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It's Nelly's World

Copilot

alec vanderboom

It took a while. It always takes a while for the road to run through you, so you can run through the memories of the road. These come back, not strangely at all, as you ride the current road. This is how you know what that trip really meant, by visiting other landscapes (which will in their own time be recalled at a distance). I never wrote about that monumental trip of last year, because until now I did not know what it was about. I know what it felt like. But it did not have a story to tell, until I put my son on the back of the bike again last week.

I remember one moment of terror, out west last August. My child, the most precious, necessary thing in the world--without whom, I am lost--is sitting behind me. Most of the time, he squirms. If our riding partner is behind us, my son turns suddenly, shifting his weight near disastrously, to make certain he is back there. (No matter how many times I have told him I will always keep our friend in my rearview mirrors, and will stop immediately if something happens. No matter how many times I have told him he must not move around, especially when we are moving slowly through narrow gaps in traffic--yoicks!) He suddenly decides he needs to look at the ground under the left side of the rear tire, throwing all his weight left as we approach a stop sign; I have lost track of how many times I was this far from that mercuric white panic: S**t, we're going down!

But the particular moment I was recalling had in fact been preceded by a long, long period of calm happiness. It was so pure, in fact, I was not aware of anything at all: I was completely inside it, riding-happiness, thick and creamy and sweet. Then, suddenly, I was aware of it, which means I was aware of something wrong. By way of something right: I had been riding along for many miles not feeling anything but the machine propelling me through air and time. There was no demented sprite of the ether pulling the bike to right or left, no brief gasps or injections of adrenaline.

My child! He fell off the bike ten miles ago!

I thrust my hand behind me and felt his leg there. Oouhh. Jesus H. Christ. That was scary.

He had just been . . . quiet. Perhaps he too had entered that whipped-cream cloud, riding-through-peacefulness.

Now, in central New York, on our way to a seminal destination, one I had been thinking of taking him for several years and was here en route at last, I was back on the roads of what has passed into my own history, the thousands of miles that traced our manifest destiny. I looked and saw again what I had seen then. A sight that moved me so profoundly I never found words for it: the vision, in the mirror, of how he was occupying himself back there behind me, so close and yet so far. He was testing the air, arm out. He was flying along, to wherever I would take him. Seeing his hand held against the air, a tender wing, called up in me so many different emotions I could not count them all. It resisted, just slightly, the pressure of the wind. And I realized then: the pressure of youth, of years, of himself versus all else.

That is what he did last year, too. That is what I remember. Only now it is a story, not just a sight.

We parked the bike and walked up and down the main street of the quaint and lovely town. We got sandwiches--"the second best grilled cheese I've ever had, Mom!" [do you remember the other?]--and walked down toward water's edge of a glistening lake. I took my feet out of my riding boots and cooled them in the grass as we ate, at the foot of the statue of an Indian, in James Fennimore Cooper territory. As we headed back to the bike, ice cream was promised for later (as it always must). In a few more minutes, we were there.

Up the circular drive, to sit idling under the portico. Sliding glass doors, nurses entering and leaving, checking their watches. An empty wheelchair waits. I turn to my boy. "Through these doors we came, eleven years ago, and you breathed your first breath of the outside air." I could see it all suddenly then: the trepidatious mother, hand tight on the car seat in which her baby was strapped, watching through the glass for the arrival of the gray Toyota. And then . . . outdoors, into our new life.

It was as if it were yesterday, but also someone else's life I had watched in a movie. O strange disjunction of time and events!

My son did not feel all these things last Friday, as he of course could not. They were mine alone, because they were his. The road had not yet moved all the way through him. Someday it would, and this moment in this land would finally come to have a story. That is when he will remember.

We pulled out of town. In a little while we were in the place I wished I could tell him about, the place we had lived before and after his birth, the place where every road was known, every byway had something to tell me about who I had been, and who I was not now.