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They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but I know this is not the case. Long ago, in the days of banana seats and handlebar fringe, I rode all over town. My mother was preoccupied with finding a husband, or a job. Besides, it was better to have my own wheels. After school the town with its rolling hills and broad sidewalks was mine to explore, 50 cents in my pocket, ready to burn. I’d hated giving up training wheels. Like moving from a pony to a horse, the leap was too big. One day we were pedaling around the garage, decorating spokes with crepe paper for the Memorial Day parade. Next thing you knew, we had to learn hand signals and ride in traffic.
When I was 7 we visited cousins in the Rockaways. Michelle was 4, Tracy 2. The adults left us to entertain ourselves. After dinner I brought everyone downstairs for a play. “Don’t cross the street without looking, Michelle,” I lectured, a strict moralist even then. “I won’t,” she promised. But Michelle crossed the street anyway. She was run over by her pigtailed sister, driving a plastic Big Wheels. The title of the play: “Obedience Pays.” Our parents applauded, horrified. Somehow I learned to cross the street anyway.
My mother’s boyfriend Carl bought me a bike for my birthday, and I discovered the secret paths through people’s yards, the gaps under chain-link fences that are the mark of any true adventurer. A girl in my class fell off her bike and got a concussion. Would she need a wheelchair? Fail spelling tests? When she came back to school, she looked normal except for a bruise on her forehead. That year my mother met Arthur, who bought us a house in Miami. I hated everything about it. Giant flying cockroaches. Malaleuka trees made me sneeze. And Florida was incredibly flat: the highest point in the state was Space Mountain at Disneyworld! At least it was good for bike riding, even if the temperature rarely dipped below 80 and you could never coast downhill. I went to Girl Scout camp that summer. We packed a steamer trunk like I was crossing the ocean. The highlight would be an overnight bike trip to Cypress Gardens, where pyramids of waterskiers performed for cheering crowds.
The real camp was a different story: a couple of wooden buildings in the middle of a swamp. A bugle woke me at 6, on a cot draped with mosquito netting. You had to check your sneakers for scorpions. A giant snake lived under my tent, or so the older girls claimed. Cycling began at 3, the peak of the heat. I bailed the second day. My plump friend Beth took up synchronized swimming, twirling in the murky lake like Busby Berkeley dancers on inner tubes. Girls played kickball while I hid out in the shade of the art pavilion, weaving baskets. Greeting cards with jokes arrived every day from my mother. When I got home, I made my mother promise never to send me away again. I praised her lamb chops and diet milkshakes, grateful to have escaped the vats of lukewarm egg salad. For the rest of the summer I slept in and rode my bike round and round the sun-drenched island where we lived, for once content with its limits.
At school I worked hard, grading math tests and learning magic tricks. My best friend and I talked on the phone every night. We were 6th grade big shots: safety patrols with orange belts and a plastic construction hat I proudly wore on street duty. Buses loaded us up for tours of Nautilus Junior High where 9th graders towered over us. Just as we had gotten used to ordering little kids around, we would be reduced to this. Ten minutes before the hour, a bell rang and teenagers crushed into the sweaty halls and ran to their lockers.
A few fashionable kids sauntered by; maybe someone else carried their books. There was no question of riding our bikes to Nautilus. It was too far. We counted down the last weeks of elementary school. Our English teacher asked us to write poems for graduation, while the PE teacher taught us folk dances. We would go out in a sea of glory. Then one morning, a 5th grader named Suzy came in crying. Her mother had been driving to a friend’s house and came around a corner fast. Bruce Oldack was riding his bike, and they’d crashed into him. The smartest of the patrols, Bruce was really small, with a big head of curls and blue eyes. Everyone liked Bruce. We asked Mr. Sherman, the patrol advisor, what to do.
“Can we visit?” He shook his head. So we wrote notes to the hospital.
“Dear Bruce, We miss you sooo much! Feel better soon. ♡ Your friends.” The accident hung over the school. We pestered Mr. Sherman for progress. Was Bruce getting better? When was he coming back? We rode our bikes less fervently, avoiding the corner two blocks from my house. Suzy Gardner avoided us. Finally they gathered us in a room and told us Bruce had died. I’d thought he’d only had a broken leg. I was on flag duty and asked if we could fly the flag at half-mast. When I got home, I told my mom, who handed me a tumbler with Scotch and offered me a Valium.
“It’s better that he isn’t a vegetable,” she said. Comatose Karen Ann Quinlan was in the news, and I had no doubt that if I were on life support, my mother would pull the plug. I went to my room and cried, not just over Bruce’s death, but because they’d lied. We’d written all those great cards he was never going to read. We still rode our bikes to school and ate fudgesicles and played box ball. We danced and recited poems that now seemed hollow. Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.
For us there will always be a tomorrow. American Legion medals were awarded at graduation. I won the girls’ award. They gave the boys’ to Bruce Oldack posthumously, the first time I’d heard the word. I stood onstage in the cafeteria in a pleated skirt, while the man from American Legion praised my creativity, and all the adults in folding chairs cried. We didn’t stop cycling then, but when I outgrew my girls’ bike, I never wanted an adult one. My world expanded beyond Bay Harbor.
I started to take the bus to the library downtown and later got rides from people’s older brothers. All through high school, I got rides home in the back of someone’s TransAm, from parties where a haze of pot smoke lingered over couples making out by the pool. I prayed for my future while the driver, who was usually strung out on coke and Quaaludes, ran red lights through the empty streets. I went away and didn’t looked back. Living in San Francisco, I found the whole idea of cycling laughable. I could barely drive downhill without burning up the brakes. Meanwhile, gamer friends rollerbladed, jumped out of airplanes, snow-boarded black diamond runs. I always liked brave people, hoping it would rub off on me. But it never did, perhaps because they weren’t brave in the first place. They just weren’t afraid.
On vacation in Mexico, I hiked through a canyon and got stuck on a ridge. There were eight of us out for the day. The leader, a woman of 70 named Cricket, taught yoga and told stories of her travels while we sunbathed nude. But today the path wasn’t wide enough, my feet weren’t steady enough. It wasn’t even anything impressive: just a narrow ledge with a stream blocking the trail. Everyone had gone ahead while I hesitated. I felt a familiar panic. I couldn’t go forward or back so I froze. My mother was never any help when I was scared.
“If you’re afraid,” she’d say, “don’t do it.” Her nonchalance frustrated me. While I was out riding horses with cowboys and backpacking across Canada and SE Asia, she was home in her La-Z-Boy. It looked so straightforward, just one tiny leap. I—I couldn’t do it.
“Señorita,” tried Pablo the travel agent, cajoling, “See, there is nothing to be afraid of.” He illustrated, jumping lightly from one rock to another like a gazelle. He offered a gallant hand. His fingers were so close. Everyone was waiting. I breathed out, then changed my mind.
“No,” I said, clinging to the cliff. “Señora,” he said scornfully. “Is so easy.” Next it was John’s turn. A burly man from Alaska, John had rafted the Grand Canyon with his son who had Down syndrome.
“How do you want to do this?” he asked. He came and stood next to me. I tried extending a foot into space over the pools of water, then quickly brought it back to safety.
“That’s right,” he said, “I know you can do it.” I scanned the hikers’ faces: Cricket, a massage therapist from Wisconsin, Pablo, a judo teacher. This was hardly Outward Bound. I’d taken a ropes course, and half the people reported breakthroughs, watching me cry on the tightrope. Everyone else could do this. Why was I such a loser?
“Okay,” John said, “put your foot here. Good…and then here…” With this man’s help I could cross the gulf and actually do it. My left foot slowly reached— “Enough,” said Andrew, a middle-aged Scot, as he grabbed me by the waist, jumped into a puddle, and tossed me across.
“Haven’t got all day.” I think of Bruce Oldack now and then when people ask why I don’t ride a bike. I come back to Bruce and Patrol Gossip and being able to roam all over the island, being able to ride and then walk my bike across the bridge and start pedaling again without ever stopping or hesitating. I had achieved a kind of mastery within my little world. Then it was time to move to the next level. One Christmas, I went to Thailand with my cousin. Between swimming and eating pad thai and buying sarongs, we visited Sukhothai, the first Thai kingdom. It was New Year’s Day, and we were the only Westerners. Families picnicked by the giant columns and crumbling Buddhas. But the distances were too far to cover on foot, and there weren’t any taxis.
“But I don’t ride a bicycle,” I protested. “You never forget how,” Keith said. He was recovering from a mountain biking accident where he’d broken his collarbone. My fears were not allayed when I saw the jumbled rows of bicycles: rusty things with defective brakes and stripped gears. I walked mine across the street while Keith sped off. At least it was flat. I got on and tried to ride.
“You never forget how,” I whispered, hoping it was true. The pedals spun, and I went nowhere. Each time a car drove by on the wrong side of the road, I cringed. I dragged my toes in the gravel.
“Keith! I need to buy pineapple!” We bought fruit and bits of fried pork. I dawdled by the postcards. Finally I had stalled long enough.
“Pedal!” he shouted. We were off. We rode from monument to monument, attracting more than our share of attention. Keith is tall and balding, with a broad smile—a bit Buddha-like. Everywhere we went, Thai families pointed at us and laughed. They stopped to take pictures with him and occasionally with me, the Buddha’s cousin. It was a serene day, as we began a new year by the lotus blossoms. There was no crowd, no impatient Scotsmen to fling me across the canyon.
Eventually I got the hang of it again, that feeling of flying when you don’t even realize your feet are moving, and you just sail into the wind. For an afternoon we explored another world, with lily ponds and temples carved in stone, the kind of place I can no longer find simply by riding out the front door of my home. Perhaps it was the magic of the kingdom. After all, I still don’t ride a bicycle. But you never forget how.
Diana J. Wynne
Diana J. Wynne believes the best stories are true. Her essays on politics and identity have appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Raw Story, Pure Slush, Litro (UK + NY), and Exquisite Corpse. In between designing software and producing interactive content for kids, finance people, and priests, she's been to over 50 countries and 6 continents in search of meaning, volcanoes, and the best cup of coffee. Make her an offer.