This is how stuff sneaks up on you. You take your battered bicycle to the shop and tell the repair guy you know it’s heavy and unsexy and doesn’t even really count as a mountain bike anymore, but you need him to save it. This isn’t something you realize is true until you say it. The repair guy, who’s outgassing coolness in a cave made from bicycle parts, says he totally understands what you mean. He fell in love with his first real bike, too, he says (“kind of like that one over there,” he adds, pointing to a $1,500 Cannondale)—not because of the bike itself but the memories he associates with it. There’s a note of compassion in his voice.
You’ve never thought about it that way, but this probably is your first “real” bike. You bought it in the German Alps in 1998, you tell him. With the last of your student loan money. You are tempted to tell him also that you rode it three miles to the American post office every day hoping to find a love letter there (though you were never sure from whom), but you don’t tell him this.
He attaches your bike to a work stand and cranks one of the pedals. All the parts that are moving sound either drunk or hung-over. The repair guy seems less fazed by this than you. He opens a repair ticket.
“Diamondback Sorrento” is printed across your bicycle’s mountain-green frame’s crossbar with the sort of silver medieval typeface that suggests warlocks and runes. You have no idea what a “Sorrento” is—something alpine probably—and make a mental note to look it up when you get home.
This wasn’t your first bike in the Alps, you confess to the repair guy. The first was a Huffy you bought at a US military PX (not a real bike, of course) that got stolen the week after you bought it because you didn’t buy a lock for it—because you were an American in Europe and you simply refused to believe that shit like that could ever happen over there. Needless to say, you tell him, when you splurged on the Diamondback Sorrento you splurged, too, on a complicated medieval lock. The repair guy nods sympathetically, confirms the day’s date with what looks like an Apple Watch, and says he’ll call you in about a week.
You walk home in the rain with a mud stripe up your back that makes no sense without the bike.
What’s distinctive about your memory of the three-mile route between your studio apartment and the American post office in the Alps is that it seems to have involved a lot of huffing and puffing through a leafy green tunnel—uphill both ways, which can’t be right. You decide it was uphill to the post office and downhill home because you like believing the trip was its own reward, especially on the days you came home empty-handed.
You remember, too, the cow crossings. The farmers with their exquisite wool vests escorting herds of wise-eyed short-horned soft brown cows to and from the mountain meadows. Cows that smelled a lot better than American cows do. And the dumb happy sound of cowbells.
Most of the three-mile route to the American post office ran parallel to the Loisach River, which was rocky and cold. Sometimes on the way home from the post office you stopped and sat on a bench overlooking the river to read your letters, even when those letters kept not being love letters. Sometimes you would sit on the bench and write letters (which also weren’t love letters). The sound of water over rocks, you told yourself, could make unromantic things romantic.
That winter someone left a plastic shopping bag on your bench. It was tied closed with purple ribbon. The bag lay there for weeks under a dirty crust of snow. One day you gave in and untied the ribbon and opened the bag and found a pair of holey mittens inside. You sat down on the bench and listened to the water on the rocks and wrote a short story about the bag, which a celebrated poet in your MFA program would later call “the perfect story—because it’s about nothing.” You appreciated the praise, but you didn’t think the story was about “nothing.”
That same winter, to impress the girl you had a crush on, you rescued an abandoned bicycle from the river. The little bike was perfect, she said after you dragged it up the snowy bank. It was twee and kind of retro. What great luck, you thought, until you took it to a shop, where the German repair guy told you in fluent English that the bike could not be saved. He wasn’t about to excuse whoever chucked it into a river, but this bicycle had been thrown away “for a reason.” The girl you had a crush on rode it anyway, and pushed it around sometimes. Then she gave in and bought a Huffy. You lost touch with her after that.
When it was time to move back to America you couldn’t part with your Diamondback Sorrento, so you paid someone to take it apart, put it in a box, and mail it to Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where you paid someone else to put it back together.
A few days later, as you walked this bicycle through a courtyard at Bard College, you met your future wife. Like something out of a Merchant Ivory film she was walking alongside this sleek, urbane bicycle, which you later learned was her father’s Raleigh Sport. It was her first day in the program. A fellow classmate introduced you. Your legs were covered with mud. Her legs were bruised, which made her seem fragile, which made you feel tenderly toward her.
But you didn’t fall in love with her until two years later, after you’d moved back to Germany—without your bike. You drove an overpowered sports car through dense city traffic to get to the American post office, but this time almost every letter was a love letter. One thousand one hundred eighty-eight pages, in fact. Six hundred eighty-three thousand words. Mix tapes. Photographs. International phone calls. Tears of all sorts. Through it all you held close that image of her pushing that Edwardian bicycle through a courtyard. She made you want to be D. H. Lawrence.
When you moved to Brooklyn to be with her you fetched your bike, which you kept locked in the stairwell of your apartment building. The only time you rode it to the post office was to pick up packages that were too large for delivery.
You bought your first bike helmet in Brooklyn. You wore it once—frantically pedaling across bridge after bridge over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway searching for your equally frantic soon-to-be parents-in-law, who got detoured off the wrong exit and were stuck in traffic in a zip code that had pushed their GPS lady to the absolute limits of her patience. You ditched the helmet after that. If you ever got run over by a Lincoln Town Car a plastic bicycle helmet was not going to save you.
You remember your first bike ride in Vermont, two years after that, when you explored a dirt road out past the hospital and the horse farm and the dog kennel, when pack-a-day smoking was still too recent a memory and you huffed and puffed and stopped halfway up a hill and swore to whoever would listen that you would never, ever, under any circumstances, fucking do that again.
Your wife claimed your forsaken bicycle then. She bought a fancy seat for it and rode it back and forth to work. For a time the rattling of her bike lock against the handlebars as she bounced happily into the yard at five-thirty every day was the sweetest sound on earth.
While you wait for the repair guy to fix your Diamondback Sorrento you borrow another bike, a better one. Because it’s not yours you take better care of it. You ride only on the nice roads. You’re extra-diligent about the lock. The whole thing feels a little bit like infidelity.
There have been other bikes, of course: The perfect red bike of your childhood, with smart fenders and a banana seat. The Hawk 4 you just had to have because of its bright blue tires. The BMX bikes with all their pads—neck pads, crossbar pads, handlebar pads, checkerboard pads, red pads the sun faded pink—and the parts—Redline parts, Race Inc. parts, Mongoose parts. The blue Schwinn with the big-ass wire basket on the front that held the newspapers you started delivering in eighth grade, with your spaniel-eared dog trailing faithfully behind.
That blue Schwinn was a transition bike: You disposed of bullies on that bike, with your fists, with a lighter and a can of Sure deodorant, with whatever. In fact, eighth grade was a transition year: You had your first French kiss, touched a girl’s breasts for the first time, drank your first bottle of Jack Daniels. You predicted that Prince’s “Purple Rain” would end up being the most brilliant track of the decade and you turned out to be totally right.
It was also the year you ran away from home for the first time. On a bike with a big-ass wire basket on the front, which anyone who might be looking for you could spot from a mile away. You did not know why you ran away or you would not say why you did it, and “I don’t know” turned into “go fuck yourself.” When you were caught everything was locked down and stripped away until the only thing you knew about yourself was that you would not be contained.
That Schwinn, though—it was indestructible. You have no idea what happened to it, but you hope you passed it on to someone who could appreciate it.
It occurs to you now that you never owned a ten-speed. You really kind of hated ten-speeds, you guess. They were for snobs and healthy people and people who didn’t like to get dirty. You were a BMX guy. You were a total poseur about it, of course, but you were still a BMX guy.
When in tenth grade your parents wouldn’t let you take Driver’s Ed you rode someone’s cast-off Hutch. It was the coolest and fastest BMX bike you ever owned. Its brakes failed—sometime after you were released from the mental hospital your parents locked you up in when you ran away from home the second time—but you rode it anyway. At night you snuck out of the house and stole away on it because it was quieter than stealing your stepfather’s Oldsmobile. (This was a defining feature of your stepfather, you would later realize—he was a man who bought Oldsmobiles.) Standing on your pedals you would huff and puff to the top of the tallest hill in your neighborhood and ride down the other side, brakeless, hunched aerodynamically over the handlebars. Down through winding leafy green tunnels you rode, picking up so much speed your wheels wobbled, past the painted brick ranch houses of former friends—beautiful sweet honor-roll kids who were just as scared as you were, probably, who were just as fragile, but had grown, as was required of them, you supposed, a tad more socially discriminating (you tried, you like to tell yourself, to love them, still, in your own twisted way, in spite of it all)—past your high school with the Confederate flag (your city still fancied itself the capital of the Confederacy), past the hospital where the single mothers of your new friends worked night shifts as nurses, and into a park where you bought drugs and rode around in circles, spark-alive and pain-free. When you ran out of money you stole Valium and amphetamines from the pharmacy you worked at.
Sometimes you rode down the middle of the street and just fucking dared somebody to hit you. Sometimes bored policemen pulled you over and told you to quit screwing around and go home. You wore out the soles of several pairs of Vans but you never fixed the brakes on that bike because fuck you.
(Your senior year of high school you sold that bike for just enough cash to make a down payment on an electric guitar—an ivory Stratocaster. You paid the shop extra to switch out the rosewood neck for a maple one and the first thing you did when you brought it home was throw away the whammy bar. You loved that guitar. It didn’t sound all that great, but it was sexy. Three years later, in college, you got wasted one night and smashed the thing to pieces in your dorm room, while your roommates stood in the corner and protested: The body broke free of the neck and hung by the strings, and when you reared back to swing it one last epic time the body kind of lurched out into the space of the room, jerked around in a wide arc, and smashed the bottles of cheap cologne on your dresser. To this day you still can’t stand the smell of Drakkar Noir.
You realize now that you never had a bicycle in college.)
The repair guy phones and says your bike’s ready. When you stop by the shop, he pulls the ticket, reads aloud the list of repairs, and takes your credit card. He doesn’t seem to remember you or the conversation you had with him the week before.
But the gears shift smoothly now and the chain doesn’t hop gears on steep hills. Your new seat is easier on the parts of you that have to touch it. You ride around until your back hurts, then you ride around some more—in the stunning alpine spaces between Vermont towns, along the rivers with the mosquitoes. You smile at the cows. You retrace the route you swore you’d never ride again, past the hospital and the horse farm and the dog kennel. You vow that you will ride this ten-mile circuit over and over until you can climb the hills without standing on the pedals. Standing on the pedals is so BMX-y, you decide. You prefer to sit now. Standing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.
The bicyclists you pass wear sleek sunglasses, tight spandex shirts, and shoes that clip onto their pedals. They ride the modern-day equivalents of ten-speeds. They frown at you. Probably because you are not wearing a helmet. Because every time you look over your left shoulder to check for traffic you veer out into the lane. Because you are wearing baggy shorts and high-top basketball shoes whose laces keep getting tangled up in your sprockets. Because instead of paying attention to your surroundings you’re blasting the Deftones on your iPod. Because three bicyclists have recently been killed within twenty miles of your home. You wave at these professional-looking bicyclists anyway. You swear to yourself you will wear a helmet next time, if only because you want your ten-year-old daughter to wear a helmet, but you know deep down you will not wear a helmet next time.
And though you know how pathetic it is to reenact your adolescence’s petty bourgeois self-destructions you start riding around town in the middle of the night. You ride past houses with windows aglow and wonder about the quality and endurance of the happinesses inside. You glide down steep hills hands-free. You ride in the middle of the street and you just fucking dare somebody to hit you.
No one cares, of course, if you’re still capable at forty-four of being bad, or if you think you’ve got to be bad sometimes just to know you’re alive. You’ve been bad all along, anyway, albeit in far less rebellious and far more petulantly self-involved ways.
Another thing you didn’t tell the repair guy when you asked him to save your Diamondback Sorrento was that you’d ridden straight to the shop from your wife’s office. After riding around for two hours in the rain (which is why you’d had that mud stripe up your back) it “hurt down there” and you stopped in and asked her if there was a special kind of bicycle seat you should buy. “Maybe you should try padded bicycling shorts,” she offered. You’d gone to see her under the pretense of getting bicycle-accessory advice, but really you’d just wanted to see her. You’d been separated for six weeks, you were living in an apartment now, you were frightened in ways you were either unable or too proud to articulate, and you just wanted to see her. Because even though you had wrecked your marriage you were still full up to the top of your throat with 1,188 pages, with 683,000 words. Another thing you didn’t tell the bicycle-repair guy was that on moving day, when you retrieved your bike from the shed, you knocked over your wife’s and your daughter’s bicycles, and when you righted them and shut the shed door on them for the last time you knelt on the ground and came completely undone.
But you keep riding. Even though, truth be told, it had never occurred to you to have your Diamondback Sorrento saved until you injured your ankle so badly you couldn’t jog anymore. You keep riding because you’re pretty sure there’s got to be more to it than your not knowing what else to do.
Then one night, after a long ride under a full moon, you decide your bicycle has indeed been “saved.” You decide also that you will take all the miles you’ve ever ridden on every other bike and add them to this bike’s odometer, which rolls over to 100,000 just as you park the bike in the stand. You don’t care how absurd this number is. It’s less about the distance of your travels, you tell yourself, than the distance of your thoughts.
That one hundred thousand miles will not heal you or change your life in any significant way is something you know with a part of your brain you don’t much feel like giving the floor to right now. At least not until you make yourself a sandwich.
As you take the stairs two at a time you actually remember which CD was in your stereo the very moment in 1998 when you bought your Diamondback Sorrento. You remember how not getting love letters at the American post office in the Alps turned out to be okay. The real love letters, and the real love, would come later. For a time. You open the door to your apartment. There’s no warm glow. There’s no one inside to explain all this stuff to.
Still. Think of it. A hundred thousand miles.
You make yourself a sandwich, open your MacBook, and look up those padded biking shorts on Amazon. You stare at the screen for kind of a long time. “No, no,” you finally say out loud. “No. No. No. No. No.”
You google “Sorrento.” It’s not a thing, it turns out, but a place—a seaside town in southern Italy. You decide you will travel there someday, and you will bring your bike. While you eat your celebratory sandwich you scroll through photographs of Sorrento and daydream about its cliffs and boats and cafés. Tomorrow, you decide, you’ll begin making notes for all the letters you will want to write when you get there.
Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.