Saturday afternoons were for bike maintenance, because that’s when Billy Golfus’s ”Real Rock and Roll Radio” played on 770 AM. Black Flag’s “Rise Above” blared out toward the long grass and the scraggly lilacs outside the door, while I hoisted my bike onto my Park Tools stand. After my fucked up results at the time trial, I decided to try a slightly longer crank, which was probably bullshit—but what else to do with tools and a bike and desire that verged on despair? I had spent all the money and knuckles on my existing bike I could spend—and a bike like Kiley’s or Lycra Man’s was, well… I wasn’t in that Proximity.
And so I swapped out cranks and cleaned my chain and adjusted my derailleur and I spun my wheels, without any special hope or focus, just watching them to ensure they rolled true. Meanwhile, Billy Golfus spun records so fuck-ups like me could let our minds turn in possibilities that met the measure of our frustration and pain and outlandishness and, when the beats pounded just right: our rage. Prince was in the middle of a “Controversy” when my mom walked in, announcing herself with a question.
“Mind if I smoke?” she asked as she walked past me and my bike up on its stand to go lean against my work bench along the back wall of the garage.
“That’s OK,” I said, “you couldn’t hurt my racing more than this bike and my well-expressed ability to suck.”
“I heard you raced. You didn’t take last, did you?”
“So you competed?”
“Barely.” I took my bike off the stand to turn it around and attach the left pedal.
“Well,” said my mom, “competing isn’t something most people ever dare to try. You’re joining a class of people who identify themselves by their ability to compete; to win. That’s a victory right there, kiddo.”
“I don’t want to join a class,” I said, “or to win—I want to not suck.”
“You don’t suck,” she said, looking out of the garage at the weeds in the alley.
“You weren’t there,” I said. “I sucked.”
She exhaled toward the floor, then looked up at me with the mom look. “You don’t suck, Finn. You just… haven’t figured out what your measure is yet.”
“It’s not sucking,” I said.
“I hear…,” she said, putting her cigarette out in a coffee can full of sand, “you have a girl, too. She comes to visit you at Blake’s place.”
“The houses have eyes…,” I said.
“What’s her name?”
“‘Kiley.’ I met her at the Zen Center.”
“Oh, my,” she laughed, “I bet she’s a wild one. Are you two…”
“No. I think we might just be Zen friends.”
“Well, that’s good news. You know not to get her pregnant, right? God, what a mess it was having you at 16. And your father was even less prepared: he thought women fell into two categories: Good Whore and Bad Whore.”
I had never seen my mom and dad together in any setting but a courthouse, but had seen plenty enough of my dad’s other wives collapsed on kitchen floors, begging. I leaned over and turned up the radio. Echo and the Bunnymen were telling me to “Do It Clean.”
My mom leaned over and turned it off.
“I have a surprise for you, Finn.”
“Do you remember Dan?”
“The guy you freaked out?”
“The guy you freaked out? Yes. Him. We’ve been dating—you’re not the only one who hides your love in other people’s houses.”
I had to consider that one for a minute, then somehow decided that discretion really was the better part of not getting my ass kicked six ways to Sunday. “So…?”
“I’m going to leave you and Sam here for two weeks so that Dan and I can go to Europe together. I can practice my French… and he and I can decide.”
“… that you’re getting married?”
“Sudden,” she said. “And it is. And I know what that would mean for you.”
“What would it mean for me?” The question wobbled out of my mouth, seeking as it did one of any number of unreliable emphases.
“A new man in your life. Something else to confuse the measure you’re looking for… the one you need. Maybe even another person to fuck it all up.”
She leaned toward me, wanting to hug, but I pulled the bike from its stand to hold it between us, like a shield.
“I need to go see what I can do with this crap mod to this shit bike,” I said.
My mom crossed her arms and leaned back and let a lazy smile draw itself on her face, the stretched, ironic surrender of knowing you didn’t, quite, cross the bridge you had helped burn down.
“Make the best of it, Finn,” she said, leaving me alone in the garage.
It was a lot to take in, and I wasn’t lying about Kiley: she would come over to Blake’s and we would play Scrabble at his kitchen table, or take Renault out for walks along Minnehaha Parkway, or cuddle on the couch and watch rented VHS tapes, but… we never did more than kiss. Sometimes the kisses were hotter and longer than others—but only and ever sugar kisses, in different flavors of innocence.
Mom must have really been trying to get somewhere with me, because when I rolled in from 7-11 later that week, there was a different bike on the stand in the garage. A white and red Colnago “Super” with a Campagnolo group and Campagnolo wheels and… a price tag hanging from the worn tape on the Cinelli handlebars: “$500.00” The “$500.00” was in my mom’s handwriting.
When I walked into the kitchen my mom was sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of wine and a set of papers.
“Nice bike, right?” she asked.
I didn’t say anything, I just opened the fridge to get a water bottle full of Gatorade—wishing I had taken a hit on my oney before I left the garage.
“According to Jim, it’s worth a lot more than five hundred dollars. He wants you to have it.”
Jim was another one of the managers at her bank, the one who had told her I’d been at Black Dog, who, it turned out, raced there himself. It was like she had a network of spies in the city.
I pictured the Benjamin I earned every week as the deli dude at 7-11, and the records I couldn’t buy. “No way” I said to myself. Then I realized I didn’t have to buy weed for the rest of the year, and pictured myself flying down Black Dog, and riding next to Kiley, and said, “It’s a nice bike. It’s insane, actually… how can I get him that much money?”
My mom pushed the papers across the table, “I’ll loan you the $500 at 5% interest, over 12 months.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. It just shot out, with the same jitters I had at the race.
“Sign here,” said my mom, adjusting her typed up contracts across the kitchen table as she set down a pen. “And Finn… you don’t suck.”
By the time I was supposed to meet Kiley at her house on Friday, I had already glued new Vittoria tires to the wheels and re-taped the handlebars. I couldn’t wait for her to see my new ride: it really was a different bike and as weird and stupid as it sounds? On it? I was a new rider.
And… Kiley didn’t even notice.
“We’re not going riding tonight,” she said as we stood in her garage. “We’re walking.”
She was beaming, her fucked up curly hair framing a smile that lit the moon. She was wearing cut-off shorts, white Adidas sneakers, and a bikini underneath a button-up madras shirt. No watch, no earrings, no—she wore more to meditation at Zen Center.
“You didn’t notice my bike?”
“It’s nice,” she said, “I like Colnagos. I figured you’d get one: and I can’t wait to see you race next week. But tonight? It’s staying in the garage.”
And so we walked through the streets of Kenwood, her pulling me forward by the hand. Occasionally someone would be out on their porch, reading the newspaper and having a drink, or talking politics with their neighbor, but we mostly walked beneath the yellow street lights alone—navigating the Proximity with an ease it felt surprising to adopt. Soon we arrived at a path through the woods.
“It’s in there,” she said.
“We’re going skinny dipping!”
I stopped in the middle of the road, looking into the dark of the woods.
“Don’t you want to? There will be other people.”
“It’s fun! You have to try it.”
I felt for my dugout in my shorts pocket. So I had that going for me. Swimming naked?
“OK,” I said, “Let’s do it.”
“I knew you would!”
Kiley began running down the trail, and I ran into the woods after her.
The moon reflected off the still lake and it was as if we had run a thousand yards and left civilization behind us entirely. A few swimmers tread water in the lake, the red glow of a pipe sparked in the darkness under the trees, laughter rose and then the slow murmur of conversation fell in with the slow rolling of the waves. Kiley wheeled around and filled up the night.
“Let’s go in!”
I had some quick business with my oney and looked up to see her already standing in the water, her hands making ripples as she splashed water toward the shore as I walked toward her. We swam out past the plants clutching at our bare ankles, to where we were suspended not just in the cool water of Cedar Lake, but in the cold expanse of night, of wide-open heaven. It barely registered to me that we had taken off our clothes, except to feel, when we touched, an electricity that had never before coursed through my skin.
“So…? Are you high right now?” she asked, smiling.
I nodded, my teeth chattering slightly.
“Let’s dive down,” she said, “1-2-3!”
In the dark green glow of the lake, the moon above the surface, I opened my eyes to see hers wide open and staring at mine, her lips pursed in a bubbling smile. She swam closer, put her hand to my neck, and kissed me until my lungs burned.
And so our legs thrust wildly beneath us as we burst through the surface and the stars competed with the moon to offer passion’s benediction.
“Let’s swim to the point.” She pointed to the dark, then splashed forward with surprisingly strong strokes. I kept up, but just barely.
We emerged from the water and she flopped down on the mix of sand and grass, knees raised and tight together, but her arms spread wide to the night. I sat down next to her and, before I could look down, she pulled me toward her.
“No questions,” she said.
Kiley’s skin was warm, but not hot like it had been in the lake–and I could taste it even before I reached her neck. She pulled me close to her and wrapped her bare ankles around my calves, surprising me when she bit my lip and clenched my hand in a grip of unexpected strength, drawing out my arms so that I had no choice but to fall upon her.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I could hear laughter back at the beach—and a train coming.
She rolled me over and sat up, her breasts still dripping with water. She drew her hair back behind her ear with one hand as she arched her back. Then she slowly leaned forward, rocking her hips on mine. As the train rattled past and the water rippled on the shore, an entire age of expectation passed and I understood that tonight was going to be the last night of its kind.
“No questions,” she said. The night air made her nipples stand up and I could see that one was larger than the other. There was also a scar just above her waist, jagged, which I reached out to touch with my thumb.
Her hand caught my wrist, then pulled my hand up to her breast. She placed her palm on the outside of my hand as she pressed it against her beating heart, then leaned forward to kiss me.
When she rose, she said it again, “No questions.”
She kneeled over me and the stars shattered through the mist in my eyes.
Kiley closed toward me and said for a fourth time as she grabbed me, pulling me close: “No questions.” She kissed me on the corner of my eye, the tip of her tongue lashing the salt of my welling tear. “No questions.”
I could feel her coarse hairs, how wet they were, how astonished I was by their sensation, as she came down on top of me, pushing me in. I stopped, struck still, for a moment, and then began to find a slow rhythm, to think about gear ratios and Zen bells and I looked up at Kiley and she was smiling, knowingly, perfectly aware that I was learning what it would mean to love her—to make love to her—and again and again and again: to love her.
What was my face before my parents were born?
Kiley could sense that I was losing control and she guided me and dug in her nails. Our eyes locked and the universe reflected itself in the green of her irises. I slowly raised myself to kiss her, inhaling her breath. Our lips touched and I rose one last time, then spoke without thinking:
“I love you.”
Her eyes flashed and she grinned and she put both palms on my bare chest and said,
Joshu: “I stand alone as holy, in heaven as in earth”
The monk asked Joshu, “They say ‘The Way is not Hard. It merely rejects choice and attachment.’ But: what what do these mean?” Joshu replied, “I stand alone as holy, in heaven as in earth.” The monk replied, “But choice and attachment still exist!” Joshu laughed, “You dirty clown! Show me ‘choice’ and ‘attachment’!” The monk’s voice abandoned him.
This is the ninth 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.