‘I’ve got to go to work,’ I said, picking up my bag from the bed beside me. ‘I just… I wanted to see how you were.’
He walked over to me, pulling me close for a hug. I could feel that beard, itchy and out of place, rubbing my forehead as he murmured, ‘I’m okay. I’ll be okay.’
Outside, I walked to the elevator and hit the button, which did not light up. I hit it again. Nothing. Then I stepped closer, and bashed it with my fist.
I realized – as it finally lit up, and fast – that I was furious. No: heart-pounding, can’t-even-think-straight pissed off. When I got inside the elevator, the doors closed, mirroring my reflection back at me. This time, I looked at myself full-on.
It was the strangest thing, to be suddenly infuriated, like something he’d said, or done, had uncapped a valve within me, long sealed, and suddenly something was shooting out, gushing like a geyser. As I crossed the lobby to the boardwalk, all I could think was that regardless of the performance I’d just witnessed, it didn’t make you noble to step away from something that wasn’t working, even if you thought you were the reason for the malfunction. Especially then. It just made you a quitter. Because if you were the problem, chances were you could also be the solution. The only way to find out was to take another shot.
I was almost to Clementine’s before I realized how fast I was walking, passing people on both sides. When I finally pushed the door open, I was breathing so heavily and so flushed that Maggie jumped, startled, when she saw me.
‘Auden?’ she said. ‘What’s –’
‘I need a favor,’ I told her.
She blinked at me. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘What is it?’
When I told her, I expected her to be confused. Or maybe laugh at me. But she did neither. She just considered it for a moment, and then nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I can do that.’
It was, to say the least, embarrassing.
‘Now, see,’ Maggie said as I got up off the ground, ‘that’s what we don’t want to happen.’
‘Got it.’ I looked down, noting my newly scraped knee, which now matched my other one. ‘I just… it feels so weird.’
‘I bet.’ She sighed. ‘I mean, there’s a reason you’re supposed to learn this when you’re little.’
‘Less distance to fall.’
She reached down, picking up the bike and putting it back into a standing position. Once more, I climbed on, resting my feet flat on the ground. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Try again.’
We were at the clearing by the jump park, bright and early the following morning, and one thing was now clear: I did not know how to ride a bike.
If I had, it would have come back to me, along with the confidence that I did know what to do once I was up on the pedals and rolling forward. Instead, each time I got moving – even at a snail’s pace – I panicked, wobbled, and fell. I’d managed to go about forty yards once, but only because Maggie was holding on to the back of the seat. As soon as she let go, I veered off into some bushes and wiped out once more.
Of course I wanted to quit. I had since the first wreck, which had been over an hour earlier. It was completely humiliating to have to keep picking myself up off the ground and wiping sand and gravel off my knees, not to mention facing Maggie’s cheerful, go-team expression, which was usually paired with a thumbs-up, even after I’d gone down hard. This was just such a simple thing. Little kids did it every day. And yet, I kept failing. And falling.
‘You know,’ she said, after the next crash, which involved full-body contact with a garbage can, yuck, ‘I’m thinking I’m approaching this the wrong way.’
‘It’s not you,’ I told her, picking up the bike again. ‘It’s me. I’m terrible at this.’
‘No, you’re not.’ She smiled at me, which made me feel even more pathetic. ‘Look, riding a bike involves a great deal of faith. I mean, you’re not supposed to be able to be aloft on two skinny rubber tires. It goes against all logic.’
‘Okay,’ I said, picking some gravel off my elbow, ‘now you’re really being condescending.’
‘I’m not.’ She held the bike as I climbed back on and flexed my hands over the bars. ‘But I do think that maybe we could use some reinforcements.’
I looked at her. ‘Oh, no. No way.’
‘Auden. It’s all right.’ She pulled her phone out of her back pocket, flipping it open.
‘Please don’t,’ I said. ‘Leah will laugh me out of town. And Esther… she’ll just feel sorry for me, which would be even worse.’
‘Agreed,’ she replied, punching some keys. ‘But I’m calling the one person you literally cannot make an ass of yourself in front of. It’s guaranteed.’
‘Seriously.’ She hit another button. ‘Trust me.’
At the time, I had no idea who she was talking about. But ten minutes later, when I heard a car door slam in the parking lot behind us and turned my head, it made total sense.
‘This is a 911?’ Adam said as he walked up. ‘You know you only text that when someone is dead or dying. You scared the crap out of me!’
‘Sorry,’ Maggie told him. ‘But I needed you here fast.’
He sighed, then pulled a hand through his curly hair, which, I now noticed, was sticking up on one side. Also, there were sheet crease marks on his face. ‘Fine. So what’s the emergency?’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘Auden can’t ride a bike.’
Adam looked at me, and I felt myself flush. ‘Wow,’ he said solemnly. ‘That is serious.’
‘See?’ Maggie said to me. ‘I told you he was the right person to call!’
Adam came closer, checking out both the bike and me on it. ‘All right,’ he said after a moment. ‘So what method of instruction have you been using here?’
Maggie blinked. ‘Method of…’
‘Did you start with the buddy system, and then move on to assisted riding? Or do assisted riding first, with the intention of a slow, incremental build toward independent movement?’
Maggie and I exchanged a look. Then she said, ‘I just kind of put her on and let her go.’
‘Oh, man. That’s the fastest way to make a person hate the bike.’ He gestured for me to get off and roll it toward him, which I did. Then he climbed on. ‘Okay, Auden. Get on the handlebars.’