This one makes me think a lot about the intersection of writing and living. After it came out, Steak was talking to me and said he wondered, as we were on the ride out to the race that’s described in here, if I was already writing this in my head — that I seemed to be almost portraying the character I sometimes make myself into for these stories. I wasn’t. I was lost in myself that day, and I didn’t know this series of events would become a story. But by the time I went back to the graveyard, I was thinking enough about storytelling that I had a notebook and pen with me to write down whatever I might find. I had no idea what I’d find, or what the story would be, or even if it would work out. I just had a vague, uncornered, unoutlined, uncolored sense that something might be worth telling. Did I create the story? Or did I find it?
I haven’t been racing. I’ve barely been riding.
You don’t have to like it. I mean, you might have to accept it, just to stay sane, but you don’t have to like it. I don’t, so last Thursday I took the day off work so I could ride. You know, kick-start things. But I ended up in the office for an hour that turned into more, and pretty soon the day was shot. It happens, like I said, and mostly I don’t care because I don’t pay my bills by riding my bike, but this felt important. Like part of me was at risk, about to disappear or something if I couldn’t get out. I finagled things so I could leave the office by 4 and salvage a couple hours of riding before I had to be at the soccer field to help run my daughter’s practice.
Steak stopped by before I left, talking about the Thursday Night Crit, and even though I knew I couldn’t do it — the late race starts ten minutes after soccer practice does — hearing him talk, hearing him laugh, hearing him tell stories about who did what and who crashed and who was squirrelly and who’d gotten good and how the new section in the woods had added a tiny roller and changed the curve, it just killed me.
That’s not right. It didn’t kill me. It reminded me that somewhere inside something inside me was dying. I guess that sort of thing happens, too. Even if I hadn’t had Nat’s soccer practice I’m in no shape to race. I could never sit in, not with my form the way it is. I’d never be able to submerge myself in the ceaseless rushing motion of the pack the way I love to, finding in its ridiculous chaotic roiling a natural and inescapable rhythm that pulls you on and in and all of a sudden during a surge drowns you in sound and sweat and suffering until you learn to breathe anew.
But, listening to Steak, I wanted to at least see the race, even if it was only the early one for Cat fives and kids. If I couldn’t race, I could at least roll out there the way I used to, taking forty minutes or more to soft-pedal the 7.5 miles to the park, and coast around and talk to everyone and lie about how we felt, and chatter about the wind, and go over and watch the kids and fives do a few points sprints. So I told Steak that I was going out at four, but I’d loop back around and meet him outside the office at 5 and ride over to the race with him, then split for soccer.
I didn’t get into my kit until 4:40. I had twenty minutes, not enough time for any kind of ride if I still wanted to see the race. Or I could do a real ride, an hour-twenty, and skip watching the early race. I rolled out of the parking lot not sure what I was going to do, and started pedaling and made a few turns and ruminated about my life instead of the road, and went on that way, and though it seemed interminable it was only five minutes, because when I finally thought about where I was, I was in front of the little cemetery close to our office. I turned into it.
Alaric is buried there. I hadn’t gone in there since the day of his funeral, back in 2004, the toughest but greatest season of my life. On the little cemetery lane I took the first right and looked over at the gravestone shaped like a Care Bear, which I’d also noticed the day Alaric was buried. I swung left on the lane and coasted about five rows down and shifted to my 23 and turned in on the mown grass and rode in to Alaric’s grave. I clicked out and swung my leg around and sat my ass on the top tube of my bike and looked at the piece of rock in front of me and waited for something.
Alaric had been my coach at the velodrome one summer. Just one summer, a couple months at the most. But he’d told me something about myself that had changed me, for the better and for good — to try to put it simply, he’d told me I was more gifted at not losing than at winning — and now, I guess, stupidly, I was hoping that kind of revelation could happen again. Alaric said a lot of things I still think about. One of them was that it’s not the miles that make you great, “It’s the miles after the miles.” But I wasn’t sitting here looking at Alaric. I was looking at a piece of stone with his name on it.
I turned the bike around and got on it and clicked in and rode out through the flying grass clippings and onto the little lane and past the Care Bear and back to the office where I met Steak.
“How was your ride?” he asked.
I shook my head. I spit. I mumbled, “okay,” and we rode out to the race, bullshitting about things I cannot remember just a week later.
Sparky was in the early race, a Cat 5 friend of ours, and he kept driving the pace with one to go for points, then falling back to tenth or so and missing the points, and I was envious of him for having the chance to screw up like that. I listened to the bell ring, and I watched the pack stream past and I felt its wind pass across my face and I waited for them to reappear after the turn and up onto the hill and there they were, in jerseys red and blue and some wanker in a yellow Tour de France jersey and they wobbled and lost drafts and split apart and rode like a joke but they were racing, they were racers, they knew something I didn’t, possessed something I had lost, and it was time for me to go to soccer practice.
This Thursday I rode to work at noon — I’d taken the morning off to help run the three-hour pre-season soccer clinic the coach had set up — and when I got to the parking lot instead of pulling in I pedaled past it and went out to the main road and kept going and rode on and turned left into the cemetery.
I swung right on the lane and shifted to my 23 and cut over onto the grass and rode up to the Care Bear.
There was a little stuffed animal sitting on the grass, like a Wild Thing or something, fading white fast. There was a lot of writing carved into the base of the gravestone. I clicked out of my bike and set it down behind me and kneeled and moved some grass stalks aside and read the words.
Olivia Josephine Baker Oppenheimer
January 5, 1996
April 3, 1996
Unforgettable Beloved Angel, Smiling Face of Innocence, Eyes of Curiosity, Love at First Sight, We Are Missing You Little Angel, Your Precious Beauty Will Remain In Our Hearts Forever, Loving You Always, Mommy
That night at 6:10 p.m. I clicked into a pedal at the start line of the Thursday Night Crit and touched the toe of my other foot to the ground, holding myself up, waiting. Unforgettable Beloved Angel. I was in no shape to be there. Smiling Face of Innocence. Someone blew a whistle. Eyes of Curiosity. I pushed my left foot down and my right found the pedal on its own and ninety or more other riders did the same and the sound of the pack clicking in crescendoed and faded like some part of a symphony. Love at First Sight. Someone’s elbow bumped mine. We Are Missing You Little Angel. I pushed him off me and the pack wove itself into the first turn of the first lap of the thirty we would do and there once had lived a little girl with more names than months on earth, who had been christened in honor of a great singer but had so little time to even cry, and I was a racer again, and Your Precious Beauty Will Remain in Our Hearts Forever.
Originally published in the August 21, 2009 Sitting In