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It's Nelly's World

Just Perfect

alec vanderboom

I must have done something very, very bad in my previous life, because I have been reincarnated in this segment of my current one as a nonmotorcyclist. When my son celebrated his ninth birthday last week, I realized, A decade. That is how long it's been since I last rode a bike. How is this possible? (The locution we use when we look in the mirror and finally see we have a face commensurate with our years: Why, we rule the world. Um, don't we? What, you mean we're no longer the youthquake? We're the invisible middle-aged? Not possible!)

Yet it happened. This long lacuna in my life in which I behaved as if Live to Ride, Ride to Live was a slogan for other people. Nutcases, to be precise. But I was happy when I was a nutcase. I am just beginning to recall how happy. Others foresaw this for me: I think it's time you started to ride again, Melissa. Read your own book, in case you forgot.

The yearning I am beginning to feel--not to read my own book, I mean really; but to turn around and finally face the imposing presence I have sensed following me through the years, breathing quietly, patiently--may be a form of Seven Year Itch. (A little delayed; that's me for you.) Biologists tell us this type of wanderlust occurs naturally at the point when human offspring become self-reliant. Well, not in the world we currently live in, but cavemen children were apparently a different story.

I yearn again for the tribe. For that is what we were, with our own customs, language, greeting (left-hand wave as we pass each other, with personal variations: the full hand up, or two fingers down; but the left hand at any rate, because the right is on the throttle, the pumping heart of this spectacular beast you have become). And the tribe is fractured into subgroups. Mine was, of course, the Super-Elect, Italophiles. (We voted for ourselves.) The kind who thought it fun to spend the whole night cursing at the spirits of bad-natured, black clad grandmas who cackled as they made short circuits in the electrics.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your weekends: "Wanna ride to Danbury?" "You going to the IMOC rally?" "Yeah, we'll have dinner at that diner with all the pies before we have to hit the highway," after a day eschewing the straight-and-not-narrow for the twisty byways; and I have noticed an almost tenderhearted relationship between the biker and the authentic diner.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your money, either: as a friend of mine put it, "Motorcycles are to buy. Not to sell." Projects in various stages of revivification filled the garage; the car could live outside. The most precious of the polished stones went inside; I mean inside, in the house. I have personally seen a Laverda and several Moto Guzzis that had displaced hall rugs. This is only appropriate for a machine that quickly becomes something else: the most intimate of partners, the one you entrust with your life.

One talks, therefore, to one's motorcycle. It is a relationship of dialog--I know you, inside and out--and is made false if it is based on mere economic exchange. After all, what sort of friend can you buy with your Visa?

There are, I suspect, many, many brandnew Ducatis--a bike I think of as dollar signs on wheels--currently centerstage in people's living rooms, but very few are engaged in this deep, existential conversation (not composed of wifty philosophy, mind you, but the central practicalities that are what underlie the theory). That's because the opening line is usually something like, "Here, let me rebuild those carbs for you!" and no one's saying that to these over-engineered babies. The paid mechanic is.

But then life held out to me its sleeping powder that caused the long night of nonriding: first it was the puppy. I'd go out for a Sunday ride with my buddies, and an hour in I was talking to her behind my helmet--thank goodness no one could hear, because it was death-defyingly embarrassing--and wishing I could turn around and use my horsepower for one thing only, go fast, back to her.

The puppy was, predictably to everyone but (surprise) me, the precursor to the baby: a year before he was born, the white motorcycle, already sadly bereft of her rider, who felt unending guilt, was sold to a Brit. He intended to ship her across the sea where she could join the lovely accented tribe over there, which had a particularly exciting approach to threading the city-traffic needle. There, too, she might have all the tires and spark plugs she wished but could no longer obtain here (there were only 250 of her type on these shores)--I felt like a penniless mother selflessly sending her child off to live with a wealthy family that could give it all the things she could not. And when I closed the garage door on the newly empty space, I closed the door on a part of myself.

It slept. And now it awakens. But in the intervening years, everything has changed. The bikes are bigger, faster, made up of different designating numbers. I am the Rip Van Winkle of the motorcycle world. It scares me, not knowing anything. It scares me, the whole prospect. Everything from my aging physical apparatus (O reading glasses: I surrender at last) to the change in the world, its million more cars and trucks, to a new tendency toward an almost stultifying awareness of my own motivations, as if I am now two people intead of one, standing beside herself and questioning everything.

I read recently that the middle-aged are vastly overrepresented in the accident statistics. Another thing to stand there and think about while the moment flees.

Well, I have a solution of sorts to at least one of the misgivings. The numbers on the vintage bikes have not changed, have they. While I slept, their names at least stayed the same. And their years have kept pace with mine. We might make a team, after all. With, I think, a sidecar for the kid and the dog.