I rode a bike with training wheels until the time I was ten, when my dad finally resolved to teach me how to ride a real bike. The Barbie bike with the white wicker basket met its untimely end, and it was off with the training wheels and onto adulthood.
During my middle school years, I had a forehead the size of the state I lived in and teeth more appropriate for chipmunks. People, if they chose to say anything at all, would remark how cute I was. It didn’t matter if they were lying. I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be pretty. Pretty like my older sister with charcoal-lined eyes and V-neck shirts and a secret in her eyes.
The first time my dad took me out to the flat patch of street in front of my house, my heart was a trapeze artist, barely catching the swing on the other side. I thought to myself, surely, he doesn’t expect me to ride this thing. Surely, he’d realize that after the first pedal, my heart would somersault so far out of my chest that the front of the bike would be flung forward and I, who was no trapeze artist, would be catapulted onto the brutally indifferent pavement. My dad, however, made no sign of recognizing this inevitable tragedy and made me get onto the bike. At the last second, I turned to him with a stern expression and warned him to not let go. For even a minute. Ever. He assured me he would not. Then he put a hand on the back of my seat and the other on the front of the handlebars. I put my foot on the pedal. Before pushing off, I turned to him once more and growled, “Do not let go.” He assured me he would not.
When I went to high school, I learned how to tame my wild hair into something straight and shiny and people commented, occasionally, how pretty. It didn’t matter if they were lying. I didn’t want to be pretty. I wanted to be beautiful. Beautiful like Audrey Hepburn with impossibly big eyes, an affinity for black turtlenecks, and such a thin waist you could wrap your arms around it, twice.
I pedaled once. My dad jogged beside me for a few steps, his hand firmly on the back seat. Another pedal and he took it away. He was as dead to me as my Barbie bike but I was too nervous to even turn my head, let alone tell him. I just pedaled again. He continued alongside me, one hand still on the handlebars, and then he let go completely. All I could do was look forward and pump my legs. Not thinking about anything but staying upright. Keeping upright.
When I got to college and the first guy called me beautiful, I thought what a line and more importantly who cares? I didn’t want to be beautiful. I wanted to be kind, smart, witty, generous, spontaneous, brave, thoughtful, more. Each time I grew, my expectations grew with me, so that the only thing I ever was consistently was not enough.
Sometimes, that feeling on the bike comes back to me: this mix of fear and adrenaline and just pure hope. I still get it the first time I raise my hand in class, smile at a stupidly cute boy at a party, or put on a little red dress. I feel as if I were once again on that flat stretch of road with the wind blowing my hair back and all my focus fixed on pedaling, on staying upright, on that feeling like flying.
It’s only now, at twenty, that I’ve started to just want to be. Whatever that means. Whoever that leaves me with.