I was not a normal child.
When most young boys were outside playing tag and Wiffle Ball, I was looking at the difference between 33 rpm and 45 rpm on my dad’s record player. While they climbed trees and built forts, I finished 100-piece puzzles of Niagara Falls and Spider-Man. While they gathered friends for a game of touch football on the playground, I wandered around alone, exercising my imagination instead of my body, picturing every moment and plot twist in my head.
When they practiced their balance on bikes and skinned their knees on asphalt, I was inside, safely sipping on orange juice and writing stories where I was amazingly proficient in the mystic arts. And I’m not talking any wussy rabbit-out-of-the-hat tricks. I’m talking stopping time, flinging fireballs from my pitching hand, jumping from the roof of my garage and darting into the sky.
I didn’t listen to my mother when she told me I should learn to ride a bike. I could fly, and I didn’t need the help of any machine to do it.
Maybe it was my overactive imagination. Maybe it was the fact that for most of my young life, my best friends lived just down the street. Or maybe it was because I had read countless Calvin and Hobbes cartoons where Calvin was pounced on by his mischievous ten-speed. But for whatever reason, I never learned how to ride a bike.
Yes, that’s right. I learned how to steer a behemoth of steel and glass before I learned how to ride a simple machine. I internalized the ratio of brake to accelerator before I perfected the ratio of weight to speed. I took the SATs, moved into and out of a dorm lifestyle, and earned two diplomas before I ever even learned to keep my balance.
There was something amiss in the way I was going about things.
The summer after your college graduation is a slow, complicated time. You spend it yearning to be so close to your friends, and realizing you should move on. Need to move on. And that task is more daunting than visiting colleges ever was.
Before my college graduation, everything I did affected at most four years. Now, I suddenly had the power to affect the rest of my life, and it scared the hell out of me. I spent my young life in my own world. I wasn’t ready to enter a new one.
You’re also struck by nostalgia when you have nothing else to do. Once during a particularly cool summer day, I wandered into my family’s garage, which we use for storing all sorts of randomness instead of shielding cars from the weather.
I flipped through old photos of my grandparents, found good hiding places for all my baby pictures, and wiped the dust off of several antique pieces of furniture. I ran my hands along the handlebars of a bike. A purple and pink bike. A bike with those weird handlebar brakes as opposed to just jamming your feet backwards on the pedals. Purple and pink, I thought, chuckling. I couldn’t be any more of a girl.
I turned out the light, went into the living room and sat on the couch. I fiddled with the TV remote. “Mom?”
“Where did that purple and pink bike come from?”
“That one?” She peeked out of the kitchen. “Oh, I bought that one from Janna a few weeks ago. She said she was getting too big for it.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Oh. No reason.” I pulled at the ends of my socks.
I was on the verge of a time of greatness in my life. Soon I would be walking the tight rope tricks of getting a job in the real world, managing my own expenses, finding an apartment … how could I do any of these things? I wasn’t prepared for that sort of juggling act.
I hadn’t ever learned how to keep my balance.
“You know what?” I stood up, went to the front door to grab my shoes.
“You’re going to tell me.”
“I think I’ll learn how to ride a bike.”
There are good things about learning to ride a bike when you’re obscenely old. You aren’t constantly nagged to wear a helmet. You don’t have to undergo the humiliation of training wheels. You don’t even have the pressure of beating your peers to the punch so you could seem more in control.
You do, however, have to deal with your 13-year-old sister riding circles around you.
I started learning, though. For the first few outings, I fought just to keep upright on the seat of the bike. It’s amazingly difficult, really, and that probably has to do with the fact that there are only two wheels on the things.
After spending several years in a motorized vehicle sporting four wheels, I wasn’t used to being the greatest center of gravity. I was used to slamming a V-6 into drive and shooting down the highway without worrying about which way my body was leaning. My sister suggested that I not even try to deal with the pedals yet and just push myself forward with my feet and try to keep straight. I looked like an idiot, sure, but she’d be damned if I wasn’t learning.
She was also getting a hearty laugh out of the situation. I don’t blame her, really. It was like watching my dad try to play video games, or hearing my mom sing Britney Spears.
After I got the balance down for a few seconds, it was time I learned how to sustain it. The trick was keeping yourself still while in motion; keeping your body straight while your legs moved alternately. It was an odd feeling, and one that seemed altogether impossible.
I went out every afternoon. After I got a job, I went out after I got home from work. I got my feet on the pedals, I swerved violently, and I hit the brakes. I practiced my balance a little. I got my feet on the pedals again, got forward momentum for a few seconds, stopped. I was able to pedal across the slight downward slope in the middle of my road. Then I reached the upward slope, realized I had to apply more pressure, swerved violently, hit the brakes. My sister cheered as I tried my hardest.
“All right then,” I said, pulling the bike out for another session before dinner, “Any more words of wisdom?”
“Uh,” my sister said sagely, strapping on her helmet. “Not really. Just get momentum, it’s easier to balance when you’re moving forward. Don’t try to start from a complete stop.”
“You start from a complete stop.”
She grinned. “Yeah, well, that’s because I’m a pro.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have to wear a goofy helmet,” I shot back.
“Shut up. It’s almost dinnertime — are we going?”
“Yes, we are.” I started down the driveway and into the street. The key, it seemed was combining the ridiculous-looking push-off technique and a high amount of forward motion. So I lined myself up with the downward slope, steadied my feet and my nerves, and pushed off once.
I eased my feet onto the pedals, swerved, but got myself up to a decent speed. I pedaled faster, wanting the wind to assault my face, wanting to feel like I was going somewhere. I built up enough momentum to go into the upward slope fighting, and I reached the point where I either had to turn or go down a massive hill. I had never done either before.
I clutched the hand brakes softly, turned the wheel to my left. Instantly, it felt as though my center of gravity was off so I leaned the other way, felt the sweat on my palms cling the rubber handlebars. The world swung around until I wasn’t heading away from my house anymore. I was heading towards it.
“Holy shit!” I yelled, for lack of a better ecstatic phrase. “I’m riding a bike! Tara, I’m riding a bike!”
“Sweet!” She called out from beside me, suddenly, matching my speed. “You’ve got it!”
“I do, don’t I?” My feet sunk down on the pedals. “I am the Mac Daddy,” I proclaimed, “Which would make you the Daddy Mac.”
“I’ll take your word for it. See if you can do a lap!” She pulled off to the other side of the road.
“You’re on.” I lowered my head, pushed myself further forward, whizzing near my house. I pedaled hard to meet the incline on the other side of the road.
I failed to notice the huge divot in front of me.
For all my balance, I was still a beginner, and still unsure of myself. When my front tire sank down, my hands clutched the handles, which pushed down on the brakes, which sent me hurdling over the handlebars, which sent my hands and knees grinding into the asphalt.
The bike lay twisted at my feet. I rolled over on my back, looked at the clouds across the sky, looked at the trees across my yard. Then I sprang to my feet and giggled like a child.
“All right!” I cried, looking at my shredded palms and bloody knees. “I fell off a bike! I injured myself on a bike!”
You may be wondering why I was so pleased with myself. I had never really been hurt when I was young, which was something all boys seemed to do. One of my friends broke his femur, the largest bone in the body, and fractured his collarbone.
Another sprained his knee and broke a knuckle. And I, sitting in my room and writing my stories, never broke, sprained, scratched or bent any section of my skin or bone.
And now I had. Not only was I riding a bike, but I was getting hurt. I was risking injury. I was making up for lost time.
The blood and the tenderness didn’t keep me from biking every day, nor did the fact that when I picked up the bike and pushed the handlebars straight ahead, the front wheel was turned 45 degrees to the right. Both healed with a short amount of time. Even now, in the cold days of descending winter, I go out for a few laps around the street.
I haven’t learned to keep my balance with only one hand, or to jump without aid, but I have been able to scale hills. And I have been able to shoot down them without using the brakes, feeling the wind slap against me, feeling my face stretch into a smile and an adrenaline yell lodge itself in my throat.
There’s nothing like forward motion to keep your heartbeat rising. And there’s nothing like being able to keep your balance. Bring on your paltry real world; I’ll face it with a steady gaze and an unfailing center of gravity.