sliding machine, and everything else is a blur. Once you get used to this blurring, you soon discover this is actually a much easier way to live: no looking up, no distractions, no worrying about what’s outside your immediate field of view.

Now that I’ve let go of even the desire to be independent, the speed feels purer and tenser than ever before. It’s almost nuclear, as if our bodies, our strength, our will power – everything we’ve been saving up for our runs – is constantly threatening to split like an atom and peel off in all directions. But once you’re in the sled, and you can finally let go, all of it explodes with almost cartoonish power, with the POW! of a comic-strip battle, all colour and brightness and superhuman ability. I really feel that power surging through me when I’m on the track, even if it seems ridiculous when I’m dressed in my street clothes. But you can’t have Superman without Clark Kent, can you?

*

In the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, Ron loved to imagine us getting what he called “The Bling.” He even made us choreograph a victory dance in case we made it to the podium. It involved me standing in appreciation, trying to slouch and make rapper hands while he pretended to krump by smashing an imaginary watermelon on the ground and yelling “Boom! That’s right, Canada!” We’d done the pretend victory dance so many times that I occasionally found myself spontaneously slouching and body rolling when I was mixing my post-practice protein shake.

We had a good thing going by the time we got to the Whistler Sliding Centre, Ron and I. We’d reached another level of competitiveness when I learned how to shift my shoulders in perfect unison with Ron’s body, and to let myself slide blindly down with him, seeing only the very edges of the track in a blur of peripheral vision. Only the top man can really see, which is why Ron steers. As the bottom man, it was my job to make the small changes, the minute adjustments that could earn the hundredth of a second difference between a decent time and one that would fail to qualify us for the next race. It didn’t take long for my shoulders to know instinctively what to do to make the right tempo happen in the straight stretches, to feel the slightest shift in Ron’s leg and compensate immediately. So every time we went out to do some sliding, we were superheroes swaddled in the same cape, hurtling our way to oblivion. Usually, I could block everything out but Ron and the sled and the track because I was inside the speed until the run was over. When we finished our second run, though, the applause from the crowds was too much to ignore. After 41.78 pure, clean seconds, our first Olympic competition was over. We’d competed in front of spectators before, of course, but the crowds on the luge circuit are nothing compared to those at the Olympics. The cheering was so booming that the mountains around us seemed to be joining in. We placed eighth in the race, right behind the other Canadian doubles team, who came in seventh. It was basically the result we’d expected. Ron decided that in spite of our lack of Bling we should krump anyway, so we did, right by the finish line, in front of everyone, and the bellow of the crowd expanded and enclosed us. Ron was just what the cameras wanted. He came across as what my grandmother would affectionately call a “character.” He said “WOOoooo! That’s right, Canada!” into the cameras just as he’d planned and held up the athlete’s identity card that he wore around his neck like it was a gold medal.

My parents were in the audience for our event. Instead of an orange grove, this time mum had packed a massive red foam finger with a maple leaf printed on the palm, which looked enormous on her tiny hand as she waved it at me after the race. Coach was there, too, wearing a full suit of Olympic clothing in place of his usual NBA track gear. He looked like he was ready to keel over with pleasure as he handed me a bag of unopened Jujubes. I got all the colours this time. He kept hugging my dad, who made no move to return the affection, and wore nothing festive but the crow’s feet by his eyes. They were so proud it didn’t even matter that we were standing there beside them, rather than up on the podium where Team Austria now stood. As if I was still lying in the sled, I closed my eyes and felt the swell.

*

Our race was early in the Olympic schedule, which meant that we were allowed to do what we liked for the rest of the games. After the over-scheduled days of training, it was a strange sort of freedom, and I felt adrift within hours of finishing the race. What was I supposed to do now? What I needed were instructions for how to have fun. Around me there were concerts and fireworks and strange unidentifiable mascot creatures holding up their maple leaves to flutter in the wind. It was as if the super-bright technicolour of sliding was starting to bleed into the black and white of everyday life. The first night after our event, I went drinking with Ron and even stayed out later than the rest of the team. For once, I wasn’t the grumpy sound guy. I was another character altogether, bobbing along to the music with Ron, who wrapped a giant Canadian flag around us and sang along with Beyoncé. I flirted with a bartender, who grilled me about why I was into luge. “I’m not,” I found myself saying, “I’m into dancing!” and shimmied my shoulders, dipping my head back to inhale an acrid hit of smoke machine air. We stayed so late and drank so much that I was sick in the snow. The last thing I remember is Ron propping me up against him and steering us back to the athletes’ village.

On Day 10 of the games, slightly wilted by a hangover, I went for a run that lasted an entire morning. I wasn’t running to keep up with my training, I just wanted to get back into myself, to shake my muscles loose after the event and feel the ground beneath my feet. I jogged in loops around the ski resort, weaving between tourists on the boardwalk, trying to find stretches of space to be on my own. Eventually, I came to a steep hill and started climbing it, working from my hips and quads, and pushing my way upwards against the wind. It was hard, for once, to focus exclusively on the tightening of my legs and the rough ground under my shoes. All I could think was that I was jump-a-thon good at something now. The world had just told me so. But was that enough of a reason for Ron and me to continue sliding for another four years, and maybe another four years after that? The German team, who won bronze this time, had been together for almost sixteen years. Looking at those guys, I could see how all those forty-five second intervals can add up: to years that glide past before you even notice what is happening. What would it be like to keep track of time some other way? The higher I climbed, the more it became clear that simply carrying on, letting life whiz past me, would not be good enough. If I stayed in the sport, I would have to make that decision for myself. I needed to pause the sled long enough to decide if I really wanted to keep going.

After I finished my run, I procrastinated by Experiencing Whistler. I bought a miniature bottle of maple syrup shaped like a maple leaf and drank it. It was kind of gross and kind of delicious all at the same time. I went into a gift shop to browse and examined some novelty shot glasses on the bottom shelf of one of the many Olympic souvenir displays. The nylon tracksuit rustle of another athlete approaching made me turn around. Paresh was standing a few feet behind me in his Team Canada gear, browsing through a revolving rack of postcards and tapping his foot to some rhythm in his head. I had given up on ever seeing him again, so I just stood there. He was close enough to touch. I held still for a moment longer, counting down from forty-five in my head. Then, I stepped forward and hugged him. As soon as my hands left their rightful place in my pockets, I couldn’t believe I’d done it. But then he hugged me back, and once more with feeling. I took another breath, reached for his hand, and, without saying a word, led him out of the store and into the snow.

Two-Man Luge: A Love Story is an excerpt from Claire Battershill’s forthcoming collection, Circus.