I no longer remember coming off the pack, but I can still hear Natalie saying, “You got popped” — the inflection and intonation and volume and everything — and see the popsicle dripping all over her hand. It makes me think hard about which details really matter in a story.
It was standing-room-only on the 9:30 bus back from New York, the daily exurb commuter’s last chance to get home to the Lehigh Valley 90 miles away and still have a shot at a decent night’s sleep.
I was on my way back from a meeting in the city, and had gotten on just in time to snare the last seat. I felt lucky to be in the absolute back row, squished and jammed, with no chance to recline the seat back, and smack against a bathroom that was sending out eye-watering waves of a full day of chemically neutralized effluvia; I had a race the next day, and needed to save my legs.
Five or six people had gotten on right behind me, and I watched them scour the bus for open seats, then resign themselves to standing. Two women in their fifties, maybe early sixties, fit-looking, both in well-worn but expensive sneakers, each with two or three shopping bags, and each laughing about their fate, stood just in front of me, smelled the bathroom and retreated several steps, laughing about that. It was, I guessed, part of their day’s adventure. Beside me, a huge man, easily sixty, in a suit from Penney’s or somewhere, wobbled to his feet and, catching the women’s eyes, said, “Would one of you like my seat?”
And I thought: Stand up. Offer your seat. But I didn’t. I had to race. I had to save my legs.
I was a Cat 4. I would be racing in the 30+ group.
I never get out of the back of the pack, and by lap seven or eight I have sprinted out of so many corners to close the gaps that I am blown, blind-retching-shivery blown, and I quit, right on the straightaway finish where everyone can see — the officials, the little crowd that’s there, my wife and daughter, my friend who hung in for the whole Cat 5 race, the first of his life.
I roll around on the sidewalk with my head down. By the time I coast over to Beth and Natalie there’s another race going on, maybe the juniors or the Cat Threes, and people standing around us are shouting, so it must be a good race.
I unclip my helmet and click the straps back together and loop it around the stem, so it points off the front of my bike like a figurehead on an ancient ship. I slant my bike behind me, put one hand on the bar and one on and saddle and sit on the top tube and look out at the race.
Natalie says, “I don’t want to race.”
There’s a kid’s race coming up. Nat’s purple Barbie bike is sitting over in the grass. Its white streamers flutter in the breeze. I look over at Beth, who shrugs, and I say, “Okay. Why not?”
“I don’t know,” says Natalie. I believe her. I almost always believe kids when they say that. I wish I could admit that as an adult with the same kind of openness and unapologetic innocence.
“I had fun,” I say, in case I’m the unrealized reason she doesn’t want to race. Then I say, “That’s not true, actually. It sucked. But I’m glad I raced, even though I did bad.”
“You got popped,” Natalie says. “Popped. Pop pop.” She likes that word.
Before I can say “you won’t pop” in response, which I’m almost sure won’t end up being a lie, an ice-cream truck tinkles onto one of the neighborhood streets that abut the closed race course.
The Cat 3 pack is coming by at just that moment, and a bunch of them think the ice-cream truck’s music is the bell announcing the last lap, so they attack.
I’m enjoying that when Nat says, “I want a popsicle.”
We walk across the course and intercept the ice cream truck at the corner. It lurches to a stop and makes that soft squeal that braking cars always make in a movie to let you know they’re braking. The music, which had cavorted like childhood itself when heard from across the street, now sounds as if it’s being cut out of the tinny speakers with a hacksaw and hurled against the metal sides of the truck.
Nat gets a red, white and blue popsicle shaped like a rocket. She begins eating it, and colors melt down across her fist and between her fingers and over her wrist and onto her arm. There is red on her cheeks, blue on her chin. I let it happen, because in the same way the music had been childhood so is this and I don’t want to wipe it away.
She looks up at me and says, “I want to race now.”
I can see the kids lining up: A couple low-slung trikes, one really young boy on a Big Wheel, a cute little girl in a yellow polka-dot dress on a matching yellow upright trike, maybe 20 or 30 other kids around Nat’s age on 16- and 20-inch wheel bikes. Their race is from the last corner of the crit, up the straightaway and to the finish line, right where I quit, right where the ice-cream truck helped decide the winner of the Cat 3 race.
“If you really want to race, we have to go now,” I say. “You need a good spot.”
“I need to finish my popsicle,” says Natalie.
She eats, and the rocket melts, and more kids line up, and the ice cream truck has served everyone and drives away and the music is a beautiful reminiscence again.
When Natalie lines up, she’s at least 30 yards behind the lead row. A single competitor is behind her, the tiniest girl in the race, on a dainty, immaculate red tricycle. Someone blows a whistle, and the pack of children instantly looks like a beehive that fell to the ground: Bikes are flying in every direction, entwining and dipping and curling in and out and over and under each other, and we parents add to the illusion by waving our hands forward as if we’re swatting at the bees.
“Go!” we shout helpfully.
Nat ends up orienting herself dead last once the pack more or less straightens out and begins making progress toward the finish line — though at least half the kids are still riding sideways as well. In the final ten feet, she overtakes the miniature girl on the toy tricycle.
“She didn’t pop,” I say to Beth, confirming the vast reaches of my wisdom.
All of the kids get free tickets to the Lehigh Valley Velodrome; the first three in each age group get medals. When Nat realizes she’s not getting a medal, she starts crying.
I kneel, and pull her onto my knee and hold her. She does that silent hiccupy wail that means it’s for real, genuine sorrow. My shoulder gets wet, my chest, and I feel not just helpless but something worse. I need to speak. My silence is like a judgment. I pat her back. She smears her nose and eyes across my shirt, which I see is not only snotty and teary but red, white and blue.
If I’d made Natalie stop eating that popsicle, she might have gotten far enough up in the line to at least have a shot at getting a medal. If I’d offered those ladies my seat, I would have ended up with the same race result I got with fresh legs.
Here’s what I need to tell my daughter: You’re going to spend your whole life trying to figure out the difference between right and wrong, and although sometimes the decision is easy because the circumstances are clear, most of the time there’s no way to know if you’re doing the right thing until the moment has passed. Sometimes long passed. And on top of that, it’s not enough to try your best if you don’t win, at least sometimes, in some way, no matter what your teachers and well-meaning youth-league coaches tell you. Yet trying your best when all is lost is more central to — I don’t know — who we are, us humans, our whole existence in this and whatever other lives are out there waiting for us — than winning ever will be.
Here’s what I say: “I want a popsicle.”
She sniffles. I say, “Do you want another popsicle? I want one. I wish I’d had one.”
She has stopped crying. Another pack, the Ones and Twos, I think, are lining up. Someone is giving instructions through a megaphone. Natalie runs the back of her hand across her eyes, once, twice, three times, four.
She wipes her nose on my shirt and says, “Okay.” She laughs. She smiles.
Then she says, “But daddy: Where is the ice cream truck?”
I don’t know.
Originally published in the June 26, 2007 Sitting In