On her twelfth birthday, Kristal’s father gave her a yellow bike. It was a boy’s mountain bike, and she felt so proud when she straddled the bar. She was tough enough for this bike, and her dad thought so.
It brought freedom. All summer she rode, sometimes with her gang of neighborhood friends, sometimes alone. She was reckless, daring, and must have been watched over by a meticulous angel, for she escaped close calls that less careful guardians would not have been able to prevent.
But she loved it. Even the afternoon when she raced down the steep driveway of her friend’s country house and onto twisting Redwood Drive. The brakes of a blue Mustang squealed.
“Watch where you’re eff-ing going, little girl!” yelled the man in the vest who got out the driver’s side of the car.
“We almost hit you!” yelled his boyfriend through the open window.
Her ears burned through the lecture the couple gave her.
“You really need to be careful, darling,” said the driver, after all the yelling wound down their adrenaline. “We don’t mean to be mad at you. It’s just. That was a really, really close call, girl.”
“If you’re gonna ride that mean bicycle like a wild thing,” said the boyfriend, “at least ride it like a wild thing that knows the rules!”
She rode slowly, carefully, around the blind corners after the car pulled off, and when she got home, and her mom asked how her visit with her friend had been, she said, “Fine,” and left it at that.
But the next day, and every day thereafter, she always looked twice before riding into the road.
Maybe she could find a place to rent a bike in the plaza. She imagined she had one as she ran down the dirt road the led past the chapel.
No one was around. She could still play. Her hands gripped the steering wheel, she ran faster than the could, she leapt over mudholes, and steered around boulders, and nearly twisted her ankle, and when, too soon, she arrived at the plaza, she was out of breath and had to stop for a moment outside the gate to let her pulse settle down and to smooth out her hair.
It was so much fun to be young, even when one wasn’t.
“Do you know where I can rent a bike?” she asked the food stall vendor.
“Eh, no. A burro, yes! Would you like a burro?”
“No. I was hoping a yellow mountain bike.”
“Ah, no. Maybe the tourists. Out at the camp. But here, in the village, no.”
She turned to see who was calling her name.
“Kristal Kraft!” It was Rodrigo Mellon, a colleague of her husband’s–her ex’s–from the university back home.
“What are you doing here?” she asked him. And then she remembered, in her work at the bursar’s office, before she took her six-month leave for this trip, the budget for his grant crossed her desk. “That’s right! Your project!”
“Yes! Yes! Community development!” he said, launching into more details about the project than she could keep straight. He was from a neighboring village which had been culturally, economically, and environmentally destroyed when the loggers came through ten years before. The government, thanks in part to Rodrigo’s efforts, had put a hold on further clear-cutting. But that left this region without many opportunities for economic growth, and, as the theorists were discovering, sustainable lifestyles weren’t sustainable anymore. The youth moved out, and the villages withered.
“It’s a noble idea,” she said, after he’d explained about developing cultural centers here for traditional arts, music, crafts, herbalism and natural healing, theater, dance, and folklore.
“I am not satisfied with noble,” he replied. “I demand practical. Tell me it is a practical idea.”
She considered for a moment. It was practical. “It’s also sustainable,” she said.
That satisfied him. “I think so, too.”
Some of her new acquaintances, Victoria and Patricia, whom she’d been spending more time with over the past few weeks, arrived.
“There you are, Krisal!” Victoria said. “We hoped we’d run into you today. You’ve been scarce lately!”
She’d been painting. It was hard to make it into the plaza every day when her walls were stacked with blank canvases and the colors in her mind beckoned her to bring them out to play.
“Evening ladies,” said a man with a Southwestern accent. “Where are your escorts, might I ask?”
“Escorts?” laughed Victoria. “What do you think this is? The 1890s?”
“Now you don’t have to bite off my head,” yelled the cowboy. “I was just being polite! You’re probably one of them dang–I won’t even say it. Dang bitches.”
“Go find your time portal, jerk!” Victoria snapped back. “Make like a second and split!”
Kristal laughed out of nervousness. When she got back home, so was too unsettled to work. She picked up a volume of Robert Hass’s poems and opened randomly, hoping to find a translation of something by Neruda, and she came, instead, upon this:
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The poem was almost too much to bear.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances
When the tea finished steeping, after she’d sipped two glasses, remembering words and silences, letting herself find the distance that waited between her and every person she had ever met, she remembered the last thing the boyfriend had said, that afternoon when she was twelve and had recklessly ridden in front of the blue Mustang.
“Be careful, darling. You need your bicycle if you’re gonna be a free woman in this world! Just claim your freedom with care.”
As she worked on the yellow bike painting, she remembered a slogan on a red T-shirt worn by her college room-mate, Carolyn: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
It was worn as a joke, for Carolyn, a self-acknowledged sex and romance addict, had no tolerance for the droughts between boyfriends. But it was a joke with bite, for Carolyn longed to be free of her addictions.
They had a fish, actually, a calico goldfish who lived in a spacious bowl with crystals and delicate feather plants. One afternoon, to tease her room-mate, Kristal bought a four-inch model bicycle.
“Well I’ll be dog-danged,” said Carolyn, after they placed the bike in with the crystals, and the fish swam around and over it. “Look how it loves that thing!”
Kristal laughed when she finished the painting.
She wasn’t sure she loved men anymore, with their endless distances, but she appreciated their beauty–that graceful curve above the hip. And eyelashes. And a sudden, exposed look, when a man is caught unawares, and his eyes light up in the crashing moment before he smiles.
“Would you date again?” she asked Victoria when they met in the plaza the next morning.
“I’m not sure,” Victoria said. “It’s kind of antiquated, isn’t it? The whole courtship thing? But would I hook up? Now that’s another question entirely!”
Kristal thought she’d do neither. It was too soon, she knew that. At the same time, any hasty resolution she’d make would only be one she’d eventually regret. But at the moment, she relished her freedom. She was going to claim it with care.
Author’s note: When I was in grad school, I heard Robert Hass read “Meditation at Lagunitas.” I suppose that any poem with the word “blackberry” in it would stay with me–this one certainly did!