June 26th, 2017
I wince as I have to push the pedals on my bike back a little. At fifteen, I should be able to ride a bike as easily as I can write my name, but I can’t. I have to get the right amount of leverage to get that initial push, that beginning roll of the wheels. Otherwise, I lose my balance and hope I can catch myself before the pavement does. My legs are too short for my bike, and my toes can barely touch the ground when I’ve mounted my silver steed. Well, silver is a bit of a stretch. My bike, or, more accurately, my mother’s bike, is a decade-old, dull-magenta mountain bike. It doesn’t have a kickstand, but it does have a massive turquoise basket strapped to the handle bars. My dad and I picked it out together at our local Target.
Once I’m situated and pedaling down my driveway, I relax. I feel the dull ache in my crotch that comes from riding a bike for the first time in a while. It took me twelve years to finally learn how to ride without training wheels, and another three to find the motivation to actually bike around my neighborhood instead of going up and down my street, panicking over every turn. What really pushed me over the edge was the desire to move myself, under my own power, faster than a walking speed of four miles-per-hour. I can’t drive yet, and my town is too suburban for me to walk anywhere worth going.
As my legs pump the magenta bike up the hill guarding the entrance of my street, the sun beats down, dampness finding itself on my forehead and my chest. I make a right turn, and then a left about a quarter-mile later. I pull into the little parking lot that precedes the neighborhood park I’ve grown so accustomed to calling my own. I’ve lived here for just under five years, and I can’t remember the number of times I’ve walked the half-mile from my house to this little playground, with a fenced-in tennis court smiling from twenty yards away. Across the street is a grassy field, with the skeletons of soccer goals on either end. These three, combined entities are all considered one place in my mind: The Park.
My bike has no kickstand, as most mountain bikes apparently do not, according to my father. I brake on the grass, and step off, rather gracelessly, as my bike tumbles to the ground, grazing my calf on the way down. I wince at the ripped skin, and I step over it, letting the helmet I’ve shed fall to the grass beside it. I walk along the broken brick path for a few steps, then cut across some more grass and sit on a swing I’ve sat upon countless times before. Before I know it, my legs are pushing and pulling me into the air, my hair flying in the wind. As the cicadas sing in the trees behind me, my mind wanders to the past.
Three years ago, it was a hot day, nearing the end of my sixth-grade year. Two friends and I had spent far too long filling and placing one hundred water balloons into the black wagon my mother had purchased for gardening. Now, the bottom of the wagon is encrusted with dirt and leaves, but three years ago, it was new. Clad in bikini tops, denim shorts, and flip flops, my friends and I pulled the black wagon filled with balloons to The Park, passing a crushed turtle shell and an almost-dead squirrel along the way. It’s funny—the only time I’ve ever seen roadkill on the main road in my neighborhood was on this day. I remember the shell so clearly, flattened like a pancake, and cracked like a porcelain plate. In the road up ahead, a squirrel lay twitching, near death. As we rolled the wagon past, a car came down the road, barreling much faster than the posted 25-miles-per-hour speed limit. We couldn’t watch, but we heard the crunch of the squirrel under the tires.
When we arrived at the park, we tossed the water-filled sacks at each other for a lot less time than we thought we would, running out of balloons far quicker than we had imagined. Instead of hours spent splashing in the sun, we were left with damp shorts and little bits of balloon littered across the ground surrounding us. After cleaning up, our amusement not met, we decided to visit our friend who lived down the street from me. She had been home sick, and we figured we could call around, see if she was feeling better.
After about two minutes of walking with an empty wagon, one of us got in and declared we would take turns pulling each other in the wagon. We pulled to our friend’s house, and stopped at the curb. We called her three times, and each time, it went to voicemail. It had been hours, and my girls and I were still unsatisfied. We resorted to pushing each other down my hilly street in our trusty black wagon. It was great fun, for about three seconds. Halfway through my descent, a group of older boys who used to be on my bus before they went off to middle school, rode by on skateboards. Maybe it was our semi-nudity (due to the bikini tops) that attracted them, or maybe they were as bored as we were, but as I rolled down the hill, with practically no control, one crumpled up a Pepsi can and threw it under the wheels.
This would normally be the part of the story where the wagon flips, I cry, and the boys ride away snickering. Instead, the boy who threw the can lost control of his own skateboard, and wiped out at the bottom of the hill. Twelve-year-old me laughed, and yelled “Karma’s a bitch!” just before wiping out in a similar manner.
I chuckle, bringing myself back to the present. By now, my legs are sore from swinging, so I drag my feet on the ground, bringing myself to a stop. I sit here for a minute wondering how the cicadas can possibly be so loud. I feel the tingle of a mosquito on my leg, and I slap at it. I pull my hand away to reveal tiny, black bug guts. I sigh, then pull myself up from the swing and make my way to the tennis court. Many nights I’ve spent here, technically trespassing, since The Park closes at dark. The summer before my freshman year, I would walk here, with friends I no longer speak to. We’d talk about all the things I was too scared to say in potential earshot of my parents. We’d lay on the green-and-blue court, staring up at the stars. I loved how serene the world felt, blanketed by darkness. Within those tennis nets, I felt like I was on an island and nothing could reach me. But me and those friends, we don’t talk anymore. Which, sadly, is nothing new.
Over the last fifteen, almost sixteen years of my life, I’ve cycled through groups and best friends pretty regularly. I have a few constants, people who have always been there, and always will be. But In the past two years alone, I’ve lost at least seven people I called my best friends. Somedays I miss them, but most of the time I don’t. Even though losing them made me sad and angry, I’ve accepted it by now. I’ve learned from my mistakes, whether it was letting them into my life, or making them leave. Either way, I’m better for it.
And as I sit on the uneven ground next to the dirty net, I let their names cycle through my head. Over a year ago, in the months following a rather devastating breakup, I started writing a lot of poetry. Most was cliche and unnecessary, but one in particular floats back into my head. “Instead of saying FUCK YOU, say THANK YOU," it was titled. “THANK YOU FOR BREAKING MY HEART,” I wrote, in angry, capital letters. “THANK YOU FOR SHOWING ME I WAS WORTH MORE.” And while a majority of the poem is angry, it still serves as an interesting philosophy. What if, instead of getting angry at my past, I thanked it for bringing me to where I am today, with friends I care for, and memories I cherish? And while I know I may not always feel this way, I may not always have these friends, at least, in this moment, I am happy.
So I stand up, brush the dust off my thighs, and I walk back to my bike. I look around The Park. I think about the times I’ve laughed, cried, sang, screamed, and danced here. The people I’ve brought here, the memories I’ve made, the secrets I’ve told. It’s the start of a new summer. I’ll come here again, more times than I can count. I’ll cry here, I’ll laugh here, I’ll grow up here. I straddle my mother’s magenta bike, and I start to pedal, almost tipping over twice, and make my way home, cicadas screaming as the sun sets behind me.