It’s the day after my seventh birthday. I stand with my new bicycle on our front lawn. It’s shiny and red with wide handlebars and a silver kickstand. Mom and Dad are off for the morning to run errands, and we three kids were told to take care of ourselves. Dawn and Mark immediately disappeared into Dawn’s room. When I knocked, they wouldn’t answer.
Dad told me yesterday that anyone can learn to ride a bike. He rolled the two-wheeler from the garage, pointed to the seat, and said that it was easy. You just straddle the frame between your legs, put your bum down, shift your weight till you’re balanced and then pedal fast. It will wobble at first but will straighten out if you keep your head up, relax, and don’t panic. I tried over and over, Dad shouting advice from the lawn, but had trouble not glancing down at my spaghetti legs and the frame of the bike rocking back and forth between them, and as soon as I did that the whole thing would tilt sideways, and I’d be on the ground. Eleven-year-old Dawn told me she learned to ride when she was six, nine-year-old Mark said he got his training wheels off when he was five, and they both said watching me practice was funnier than I Love Lucy.
With Dawn and Mark ignoring me, I decide to try again. I walk the bike down the block so it’s away from Dawn’s window. I’m in a patch of sun despite the cold weather, and the trees form a row of long pointed shadows in front of me. Remembering Dad’s advice, I decide I have to ride from one shadow to the next without falling. It’s only a few feet. As soon as I get to the next shadow, I can look down and fall, but I have to keep my head up until then.
With the bike propped under me, I close my eyes, grip the handlebars and concentrate. A slight breeze blows over my shoulders and tickles the hair that’s fallen loose from my ponytail. The breeze dies, and I make a low grunting sound, part fear, part focus, and press down the pedal, chin tucked, eyes forward. The bike dips from side to side, and I try to throw my weight with it to balance, but within seconds I am on the pavement, lying on my hip with the bike on top of me. Slowly I dust myself off and stand. I am in the tree shadow: the second tree shadow. That means I managed to get exactly where I was heading.
I try again, this time faster. If I pedal at twice the speed, maybe I can make it a little bit past the next tree. I pedal like a maniac. I huff and puff and forget to keep my body straight as a pin like Dad said because I am leaning toward the next tree, trying to bridge the distance with my torso alone. I fall again, only this time I’ve gone even farther than I expected. I’ve passed the shadow of the third tree entirely and am almost all the way to the fourth. There’s only one more shadow in front of me, this one more gray than black, and beyond it is an open space of sunshine. I know getting to this tree will be easy even if I fall; it’s barely a yard ahead.
I pedal fast again, my body upright and my weight shifting a bit to each side as I try to compensate for the wobbly path of the bike, but before the bike has a chance to lurch over, I am in the sunshine. I can feel it on my shoulders through my coat. I can see it on the street and under the front wheel. I’m still going and still going and pass the house to the side of me and the one past that. When I get all the way to the end of the block, I purposefully test my balance while kicking back on the brake. Even that doesn’t topple me, so I take my foot off the pedal and stand one-footed on the corner the way I’ve seen Dawn and Mark do. Looking back over my shoulder at the distance I just covered, I see the row of tree shadows far behind and then a whole mess of sunshine about five houses long. I feel giddy. How did I do that? How did my body do that? It makes me happy to realize there’s something inside of me that knows what to do even when the rest of me doesn’t.
Hopping on the seat again, I flip the bike around. I travel the same distance without a problem, not even the tiniest shimmy in the frame. Glancing up at our house as I fly past it, I try to see if Dawn and Mark are planted in her window and can see me. After our block, I turn down the next and the one after that. I fly in long loopy circles. I turn corners fast. I make a game of slowing down and then speeding up again. The whole thing seems so easy now that I can’t remember what possibly felt hard before. All you have to do is sit for God’s sake. Sit and pedal. You barely even have to hold the handlebars.
After what feels like forever I head back home. The car is in the driveway, which means Mom and Dad are back from their errands. I dump the bike in the grass and run through the front door screaming, “I learned to ride my bike!”
Mark is the first person I come to. He’s in the kitchen opening a Ring Ding and throwing the wrapper in the trash. “No you didn’t,” he says without looking up at me. Dawn walks in, winks at Mark, and before I start to speak again, cuts me off with, “Liar.”
I run from the room calling for Mom and Dad, but they don’t answer. I call again and Mom’s voice comes from the other end of the hall, past the living room, yelling at me to be quiet already because Dad is working. She stomps into the room, and I say, “Dawn called me a liar!” but then Dawn kicks me with a side swipe, and I start to cry. Mark glances at my tears and laughs. Mom shushes him with her hand, and when I finally pull it together enough to explain about the bike, she says of course they believe me and, for God’s sake, will I please stop crying? When a few more sobs tumble out, she thrusts the bag that’s in her hand onto the counter, mutters something that has my father’s name in it, and then says they’ll all come outside to watch me if that’s what it will take to make me happy. She shoots a look at Dawn and Mark, and they smirk at each other and start to snicker.
Outside, they all line up in their coats on the grass in the space behind my fallen bike. I pick it up reluctantly. I don’t want to ride the stupid bike anymore. For a second I worry, too, that I’ll have forgotten how in the five minutes that have passed, that maybe I dreamed the whole morning and now is the waking-up part where I topple over and have to wait for Dad to come outside and give me more lessons.
I plant myself on the seat and lift my feet to the pedals. The wheels start to turn, and as soon as they do I know I can do it again. I don’t look at Mom, Dawn or Mark as I ride down the block and away from them, but as soon as I hit the corner and flip back, I watch their faces, waiting for a reaction. Mom claps but doesn’t wait for me to reach the house before she turns to go back inside. Mark rolls his eyes, and Dawn plays with a blade of grass without looking up at all. Both of them keep sitting there even after I pull up to the curb and put one leg to the ground. I wait for them to say something, even something mean, but they don’t so much as glance at me.
It’s quiet outside. Quieter than it felt all morning. Mark lies back in the grass. Dawn throws the blade of grass she’s twiddling onto his head. They start to wrestle.
I grab hold of the handlebars and walk the bike to the corner, my legs stretching on tiptoe to keep the frame from whacking against me as I clomp along. At the corner, I stop to look both ways, and once I am across the street, I hop back on. I’m not sure where I’m going. Down the block? To the next street? Around the corner? How do I get where I want to go? I’m seven years and one day old, and all I want is for my bike to race me along the days and months and years that will catch me up to them.
With a grunt, I start to pedal. Tree by tree, I travel.
Streets were quiet when we left, but when we turned at the end of our block ten minutes later, a parade of parents and kids with shiny backpacks and fresh haircuts lined the sidewalk. As they bunched at our heels, their enthusiastic chatter at our backs, Riley stopped and moved to the sidewalk’s edge to let them pass. This happened over and over. If he made any comparisons about their speed versus his, he never said a thing. Still, we arrived before first bell on the first day of school.
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