On a cool June morning, my mother called me outside to the driveway after breakfast. There was a surprise for me, she trilled, and a good one, too. Delighted, I slipped on my shoes and danced into the sunlight.
The bicycle that stood on the baking asphalt that day still resides in my garage, its handlebars rusting and its seat dusty, the spokes of the wheels connected with lacelike cobwebs. But that June morning, the bike gleamed magenta in the sunshine, and the bell chirruped merrily as my mother’s fingers pushed it again and again. At the same time, she looked expectantly at me. I couldn’t help it; I burst into tears.
“Oh, Rachel,” she said, half pitying, half exasperated. I knew a new bike was a special treat, and a very expensive one as well, but just looking at the great metal figure scared me out of my wits.
I suppose every child has that day, when they first lose their training wheels, and must ride out in the road, wobbling, on two thin circles of rubber, until, with a great crash, they fall into the brambles at the edge of the pavement. No one gets it right the first time. They get up, bandage their cuts, and get back on the bike, more determined than before.
That day, even though I knew, somewhere in my eight-year-old mind, that I was not the only child to face the challenge of riding a two-wheeler, I could not understand why anyone would want to.
Somehow, probably with the promise of ice cream, my mother coaxed me onto the bike, placed a bright blue helmet on my pigtailed head, and told me to pedal. I obeyed, while she held onto the back of the bike, balancing me. After a time, she let go; I fell, splayed and screaming, into the grass.
For several days I refused to try the bike again. I sat in the yard, or in my room, thoughtful and solemn. My mother was worried, but tired of trying to get me back on the bike. She let me be. Then, on a grey Saturday that looked like rain, I pulled my mother by the hand and, silent, led her to the garage.
I worked all day, even when the rain began to fall, tapping on my helmet like distracting fingers. I did not notice when my mother went inside for an umbrella, nor that she was telling me to put the bike away and come get dry. I biked up and down the driveway, falling less and less, until I could make one full rotation, then two, then more. I soon lost count.
Towards evening I was cold and hungry, and I put the bike away. My mother, who had gone into the house long ago, hustled me into the kitchen, toweling my hair and setting the water to boil for hot cocoa. I was shivering, and grinning.
The next day, I came down with the flu. My mother had to watch me all week, so that I would not sneak into the garage and bike away up the street.
Years later, when she told me of this, I truly didn’t believe her. Me, sneak out of bed with my nose running, to bike around the neighborhood? By the time I was ten, I hardly biked at all, preferring to read on the hammock whenever it was a nice day. Biking was a distant, half-forgotten, childish activity.
At the time of my biking obsession, biking was not what was on my mind. I wanted to be big, to grow up and do big kid things. It was this that compelled me to ride in circles until I could turn without falling, this that made me sneak to the garage in rain or shine. Biking held no thrill for me; growing up did.
In later years, this didn’t really change. When I was eleven I went to sleep-away camp, not because I was excited to stay in a college dorm room and take academic classes for three weeks, but because I didn’t want my little sister to live away from home before I did. I cut my hair at the age of fourteen because my friends had convinced me that frayed, split ends were for babies; straightened, even locks were more adult.
But now, as college and jobs and reality loom above me like dark thunderclouds, I am beginning to sense a change in myself. I am beginning to think kids are better off than they ever know, and that they take a lot for granted. When you are grown up, there is no one to take care of you, pull you in from the rain, make you hot cocoa and buy you bikes. Everything is up to you. You are independent, in the worst way.
Yesterday, my mother asked me if I wanted to try driving up the street to my grandparent’s house. After all, she reminded me, it won’t be long until I have my permit, and will be adding up road hours.
“No,” I snapped, and dashed to my room faster than a rabbit running from a fox. I can’t stand the thought of driving, of being responsible for a car and gas and the people in the back seat. I can’t stand the idea of being old enough to do that, to be mature and trusted and counted on. I can’t stand the fact that I can’t help it.
My position has entirely changed, in the course of seven years. If Peter Pan alighted at my window tonight, offering me the chance to stay a kid, I would leap after him, pixie dust or no. Wendy, who I once despised for ever desiring to be forever young, seems to me now a more understandable, even admirable, character. I’m starting to wonder if I will ever be contented with the age that I am.