I think about this ride sometimes, still. I don’t know if it’s because of the ride or because I wrote the story. The thing I like most about the story and the moment is that during the ride I understood I was different but the ride wasn’t what made me different, I don’t think.
For his birthday I gave Dave the rest of the Mason jar of apple moonshine that someone had given me, and after his party we sat around taking long draws from it while jazz played on from, I think, somewhere in the kitchen.
I became a philosopher. Gazing out the window, I said, “Is dark.”
Dave added to our body of knowledge. He said, “It’s night.”
I nodded, and thought a lot about this fact. No matter how hard I concentrated, I didn’t see what else I might contribute to what had quickly become such an advanced field of study, so I decided I ought to ride home. I announced this, then said, “Got a blinky?”
In Emmaus, to be a good host, one must always have on hand a bottle of acceptable red, a selection of Belgian beer plus a domestic down-market, a spare riding jacket or two, presta tubes, hexes and cone wrenches, and a loaner supply of blinky tail-lights. Dave and his family just moved to town, and he confessed to his social failing before offering me a reflector.
When I wheeled my bike out of the back door of his garage, then through the strip of grass that was the side yard and finally out onto the driveway, Dave was out there, bent over and flailing away at the seatpost of his son’s toddler bike. He heard the clicking of my freewheel and stood up and said, “Vaughn has one you can borrow.”
He was holding a screwdriver in one hand; the blinkie was still attached to his son’s seatpost. “I’m not taking it,” I said. “I only use clip-on blinkies.” My voice was indignant, as if an aversion to seatpost mounts were a matter of longstanding and abiding principle rather than the lie I’d just made up. “Besides,” I said, “your kid might need it.”
Dave looked up at the sky for some time, swaying a bit, tilting his head this way and that. Eventually he looked at me again and said, “Vaughn’s in bed.”
“Still,” I said. “One never knows.”
The truth was that I’d already decided I wanted to ride home in the dark, unlit, unilluminated, without reflection. This was not a smart, nor defensible thing, and I admittedly was, if not drunk then at least not not-drunk.
I rolled off, promising myself I would stick to the sidewalks. Then at the first downramp to the road, I swerved left into the street.
When I was in high school, just getting into the sport, about to use a whole summer’s worth of money to buy a secondhand Schwinn Paramount instead of a semester of higher education, my best friend and I rode at night, without lights, all the time. The streetlights, at least in my memory, threw a kind of urban daytime over the trafficked roadways — and anyway we were at that steely age where we couldn’t wear raincoats in storms or gloves in winter. There was a three or four-mile stretch of road smooth and dark as obsidian that led to one of the beaches of Lake Michigan. It was completely unlit, treed in on each side, no houses, never driven in the fall or winter, and on the darkest nights we would sprint the road without speaking, losing all sense of being bound to the earth, only blankness ahead of us and nothing behind us and the unseeable above and to each side, and I, at least, held onto the world through the most tenuous audible clues — my breath, our tires, our chains, the wind; eventually, like a mysterious sound that gradually transforms into a real-life racket as you wake from a dream, the approaching waves would drag me back to sentience.
Later, in college, and later than that when I had my first few crappy jobs and didn’t have the money to do anything else, I liked to ride alone through the streets of whatever neighborhood I happened to be living in, pedaling slowly along and looking at the lit windows as if I were browsing books at a library: a story in each one, a flash of color as someone walks by as I ride by, or the shifting tones of a TV’s light, a dog’s bark, a cat’s silhouette.
In Emmaus, I saw up ahead of me the pool of light cast by a streetlamp. It looked like a stage, for some reason one that had been abandoned, post-show, rather than one waiting for a performer. I rode its border, trimming my bike in a half-circle just outside the line of light until I was past it, not knowing why that was my path. I heard the soft, long sigh of a car far away, behind me somewhere, and I popped my front wheel over the curb, rode through the grass and onto the sidewalk, then unclipped one foot and stopped.
The car never came. It seemed important.
There’s no beach here. I had a wool beanie on against the chill. The windows of the houses at my back were just windows, and the people inside were living their lives, not stories. I was still drunk on moonshine, but I’d been for some reason sobered in the moonshine, and all I wanted at that moment was to get home.
Originally published in the Oct 17, 2008 Sitting In