It was cold for an August day and the windshield wipers of Kiley’s old Volvo wagon were squeaking as we drove to Cedar Bridge for the last Black Dog Time Trial of the summer. Both of our bikes were on top of the car and this was going to be her first-ever bike race—even racing had become a thing for us. Every moment of our lives had become a thing. I almost didn’t live at home anymore: now that my mom was busy getting engaged and Sam was staying over at her friend’s houses half the nights of the week, and Blake was back from his book writing projects, I’d ride from 7-11 straight to Kiley’s house and have late BBQ with her dad and then watch movies with the family or join them for walks around Lake of the Isles and S’mores in their backyard firepit, talking some nights about T. S. Eliot’s cats and other nights about movements in the legislature.
“My mom asked me last night, ‘Have you ever noticed how much “Monkey Mind” Finn has?’ It’s funny, but she’s right: you are a total Monkey Mind!” said Kiley.
“What do you mean?”
“Your brain never stops in one place! Does it? Like, is that why you’re into Zen? So that your mind can find rest?”
“I’m into Zen because it plays background music while I reinvent my rage,” I said, “I mean, honestly? I don’t control my own brain. I can’t. You know there are Sundays at the Zen Center when all I do is scream silently instead of saying ‘Mu?’”
“Sounds like you’re bragging…,” she said. Then she laughed her making fun of me laugh and then she continued: “We all love you, Finn. My dad accidently called you ‘son’ yesterday when the Wendlandts were over.”
“…I love that,” I said, “you guys are great.” And then I ran out of words. It was hard to separate my pre-race jitters from the existential fear I had begun to develop from life inside the Proximity. My dad just called me “fuckhead,” my mom just called me Finn—Jake and Todd and Andy, well: they just called me “fuckhead,” too… but being a fuckhead was an identity, not something you fixed. It’s just who I was. Now, in the Proximity I possessed ‘Monkey Mind’ and Zen could fix it. What else was I supposed to fix? That was the kind of shit that made me, sometimes, feel like I needed to puke——or that I got so caught up in that I would have to take hour-long showers to loosen my chest so I could breathe again.
“Sounds like there’s a but… trying to hide in there.” asked Kiley.
“Nothing. Just… you know: senior year is coming up and I don’t even know what colleges I should be applying to and… I just don’t have everything figured out the way you do.”
“You’re coming to the U of M with me, right?”
“Of course you are!” said Kiley, “—and someday I’m going to make you Anchorman at DG! That’s how my mom met my dad!”
And so the outlines of my story began appearing in pencil sketches not drawn by me, with a chair pulled out for me in the Proximity. And my mind chattered and there were some days when I decided not to ride down Franklin and around the north end of the lake to Kiley’s house, but down Lyndale to Oarfolk and people with bad tattoos and 4AD albums that sounded like car wrecks. Because car wrecks and weirdness felt… more comfortable than polished wood floors with 3rd-generation oriental rugs and cotton socks gently nudging the inside of my calves and people who could quote poetry during asides between Scrabble moves.
Probably the only time my mind wasn’t banging at the bars of its cage was when I was racing. When I was racing things were imbued with an absolute clarity: a wall-of-sound, feedback-addled, ego-peeling wail of “WANT.” It wasn’t Zen, but then again, maybe it kind of was: racing was the only time I completely absorbed myself in the moment. I was filled, every cell of my body, with a desire to win. Clipped into my bike, the air whirring past my ears, made all of the rest of life an insignificance, a joke—which life often was, at my expense—but a joke in some small part at least told by me. And that small handle on life’s bullshit was the first handle I’d ever been given: never did I have a handle on the belt wielded by my father, my mother’s indifference, the lack of money or horrifying disgrace or utter yearning for significance of my family; my own knee-jerk tendency to cut losses rather than make wins. When racing, I chewed sand, the hard and the impossible and the, well, totally-fucked passed into and through me like the purest form of energy.
After parking, Kiley and I took our bikes down, changed into our racing shoes with their hard plastic soles and metal bindings, pounded down Gatorade, then walked to the registration tent where we pinned on each others race numbers. Turnout had shrunk over the course of the summer, but there were probably 70 racers in the field—only 10 of which were women against whom Kiley would be racing. Kiley turned her racing cap around and smiled with her impossibly wide, gap-toothed smile and said,
“Today’s our day, Finn!”
We kissed and I wanted to ask her, as I clipped in, if she ever shuddered with worry, if disaster ever presented itself as a god, if she had ever felt like death was a real possibility—and to the extent any of these had occurred, to what extent she had learned to laugh at them, take their blows, never knowing from which direction the blows came—had come to know only that the blows had no return address: that life’s cruel jokes were too-often delivered from a dead-letter office.
But I didn’t because I couldn’t, for all the reasons in the world. So I wished her “Good Luck!” and I bit the inside of my smile as she rode off toward her starting line. My gaze traveled with her on the gravel-strewn asphalt, admired the hardness of her quadriceps, the sculpted tan of her calves, the beauty of her perfect skin as it disappeared into the Look shoes clipped into her pedals.
She already had her race figured out: my race was my own.
The light drizzle had continued and for the first 7 kilometers of the time trial the rain and the cool air came to my advantage: I had been training hard and improved my fit and position on the bike and was working to pass my second rider—the water from his rear wheel rose in a spray I could reach out and touch if I dared release my hand from my drops. In my mind I was going to finish top 5 for the first time in the summer, or certainly top 10, and the fact that Kiley was on the course behind me filled me with an idiot hope that, this time, things would be different. That the joke would not be a joke, but a story—become a legend even.
And so I sweated the pain from every pore of my body and slowly raised my cadence. I could feel my heart beating in my bones—and could feel the rider ahead of me ready to succumb. As we approached the 8km turn in Black Dog Road I decided to make my move, thighs burning, and got out of my saddle—just inches, but enough to feel my entire body surrendering itself to the pedals. I wanted to destroy this person, this stranger. I wanted to suck all of his life energy into mine and breathe it back to the universe as the exhaust of victory.
I did not expect the motorcycle. And definitely not the van.
I had been riding, head down, looking only at the road, this desperate rider to my right, caring only to find whatever last atom within me I could shatter to break his will, when the joke laughed inside me and made me look up. I could hear the brakes squealing, but didn’t want to risk it and couldn’t get right or I’d crash into the despair I was trying to overtake. Without thinking, I clutched my brakes too hard as I leaned my body right, turning the handlebars just too much at the same time as I pulled too hard on my brakes, the awareness of a crash rising like water spraying from a wheel.
Most of my body hit the wet asphalt at once, skidding slowly to a stop in the grassy margins after turning several man-and-bike somersaults—and then I was back up again faster than I could realize what had happened. The first rider I had passed hadn’t caught up with me before I was systems-checking my body at full-cadence: I could feel air and stinging on my right shoulder, my right knee was clicking with each pedal stroke, I could feel sand and grit on my face. I was hurt, but my bike was OK and I was only hurt.
It’s a fucked up kind of Zen one arrives at when all dreams are assumed snuffed, that the hope one inhabited, at a sprint, is laughed off like a joke. But that was the Zen I had yet to unlearn, the Zen Mr. Waters hoped I might find myself lost in relation to… and it was fucked, it’s true, but it’s what allowed me to arrive at the finish line covered only in blood—tears still intact.
It wasn’t a lot of blood, anyway: as I waited for Kiley to come in, I picked bits of gravel out of my thigh with my fingernails. The rain washed the blood down into my socks in slow rivulets. And as I flicked pebbles of wasted hope into the grass, hope plucked from my flesh stone by stone, I realized what I should want from racing: the same focused breath, the same abandonment to cadence that I was seeking in Zen; to bend all my chaos into a simple line through time and space.
Instead I felt, in my confusion, like I was too crooked for all that—that no straight line could ever exist for me.
And so when Kiley rolled slowly up to me after the race, smiling with her hair in wet knots, I smiled back and it felt like picking a rock out of an open wound. She’d taken third in women’s overall and first for U-21—in her first race. She was effortless and wonderful and a little goofy in the best way and as we were putting our bikes back on top of her car and the sun was going down her eyes lit up in the orange light, almost as if her face was on fire with love. I loved her beyond measure, but her world and her future scared the shit out of me—me and my Monkey Mind, which wanted nothing more than to hurl itself against the bars of its cage in the Proximity.
Meeting a Man of the Way
Goso asks: “The man of the Way whom you meet on the road—don’t greet him with speech, no, nor silence. How then, will you meet him on the road?”
This is the eleventh section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.