I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO RIDE A BIKE.
In admitting to such, I reveal that a “quintessential” American childhood rite of passage was taken from me. Somewhere in a quaint suburban town, where the houses circle an untouched-by-potholes cul-de-sac, a mother watches her children, maybe two or three of them, cycle in loops on the driveway. Then somewhere in a city, with its gummy, concrete sidewalks, are Black boys standing on the pedals of their bikes as they race to the park to shoot hoops. Chicago is no stranger to bikers. In my neighborhood, families with their young kids and babies take morning rides. The kid’s helmet is usually covered in bright obnoxious cartoons. The people who ride them pedal forward, always forward, sticking their arms out to signal a turn. They wait for the green light like cars.
Growing up in New York means learning to speak the language of subways. Sit on this cart, by this door, to be closest to the station exit. Language is muscle memory. I was never taught to speak the language of bike chains and helmets. Yet somehow, in the eyes of the other, I am lacking. Everyone’s supposed to be able to ride a bike. It is always the ever-general “everyone” that gets me, the “everyone” who lies on the outside of its periphery because “everyone,” to this day, does not always account for the outliers.
I am seven years old. The day is sunny, spring temperature. We are in the Statue of Liberty Park in New Jersey, uncreatively named for the land’s proximity to the Lady in Green. I’m on a bike–pink, I think it is, with streamers on the ends of the handles that reflect blue and purple and green–and there’s some wind on my cheeks. My legs are moving and something warm, frothy, is welling up in my lungs. The wheels are spinning. Children in the grass, on either side of the bike path, are running with their kites, diamonds and dragons casting shadows over their heads. I’m moving faster than them. This is what it means to fly. Keep goin keep goin, he says from behind me. I am looking forward. I think I am happy in this memory. To call this new taste of excitement “happiness” is cheapening the jubilee in my smile, in the ecstatic shout that escapes my chest. I turn back to look at him–
This is where the memory ends. I do not remember my father’s face.
“Let’s go for a bike ride.” I’ve received an invitation just like this, or one of its many variants, plenty of times. We’d be out enjoying the nice weather, or inside lying on the couch and listening to music. I’ve made friends with a number of active, outdoorsy types. I adore these friends of mine, with their wide lawns and annual family vacations.
“I’d say yes, but I don’t know how to ride a bike.”
I know how their reaction will play out. It starts with a rapid-fire series of blinks. If you can count, it’s usually between three and five. Their brows slowly come together, mirroring the speed at which their brain is making sense of the string of words I just uttered. I imagine they’re picturing me on a bike, riding it, and yet their conscience is yelling no because that image is a fantasy. Then the mouth opens slightly or drops open if they’re more dramatic in their reaction. Something is just not adding up; everyone knows how to ride a bike. Yet here I am, telling them that I cannot do what that nosy son of a bitch “everyone” can.
For a long time, I didn’t understand the reason for the dramatic responses, the laughter. Not knowing how to ride a bike didn’t strike me as terrible–a phenomenon akin to committing some kind of white-collar crime. There wasn’t time to learn, there was no bike to learn on. This is what I would tell people at first. Simply put, I would rather take the playful shock than deal with the pity that would inevitably come after telling them that the man who was once my teacher was no longer in my life. That would inevitably lead to a deeper, more invasive conversation about where he had gone, why fathers were necessary. And perhaps there would be some truth to their statements, but it would come from the same place that believed everyone should be able to ride a bike. The pity would be stronger, uncomfortable. Pity would imply that I am feeling pitiful about it, and that, simply put, is not the truth.
Most of my life was spent with my mother and sister. They were all I needed to be whole.
Sometime in my junior year of high school, I attended an end-of-semester award ceremony. Families flooded the auditorium–mothers and aunts preparing their phones to catch their prodigy walk across the stage.In the crowd were men–standing brusquely–chests puffed out like pigeons– waiting for the ceremony to get to the part that mattered. Speech, speech, yada yada–where’s my kid? Once it was time, their children would clamber up onto the stage to retrieve their award, get their spotlight, their fathers’ booming applause filling the space. And suddenly I was thinking about that day on the bike, details foggy and clear at the same time, so distinctly long ago that it could’ve been entirely made up.
It was the clearest memory I had of him.
It was a sudden thought. I focused my energy on cheering and clapping for friends who were called to the stage, who stood awkwardly while their parents ran up front to get pictures. Friends did the same for me. During that particular ceremony, I was called up quite a bit for math awards despite it being my worst subject. I was filled with something that felt like longing. It didn’t feel true to say that I was missing him at that moment. Still, the idea of his proud pat on my back seemed nice. It was just an idea, something never to be given a voice.
On Father’s Day, I will send a text to my uncle.
I am seven, I think. I am in a kitchen with its white walls and oak cabinets. There’s a bowl of soggy cereal in front of me; it’s colorful, saccharine. I don’t remember why, but I don’t finish my breakfast.
Something is missing in the interim, but I blink and I’m in the living room. The walls are lined with cardboard boxes; somehow their usual brown feels muted and grey. My sister is on the right of me, and on her right is Pam, a woman we understood, then, to be our father’s “good friend.” Sometimes she would bring us back home from Jersey after our weekend spent with our father at her house. We liked her, Pam, and she liked us. At this moment, her face was wrong; normally, she was smiling, but there was something deep in her frown. My sister and I read it to be sad. She is sad. And we are sad for her. What we as mere children understand as “sad” is much more than that. We wouldn’t learn of this difference until years later.
Across from us is a deep green, seemingly black, couch. And sitting on it is my father, knees spread, head low. I think he is wearing a cap. Or is it a durag? He is looking at my sister and me; I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember the width of his nose or if his ears stick out. I don’t remember his smell or the color of his shirt, or is it a football jersey? When I remember this day, whatever that means, I try not to think of him as the focal point. The blurring of his persona from my memory seems more significant. And yet, every time I return to this day, I am left thinking that this is the beginning of some kind of childhood trauma, as others would make me feel towards it.
“Alright girls, it’s time to go.” Pam nods her head in the direction of the front door, where our jackets hang adjacent. We follow our nonverbal orders well; our mother would be appalled if we were disrespectful to anyone, no matter the relationship. Still, something isn’t right. Neither one of us can explain what it is. Our father seems sad.
This is only a guess. I do not remember my father’s face.
For six months after this day, we will ask our mother why he hasn’t come to pick us up.
In the beginning of September, my mother and I rented a car and drove out west towards Chicago. It was a black Jeep Cherokee, packed strategically so we could see out of the back mirror and so the weight was evenly distributed.
She was nervous about me being behind the wheel. I hadn’t had my license for even a year when I decided that driving out there ourselves would be more cost-effective. I chased the dying sun for about five hours, eyes focused, foot switching between brake and gas. The route we were taking was straightforward, hundreds of miles, riddled with construction. 70 to 45 mph, rinse and repeat.
Somewhere in the middle of Ohio, I thought about the bike. Here I was driving a car, a vehicle responsible for more deaths than most Americans would care to acknowledge, and I still didn’t know how to ride a bike. A couple of nights before the move, I watched riding tutorials on YouTube. It looked easy and familiar even though I was certain I would fall on the first attempt. Maybe I was missing out on something after all. Or maybe I was starting to crack under the pressure. Not that there was significant pressure–I was never bullied or threatened for the lack of the skill. I just figured, with being able to drive, it would probably make sense to learn how to pedal and balance and control the brakes down a steep incline.
Those were zoned-out thoughts, things coming and going through my mind as I hit the gas and entered the unbroken highway.
It was winter break of my second year of college. I was sitting in the passenger seat of our then-car, a silver and smaller SUV, and the heat was going. The seconds ticked away on the phone call time. It was my father’s voice booming through the car door speakers, or at least as he told me. Until then I couldn’t describe the tenor or pitch, the gravel in his voice that came with age. When he first spoke, a bell deep in my subconscious struck once, twice, and the look on my mother’s face confirmed what I didn’t want to know.
“How are you?” I think he asked.
“…good,” I think I said.
“It’s good to hear you.” I paid no attention to the sentiment in his words. I responded to his probing as best as I could: yes, my day is going well; no, I don’t go back to school for a couple of weeks. I was stoic and uninterested. Yet I felt frustration thrumming in my jugular. Minutes later, my mother told him that we had more errands to run and ended the conversation. The music replaced his voice. For a moment, I thought it hadn’t been real. Maybe I was exhausted from school to the point of hallucination. My mother said, “He wanted to talk to you,” and I bit my lip to keep the sarcastic answer to myself. So it had been real. So that was his voice.
An hour after we returned home, his voice had penetrated our apartment. He called again and she answered and his voice was coming through the speaker on her phone. He was saying he got chased out of town, that he had no choice but to leave in order to protect us. In the back of his head, I imagine he hoped I would find his story a reflection of his valiance, his heroism, and think, what a guy!, but on the surface of my frontal lobe–
What a fucking sucker.
As he spoke, I was reminded of what I grew to understand. Younger, I didn’t have the words to fully articulate it, but I knew that he was mean for leaving us, for not saying why. He swept us out, hurrying us out the door before we could ask if he would get us again for the weekend. He didn’t hug us goodbye or help us put on our coats; no, he watched Pam fasten the buttons from the couch, staring past us. No matter of storytelling and explanation would change for me that he was, and perhaps would always be, a selfish man.
On the tip of my tongue was a lack of sympathy; my fingertips were itching to press the red phone button and end this futile attempt at fatherhood before it could begin. It felt intrusive and wrong. Before the phone call even began, my mother said she wanted me to hear him out. I was jaded by the sentence; why was I expected to make space in an already tiny box for him? There was no room for him, no space to give. I accepted that my family was my mother, my sister, and me. And sure, he had been there once–before remembering and having childhood memories meant something.
My mother and sister were listening, taking it in, faces contorted with questions. I thought about how the three of us have come to balance each other out. We established our routines and understandings of our personalities. In the midst of his phone call was one of the few times I couldn’t tell what they were thinking.
Once he hung up, silence spilled into the living room. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Silence like that–cold and stiff–a body dredged up from under the floorboards–unnerved all of us. I pressed the tendon between my thumb and my index finger for one, two, three, then release, then one, two, three, then release, until my sister sighed and the silence gave us a moment to reach out for breath.
I imagined for my sister the phone call was closure, finally being able to relax a fist that had been shut tight for years, muscles aching with tension. I listened to my sister and mother teeter-totter off each other, both nodding slowly and coming to conclusions from his words. Eventually, I removed myself from the conversation. I would grow to understand the human desire for completion, for the two ends of a circle to finally meet. One day I would feel that towards him. And one day this wouldn’t be an interruption–it would merely be an alternate route to the same place.
And I think, had he been truthful about being a changed man, that that is the end we all would’ve wanted.
Sometime during this fever dream of my father’s peacocking, I remember my growing persistence to understand why I needed to interact with him at all. In response, my mother said that the relationship with my father would affect my future relationships. I thought about the many times my maternal grandfather would call our house, sometimes drunk, sometimes plain irritable in his attempts to reconnect with my mother. “I didn’t think it would affect me,” she said, “but it did.” I shuffled it away in the file of Black mother wisdom.
As time went on, as I dated more, I think back to that conversation. How unfair, that parts of my life will somehow be guided and shaped by a man who wasn’t present in my puberty or the end of it. How on point, that the life of a growing woman is determined by the presence or lack thereof of her father, a man who chose to leave. Men are given choices, and women are given consequences. I think about the women who sit at award shows, who attend the annual company barbeques, who no longer go after their passions in an effort to see their husbands through to their success. Soft, tender kisses to their cheeks. “You’re my rock,” the husbands will say; and in this teeny little box all of us exist in, we’ll read the husbands’ words as endearing. Unconsciously, we will know what the husbands mean: their greatness matters more than their wives’.
You were meant to be small.
I don’t believe my mother thinks I should shrink myself for a relationship. Still, I wonder why a man who made the conscious decision to leave deserves space in my life, why I’m encouraged to give him that real estate. I suppose the question, then, is what does it mean to live as an incomplete circle?
What is a daughter without her father?
Soon it’ll be March. The sun has started to peek its head over the horizon a little longer. Chicagoans are still wrapped in wool scarves. People are standing under the heaters on the train platform less. When it’s warm enough to wear just a cardigan, just a light jacket, I will climb atop a bike, one leg planted on the ground, a childish grin on my face.
When I take off, struggling to balance, I’ll think of the seven-year-old on her bike with training wheels and duochrome streamers on the handles, how she never finished learning how. I’ll keep goin for her. I’ll learn how to ride a bike, maybe on my own, or with the help of others. And maybe then we won’t feel the sting of others thinking we’re unfinished, somehow lacking. It’ll be the ending we deserve. It’ll be my love letter to her, my cheer and support–the world is too big to be trapped in such a small box. A girl like you needs all the space she can get.
Now start with one foot off the ground. And push, push, forward.
Myliyah Hanna is an upcoming essayist from the Bronx and a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Cheap Pop and Zora. She maintains a personal blog at myliyahhanna.com. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of Small Fictions award. She lives in Chicago with her cat Jasper.