My grandfather took me bike riding along the Aqueduct, that runs from Kingsbridge to Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, on my first small bike with training wheels. He would take me on Saturday mornings and I would ride carefree and happy, wobbling on the training wheels that kept me both safe and unsteady. I submitted a short memoir piece entitled “Bike Scars” as my first submission for 2017. It is an essay about how my father taught me to ride bike, and ride free. It is a true story, but it was only half of the story. The bike in “Bike Scars” was the one that became my symbol of freedom and fierceness. I learned to ride it on Devoe Terrace where my grandmother and I went to live after my grandfather died at forty nine years of age in his sleep. The bike in the watercolor above is the bike from the short period of my childhood where I did not yet know the names for my sorrows, and they could still be folded up and stacked like sweaters in a closet. I didn’t have to wear them every day, or I could at least still wear only one at a time. It was the time when my grandfather would bring home these desktop note pads that were 4×4 from la fabrica where he worked, and he would let me use as much paper as I wanted. I would cover those tiny squares of paper in ninety nine cent watercolors, and oddly used my fingers instead of the little brush that came with them. I would soak my fingers in tiny pools of colors and make abstract images of oceans and sky and trees.
The bike rides that belong to that short period of time of having training wheels and water colors were bike rides of not having to know what to do. There were no hills or unexpected turns on the Aqueduct, and only two major streets to cross, where he would get me off my bike and hold my hand and pull the bike alongside him to cross the street. The Aqueduct itself was a narrow path surrounded by trees and buildings on either side, and it offered no alternative paths, only straight ahead. It was simple though not always easy. I sometimes saw people on the benches falling asleep like my mother did. It was a sitting, standing, dancing sleep that involved almost falling, but not, almost crashing but not. I was always waiting for one of them to fall the same way I was always waiting for her to fall, but they never did they just went as low as their bodies could twist and turn and then snapped back just before collapsing. I watched them out of the corner of my eye and watched my grandfather darken at the sight of them. His face would go hard with despair and rage, though I did not have those words for it then. Mostly, I looked straight ahead teetering along on my training wheels and moving fast enough to keep his attention as he would run to catch up with me. I never asked him about those people, but I asked my aunt one day, “Why are those people so sleepy all the time?” She looked at me as if trying to decide how much truth a seven year old could hold and said, “Those people aren’t sleepy they’re drug addicts. They live terrible lives. Never do those things.”
I was seven years old at my grandfather’s funeral. He was dead in one room and my mother was doing her half mad almost falling but never quite dance in the corner of another. I remember watching her and understanding that I had a name for what she was and that she had a terrible life, and it was then that I began to wonder if mine too would have to be terrible.