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It's Nelly's World

Me: The Serial, Part 1

alec vanderboom

What follows is something I recently wrote. And read, out loud, to some people gathered in a schoolroom down south. I don't know if it's the afterword to a book
written quite some time ago, or if it's
the foreword to a book yet unwritten.
So I offer it here, in three parts. The next comes next week.
Unless you tell me to stop.
* * *

Once upon a time, I fell asleep. It was a long sleep, and it carried me down under the waters of forgetfulness. Yet I was buoyant still, and I would not be held down entirely. Thoughts and visions of movement down swift roads appeared, disappeared. But sleep on I did, a dark slumber of motorcyclelessness.

When I awoke, it was eleven years later. And everything had changed around me. But inside, where it counts, I was to find that nothing had. Because I had already been changed, a long time before, by the machine that specializes in altering cellular structure, the equations of desire.

What awakened me was the loud and brutal crashing of an edifice coming down, blown from its foundation by the dynamite of divorce. When it happens to you, you think that no one in the world has experienced this, this profound and dislocating destruction of everything you have carefully built. The shock waves radiate out and out, slowly taking in everything: where you live, who still wants to have you at their dinner table, the spark of fear you sometimes see in your child’s eyes.

Later you find, of course, you are not the only one. Hardly. But before realizing this, you are isolated by woe. It feels a little like you are undergoing a very painful operation. One that goes on for, like, nineteen months. But inevitably, at some point, the anesthetic starts to wear off. Your dreams become vivid then. And in a large percentage of them, motorcycles appear.

I was coming out of it.

Bikes were going to take me the rest of the way.

One moment stands out in clarity as the turning point. As is usual of these moments, it takes you by surprise, in the most mundane surroundings--your fairly dirty office, sitting at the paperboard cabinet that houses your aging computer and a thousand ignored Post-Its. Through the portal called “YouTube.” Everything in the world is there. So to stumble on one particular sight that will change the trajectory of your life is in the category of finding a piece of the Holy Shroud in the drawer with your kitchen towels. I have, unsuspecting of miracles, opened a video clip of some guy somewhere in Europe with a shaky grasp of English taking a ride (“in the montains”) on a Moto Guzzi 1100 Sport. The camera is mounted somewhere above the instrument panel so it gives a view of the tachometer, the triple clamp, and a piece of foggy gray road ahead. But it is what comes out of the single speaker behind the monitor that reaches out, goes inside my chest, grabs hold of a vital organ and squeezes till I feel the pulsing of blood in my ears. It is the sound of a big twin, the aria of an exhaust note that sounds impossibly beautiful, a tone that rises and falls within the high sweet spot of the power band.

I could never have expected what happened next, which is exactly the operating procedure of turning points. Tears, pooling at the rims of my eyes. The only other music that has ever made me weep is that of J.S. Bach, and I realize at once that the two share a metaphysic: pure cold mathematics tinged with longing by virtue of being worked by mortal hands.

It is also the sound of my past, to which I now feel a sudden wide yearning to return.

I had forgotten so much, but now it began to flood back. E-mail messages in the Save file from three years before, when—in one of those sporadic moments of buoyancy—I had apparently been sounding people out about finding a K75, the only other machine besides the Italians that turned my head; there was something about those lines, inexplicable in the way that the essence of this whole thing is beyond reason.

Up in the attic, packing to leave my home, I find another buried sign, in the boxes that hold sixteen years of my life. When I come upon these three, I stop to remember packing them eight years before for their journey from Brooklyn to here, two hours upstate.

Why am I keeping this? I thought then; I have built a life that cannot fit a bike, with a child, a husband, a dog, a house, and a progressing series of other interests. But I could not let it go, either, this jacket spotted with vague memorials to so many insects’ lives, these gloves, a second skin permanently shaped in the form of my own hands. You don’t get rid of your skin! And you owe them something, these things that have seen you through: rainsuit, brake bleed kit, battery tender, lock. Also, the gnawing sense that if, just if, you have made a mistake, it will cost a damn fortune to replace. So into the boxes it all went, and then up into the attic.

I think I knew. I may have left riding, but it could not possibly leave me.

What it does is change you chemically, and this is the first of the secrets you learn, the ones that hold you together with your ilk, against all those who don’t, and aren’t, and won’t. There is the sense, even the first time, that you have come back. Strange, yes? But not at all: you know it is working with that flow of electrical fluids originating in our animal core, the glandular lab of the brain, and that this is something we were fundamentally built to do. This is why it feels so right. And this is why no one who has never done it can understand—because the rightness is contained within, in the mirroring of the intricate circuitry of your body and the equally complex astonishments of the machine. You look at it, and it looks back at you. There is no place here for someone else.

See. There. I have just explained the biker’s in-joke, the sticker that reads, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.” Even more to the point is the one displayed on the helmet of the man who perhaps embodies above all others the essence of the motorcyclist, the one who simply wishes to do nothing else: “If I have to understand, don’t bother to explain.”

I had thought, at one time, that I had said all I wanted to say about bikes. I was pretty much through with them.

Uh, no. For I had no idea they could also save you.