by Nancy King
By the time I was nine years old I had been yearning for a two-wheeled bike for two years and three months but there were none to be found—not in stores, not in newspaper ads. The bike my parents and I finally found was second-hand and three sizes too big, just because FDR decided making war materiél was more important than manufacturing bikes for little girls too impatient to wait for WWII to be over. When my dad looked at the bike he said, “Nancy, it’s much too big for you.” True. When I sat on the seat my legs dangled, at least a foot from the ground, but I could have sworn I heard the bike saying, “Buy me. I may be too big but you’re big enough to ride me.” I begged and pleaded until my father gave in. The bike was mine. Now all I had to do was figure out how to ride it. I had the will, could I find the way? On top of our hilly street, my father let go of the seat and even though I could barely reach the pedals, I found my balance and freedom—away from parents and sister and squabbling kids on the block. Off I went, to ride wherever I chose to go, full of confidence.
At nine, all I cared about was having a bike, and riding it, but when I was fifteen, a clunky, klutzy, unpopular adolescent filled with more angst than atoms, getting off the block no longer made me feel better about myself. When I saw an ad in a YHA (Youth Hostels of America) magazine describing an Easter vacation bicycle trip, I decided to go. The cost was thirty-five dollars, exactly the amount of money I had made babysitting. Without asking permission, I signed up and sent in my money, presenting my baffled parents with a fait accompli. I didn’t know enough to look at the level of difficulty. Big mistake. I spent the first two days at least five miles behind my group. On the third day, I woke up so sore I lay down in the nearby hayfield, waiting for death. But then, what would happen to my bike? I had worked hard to persuade my parents to buy it, wheedling and arguing that even though I was a girl, I desperately wanted and needed a new bike. As I lay exhausted and depleted in the hayfield, my bike called to me, intoning, “You can do this. You can do this.” I got back on. My bike was right. I could do it. By the end of the trip I was riding with the group, ready to take on the world.
At twenty-six, I was the mother of a two-year old, stuck in an unhappy marriage. A series of talks with a psychotherapist had left me in despair. I was contemplating how I might liberate my family from me when I stumbled over my bike, by this time, old and almost as out of shape as I felt I was. My neighbor must have sensed my desperation because she agreed to take care of my son for a few hours. I walked my flat-tired bike to a nearby service station. I knew better than to blow up my tires with a car pump but wasn’t sure how to pump life back into my bike or myself when the young guy in charge at the station came to my aid. He produced a bicycle pump, and both scared I wouldn’t have the energy and elated that I was free of my son and husband, off I went. I rode longer and harder than I would have thought possible. Somehow, when I finally persuaded myself to return home, I felt better. Stronger. Although nothing had changed, I had more wherewithal. Four years later, after I was divorced, a neighbor expressed surprise. “I once saw the three of you riding bikes. You looked like you were having so much fun.”
I’ve heard second marriages described as the triumph of lust over experience. Well, in my case, lust didn’t triumph although the marriage somehow lasted more than six years. Still, when my husband wanted to install a dishwasher, I seduced him into using our money to take a bike trip through his native Denmark. Riding a bike along the edge of the sea, with only half of a pair of saddlebags in which to carry clothing and toiletries, was liberating. It was the only easy time in a completely inappropriate marriage. When I was tired or hot, I jumped into the water, allowing the waves to soothe my nerves, jangled from dealing with his overweening sense of always knowing what was right or best or true. After a ride, the misery of living with my husband seemed less unbearable. But I did learn something. I decided, after we were finally divorced, if I was ever stupid enough to contemplate marriage again, one of the non-negotiable requirements would be weekly bike rides together.
Bike riding couldn’t save my marriages, but some years later, after a bout with a rare form of leukemia, preceded by a rare form of pneumonia, when I had barely enough energy to take out the garbage, my bike called to me. This time, I refused to listen. I wasn’t sure I could get on it, much less ride. My therapist said I was depressed. My doctor offered pills. My friends told me to sit outside and listen to the birds. My bike kept calling but I was too wretched to heed the call. Then, while searching for a watering can in the garage, I tripped over my bike. Cursing, I nursed my sore shin and left the garage grumbling to myself. Less than five minutes later, I returned, looked at my dusty, neglected bike, and thought, “we both need a change.” There was barely enough air in the tires—I didn’t have the strength to pump them up, but I managed to get on the bike and ride anyway. Only a few minutes. But that was more than I thought I could do. Once again my bike had given me hope. Life was possible.
After dealing with a second bout of leukemia and my seventieth birthday, I decided to treat myself to a new road bike. The only problem was, it came with cradles on the pedals. The salesmen, and friends, assured me that learning to ride with my feet not so comfortably ensconced in the cradles would allow me to pedal uphill more easily. Hah! The first time I tried to get both feet on the pedals, I fell, smack down in the middle of a road. Too embarrassed to pay attention to any injuries, I got back on and rode on the bike path, dreading each time I had to get off to cross a street. I was feeling a little more confident when I started the second bike trip but minutes after starting, my bike lurched as the wheels rolled over a bump and where were my feet? Snugly inside the pedal cradles. Once again I fell. Hard. Blood gushed from my legs. I could hear my bike wail, “Take the stupid cradles off the pedals! Pulllllllllllleeeeeeeeeeeese!” The bike was not alone. Everyone echoed my bike’s demand. I’m told I’m a little stubborn, and it’s hard for me to admit defeat, but cuts and bruises and bloody legs were difficult to ignore. Now, much to the relief of friends and my body, the cradles are off, the tires are pumped, and my bike and I zoom happily and freely without constraint. When it talks, I listen.
Nancy King has written many books and articles dealing with imagination, creativity, drama, and literacy. You can read the first pages of her novels: A Woman Walking, Morning Light, and The Stones Speak. on her website: www.nancykingstories.com. Her books can be purchased from her website or ordered by local bookstores.