My father rode a bicycle. It was a big, black Hercules with a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub and white handlebar grips. My father’s bicycle was a tool. He rode it to work.
Many years later, I rode a silver-with-brown-highlights Nishiki International. It had twelve speeds, Sugino cranks, Suntour shifters, and Dia-Compe brakes. I rode that bike away from the pain.
My mother rode away from my father and our family in 1979. Mom and Dad took us out to dinner, a very nice Italian place, though we never went to nice anythings. Our royal parents were strangely friendly and solicitous. No one told me to stop smacking or to quit clacking my teeth on the fork. The food tasted so good. I still remember the spaghetti and the crunchy bread with small shards of garlic toasted down the middle.
After dinner we went home and my parents seated my brother and me on the olive velour couch. I scratched Fletcher’s head while he happily thumped his tail on the floor. “We’re getting a divorce,” they said.
The spaghetti didn’t taste so good any more. My brother silently went upstairs and tried to fling himself out of the upstairs bedroom window. I still remember with clarity the panic in my father’s eyes as he gripped my brother’s leg at the last second, the last possible second.
It was organic how profoundly my mother hated her marriage, though her husband was a good man and simply insufficient. What was sufficient? Only a woman knows.
In truth, it wasn’t him she hated. How could she? She hated her father and every man cast in his image, which is to say on some level, all men.
I rode as hard as I could to escape the melee, never escaping it completely, but typically managing to stay a few bike lengths ahead, except, of course, for those times that it overtook me as if I were getting swarmed by a thousand-man field sprint. I learned to pedal like hell, miss the biggest pile-ups, then pedal some more. Or perhaps it was more like going over the falls at Teahupo’o. Hold your breath until you were ready to explode, then pop to the surface with milliseconds to spare. The price of not breathing deeply enough was drowning. In my brother’s case, it was drowning by a gunshot wound to the heart. That was on Father’s Day 2012, just yesterday.
I rode as hard as I could, switching bikes to take advantage of lighter weight, and eventually went all in for modern speed boosters like handlebar shifters and carbon components. The more I rode, the more I saw other people riding hard too, staying a wheel or so ahead of their own private monster. Cycling, the crazy kind, is that way. Everyone seems to be riding from something.
During the ride I had a daughter and two sons. You think that the necrosis of a broken family heals itself over time? You are wrong.
But still I rode and watched the riders around me, the ones who continued decade in and decade out, not the dilettantes or the ones who tried bicycling and then moved on to pilates or surfing or golf or sailing or spin class, rather, the ones who didn’t so much as persevere as they endured. It is, we were told, an endurance sport after all.
After three grueling years, my eldest son breached the surface, sucked in a lungful of air, and told us that he would graduate a year early. I relaxed on the pedals and celebrated in spirit. He was my son. He had never been forced to ride away from us. “How should I arrange all the graduation events and stuff with, you know, the grandparents?” he asked, and I could hear his knotted brow over the phone line.
So I said to him, “Their battle is not your battle. This day of celebration is for you.”
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
And in one way at least, my riding days are done.