I live in a city of nearly 22 million people. This city is estimated to have anywhere from one to four bicycles per person, due to the popularity and efficiency of bike-sharing (many people also still own their own bicycles). If you want to rent a bicycle, you can simply walk up to one and scan it. You may be charged for time, but rarely are you charged for distance. At night, fleets of large trucks and old-fashioned scooters with wooden beds sail through the empty streets, scooping up bicycles for maintenance. Workers line the bicycles up in neat rows that, come morning, will look like a broken necklace as people push and grasp their way through rush hour. Sidewalks are wide here specifically to make room for parked bicycles.
Every day, I see more bicycles than people. In a twenty-minute walk to the nearest subway station from my apartment, I may pass hundreds of bicycles not being used, slanted towards the curb. Still hundreds more bikes pass by in their special lanes and on the roads, gloating, look at me, I’m useful. Their wheels cut lines through the dusty air and that dust resettles on the bikes that remain without riders, on the ones with broken chains or missing baskets or wet seats.
It recently came to my attention that, in a city of millions of people, in a city of even more millions of bicycles, I have forgotten how to ride a bike.
How do you forget how to ride a bike?
Let me humiliate myself a little: A few days ago, I was by a canal near my apartment and I thought it would be pleasant to ride a bicycle under the birch trees that line the streets in this part of town. After scanning and unlocking a bicycle, I swung my leg over the frame and went through the motions that I thought I knew. But I did not, could not move. When I finally did move forward, the chain groaned at me and we wobbled a few dozen meters before I let embarrassment get the better of me and left the bike almost where I had found it for the familiar comfort of walking alone.
It was surprising to me that I could forget how to do this when it's something I used to do often.
I have a vivid memory of one of the first times I rode a bicycle. This was towards the end of my parents' marriage, so I had to have been about six or seven. At that time, we were living in a trailer park in Western South Dakota. My father, who had in the past prevented my mother from buying us children shoes or coats, who had taken my mother's paychecks from her and controlled her finances in order to buy what he thought should be bought, had procured two second or thirdhand bicycles for my sister and I. They came with training wheels; I remember mine because they were dirty white plastic with a red pupil, dehydrated eyes rolling in perpetual shock at something only they could see.
That particular prairie evening sky was like quartz and I wore an old coat and a scarf my mother had knitted me that she was fond of saying made me look like a babushka. There was no safe paved road around, so my sister and I rode our clunky new bicycles on the gravel strip that connected our trailer park to the county road. Unluckily for my eyeball training wheels, they were entrenched in the gravel, so that it actually took a decent amount of effort to pedal forward. In my mind now, I imagine the sound of this effort I undertook to be similar to the sound of someone grinding their teeth, loudly wearing down their own bones against the roar of their own heartbeat. My sister seemed to have fewer problems than I did and was content with crushing her way through the rocks in erratic circles. I told my father I wanted to try to go in a straight line. He walked down the gravel driveway and stopped in front of one of the trailers next to ours, waiting expectantly for me to ride to him.
Simply pedaling in circles on a rocky surface is difficult. Eventually, I realized that I had to steer as well as pedal, and that steering made it harder to go in the straight line I wanted to go in. When I told my father that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, he told me that we wouldn’t go inside until I made it to him-- don’t waste the gift that I worked hard to give you. It was getting dark outside, it was getting cold.
It was such an arbitrary thing on both sides; I had set an expectation for myself that I couldn't meet, but was not allowed to back out of it once I realized my mistake.
How to close the distance across an impossible surface: Become aware of what these things are made of. Dull rubber tires with frayed feelers, a frame that can still take the weight you lean on it. Beneath the tiny peaks and canyons of that cheap rock, a flatter surface. So, awkwardly slaloming both myself and the bike from left to right, we began to move forward, not in a line, but in a ripple resembling one.
I sometimes wonder why my father waited until he was almost on his way out to get my sister and I these bicycles, which in my memories disappeared almost as suddenly as they appeared. I think he wanted to buy our love, to weaponize the power of affection and nostalgia against our mother in what he must have known by then would be inevitable custody hearings. He had already made it clear to us at that point that he viewed love as something conditional and transactional. He played favorites, he at times refused to acknowledge my sister, he thought my mother owed him a certain amount of love, as if there was a meter somewhere that needed to be filled.
This is not an uncommon practice in love. Many of us have made the same mistakes, though hopefully we have not acted out these mistakes in the same controlling ways my father did. But maybe we have tried to measure out the ways in which we feel for others, the ways in which others feel for us. We lock down our love into demands, impossible or impractical ultimatums, and physical objects. When these demands cannot be met, when these objects become unnaturally attached to our expectations in feelings, something in the way we love fails to be properly committed to memory. We may forget how to love; we may forget how to ride a bike. We may only see a bicycle as something useful, instead of enjoying the ride. We may only see love as a thing to obtain.
I remember that even well after learning how to ride a bicycle, I was still afraid to ride one without training wheels. Fear is a phantom limb of mine; my mother used to tell people that even after I learned how to walk and talk, I would only walk when I had a table, chair, or rail to hold onto. Otherwise, I would crawl, or remain still in my anxiety, unafraid to speak, but so afraid to move.
Once I discovered the joy of letting go and moving forward, though, oh, it was all I wanted! Walking, wandering, dancing, and then, years after that first lunar expedition in the trailer park, racing around on a bicycle in what remain some of my happiest, most carefree memories.
After my parents divorced, both of them eventually remarried, and while the turbulence of my childhood never really dissipated (it merely changed form, the way the dust of drought can be smothered by a flash flood on some desolate plain), the new life that came with my mother's remarriage brought us a measure of stability for the first time. With this new life came less frequent, but more drastic, moves. Four years after my parents parted ways, we moved to England, where we lived in a house near a runway, a replanted forest, and Roman gold.
My stepfather confuses me; there was always a transactional nature to our relationship, but what exactly that transaction was remained elusive and watery to me for many years. Still, I asked for a bicycle and got one, a secondhand find that I adored because it fit me well. It was purple and teal, with a "man’s" frame, a basket, and a bell. It had changeable gears, though at the time I had no idea how they worked and had to learn as I went along.
I can’t quantify how much time I spent riding my bike in the woods during my time in England, but I have a composite memory of the routes I used to take. I can close my eyes now, a decade later, and still picture the entrance to the forest near my house, the lightly splintered wooden post that sometimes had a key dangling by a piece of twine nailed to it. I remember the little landmarks I used to set for myself: A particular clearing, a small sandy beach by the creek, the burnt husk of a car that some kids had stolen and then not known what to do with. I remember times where, abandoning all personhood, I simply went as fast as I could, until I was breathing so hard that no air could actually get in or out of my lungs. When, acknowledging my form, I finally stopped to breathe, I felt so elated I would sometimes scream out loud. With no one around to judge me, I felt safe enough to be as loud or as quiet as I wanted to be. Even now, the scent of pine trees reminds me of this time, and when I walk on pine needles, I might sometimes remember how they softly snapped under the whirring wheels of my bicycle.
What made me stop doing something that brought me so much joy?
A horrible something choked my psyche well enough and long enough that, deprived of air, I used my awful phantom limb as a crutch and stopped doing the things that I loved doing.
Perhaps I would not have gone blue from this choking if I had known that love was not inherently transactional. Nor was this soul-grasping a sudden occurence, so maybe I simply did not consciously notice how bad things had gotten. The composite memory I recounted above is probably composite precisely because I have compartmentalized my memories from this time period in order to preserve the self that was not being worn down, the self that was moving forward on a bike with no cares in the world. Later on, this collaged memory was supposed to be a reminder that, when I was finally free from the hands around my neck, there was some part of me left still capable of joy.
Until writing this, I believed that this canned-fruit self was lost to me, preserved but inaccessible except through memory. I didn’t ride my bicycle at all after moving away from the UK; in my constant visitations of these memories, which I had hoped would sustain me and heal me, I let myself forget the physical reality of my experiences. In doing so, I neglected to realize my own agency. Memory has become about what happened to me, and very rarely am I a real actor in the archive of my mind.
This has seeped into how I live my daily life, how I have been living my life for years. I have corrupted the memories of the first time I fell in love by believing that it was something that happened to me, when in reality, I happened just as much to it. And in treating my relationships and friendships this way, I have neglected to own up to the consequences of loving and being loved. I left the act of love to everyone else because I believed that I was not capable of it, and in this belief I risk actually forgetting how to love.
Trauma did not make me forget my agency in bringing about my own happiness or in bringing happiness to others, but it did trick me into thinking that I had forgotten it. But I haven’t, I really haven’t, and I have so much love to give and to be given. Yesterday, by the canal again, I found that bike I couldn’t ride the day before. I did not forget how to ride it a second time.