They tell me it used to be a bowling green, but now it’s sealed with asphalt and the kids come up here after dark and drink and smoke and grow up too fast. Half the perimeter is a concrete bench and I’m sitting here watching my little boy race around on his Christmas bike, his first with pedals, and I’m entertaining the possibility of taking off the stabilisers already. He’ll be four next month, he’s had the bike a week, and I’m not a man known for a saint’s patience.
I figure I’ll bring a first aid kit and a couple wrenches and we can remove the wheels together and patch up the bumps and scrapes to come. I won’t fool myself into thinking my boy’s going to maintain a scar-free perfect complexion all his youth. If he did, he wouldn’t have lived.
Before I was a dad I thought I’d be more sentimental about his skin and bones, keeping them protected and intact and free from harm at any costs. Then I remember my own younger years: that slash from putting my arm through the glass window on our garden shed at age seven – it’s freckled over but still there. That stitched up mess on my palm from a misguided chisel a decade ago reminds me to use the right tool for the job, and by all means take all the time you need. Scars are healed memories and lessons learned. Nothing wrong with that.
I thought the boy would be more sentimental about his old bike. Not so. He cast it right aside and took up the new one, shiny and red and white, with a gusto he usually reserves for pizza and ice cream and telling tales of a superhero dolphin he created in the bathtub and who now inhabits his wildest dreams. Calls him Zapho. And together they save the world.
We headed down the hill to the park and swings and slides and shade trees and the evergreen stand the kids call “the forest.” Up a slight rise off the path to the beach is the bowling green and we push the bike up the grass full of bees and clover. At the crest of the hill he hops on and wobbles across the lot in circles and eights.
I watch and breathe in the jasmine blooming after yesterday’s rain and he stomps the brake and skids from one puddle to the next kicking up a wake of muddy mist. I’m holding a wrench and some hope that the inspiration of his friend L___ will spark a pitstop to remove the stabilisers. He said he wanted to get rid of them so he could go faster after he saw his friend take off in a zip across the lot last week. Somewhere between letting him down and pushing him too hard is the right time to do it, and I’m hoping this is the moment.
After a lap he skids over to me, stops at my feet, and says “take them off.” I show him lefty loosey and he spins the nuts until they clatter to the blacktop and I pull off the wheels and line up the pieces as he tips the bike upright and puzzles over what to do next.
“Swing a leg over.” He straddles the bike and looks up at me and smiles and says “Go!” I remember that L____’s difficulty was learning to start on his own, so I show Noodle how to orient the pedals and his feet.
“See what you’ve got. One up and one down. Put one foot up on the pedal and keep the other foot down on the ground.” He wobbles but he’s doing it. “Push off with the down foot and down with the up foot, then it’s circles circles circles.” He starts and I push him by his shoulders holding him upright. He keeps pedaling no matter what because no-matter-what’s our mantra, whistling in his ears and through the bird chirps in the breeze.
He tends to wobble and tip to the right and I catch him and tell him to steer against the fall – not what to do at speed, sure, but we’ll get there. Twice around the lot and I’ve got a sense he doesn’t need me, but he says “I want to go back to the pits. Put them back on.” We head back and wrench together. Rightey tightey, square them up and he hops on and takes a half lap, cuts back to me and says “no no no take them off.” Again we work together and I let him yank them off this last time and toss them in the grass as far as he can reach. We orient the pedals, pushing the bike forward while kicking one pedal to position. “Off with the down foot and down with the up foot.” One lap with me as his stabiliser and I tell him to get ready to do it himself.
I hold his shoulders. I open my palms slowly and we separate, static energy and perfect harmony between us holding him upright. I run. He accelerates. I can’t keep up. He’s off. My boy is off. On his own.
“You crazy kid. Well what’d I expect.”
Nobody hears me speak my surprise out loud. Nobody needs to hear. Nobody witnesses the milestone but us. The two of us. In a magical moment I’ve dreamed over and over. A moment that drew us in, up here in an abandoned bowling green on a summer evening six thousand miles from where he was born three years and eleven months before. A moment both ineluctable and unsentimental, and he’s another step closer to becoming his father.
I walk back to the pitstop watching him wheel in circles and I sit down with my wrench and the idle trainers behind me and he skids to a stop in front of me and swings his left leg across the top bar and leans off to the right in a perfect dismount. “Look!”
Not a moment to waste, he straddles again, squares up the pedals, pushes off and down while looking behind at me and shouts “Back off suckers” as he takes off full speed.
What is sentiment but attachment to a memory? And what attaches to memories but people – people who perceive themselves in the world – a sense we call “apperception.” My little boy knows who he is. If you ask him he’ll answer readily and maybe even enthusiastically. And if you mess with him and insist that he’s “Frank” or a gaseous funny smell rather than a solid little boy you’ll ruffle him to pure frustration. “C’mere Frank and sit with me” riles him up to no end. He’s got a name and you better use it right because he already senses that it’s one thing nobody can take away and how dare anyone even try. Or sometimes I’ll sniff the air around him and pretend he’s not there and complain about a funny stink in the room. “Noodle where are you? Can you smell that, wherever you’ve run off?” Dadding days can be long and we’ve got to amuse ourselves however we can. Anyway his rebukes are swift and stern. He sure enough knows who he is, but I wonder whether he attaches to memories the way I do, or whether he attaches to things or to people or to the world as he knows it.
The speed with which he dispensed his old bike in favour of the new both thrilled and alarmed me. He loves the new one, and that’s good news. But wait – why isn’t he the least bit sentimental about the old? Not a nod goodbye. I think he even stepped over it at the bottom of the porch stairs, laying on its side in the wet grass, forgotten before his first new ride. I wonder if the new bike matters to him, really? Or whether it will suffer the same fate one day not too long from now, coming quicker every day it seems.
I’m plenty sentimental about my favourite bike, the one I ride now and probably will for the rest of my days. It’s been under me on some downright sublime adventures and those memories mean more than I can probably convey in a thousand words. We did our first century together, rode from San Francisco to San Diego in a week on a charity ride, and there’s the countless trips to and from work, to the grocery store, to the pub…. It’s part of my identity now. My favourite tires, favourite leather saddle, favourite bars and brake lever and pedals. It’s my bike, in all its dull purpled brown, one-speed glory.
But I hardly remember the details of my first bicycle. I remember the fact of a bike but the bike itself has no shape in my head. Coaster brake. #42 badge on the front. Might have been blue. I’m not sure. I remember in facts more than colours, these days.
I reckon this is something we pick up over time – this attachment to memories I mean. I’m not sure Noodle’s time has come. He tears the wheels off every toy car he owns, knocks over every model and every castle and every train track and station and city we’ve ever built. I guess that’s just being a kid, right? Yet I’m still surprised at his instant detachment from his trusty ol’ balance bike. If I didn’t know better I’d worry.
Last night I went out on a bike ride with a friend who’s training for her first triathlon. Noodle was awake when we left, but it was late for him and I figured he’d be out cold by the time we got back. Nope. In fact, when I walked in he called to me. So I went in his room and knelt beside him and brushed his hair to the side as he sat up straight on his bed, a bit wet-eyed even. I took him by the hands and we pressed noses together and inhaled one another as we do every night. “You’re still up” I said.
He looked at me for a bit. Studied my eyes in his and I could see he was thinking. He picked up my right hand in his two and fiddled with my fingers gentle as a bird as he said “Daddy next time before you go out on your bike you say goodnight right.”
I kissed his forehead, pinched his chin, and he drifted straight off.