Before Natalie and I got home from this ride, I knew I was going to write about it. There was something in the purity of her laughter, and the simple unthinking fun of those last moments, and even the chilling of the air as evening came on. Once when Natalie was three she put on a CD and, arms straight, leaning backward, she and I held hands and twirled around and around her bedroom. Our looping pursuit and evasion felt to me like the same kind of moment, but richer coming after such a bad start to our day.
We circled the big, empty parking lot of the church, Natalie and I, not only neither looking nor talking to each other but actively not looking at each other — taking great care to accidentally ignore the bike opposite ours. Early on a late summer Sunday, the sun already halfway into its fall below the ragged green tree line but throwing orange fingers up over it as if trying to grip the top and clamber back out, no puddles in the low spots of the rippled parking lot thanks to a dry spell, a breeze you could feel on the broad flat part of your cheek but that wouldn’t even ripple your hair, and a father and his 8-year-old daughter out on a bike ride — idyllic. Ideal.
I was pissed off.
Mostly I was angry at myself for getting angry. A little bit I was mad at Natalie for panicking when she forgot how to use her brakes, which I knew was unreasonable but there it was. I was beating myself up, also, for clocking around 4,000 miles on my bike so far this year yet somehow being unable to pedal alongside my daughter more than a handful of times — maybe ten, maybe fifteen really, but whatever the number was, not enough.
We live on a hill, half a mile up from town on a 7-percent grade buzzed by cars and trucks that regularly throttle 15-20 mph above the 35-mph speed limit. There are sidewalks farther down, but none near our house. It’s a scary piece of pavement.
I love living on hills, have tried to do so as much as I’ve been given a choice, and am proud — probably overly so — of the idea that I end almost every ride by climbing. You know: Do the ride that leaves everyone wobbly and ashen, then pedal half a mile up the hill to get home. Tough guy.
It hasn’t worked out so well for Natalie. She’s been riding for years now, but almost always, and always when alone, only halfway down our driveway then turning back before the big hill and finishing with a circuit through the yard. When she was younger, we’d throw her bike in the back of the truck and drive down the hill to the church parking lot to do loops, then later farther out, to the fitness park where I sometimes raced, then, finally, down into town where we’d park and get out and cruise the flat, quiet neighborhoods.
Earlier this year, we took our first ride all the way down the hill, around town and most of the way back up. A real ride, you bet, driveway to driveway — even though we walked the last couple hundred meters but even then just before we dismounted she’d been up out the saddle and swinging her little blue Schwinn back and forth and, I tell you, I’ve never been prouder of anyone for anything.
But that was it. One time. I was busy. She had soccer and swim and sleepovers. I had deadlines. And training to do. Important stories. The rest of the summer, it just slipped away and before I knew it a few leaves had already fallen onto our driveway and the two of us had done just that one authentic ride together.
“Come on,” I said, standing out in our driveway earlier in the day, dangling her helmet in front of her as if it were a new Webkinz. “Let’s ride down into town again.”
She gets this look sometimes, a visible exchange of emotions in her eyes, something in the stance of her cheekbones, angle of her jaw, tilt of her head — she has not yet learned how to camouflage embarrassment or fear before getting around to expressing the anger or indifference that can conceal it.
“Nah,” she said.
“You’re nervous about the hill because you haven’t been riding,” I said, thinking about how it would seem to her as if I could hear every thought she had.
She didn’t answer, but her eyes flicked away, over my shoulder, down to the ground, to her bike leaning against the brick of our house, out to the rise of the drive. I held her helmet out to her.
“Come on,” I said.
She’d gone hurtling down the driveway, of course — wailing that she couldn’t stop, furiously backpedaling for the coaster brake that wasn’t there while forgetting all about the hand brakes. Thirteen-percent grade. Fifty mile-per-hour traffic.
I sprinted ahead of her, and jumped off my Electra, letting it ghostride itself into a sharp series of metal scrapes as I turned and blockaded the drive. She was coming right for me. Flying. I opened my arms and braced myself — and Natalie braked to a stop, looked up at me, forgot to put a foot down and fell over.
She lay there, tangled in her bike, crying. I stood there, breathing, closed my eyes, opened them, and shouted, “Dammit.”
I said, “You can’t even get out of the driveway. You can’t even use your brakes. No way can we go for a ride. You’ll kill yourself in traffic.”
Then I was holding her, as if she were three or four again instead of eight and nearly too big for me to carry, and as if I were comfort rather than cause, and I let her smear her nose and eyes across my shirt. Her helmet kept popping me in the face, and I let it. I set her down, and looked at her, and we both looked at her knee, which was red but not skinned.
“Daddy,” she said. “How about the church. If we walk to it can you trust me so we can ride?”
I do not think I could camouflage my embarrassment — my shame — before I replaced it with anger.
So there we were, looping the parking lot in the last long shadow of the day in one of the last weeks of our eighth summer together, and we were as far apart as we could get. I dropped my head and coasted and looked down at the pavement bleached near-white, and squeezed my eyes shut and raised my face up and out to look all the way across the lot at my daughter.
She was gone.
She rolled up fast beside me on my left, pedaling a tighter circle than me and shot past without acknowledging me, cool, uncaring, and as she did so her front tire slashed across the shadow of my neck. I raised my left hand and slapped it onto my neck and my shadow hand did the same to my shadow neck and I shouted, “Oh — you cut my head off!
She giggled, and cut a tight circle and looped back around and ran over my shadow head and I screamed the agony of a man being flattened by a steamroller. And Natalie laughed.
She made another pass and ran me through the chest, and shouted out in triumph and came in again for another kill but this time my shadow was off and sprinting away, laughing and pursued by laughter, rolling around and around that holy place, again and again vanquished by the little blue bike until the sun finally did drop away and the day ended and there was no shadow, just me and my daughter out there, riding perfect circles together.
Originally published in the Sept. 14, 2007 Sitting In