Our practice lap around the parking lot does not portend a smooth ride. Spencer wobbles noticeably and panics when Murphy and I take a wide turn on the tandem into oncoming traffic on the street.
“Mom!” Spencer shrieks as a car swerves out of my way.
“Don’t worry, honey,” I yell back. “The cars know this is a biking area.”
“TURN AROUND, MOM!” Spencer yells.
“I’m trying, honey,” I say, glancing over my shoulder to see if I can loop back, “It’s not as easy as it looks because it’s a two-seater.”
When the coast looks clear, I take a wide U-turn back to the lot and brake in front of the bike-rental guy. The bike tilts over and Murphy falls off onto his feet. Murphy looks relaxed enough, so I assume that Spencer was overreacting.
“You’ve got to look where you’re going, Mom,” Spencer says, pulling up beside us.
“Relax, Spence. Seriously, people bike around here every day at all hours. People who aren’t anywhere near as fit as we are, make it back in one piece.” I eye the bike-rental guy who looks like he is barely squeaking out of his teens, “Is it possible to lower my seat? I can’t really touch the ground when I’m sitting so I keep throwing my kid off every time I stop.”
The teenager shrugs, “It won’t go any lower.”
“Huh. OK, I guess. Murphy are you cool with that?”
“Sure,” says Murphy, all smiles.
“OK,” I say to the teenager, “we’ve got our map but where do we start?”
He points to a crop of bicyclists funneling into an opening in the woods, “Just follow them.”
“Will do,” I say, saluting him. “OK. Murphy, hop on. Spencer do you want to lead us?”
Spence looks a little wild-eyed. “No,” he said, “you go first.”
“Great,” I say, throwing him my mommy-has-this-covered smile. “Follow me. I’ll take it easy, you’ll see. This is going to be a blast. The best thing we’ve done all vacation.”
Spencer reaches up to shift his helmet a little.
“Is it secure?” I asked.
“My hair itches.”
“You won’t notice that once we get going,” I say, walking the bicycle in a big loop so I don’t have to negotiate it with Murphy on the back. “Hop on Murph.”
I tip the bike down to his level and Murphy wiggles a foot over his seat. Once he standing on one leg with his other almost reaching the opposite pedal, I slowly ease the bike up with him on it. It occurs to me that it’s going to be tough to stop without toppling him over every time. I remind myself to take the stops slow and give Murphy plenty of warning. I shimmy forward on one foot until we reach a small decline in the pavement. I push off, wobble slightly as I find the pedal with my foot, and start pedaling. “Murph? Are you pedaling?” I throw over my shoulder. “ Because I can’t feel it.”
“I’m pedaling, Mom. I’m just smaller than you.”
“Is Spencer behind us?”
I feel Murphy shift, “He’s right behind us, Mom.”
“OK,” I yell back to both of them. “Take it easy. See that opening in the woods? That’s where we’re headed.”
The muscles in my stomach tighten with the effort of pedaling, I shift gears and there’s some relief. We hit the tree line and the gravel path that leads into the woods. I glance back and spot Spencer. I look forward and feel the wind on my face. The sunlight pools through the trees here and there, but mostly its shady and lush. I pick up speed. Cyclists whiz toward us on the other side. I nod at them, companionably. We understand each other. We are doers. We get on bikes and ride them through forests. These are my people.
“Mom,” I hear Spencer say, “can you speed up?”
“Really? OK, sure. Or better yet. You lead. How about that?” I slow down to allow Spencer to pass me. The angle of his back as he pumps the pedals betrays attention not abandon. He is still slightly unsteady but I figure that this ride will give him confidence. He zooms ahead and I whoop, “That’s the way to go! Isn’t this fun? I’m having fun. I’m loving this.” I speed up to keep pace with Spencer. “This is gorgeous,” I say over my shoulder to Murphy. “Aren’t we lucky?”
And I do feel lucky. My kids are great sports, taking this on. We’re all healthy. The woods remind me of my own childhood in Germany. The dirt floor of the path gives a little as we speed along. I see an older couple biking toward us and yell up to Spencer, “Keep right, honey. Let people pass.”
Spencer teeters to the right slightly. We reach an incline. I switch gears and start to push. I can feel the weight of Murphy not doing much of anything behind me. Spencer strains up ahead. We’re both working now. This part isn’t very fun, I think. I wonder what people get out of biking tough routes. You really only want to go flat or down. Up is bullshit. It hurts. I gasp. My thighs press. Shortly, we reach flatter terrain and I yell, “See? Not so bad. Now we’re rolling!” We accelerate, the gravel crunching beneath our wheels. We’re sailing again.
Up ahead I see some benches and a few cyclists resting. A map is posted at the fork in the trail. “Let’s take a break up there,” I shout to Spencer. He nods and we slow down. As I tilt the tandem to stop, Murphy jumps off and sprints next to me until I can come to a stop. Spencer has already leaned his bike against a tree. I rest the tandem in some underbrush.
The clearing is mottled with sunlight. I can feel the humidity, but the shade cools my skin. The scene strikes me as belonging to no particular time or place. We could easily be in nineteenth century France, with Eduard Manet painting a couple of nude picnickers off the path. Spencer looks flushed but pleased. Murphy runs up to the map, “Here’s where we are.”
“Right,” I say, not looking.
“Mom,” says Spencer, “where’s our water?”
“A bottle of water,” he says more insistently.
“Oh. Sorry honey. I didn’t bring any. I wasn’t planning on biking and then I figured that the ride wouldn’t be that long. Can you last?”
I hate my tone. It’s manipulative. It asks Spencer to be reasonable. If he answers in the negative, he’ll sound whiney.
“I guess I can last,” he shrugs.
“Good. We’ll be back before you know it,” I say. I hadn’t been planning on going on too much longer, since I’m paying by the hour.
“All right, boys. Let’s get going. Murph, what did the map say? I think we’re supposed to go straight on, right?”
“Yeah. Straight is good,” he says.
We haul our bikes out of the brush and start again. This time, Spencer is behind me. I remind him to stay right and we fly through the woods. I sit up straighter and steer with a light touch. I point out views to Murphy who crows with delight. I whoop. My chest lifts toward the sky and the air tingles the perspiration on my skin. I smell the earth and almost feel the bike lift off the ground. My spirit is flying out of me – ahead of me.
From behind I hear a skid against gravel, a thump, and Spencer screaming out in pain. The echo dully bounces off the trees.
I pull over and slowly lean the bike, so that Murphy can jump off. I drop the bike into some leaves. I can hear Spencer howling and I move without consciousness. I work to reunite my spirit with my body.
I see Spencer on the ground, his bike toppled behind him, clutching his knee, screaming. Something clicks in my body and I am activated. I am present. I feel Spencer’s pain slice through me. I bend down to look at his knee, which is already covered in blood. Bikers whiz by throwing curious looks. I smile like I’ve got this handled. This self-sufficient smile marks a lifetime of habit – don’t ask for help.
As I lean in to get a better look at Spencer’s knee, I can hear that his howling isn’t general – it’s words. Very specific words.
“You did this, Mommy! You told me to stay right!!! It’s your fault!!! We don’t have water!!! It’s your fault!!! It’s all your fault.!!”
...to be continued.