“A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”
~Bill Emerson, “On Bicycling,” Saturday Evening Post, 29 July 1967
Despite the fact of this being 2013 and all, I still find myself amazed by the oldest and most basic of inventions. The Internet I can somehow comprehend, but try to explain a fax machine’s magic and I am befuddled. And then there are bikes, those precarious contraptions that millions of people somehow manage to stay balanced upon even though two small wheels bear the sole responsibility of keeping them afloat. I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve been driving or walking and, upon seeing a group of people on bikes, thought to myself, “How in the world does that actually work?” I obviously understand the basic concept, but still. It’s a little mind-blowing in that fax machine kind of way.
As a kid, I loved riding my bike up and down my little street on the west bank of the Mississippi River (for those of you from New Orleans, and, specifically, from the west bank, feel free to shout “west bank” loudly and proudly right….now). One of my favorite things to do was ride up a driveway and then careen down into the street. Kids, like kittens and puppies and that guy who walked across the Grand Canyon on a tight rope, are generally fearless. I would ride up and down the various driveways of Sugarpine Drive as if they were mountains, over and over without any worry that a car might come down the street at a faster speed and crush me and my little red bike. That is, until a car did come down the street at a faster pace. I don’t remember much about the incident except that I came dangerously close to slamming into the back left door as I rode off the driveway and into the street. It was one of those knock-your-breath-out-of-you moments that you have as a kid, the kind you don’t tell your parents about but that you reveal to everyone at school, over and over, until the car was actually a school bus and that scar you’ve had on your chin forever is actually from when you catapulted over the bus, which was filled, consequently, with disabled preschoolers, and landed right in the neighbor’s rose bushes.
You might think that’s why I stopped riding bikes, but no. In reality, I kept riding until writing stories and earning triforces kept me from caring much about being outside and enduring the threat of oncoming traffic. After middle school, I ventured back on a bicycle three more times: first, in my high school’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” when, as the Wicked Witch of the West, I was required to ride a bike up the dimly lit center aisle and back around to the end of the theater/gym, my wild cackling hiding the intense fear that my cape would get stuck on the back spokes; second, when my friend Cung convinced me that buying hot pink bikes and accompanying bells would be charming, thus starting a good year or two during grad school where we rode bikes unathletically (read: stopping often to watch ducks) in Audubon Park, ringing our bells not to alert faster bike riders but rather to amuse ourselves; and, lastly, on an ill-fated Sunday morning my first year as a high school teacher, when it seemed a good idea to ride a bike that I’d just purchased from a friend for twenty bucks, despite the fact that I had yet to, a) add air to the tires, b) check the brakes, or c) fully wake up. It had been a good two years since my bike sessions with Cung, but I felt confident enough that I could ride down my street and through some of the other side streets in my neighborhood without incident. I failed to recognize the fact that the last time I rode was in a controlled environment, with a friend, and, most importantly, with a delightful and charming bell that I could sound if I met with distress. But no, I hopped on that bike (in flip flops, no less, and without a helmet), and awkwardly pedaled down my street.
The ride was shaky from the start. The previous owner, a writer friend who I had met the previous summer in Mexico, was taller than me, and I hadn’t considered the importance of adjusting the bike seat. Plus, numerous potholes cluttered my street, like some kind of Double Dare obstacle course, only I wasn’t on a tricycle, I wasn’t riding on chocolate, and there weren’t any orange flags to retrieve. I hadn’t encountered potholes on a bike ride since I was little, there being no potholes in either Audubon Park or the Sister Ambrose Reggio Gymnasium. I made it all the way to the end of the street, probably looking like one of those monkeys who ride the tricycles in the circus, before I encountered a very large hole that I either couldn’t or didn’t notice in time to avoid. Halfway in, I realized I couldn’t bike myself out of it, so I hit the brakes, hard, and the bike tilted to the left, my body following as my brain shouted, “Well, good god damn shit fu–,” and next thing I knew I was on the ground, bike inexplicably collapsed a few feet from me, and blood pouring from somewhere on my face. The first thing I checked was my nose, panicked that my nose ring had somehow hooked onto something and pulled my nose off my face. After realizing I wouldn’t need reconstructive nasal surgery, I felt the rest of my aching face and found the source of the bleeding to be my chin, where stitches I’d had as a kid had reopened. Pulling myself and my pride off the street, I hopped on quickly bruising legs to retrieve my bike. I hobbled the block back to my house, encountering a man along the way who offered me the saddest scrap of a napkin with which to wipe my bloodied face, and literally threw the bike on my yard before going inside to clean up. A week later, after having to attend a school-related conference with my busted up face, I gave the bike to a friend who sells bike parts, and I vowed never to ride again. And I didn’t.
Not until two weeks ago.
People have been trying to get me on a bike for years. They try to make it sound fun. “We’ll ride to the bayou and have a picnic,” they say, or “It’s a bike pub crawl, we’ll drink and you’ll forget your fear.” The prospects of balancing a picnic basket and/or riding my bike while under the influence don’t appeal to me, though, so I’ve done a fair job of declining. And then, a few weeks ago, t reminded me that it is, after all, my Year of Bravery, and maybe I’d like to hop right back up on that two-wheeled horse and see what I can do? I protested in every way possible, but the fact is that it’s very hard to argue with a Trinidadian. I’ve learned that those tricky islanders usually win, so we agreed to ride in City Park on the next Thursday, t on her pink bike and me on our friend’s new, shiny green Schwinn from Target. “It’s so pretty,” t said, in further attempts to make me excited about this. “It’ll be real pretty with my blood splashed on it,” I said, which was not matched with the concern that I had hoped for, but, rather, cruel laughter.
Perhaps you will find this dramatic, friendly reader, but I am not lying to you when I say that all I could think about all day was having to get on that bike. An hour before we were to meet at t’s house, I was dressed and pacing my living room, stretching and doing jumping jacks and even, I’m only halfway ashamed to admit, lying on my back and pretending to pedal in the air. I sprayed myself with sunscreen and bug spray twice, waving my arms wildly and saying, “You can do this, Lefante, you can do this.” And I could, right? By the time I was in my car and driving to t’s, I was fairly convinced that I could, in fact, do this. I passed several bike riders on my way, and said to myself, “He’s kind of portly, and he’s on a bike,” or, “Look how short she is, and she can reach the pedals,” and, “That guy looks like a Muppet, and hey, Muppets can ride bikes, so can I, dammit!” My confidence followed me all the way to t’s house and stayed for exactly two seconds. Then I saw the bike and became wrapped in a cold sweat. We stacked the bikes in the back seats of our cars and drove to the park, me following t and wondering what she might do if I just turned right as she turned left and maybe sped to the safety of a coffee shop or a bar or a neighboring state. I followed her, though, into the park and past our normal walking trail, into an area that she had convinced me would be clear of crowds.
She was wrong, for the record, but it wasn’t her fault. How was she to know that, on this day of all days, the park was sponsoring a free race? We walked our bikes to the trail, which was infested with incredibly fit runners with paper numbers pinned to shirts that barely covered their chiseled abdomens. I mentioned to t that this seemed really unfair, and maybe it would be better if we just left and ate some Mexican food instead.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, mounting her bike. “Let’s just ride up to that tree and then reassess.”
“I need to watch you ride first,” I said.
She blinked. “Really?”
“I need to see how you start and stop.”
“There are a lot of people here too,” I said, looking around. “I don’t want to see anyone I know. And when I start to ride, you need to be right there to catch me if I fall.”
She’s pretty patient, t, but every person has her limits. I began to wonder how much I could push this, and whether she’d be willing to hold on to my bike’s handles for the first half mile. Before I could present this proposal, however, we ran into three familiar faces, one of whom was a former student. “I’m just trying to get myself up on this bike,” I told each person, and while they all seemed very supportive, I couldn’t help but think that I must look absolutely ridiculous, a grown woman holding a bike and terrified to get on it. Finally, t suggested that we abandon the trail and ride out of the park and up and down the trail adjacent to the bayou.
“You lead,” she said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
I lifted my leg over the bike and sat on the seat, both feet planted on the grass.
“Right behind you, Lefante,” t repeated
Year of Bravery, I told myself over and over, lifting my foot onto the pedal and preparing to push.
“Any time now. Just push on that pedal. Right behind ya.”
Kids do it, Muppets do it, you can do it.
And so I pushed aside the memory of nearly running into that car, pushed aside the moment when, as the Wicked Witch, I almost rode right into a elderly, wheel-chaired woman’s lap, pushed aside the memory of falling and hurting and having to give a speech at a convention with my busted up face. Instead, I focused on how nice it was when Cung and I rode together, and I thought how nice it would be if t and I could do that too, and before I knew it I was pushing my way through the grass and onto the street.
“You’re doing it, Lefante!” t yelled, and I would have been embarrassed if I weren’t so damn proud of myself.
We rode out of the park with little incident, except when I took a wrong turn and ended up on the runner’s track. “Whatcha doin’,” t asked nervously, and I didn’t really have an answer, so I fumbled my way back to the street, wobbling on those two little wheels the entire way but, I am somewhat proud to say, never falling off. We passed the stadium, under the interstate and down a slope, and, from somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I remembered what it was like to ride down driveways that I imagined to be mountains, so I stopped pedaling and allowed myself to simply let the bike take me to the bottom. “Let the wind blow in your hair,” t sang behind me, and even though I told her she was ridiculous, I had to admit, this was good. We rode the length of the bayou, stopping to walk our bikes across intersections (bravery’s a process, people) and then coming to a full stop at the end of the trail for a quick stretch. We parked our bikes on the grass, touched our toes, and I could barely believe I had gone so far.
“I’m riding a bike,” I said.
“Yeah, you are,” t said, stretching her arms into a V in the air. “I’m real proud of you.”
“I’m proud of me, too,” I said, and it occurred to me that I don’t give myself enough opportunities to say those words.
The prospect of having to ride back to the park and our cars was still daunting, but I knew I could do it. I had successfully mounted and dismounted the bike several times at this point, and I had figured out a rhythm to the pedaling and even stopped thinking about how the whole thing was working. In fact, I had just stopped thinking. That, in and of itself, is most likely what I needed all along. It’s incredibly easy for me to stay in my head and think and worry about things, focusing on what could happen or will happen or might not happen. More important than the exercise and more significant, even, than the simple act of proving to myself that I could ride again, was the fact that I stopped thinking and just allowed my body to take over and do what it naturally knew how to do. Maybe the brave thing was allowing myself to be that kid in the driveway who believed that driveways could be mountains and mountains could be conquered, the kid who fearlessly, and without thinking about it too much, just let herself go.