“Don’t get ideas about getting anywhere, ” says Susan in that wholesome voice of hers. “Just coast along, and end somewhere.”
I would release a loud, protracted laugh if I were not a novice bike learner, which–believe it or not–I am despite my white hair and relatively agile legs. I laugh, repeating her words to myself. Don’t get any ideas about getting anywhere. They’re the kind of words that do more than keep me balanced on this thin tw0-wheeler whose name is Sheldon. That’s the name it was given by Susan, my bike teacher. Yes, at my age you can’t just get on the damned thing and fly off. That’s for people like Ben, my 12-year old neighbor on whose bike I tried to do just that–fly off–with less-than-satisfactory results. Now, every time I run into Ben, he gives me that smirk when the subject of the bike comes up. It’s the kind of look which the young are so good at throwing at us, old fogies, or as that dear friend would say, “Oddball, goofball, eccentric castaways…”
But I laugh, as I paddle (I was just told it’s misspelled, but I can’t cut the sentence with an aside, not here) a little harder, Susan’s words taking on other meanings, which I am perpetually, chronically ready to do at any turn, the metaphoric thinker that I am. ( I think it’s genetic.) I can do that without trying, with the least bit of effort–on the spot, on cue. Everything is there for the pouncing, the taking. Everything, every word is an opportunity of sorts.
That, I can do with the least bit of effort, but this paddling is another story. (Susan just sent in a correction: “It’s pedaling, not paddling, but who cares?” Her words. I did not add anything.) It’s about physical balance and coordination and beat. And like dancing, it requires a kind of attention which I want to reclaim–before it’s too late and my knees are infested with the creep of arthritis, and my eyesight is dimmed by degenerative something-or-the-other, and the arches of my feet have lost the curve of my girlhood days. I could go on, but it’s not interesting, that kind of talk. (A dear friend once said, “Don’t complain. Complaining makes us weaker.” Weaker and boring, and who wants to be boring at our age?)
What’s exciting is this attempt, this folly. Or is it more a sense of duty, the aftermath of a promise I made to A., on that June afternoon, on the Cologne boardwalk where we were talking about all the ways–some unspeakable, in decent company–in which our bodies were aging? Flab talk. “I’ll learn to bike,” I replied when she told me, out of the blue, just like that–“And you must learn to bike!” (Yes, sometimes we want to believe and act otherwise, but promises are more than words, and words have consequences.)
Which is one reason I am here, on this infernally hot day, in Somerville, with Susan, my teacher, and Sheldon whom I am trying to domesticate. I’m going uphill–well, not much of a hill, really; just a tiny blimp on the radar screen of more accomplished bike riders. But I am not one of those. Never was, never will be, neither like V. who bikes through Paris with the effortlessness of a swan on a lake, nor H. who biked once from Paris to Amsterdam and back, nor even my co-conspirator on the Rhine. I have neither grace nor ideology nor environmental concerns to drive me on. I can be good enough, or so I have convinced myself. (Good enough, like parenting, which is what a British psychologist said about trying to be the best parent that ever walked the face of the earth. Just be good enough.) Good enough is good enough for me–biking across the Minuteman Trail in Cambridge close to this heartlessly open, unsheltered space, in the cool shade of an autumn Boston morning, for instance, the leaves under my wheels. Who knows? May be go into the bad, busy city one day, but I doubt it.
And so here I am on this hot day, biking away, padded all over, the wind in my face, Sheldon behaving itself most of the time, and Susan in the background keeping me down to size. I am going round in circles, happy almost, though I cannot keep a straight line. But that’s another story, and one which I will narrate at another time, complete with all the metaphoric resonances. But now I am here, with Sheldon, and finally able to pedal for more than three turns of the wheels.
“Yoooo heee!!!” It’s Susan behind me. “Ride ’em, cow girl!” Did I hear that right? She repeats it. “Ride ’em high, cow girl!” I laugh, but my bike is shaking with me, and so I bring us–Sheldon and me– to a stop. We are still in one piece, after Susan’s laughter has died down. Going nowhere with Sheldon. Ride ’em, cow girl!
And here we are now, Sheldon and I, two trusting castaways. We come to a screech on the hot asphalt, on this wretched August noon, tired but happy, both of us. Our beginnings never know our ends. More about that, later.