Someday, Natalie’s going to kill me for starting the book like this.
She was shimmying around on the toilet there in her bathroom, my daughter, and swinging her feet against me as I sat on the floor, still sweaty in my cycling clothes. I was propped back on my arms, my legs stretched out in front of me, and as Natalie said, “Hold me,” she ticked her feet against the left side of my chest twice.
She’d already gotten dressed for pre-K, in a red sweater and, crumpled around her feet, kitten underpants and blue jeans with flowers embroidered at the cuffs. Nat has Beth’s nose and lips and cheeks and ears, and also my wife’s way of setting her face whether in joy or sorrow. Her blue eyes are hers alone, but there’s something of me in them — not the color or shape, but a thing that dances in and out of sight. It flitted between us now.
“Dadda, hold me,” she said, as her feet whapped me twice more. Under the black spandex streaked with snot and smears of the banana that had been my rolling breakfast, my leg muscles squirmed like something trapped inside me. My rib cage registered two more thumps.
Natalie’s caramel-blonde hair, curled in where it ended along the lines of her chin, swayed in time with her legs. I sat up and leaned toward her and put my hands on her shoulders, then back and down, across the pointy angles of her shoulder blades, so sharp on her they always seemed to me like wings about to bud. She lay her head against me, and I patted her in the tiny valley between her shoulder blades.
This ritual was a remnant from potty training, when Natalie sometimes perched on the toilet for twenty minutes trying to poop or pee, never sure which she might do, or when she might start, or if she was finished. Beth and I had fallen into a habit of sitting in front of her, talking, telling her stories, and wrapping our arms around her back so she could rest her head on our shoulders. Our most long, searching, complex discussions happened this way: how the universe started, “what stuff is made of” (which took me ten minutes to figure out she was talking about matter and atoms rather than wood or steel), why people die, why the various disciplines Beth and I meted out did not feel fair. Now that she was five, Natalie didn’t really need to do this anymore, but she was hanging onto the practice and, in truth, so was I. It was the same instinct that, since she was starting to pronounce almost all of her words correctly, made me hoard the few she still said slightly, adorably wrong: napkim, darkeness, bemember.
“Listen,” Natalie said, talking against my shoulder. “You are smelly but this is important. I have been thinking.”
“Not again,” I said.
“For real life. You told Steak that getting ten points is impossible.”
Steak, who worked with me and was one of my best friends, had been hanging out after a ride a few days ago and we’d been obsessing once again over my chances in the bicycle race that had come to dominate our conversations, the Thursday Night Crit. “It is impossible,” I told Natalie. “For me, at least. That’s kind of the idea.”
“But, Daddy, you’re so so so fast.”
“Lots of people at the Crit are faster than me, Riff.” This was one of a couple nicknames I’d given Natalie that had stuck, this one shortened from T-o-riffic, which was shortened from Terrifico, which sometimes became Turd-o-riffic when she was pestering me or Beth. “One of them was the champion of the entire world, and won a gold medal at the Olympics. Some of them are legends. Some are pros.”
“I know.” Her voice came to me as a vibration through my shoulder as much as a sound. “You’re not a champion, are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m an editor.” I was a 39-year-old desk jockey, but as I sat in the bathroom with my daughter on that morning in early April, I had pedaled myself into the best shape of my life. I weighed 153 pounds, chiseled down from a 175 that no one except my new acquaintances — bicycle racers —would have described as fat. My resting heart rate was somewhere in the mid-fifties, and when I needed to I could hammer along at more than 190 beats per minute for a ludicrous length of time. My body fat percentage was about to dip under double digits. Lab tests I would take later that season would put me in the ninetieth percentiles for all men my age in measurements such as strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity. Nowhere near enough.
“So what is the truth?” asked Natalie. “If you believe you can do it, is it really impossible or really possible?”
I leaned back and stared at her.
The truth was that there was no way I was going to be able to outsprint the real racers enough times to score ten points, which was exactly the reason I needed to do it. The truth was that I never told anyone the truth about my quest. Not Steak or my other friends, not Natalie, not even Beth. When anyone I knew or met heard about what I was trying to do, they would say things such as “You’re crazy,” or “That’s cool.” Sometimes they asked questions I could give specific answers to, such as “How fast do you go?” or “Are there many crashes?” But inevitably, no matter who I was talking to, we got to the same question: Why?
I had no way to explain why I was throwing myself under the wheels of a pack of world-class cyclists in the weekly series of races, so I told people something that was true, but not all of the truth: The previous October, Natalie had made a spontaneous, childish request that I score ten points in the Crit. And I had seized on the idea as a chance to show her that through work, and will, and willingness to sacrifice, dreams could come true. I told people that in a single year I could become not just living but lifelong proof that you should ask much, and expect much, of people you love.
“Hold me tighter,” Natalie said. She tensed, and the water made a plopping sound and she said, “I’m pooping.” I held her. I could feel her tiny spine shifting under my fingers. And, through the depth of her chest, her heart beating. A new, ripe, nearly sweet odor wafted through the room.
“I’m done,” she announced.
“Wipe,” I said. “You need to start doing it, Boo.”
“I know I wipe. I was going to say do you bemember my soul is a banana?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mine, too. All of ours.”
A few weeks earlier, I’d used a piece of fruit to explain the concept of a soul to Natalie. One of her cats, Jasper, had caught and killed a vole, and left it on our porch, and she wanted to know everything about death. She seemed most mortified that we bury or burn our dead. I told her that we are souls, not bodies.
We’d been having breakfast and, inspired, I plucked a banana from the bunch on the counter.
“What’s this?” I asked.
I stripped off the skin, and tossed the peel off to the side. I held the banana back up between us again.
“Now,” I said, “What’s this?”
“Daddy. Why do you keep asking me what a banana is?”
“This is what I’m saying: When the banana loses its peel, it’s still a banana, right? Our souls are like the banana. Our bodies are like the peel.”
She’d cocked her head, and reached out and taken the fruit from my hand.
In the bathroom, frowning, Natalie said, “We’re a banana when we have our body on.”
“And we’re a banana if our peel dies.”
I nodded. “You got it.”
“Daddy.” My daughter, sitting on the toilet, looked into me, and the thing flitted in her eyes. She said, “Daddy, who eats our souls?”
Before I reached my hand out and noticed that I still had my black, half-fingered cycling glove on and that it looked like some kind of paw against my daughter’s tiny head, and before I laid my palm against the side of that fragile head anyway and gave the right answer, my breath caught.
“No one’s going to eat your soul,” I said.
A long time ago, a monster had eaten mine. But I was going to get it back. “No one’s ever going to eat your soul,” I promised. All I had to do was score ten points.