When Life Gives You A Bicycle
Everyone has heard the expression: “like riding a bike.” It’s the go-to phrase of every generation to imply that some skills once learned are never forgotten and oh what a wonderful thing that is. It’s so commonplace that even I say it, and I’m just a city slicker kid who was too preoccupied with growing up fast enough to take a taxi cab by myself to ever even learn how to ride a bike. Really, if you break it down to science, the process described in this simile is nothing more than muscle memory. The repetition of a task over a period of time allows the muscles to retain the rhythm of the movement. Eventually, you are performing like a well-oiled machine, just gears pumping away without any conscious effort. From nonchalantly blowing a bubble out of chewy pink gum to mindlessly gliding your fingers across your smartphone screen to punch in your passcode, our bodies grow complacent with their tasks and our brains bask in the familiarity of the daily grind. So while I might not understand the specific circumstances alluded to in this cliché, I am still being strung along on this comfort bandwagon with everyone else, and I’ve got to wondering who decided to glorify riding a bicycle as the epitome of ease? Maybe my disconnect stems from not knowing what it feels like to balance on a piece of metal connected to two tires while propelling myself forward by pedaling with my feet. Plus, this missing skill throbs like a stubbed thumb. Practically everyone else in existence can ride a bike, and while I am by no means an athlete, I’m certainly coordinated enough. I can regular ski, water ski, and snowboard. I dabbled in skateboarding back in my tomboy days and ride a longboard whenever I visit my friend Sami in Miami, because she owns two and she’s sure it’s the fastest way to get around the neighborhood. But the basics of balance, the crawl stage on the scale has always eluded me. My parents bought #6 Blue Jay Way of Quogue, New York in 1991. My mother was too pregnant with me to go to the closing that winter, so I have never known a summer stuck solely in the sticky heat of New York City. (And yes, I know my only credible excuse for not knowing how to ride a bike just nosedived out the window.) Instead of an elaborately stylized apartment blast-chilled with AC, we had boxy eighty’s architecture comprising two stories of faux-country living complete with pool and tennis court out back. The bicycles sat gated off in the back corner of the garage, obscured by its primary inhabitant, my father’s precious Mercedes. My parents both had bicycles; my mother’s pink, my father’s blue. To be perfectly honest, I have little recollection of either of my parents riding a bicycle, yet they can and on occasion–needless to say without me—do. At first there was the addition of a baby-seat attachment to show off the new bundle of joy, but I don’t remember ever being taken out for a ride on the back of either parent’s bicycle, even though my mother insists it was a frequent occurrence. Next, one of those plastic pushbikes joined the crowd, and I rode around with my gangly legs hurriedly shuffling across the backyard, dirtying my white Sketchers with grass stains and kicked up mud from overenthusiastic scoots. Then came the tricycle with its red shellac body and awkward three wheels; my great-aunt picked it out for my birthday even though it’s in December, so I had to wait six months to get any use out of it. I hated the multi-colored tassels that streamed out of the handlebars, deeming them too girly and cutting them off to maintain my elementary school street cred. I would pedal across the graveled driveway, spraying sediment to the left and right of my wake. Several trike tires fell victim to this vicious habit of mine, but luckily I grew out of it before getting a bike big enough to do some real damage. My 5th birthday was marked by the arrival of a big-kids bike. It was deep magenta with big rubber wheels that seemed to dominate its sleek structure. For those three months of summer, two miniature wheels were bolted onto the back wheel. With those two helpers, I felt invincible touring around the neighborhood at top speeds. I even dared to ride without a helmet one or two times when my doctor parents weren’t looking, completely unaware that chances of falling were essentially null anyways. Unaware that I was simply cheating the system until I dared to try for real, I thought I was a true bicycle rider. The following June, I opened the garage one day to find those two safety nets removed, and I was forced to face the facts. My father, hair shining gray and face wrinkled by sixty-plus years and a strong affinity for the sun, woke me up early to take our usual trip to 7-11. A black coffee for him, a few scratch tickets for me, and perhaps some gas if the car required. I ran a shiny penny across my lotto tickets then threw them in the trash alongside my father’s now-empty Styrofoam cup. We drove back to Blue Jay Way, and then there was nothing to do but try. I sat on my newly unsteady bicycle, the one that used to mean only high speeds, sharp turns, and fast breaks. The handlebars were sweaty in my palms as the once-familiar black grip turned to grease. The seat seemed uncomfortable for the first time, like shoes that used to fit but now pinched at your big toes instead. My feet were firmly planted on either side of the bike, because any sudden movement meant an even quicker collapse. The false confidence of the last month became beads of sweat forming along the edge of my helmet. My father and I stood at the top of the grassy hill, his hands holding my waist, as we anticipated the descent and the promise of my first real flight. After several false starts where I refused to lift up my feet, my father convinced me to give it a real go. “One, two, two and a half…three!” We took off down the hill, the wheels accelerating beneath me and my father running alongside, trying to keep up. About half way down the hill, he lost his footing and tumbled down the remainder. I hurtled forward, unable to steady my feet on the pedals, and eventually collapsed onto the ground a feet few from him. We walked back to Blue Jay Way bleeding, bruised, and unsuccessful, to find freshly made pancakes that would no longer be celebratory in nature. So our wounds healed, but the fear of falling would be a permanent scar of mine. My parents were never ones to push the issue, and my no-excuses nanny couldn’t take up the cause, because she couldn’t ride either. So the magenta bicycle was abandoned in the garage, propped up by its kickstand. The country house was for tanning, swimming, and playing tennis, barbeques, clambakes, and bonfires, but never bicycles. In 2010, my parents decided to sell; the flat roof was a nuisance, and woodpeckers were always chipping away at the cubic home no matter how many animatronic owls were placed guard to shoot out defensive stones. While packing up the garage, my mother asked what I wanted to do with the bicycle. I was indifferent, since the bicycle was merely an inanimate object to me, not an efficient mode of transport or a leisurely day activity. My mother, the stage 3 hoarder, insisted on keeping it for the sentimental value; not sure what value comes with the memory of falling down a hill, but there was no use arguing with her. It was placed in the U-Haul with the rest of our belongings and lugged 15 minutes south to Jeffrey Lane of West Hampton Beach. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as Blue Jay Way, and I always did love the Beatles reference, but my father says that being reminded of some song isn’t better than a new Jacuzzi. The bicycle now sits with my parents’ two bikes in an exact replica of the gated off space from the old garage. I doubt it’s waiting for me; if it were me, I would have given up long ago.