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Like Riding a Bicycle

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A catch phrase that has no relevance for me because, until very recently, I couldn’t ride a bike. I never learned. You’d have to come up with a different reference for something never forgotten, like kissing.

Learning how to ride a bike is a Kodak moment in just about every child’s personal history, yet in mine it’s lost in a synapse somewhere between first day of school and getting my first period. I don’t remember why no one taught me how to ride a bike when I was a kid. When the subject comes up in conversation, reactions vary from disbelief to sympathy for my having lame parents. I’m sure there are many adults who share my deficiency, but I don’t know any of them.

Growing up, my mother would tell me that she didn’t ride a bike until she was thirteen years old. That landmark came and went for me without ceremony. For ten years, beginning when I was five, we lived on an unpaved dirt road cutting through the side of a mountain—far from suburban sidewalks and newly-paved cul de sacs. My older brother (who also learned how to ski while I was doing I’m not sure what) would return home from an entire day on his bike, parts of his body scraped open and bloody from accidents out on the open road. This could be one reason for the delay.

I remember when I saw E.T. in the movie theater and thought how I never would have made it through the first five minutes of the story, and I would have completely failed at returning the little guy to his home planet. I figured I could never be an actress because I would have to turn down any role that required me to ride a bike, like Katherine Ross with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

My first attempt was when I was nine or twn years old. I was in a friend’s new housing development so it seemed pretty safe. But we were all little kids without parental supervision. On a borrowed bike, I somehow made it out onto a busy street—one with cars on it. I was going pretty fast and no one taught me how to break, so when I approached an intersection I just kept going. I still remember the flash of station-wagon fender missing the front of the bike by mere inches. Thinking back now, I could have died.

Needless to say, I gave up on the idea of two-wheel transportation for another decade.

The next attempt was on a moped. I was vacationing with my dad and his new wife in Cape Cod. They married less than a year after my mom died and, for god knows what reason, rented a house in the same town where my family once owned a summer house. This place was the origin of some of my most cherished memories: learning to swim, learning to play tennis … my first Beatles song on Adam and Peter Cohen’s 45 rpm record player, the green apple spinning around the spindle. I hated my step-mother and everything about this vacation but it was the only way to spend any time with my dad, who had clearly lost his mind.

She wanted to go to Martha’s Vineyard, something we never did as a family because it was considered bourgeois. We took the three-hour ferry ride, during which I failed to remember that the island is car-free but too big to walk. It was when we arrived at the dock to an endless row of bikes that I reminded my dad that I did not know how to ride things with two wheels. Did he recall that he never taught me how to do it? She was very effective at making me feel pathetic and he was too numb to defend me. Broiling with unchecked anger and emotion, I mounted the damn machine and sputtered off down the island, with white knuckles and gritting teeth. I made it halfway to the point before exploding into uncontrollable tears. We ditched the bike and I rode the rest of the way with my dad. I was twenty-one years old.

Another decade slips by without even a thought on the subject.

The next chapter is about two boyfriends who both bought me a bicycle with the intention to teach me to ride. They were charmed by my deprived childhood. Whatever works!

P. came home with a beautiful pink-and-white Schwinn Debutante, circa 1965. His good intention lasted for one day, after which he resumed his daily commute to the city on his bike and never slowed down again to include me. My bike sat in the backyard for another year, rusting down to its core.

C. surprised me with a new bike from Target for Christmas, which we were celebrating together in his new weekend house. I was excited about this because I could learn in the relative safety of country roads. C. was a more patient instructor and together we enjoyed several bike rides in and around the seaside town. By the time spring arrived at our little abode, the relationship was over. It took a very long time for me to erase the vision of his new wife riding my Christmas present, among other things. In all fairness, he did ask me if I wanted it back. Imagining that my bike was already tainted by another woman’s ass, I declined.

Two years ago in Brooklyn, on a whim, I bought a 1960s Phillips roadster from a guy on Lorimer Street. I geared up with a helmet and kryptonite and finally became an urban biker. Scared witless and out of breath, I forced myself to ride around my neighborhood until the nightmares subsided. I’d mostly ride around the park and down to the waterfront.

My baby’s here with me now while we navigate the town’s steeper hills. I’m still not totally comfortable but, without a car or any decent public transportation, she’s more of a necessity than ever before. It took three weeks for the kid in the bike shop to figure out how to repair her gear shift, while she waited patiently alongside shiny new, fully loaded Kona mountain bikes.

I suppose at some point I will need to invest in something more practical for this area, but it will be some time before I move on from my good friend.


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