I learned to ride a bike when others my age learn to use a walker

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Although I am of an age when others like me learn how to handle a walker or negotiate climbing in and out of a wheelchair, I woke up one day thinking, in no uncertain terms, that it was high time I learned how to ride a bike. Truth be told, I blame it almost entirely on my memory of a little story by William Saroyan that I had happened upon in my early teens. In it, a boy named Mourad was said to have stolen an older farmer’s beautiful white horse and, after riding it to his heart’s content for a few days, shared the secret with his much younger, less experienced friend, Aram, whom he enticed to do the same. Somehow the memory of their illicit pleasure and of the great pains they took to protect it have never left me. Many decades later I could still recall the boys’ thrill when sensing the newness of the raw smells at dawn, the innocence of dewdrops on the country’s sparse vegetation, the taste of holding on tight to the horse’s whispering mane. Somehow, that lingering memory rekindled an old flame. The promise of the new sensations that follow unfamiliar pursuits made me ditch all reservations and go on an adventure of my own.

And so, one fine morning, I dusted the yellow bike kept in the garage for quite a while, removed the spiderwebs on its spokes, inflated its tires, sounded its bell and out I went. It was not my first attempt at learning how to ride it. I had tried that on several occasions, with a success so modest it convinced me to abandon any hope of ever mastering the skill. But this shot felt somewhat different. Determined to succeed, I took to the streets of our quiet neighbourhood – made even quieter by the scare of the raging pandemic – armed with a burning desire to make it work with no protective gear in place.

The pain of learning proved excruciating. Day after day I would fall and whine and tear up and limp, but I went at it anyway with a determination worthy of a better cause. Bruises, bumps, scratches then scabs stood witness to that. My repeated failures at taming the yellow-mellow beast were often observed by concerned neighbours .

After a whole month of this labour of love and hatred, a day came when I could finally do it. Tentatively, at first, my heart a painful knot in my throat, I managed to ride my bike without falling. Sweet victory! I began my daily tours by taking in the light traffic of the back streets, pausing and restarting, in constant fear that I could cause someone or something permanent damage.

Much later I dared tackle the main street where garbage collectors and their powerful trucks, store delivery vans, lawn and garden-care contraptions, school buses, cars as well as all the other bikes threatened to stifle my budding riding career.

Yet, as my anxieties subsided, I grew to care for the gust of wind gently fingering my hair, its crispness on my bare arms, the unexpected drizzle, even snowflakes, on my back.

I delighted in the early morning bird song, the woodpeckers’ exploits, the radiance of sprinklers refreshing a front lawn. I welcomed the sight of householders tending to their flower beds. I acknowledged the scents of freshly cut grass and blossoming roses, honeysuckle and petunias. The aroma of breakfast pancakes, the ones of bell-peppers and eggplants roasting on the grill in time for lunch, the chimneys smelling of burned wood, of charcoal smoke. Eventually, I mustered enough courage to ride alongside those youngsters taking crazy chances with their bikes and scooters. I managed not to get in the way of sweaty joggers or speed walkers.

I learned to share the street with basketball hoopers, pavement patchers, impromptu hockey players and dog walkers while affably responding to sidewalk well-wishers. I greeted those neighbours busy stocking their garbage bins, chopping wood, sipping wine reclined in their lawn chairs or having a quiet cigarette on their front porch, the whiff of tobacco still clinging to the evening air long after the smokers left. I pinched the bell expertly to warn the many squirrels, raccoons, skunks and cottontails of my tempestuous passage. I revelled in the turning colours of trees, unable to decide which season rendered them the more charming – in spring, then summer, then fall, then spring again.

On a torrid day, I came to anticipate the fragrant coolness of the linden’s shade rubbing against my bike’s wheels, the tangy smell of juniper buds, the mess of crab apples scattered on the pavement.

At the end of Saroyan’s story, the two rascals did return the white horse of literary fame to its rightful owner, intent on preserving their family reputation but not before basking for a while in the untethered light of their boyhood. As for me, I am hooked on the two-wheeled marvel that takes me places. To think that, but for that strange summery urge last year, the bringer of a second wind of sorts, I could have missed all these new sensations. Eyes squinting in the sunset. The taste of twilight on my tongue.

Luisa Apostol lives in Toronto.

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