HOW TO RIDE YOUR BIKE AND NOT BE AN IDIOT
27th September, 2020
Words by Jadie Stillwell · Artwork by Anna Mi
We are never talking about riding a bike when we are talking about riding a bike.
In May, "The New York Times" reported that the United States had slipped into yet another shortage. Bikes had now begun to roll after April’s toilet paper. It made sense: we were biking more — grown-ups to the grocery store, kids down and up the driveway, college grads suspended in the sudden amber of arrested adolescence to the picnic spot they had frequented at sixteen (and had not expected to see again). Hand sanitizers and masks had already bobbed sweetly in and out of obsolesce. What we seemed to keep running out of was ways to keep our distance.
But biking ten feet behind my best friend around the neighborhood where we both grew up, I hadn’t felt so close to anyone in a long time. Since June—when we both graduated from college in our childhood bedrooms, across our kitchen counters, between our parents and siblings on couches somehow both stiff and sagging—we had been trying very hard to make up for the lack of ceremonial sunburns and the sweating boredom that the usual stadium seat celebration would have supplied, even if it meant flirtation with heat stroke. Even if it meant sticky slow suffocation beneath cotton masks. Outside D.C., the summer air is so dense and wet that every one motion takes on the quality of breast stroke. Another way of putting this would be to say that every motion takes on the quality of trying not to drown. A downhill coast. A belly-up float.
In some Stephen King stories, boys bond to their boyhood bikes like soldiers to their wartime mounts. Instead of crumpling beneath them, bony knees to bloody mud, these bikes shrink, rust, decay; they lose the long war with linear time. We are always talking about bikes in the past tense, in euphemism and metaphor.
When I was not biking—because it rained, because my calves pinched, because I woke up some quarantine mornings and couldn’t fathom the idea of trying to balance anything, especially my own body—I was watching old episodes of "Cheers" on the same couch where I’d graduated. In one episode, Diane, blonde and beaming, exclaims that Oh! She hasn’t felt so exhilarated since the first time she... Um, rode a bicycle. The studio audience laughs. We are never talking about riding a bike when we are talking about riding a bike.
After our schools shuttered in late March, my best friend and I did not come home to lonely, stunted Silvers. We had always been heel-toe children, preferring to walk slowly up the sidewalk up to our strip mall Starbucks. Rather than being made to confront our own ungraceful growth in the knock of too-tall knees into handlebars that had once perfectly held flowered baskets, cotton-shorted bottoms, we grappled with the crackling chains of our parents old Treks and Cannondales.
Her dad’s bike was blue, and her mom had bought it for him on their anniversary twentysome years ago. My best friend had to adjust the seat every other day because he’d take it out in the interim. My mom’s bike was brown, and my dad had bought it for her on some birthday, and it had then promptly taken on a dusty gloam, leaned up under the back porch, for the next five to seven years.
I unearthed it on a Thursday. The toasted leather laced around the handlebars matched the leather of the seat exactly. The former came started to come undone in August—corroded somehow, maybe, by the pressure of my sweaty palms. It was unused to touch. There was rust on the squeaky brakes that improved only marginally after I sprayed them down with WD-40, and there were spider webs in every acute aluminum angle. These lasted the whole improbable summer long.
— It’s just like riding a bike! You can say this to practically anyone except my little sister. On her fourth ever real bike ride, she is a tight-shouldered, shaky, but strong-legged nineteen. On her first ever real bike ride, the scariest thing is not, surprisingly, the wooden bridge after the slim turn that rattles when you hit its peak and only has room for one biker, or one biker and one very spatially-aware pedestrian. Nor is it the way you might hold your breath for the duration of these side-by-side glances, even as your chest burns to breathe deep, because the very spatially-aware pedestrian isn’t wearing a mask.
Prior to the bored yellow days of late quarantine, which provided me with enough leverage to lull her onto a rented red bike, all accurate accounts of my sister’s pedaling experience would have had to include the verbs skip, slip, and slide. She’d been doing alright until we ran into the bear, though.
Maybe ‘ran into’ has too much momentum—for this story, for this scene, for this pandemic in which everything moves like it is mired, if it moves at all. We were biking, anyway. We were biking when the bear slunk in across the path, a lush black mass, and we were straddling our seats, not moving, when it slunk back out the other side.
My sister rolled backward, sneaker toes pointed neatly to grope the ground, a passing shadow of her years as a ballet dancer. We turned around, then turned around again, uncertain. We would have had to do this anyway. The wooded bike path wasn’t a loop. Eventually, we’d need to pick an arbitrary stopping point and send ourselves off the way we’d come. The first day I’d biked this path alone, I’d circled back three times, dropping beginnings and endings wherever seemed to suit. Still. The bear thing seemed like it would make a good story. We tried it out on our parents. My sister sent a flurry of texts:
Jadie did not survive this
The service was bad. The texts delivered per the logic of cell towers and microwaves—or however texting works. They had no regard for suspense, for exposition or grand finale.
Jadie and I got
By a brown
Nothing about quarantine has been—was, is—linear. It’s just like riding a bike! Maybe you could say this to my little sister now, a couple of trips and a bear encounter at nineteen having finally added up to a whole childhood’s worth of bruised ankles.
My mom eventually replied: Is any of this tale true? as though, like a dedicated listener sifting through a spotty radio signal, she suspected in the static she still might find the spine of honest- to-goodness story.
And yes, in a sense, it was. Yes, in a sense, it is.
One of the only stories I’ve ever published took place entirely on a Vermont bike path, because that’s where I’d spent all the days before and after writing it. The story was about an overgrown girl trying to find a place to bury a beloved old doll, which she kept in a basket of a fat-tired mountain bike. The story was about the mortality of childhood, I guess. About its many small, unnatural deaths. The story was about riding a bike, and the end of things. The story was about riding a bike. The end.
I moved to a drier city at the beginning of September. A bald-faced imitation of every other fresh-start fall. Before I left, my parents and I tried gamely to shove my bike into the trunk of our car. We popped off the front tire so we might make it fit. Nothing worked.
We didn’t replace the tire before I left, just stood the bike on its empty, spindly arms on the front porch. It looks both older and newer now than when I’d found it. Like it has been ill-used. Like it is waiting to be born.
My best friend leaves, too, and the shortage makes it hard for her to get a bike in Boston. The third morning after she finally succeeds, the bike’s tire goes abruptly flat on her way to work.
How unlikely! I say over FaceTime. And this after we had spent all summer pressing thin street- bike tires over white-shelled river beaches, where every movement against the empty outgrown clams made a sound like popping porcelain. How strange it all is. How out of order, everything.