“So, see: clutch, front brake, your back brake is down there, and here is where you shift.” He demonstrated with each punctuation, squeezing handles and pointing to various pedals. The bike stood silently, a lime-green beast that looked as if it had chewed and spit out riders far more experienced than I. Nodding, the giant helmet forced my head to swing a comically wide arc.
“Do you want to try and start it?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said. I was along for the ride, an empty shell. I would do whatever he asked.
“It’s not just a push start, you have to kick-start it, here,” he said, sliding out the lever with his heel.
I swung my leg over, my toes barely whispering on the dirt. The bike swayed against the faint brace of my sneakers, threatening to spill me and its hundreds of pounds over in a biomechanical heap. Heart fluttering in my chest, I prayed I wouldn’t drop the monster.
I gave it a kick, keeping upright who knows how. Nothing. I tried again.
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck in protest against the desert heat, the forceful movement, and all the gear Sean had graciously loaned me.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I can’t do it,” I said with a catch in my breath. The general lameness of my entire life washed over me familiarly.
“Here, take a break,” he said, grabbing the handlebars while I hopped off and stretched my sore hamstrings. “Don’t feel bad, this bike is really hard to start.”
“Do you want to ride for a while? I don’t need to,” I said, feeling guilty that he had volunteered to stay behind and teach me. Feeling not worth it.
“Naw. I don’t need to. I’ve ridden before. I actually like teaching,” he said, probably not knowing how much more human that bit of kindness made me feel.
He hopped on the bike. “I’m just going to start it for you, so you can get on and ride before it gets too hot. We can practice kick-starting later.”
After a half-dozen attempts, it roared to life, buzzing angrily. Don’t mess with me, it growled. My heart raced wildly, a staccato of life I hadn’t felt in a long time. Swung on, floating on toes.
“Remember: clutch, then shift. Use both brakes. You’ll do fine,” he shouted over the engine’s insistent howling.
I let go.
Speed! The speed, faaaaaagh, the speed! The arid landscape hurtled by and the bike skidded through loose sand. The perpetual deadness inside me receded as life poured through my veins, glittering and dangerous. My broken heart vibrated, and for the first time in years I wanted it to knit back together. Now I knew why I said yes to this.
At some point I remembered to loosen my grip on the gas, and my heart rate evened out. I stopped screaming. Had I been screaming the whole time? The bike’s front wheels devoured ruts and small plant life, bumping along. I started feeling like an extension of the bike.
Until I hit a sand pit. The tires skidded, and I struggled against gravity before flying off to the side. It stalled, grunting to a halt. I started laughing, laughing until tears fell.
Later, I apologized.
“Don’t apologize! That was an amazing first ride,” he grinned, holding up his hand for me to give him five.
I did, still laughing.
– – –
UPDATE: Last night, February 8, Sean passed away after a long, courageous fight. I will see you again someday, Sean. Until that day, I will keep you in my heart.