My lover gave me a bicycle with a big red bow adorning the handlebars on Christmas morning. When instructed to finally turn around, I feigned surprise. I’d seen his car at the bike shop near our house the week before. So, like a child, I squealed with delight and lamented that frigid temperatures would prevent me from enjoying my gift for a while.
I hadn’t expected a marriage proposal, but his panicked purchase of a bike extinguished the romantic fantasies I’d harbored. “What am I, nine years old?” I confided to a girlfriend. Plus, I already have a bike. But on Christmas morning, my outlook shifted. Perhaps it was his expectant grin, but I saw not a rebuke of our future, but a toy. A toy that said, Go play. You, with all the responsibilities and things on your plate. Go outside and play. I suddenly saw wheeled absolution for future evenings goofing off instead of making dinner.
I bundled up and made a few loops around the neighborhood before parking my new ride into the garage nook next to my old bike. Its flat tires and cobwebs pulled at my perpetually exposed emotional nerve endings. Twelve years ago, that bike had been a birthday gift from my then-husband. The hybrid frame, kickstand, cushioned handles, wide padded seat, and extra water bottle holders embarrassed my kids when we rode past real cyclists in their matching onesies. Frankenbike was a cycling abomination, but I never cared.
Recently separated and busy reconstituting the fragmented shards of my prior Easy-Bake Oven life, I wanted to spend my birthday riding around the lake I’d circumnavigated a thousand times before. But first, I had to reconstitute my bike. Finally liberated from its moving box, I could see the tires were flat, the front wheel had been removed, and the chain hung loose from its gears. There we were, me and my dead bicycle, both dismembered and festering in midlife’s tangled offerings of despair and hope.
You can figure this out, I chanted like a mantra. My new bike pump, with its myriad attachments and hoses, might as well have been a bagpipe—I didn’t know what to do with either. YouTube talked me through the steps of inflating my tires. Feeling emboldened, I loaded a video of how to attach the front wheel. But I failed. Again and again. I could not get the round thingy to slide through the spoke-a-majigs and click into place. I took several crying breaks before trying again. I eventually threw the wheel into the driveway. I glared at it, seething while I devoured the rest of the birthday cake my office had given me the day before. I finally called my dad for help, but fueled by a rush of shame and sugar, I only made small talk.
When I retrieved the wheel from the driveway, I recalled that my new neighbor was a cyclist; I’d seen him take off in his onesie a few times. I just had to go next door and ask for help.
All that stood between me and Frankenbike getting on with our day was a goddamn row of azaleas. All that stood between me and my delicate equilibrium was repairing that goddamn bike myself. A little DIY project had taken on existential meaning.
Cars. Spiders. Mortgages. And bikes. How many times in our two shared decades had I watched him masterfully operate on upturned specimens, tubes, chains, and gears loose like viscera, only to then confidently ride off on his re-assembled contraption. I’d only ever known how to masterfully take up space.
It took all day, but I put my broken bike back together in time to savor the last strands of daylight at the lake. I felt like a kid on her birthday, gleefully propelling herself forward with no real destination.
Over the past two years, Frankenbike has succumbed to neglect alongside my lover’s rusted 10-speed. Together they rot, like joint scaffolding for a city of cobwebs and insects. And there they’ll stay. I’m not ready to part with the old bike just to make space for the new. I feel no need to repair it again; just knowing I can is enough. For now, I am content to let it fade away in peace next to my shiny new toy.