I’ve been working on a creative non-fiction/essay project for a little while now, and I have been sharing little snippets here and there, but felt it was time to share one of the short pieces that will go into it in its entirety. It’s a very rough draft of an essay I wrote over the past couple days … and the first full “chapter” I’ve been able to churn out in a while! In the spirit of summer, I put together a collection of mini memories about my sketchy history with bikes.
I can say with moderate confidence that I had a pretty good childhood, or at least not one that I have ever felt the need to use as an excuse for any of my worst problems in adulthood. While mild dysfunction is part of the cursed lot of all of us that must be raised by flawed humans, my dysfunction was more of a piquant condiment than a force-fed, poisonous main course. And I believe the fact that it was just a tasty life accompaniment helped me to cook up character and strength instead of sociopathy. However, there was one huge reality that began in my childhood and thrust a big, fat stick in the spokes of the wind-in-my-face, tassle-flying joy that acts as a sweet accompaniment to most little girls’ happy-go-lucky lifestyle: horrible bike karma.
Riding bikes went fine for a while, and I actually was quick to get the hang of my garage-sale-purchased light blue bike with the big girl, non-banana seat. My then nervous, semi-risk-aversive and meticulous spirit chartered the next day’s voyages through the complicated streets of my immediate neighborhood each summer night as I drifted to sleep. I tried to drown all thoughts of training-wheel-free wobbles turning into full-fledged crashes, but my submerged fears swam to the surface as the accidents – and my skinned arms, legs and chin – started to pile up.
My bad bike karma began with some innocuous tumbles on breezy, traffic-free residential side streets in south suburban Chicago. The fleet of my mom, dad, sister and I took family bike rides on crisp spring and hot summer weekends to a semi-secret meadow of honeysuckles and lilacs, even though everyone was allergic. The blossoms lined up to stare at us and guarded the entrance to a long field that seemed untouched despite being a well-traversed divide between two populated neighborhoods. Sometimes we would walk our bikes across the field, entering into the alternate universe of the houses just behind ours, which we could usually only glimpse through the narrow slats of our backyard fence. (Years later, my mother would give into her floral excitement and plant a lilac bush in our own backyard. I imagine the ashes of my childhood shaggy dog, Cindy, are still buried there, unbeknownst to new owners.) On the way back from or to the lilacs, I would sometimes end up laid out on the hood of a car or thrown into a cozy patch of grass at the command of my awkward, pedaling limbs.
But the intensity of the bike disasters soon escalated. I have a pungent memory of those first terrorizing moments when the injury stakes were raised, and I also became an object of my older sister’s Schadenfreude. When my mom felt my sister was old enough to watch me in the outside world, she gave us both some independence and let us ride together swim team practice at the local pool. One bold day, when I was eight-years old, we asked her if we could ride several blocks further to the Dunkin’ Donuts across the busy four-lane highway, with a dizzying speed limit of 35 miles per hour.
We drudged through an hour or two of back and forth in the pool and then scrambled to get on our terrycloth shorts and shove goggles and towels into our almost-matching tote bags – though mine had pastel pink accents and my sister’s smoggy-sky blue. I was daydreaming of making a win-win decision between a vanilla-cream-filled or strawberry-frosted donut when she took off in front of me, and I jumped into the saddle to follow, almost-but-not-quite getting my bag over my shoulder. As my sister crossed the small-time speedway of 183rd Street, I leaned forward and hurried to beat traffic. But my bag caught in the spokes, and I hurled forward face first into the asphalt, losing a chunk of my chin. My sister’s unquenchable pastry lust had abandoned me, and when I arrived bloody and sobbing, she was already sidled up to the counter with donut crammed in her 11-year-old face, slinging threats so I would not call my parents from the pay phone and tell them what happened before she could finish. I obliged and licked my tear-soaked pastel frosting with deflated hunger. (This memory of my sister may or may not be dramatized by an eight-year-old with a sibling-related victim mentality.)
Soured by the skin-peeling donut incident, I did not ride a bike again until junior high school, as a response to a beloved boy’s meaningful bike riding. My first biker boyfriend came along in sixth grade. I met him when we were both relegated to the back table of our accelerated language arts class because there were fewer desks than gifted children … with “L.A.” scrawled across our notebooks. But it was short lived, the relationship killed by my embarrassment that a boy was calling me on the phone in front of my parents and an untrue scandal that we had been spotted holding hands at a local movie theater.
That boy would not yet be denied. A little over a year later, I was at my best friend Kate’s house, and we began to catch him circling the block during the summer. My mother had also spotted him slowing down in front of my own house, despite the fact that he lived at the other end of my hometown’s universe. On a half-rainy day, Kate and I co-conspired to back-stalk and sneak over on the bikes in her garage to spy on him. I remember I was wearing a green William and Mary sweatshirt with yellow lettering, white shorts and had been relegated to her sister’s bicycle, which may or may not have had the properties of a functional bike. We did not even make it out of her immediate neighborhood before the chain broke and threw me onto the familiar pavement. More scraped knees and a humiliated bike-push walk back, and I felt further vindicated in picking up my bike boycott where I left off. That particular boy and I did rekindle with flash-in-the-pan passion that produced dreamy drawings dedicated to me, penciled love notes, some experimental teen poetry and a night of making out on a darkened school bus on the way back from a class ski trip at the end of junior high. But in the end, we were just not beschert.
That early teen summer marked the beginning of regular brushes with boys and bikes. And my inability to survive a bike ride unscathed mirrored my inability to avoid a soul-shattering spill in love. It is no wonder that most of my life’s grandest romantic gestures have involved bicycles … and extra-specially no wonder none of the results of the grand gestures stuck and have left permanent scars on my heart.
One of the only dates I had in high school with someone other than my long-term high school boyfriend was a star-crossed, near-twighlight bike date. Of course, I only now know that boy “liked me” liked me. Halfway through a nearby neighborhood, my bike chain ran off its rails and scratched my calf. After he fixed it on the spot, through profuse bleeding and grease-stained legs, I continued on until we arrived back at my house. We never rode again, and I returned to a bikeless world until my 30th birthday weekend.
A former friend of mine used to find sneaky ways to try to make me believe something just for her was a gift for me. The day before my 30th birthday, she was playing a daytime Saturday show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and she said, “Come on out, and we’ll celebrate your birthday afterwards. It will be fun.” In retrospect, my first instinct that birthday “fun” does not equal “seeing a band I quit because I could not stand to hear the lead singer’s voice for one more minute in a dirty, cigarette-smoky punk rock record store that has not officially opened yet” should have taken over and prevented me from entertaining her idea at all. And I should have also left when I got there and the owners – a contentious couple – were still building part of the store 10 minutes before the show was going to start, demanding the help of attendees. However, another boy – this time a full-fledged man – on a bike swooped in to affix me to my dusty spot.
The birthday fun trickster was our mutual friend, and he and I had met several years before and shared a show and a dance. And when a hurricane brought him back to the city, he was svelte from southern biking, and after an email about getting dinner and drinks, I could not help but explore. He lived a couple blocks from the show and when he showed up said, “Your birthday will not be ruined.” I would come over to his house. We would drink beer and eat chips and guacamole from the corner bodega. We would play guitar, make up comedic songs about food and ignore the fact that our mutual friend had also been using my birthday as a smoke screen to enable her to sneak off to have a clandestine love affair in a car. And when under a haze of Presidente, I would ride his bike around the kitchen island and not fall, I would feel 13 and not 30 – nostalgic for the bike-accident-free childhood that never was.
He and his shiny green sidekick would break, save and break my 30-33-year-old heart over and over … and over again. The second time I showed up to see him perform music, I was not his only suitor. And unlike Alex P. Keaton with two dates to the prom, he could not even juggle for an hour, and I was sent home before show time with the offer of cab fare. After I spent a long weekend enjoying forgetful rooftop parties and music, just like the 13-year-old boy before him, he rode all over town in search of me to apologize, finding me at the same friend’s bar in Brooklyn where we had kissed a couple months before. And after escorting his wheels to his apartment that night, I accepted that apology in the form of a picnic dinner and dancing on the floor of his room set to a Blue Stars and Umbrellas of Cherbourg soundtrack.
He grand-gesture rode all over the city for me off and on for three years, though I somehow avoided doing any riding myself. (I wasn’t about to press my luck.) Even though the original green bike was stolen and replaced several times, I cannot remember the end of many evenings with him that did not involve finding a car service car big enough for the three of us. Still, on the morning after my 33rd birthday, I knew our special bike years were over.
In the summer of 2009, I took a long weekend vacation to Portland, OR to visit my sister, by this point disinterested in retroactive donut revenge, after losing a major work gig. She had asked me if I wanted to do a big Portland bridge bike tour with her and her boyfriend, but at first I did not think I was ready to engage in a bona fide bike ride after so many years out of practice. And I was shy of borrowing one of their discarded bikes, considering my past luck with bicycles that had been cast aside in favor of better ones. There were three route options: one that involved just a few bridges; one that involved more bridges; and one that involved all the bridges one could find in Portland.
My desire not to back down when faced with a challenge and also not to miss out on an experience with the potential of being extraordinary led me to sign up for the middle-length tour in the parking lot of the local grocery store and buy a striped-and-Speed-Racer-blue helmet. I tested out the designated loaner bike for 15 minutes in the street in front of my sister’s apartment the night before the race to make sure I could get through a block without falling and was left to wobble my way to the starting line with an unclear map early in the morning.
The only thing worse than my biking abilities is my sense of direction in a half-familiar place. If left with nothing but breadcrumbs deep in the woods, 100% alone and surrounded by nothing that would eat them, I would find a way to second-guess my own trail. I am still not certain which route I took, but I know I ended up biking about 10 miles more, on a half-broken bicycle that did not allow me to go up most hills and offered high and low gears, but nothing in between and with a man hot on my tail for three-fourths of the tour, dinging his bike bell in constant intervals, inspired by nothing more than a free-wheeling zest for living. At the bottom of a ravine that I was not supposed to have found, I was passed by my sister’s boyfriend with a, “What the hell are you doing here?” as I gritted my teeth and pedaled into the wind with furious feet.
Somehow, I did not fall. There was a dancing pickle and a middle-aged standing-in-place marching band celebrating my success at the finish line. And I now know nothing says, “You stayed upright; you’re still alive; your ass is numb, but you are a biking goddess” quite like a dancing pickle and a middle-aged, stationary marching band blasting out a Michael McDonald medley.
For a while, the high of my longest, least injurious bike ride led me to believe I would take up biking back in New York City. I made tentative plans to get my deceased mother’s barely-used bike from Chicago (since I sold mine to an old friend’s father years before). I warned my sister she might have to send my helmet. Everything was falling into place.
Except I did not ride a bike again until I house-and-dog sat for my father for a month while he went on a post-retirement tour of Italy in September, 2012. I was not confident of my ability to navigate the streets of the town he had moved to after I moved away, even though it was right next to the one where I had grown up, so I avoided real-world biking. But I was sick of running after the first two weeks. My dad had set up his own bicycle in the basement on a block so it could be used as a stationary bike. And this is when I proved that bikes can still hurt me, even when not taking me anywhere. After two weeks of riding for an hour or more per day in front of a sleepy single-dog audience, I ended up with a raging shoulder injury that came to a flat-on-my-back head the day I was to travel back home with 60 pounds of luggage.
I know I can get hurt riding through the world whether taking or avoiding risks. So, I think it is time to let the bike-abuse go, let loose and commit to the thrills-and-spills life of a full-time cyclist.