This is an essay from my memoir, When Love Sticks Around. One of the last essays I wrote, actually. My project manager said we needed an additional story to show the relationship between Jim and I. So, in order to shake my memories back up to the surface, I looked through old photos. Although I didn’t find a photo of Jim teaching me to ride my bike, another photo brought up the memory.
I’m really proud of how this one turned out, and I’m really thankful for my beta readers for looking over it for me, and for my project manager for encouraging me to push through and write more positive memories about my stepfather in order to paint a clearer picture of my family in this memoir.
Jim cleared the cars from the driveway and opened the gate to give me plenty of space to ride. With Mom’s Hosta plants to my right and Jim’s railroad ties framing the driveway to the left, I perched myself on the banana seat. I inhaled the smell of Cheerios cooking down the road at the General Mills plant and glared down the empty driveway, gripping the bubblegum pink handlebars of my new bike. It was the bike I had to have: pink and white with tassels and a basket, complete with a silver bell on the right handlebar.
“I won’t let go. Promise,” Jim said. I was only six, but I knew the shtick. If he didn’t let go, I’d never learn to ride a bike on my own.
I put both feet on the pedals. Jim put one hand on the bar behind the seat and one on the middle of the handlebars. I felt unsteady without training wheels, but Jim kept the bike balanced.
“Ready?” he asked. I could smell the coffee on his breath. Yuck. I gritted my teeth and clutched the handlebars harder.
He pushed, and I pedaled. At first, he kept his promise and didn’t let go. We cruised from the back of the driveway to the other end by the street so I could get an understanding of the way my bike needed balancing. He ran along beside me.
“Good,” he said. “Keep pedaling.”
I don’t know where Don was at the time. Maybe he was with another woman, teaching another kid to ride a bike. I didn’t think he loved me, otherwise he would have tried to be there for important stuff.
I didn’t think Jim loved me either. I thought I was a formality, part of the package that came with my mother. I figured Jim could take me or leave me, and it wouldn’t matter to him.
Still, there he was.
I pedaled faster, toward the open garage door and the boat inside it that Jim was fixing for a friend. Without warning, he let go.
“Pedal!” he hollered. I tried, but I lost my focus and the bike wobbled then tipped to the right. I tramped my foot on the pavement.
“Darn,” I said. This happened several more times, back and forth on the driveway. Each time it ended the same. Jim let go, and I tipped over.
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. Jim walked toward me while lighting a cigarette. He blew the smoke out of his nose while he scratched the cleft on his chin. His chocolate eyes stared into the distance. I wished I looked like him and maybe had his last name, so I wouldn’t feel like such an outsider in my family. I didn’t want to look like Don (my biological father) and share a last name with him anymore.
I played with the tassels while Jim took a break and smoked his cigarette down to the butt. When he finished, he flicked it into the gravel beside the driveway. I was ready to give up and go inside to watch Jem and the Holograms, when Jim belched and said,“Let’s try something different.”
He raked his hands through his feathered brown hair and shuffled to the end of the driveway. I followed, guiding my bike along with me. We set up the same way: feet on pedals, hands on handlebars, and Jim holding the bike upright. But this time we aimed my bike down the sidewalk—rectangle patches of concrete that stretched on for what seemed like forever.
“Remember: pedal hard. I got you,” he said.
I nodded, pressing my lips into a tight line and focusing on the spot where the sidewalk disappeared and met the horizon.
Before I knew it, Jim let go, and I was still upright, pedaling away.