Bikes and Ponies and walking the line

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

What I wanted most in the world when I was a kid was a bike of my own. My sister and I shared one, a situation that satisfied neither of us. The year she turned 10, she got a bike, and it was then I knew that two weeks later, on my ninth birthday, I’d get mine. I think even to this day it was the best present I ever received, for it gave me freedom, speed, horizons I hadn’t known existed . . . and a pretend horse.

“We live in town, Collie,” was the excuse for my never getting a horse, but it was really that my family couldn’t afford one. I knew this and so I was not temperamental about it; I simply collected tiny porcelain steeds to arrange on my bookshelf, and I galloped everywhere I went. Once I got a bike – a black three-speed Schwinn – I named it Black Beauty; I was finally the cowgirl I’d longed to be.

My best friend Margo had a bike, and we rode like the wind, uptown, around the square, through Chatauqua Park, down the gravel road behind the pool to the river. We were fearless, free as only kids on bikes know they are. We paid no attention to adults; in fact I have no recollection of even seeing adults when we rode.

We were lawless, although as far as I know we broke no laws. We were simply outside the mundane world, hopping curbs, kicking up pebbles and dust behind us, wheeling through alleys all over town as we learned every shortcut in the two square miles of our burg. We were out at dawn, home for lunch and gone again till supper. Neither of us was allowed to ride after dark, so at dusk we rode like desperadoes, seeing but unseen toward home, parting at the corner as night settled. I squealed to a halt on the front sidewalk of my house where Mom and Dad often sat in the evening to get out of the stifling interior. They never commented on how I swung my leg over the seat, walked my horse to the garage smoothing down its mane along the handlebars. If I made it home on time, there was not much discussion other than, “Time for bed, Collie.”

My life has never been so free.

Although, now that I’m 70, my life is free again, so to speak: I can do whatever I want with no one noticing. I can sleep all day, go to the store at midnight, go on a weekend vacation whenever I feel like it, see three movies in a row at the multi-plex, hang out at a coffee shop for hours. Or at a bar, for minutes (there’s something about an old lady hanging on to a bar rail that is unappealing to just about everyone, including the old lady).

In my late-blooming version of freedom, I kick rocks down the road when I take my morning constitutional. In store parking lots I teeter along the white lines like I’m walking a tightrope. It’s good practice for balance and a substitute for the brick walls I ran along as a kid. I still ride a bike, a pedal brake rust bucket that seems to go fast because it has streamers trailing out of the handle grips. I have to pay attention to things and can’t take corners fast, but there is still that element of speed, freedom, wind through my hair and not a care in the world. I don’t have a pal to ride with and in fact dislike riding with others. The distraction makes me nuts now.

The innocence is gone, of course, so nothing is quite as fun and exciting as when I was a kid. Although I hate the phrase, “Been there, done that,” it is a background note to my life at 70. Try as I might, I can’t muster that same enthusiasm. I’m happy when someone comes to visit, or I go out to dinner with my friends or find a movie I want to see. But, really, the excitement of just about everything when one is young is long gone. If it were here, I’d probably be watched carefully. But, no fear: I’m as dull as cement and about as cracked.

I am once again an invisible: young kids and old girls – two of a kind at opposite ends of the spectrum, at opposite ends of life, of what it means to be alive . . . at first, learning it all; in the end, forgetting much of it . . . except for those Black Beauty years, the halcyon days I knew were so cool, never dreaming that growing up would remove them to a memory bank in my brain, to placing them at 70 into a daydream of fondness and longing. . . .

Silly old dame tooling her scarred and rusted bike as fast as she dares, too timid now to try “no hands” but still pretending she’s astride her pony, riding through the same kind of sunlit days, but into her own dusk.

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