From the backseat of a motorcycle

On Sunday, I participated in the Ride for Kids, a motorcycle ride to help raise money for children with brain tumors.  My boyfriend and I rode through the roads of Chester County, beginning at the King of Prussia Mall’s parking lot and ending underneath a grassy pavilion in the fields of Longwood Gardens.  A total of 485 riders raised over $130,000, which will go toward research as well as a scholarship fund for survivors of this tragic disease.  With large events like these, there are bound to be different perspectives.  And, being on the back of a motorcycle for 2 hours, I had a lot of time to think about it.

There are the riders themselves, of course.  Many of them were older, had large Harleys and large women to match.  Their massive bikes, with side compartments, radio antennas, plush backseats, and shining chrome pipes towered over my boyfriend and I, with his small (but awesome) Kawasaki Ninja.  Some wore helmets, while others felt the wind blow through their colored bandanas and the sun glare through their black sunglasses.  Some had been riding in this event every year, while others had just started.  As different as these riders were from each other, they all shared a common love for life.  A 2-hour ride with no stops (the police had blocked off the roads to cars) is a big incentive, a chance to appreciate what they have, to remind them that even in a world where lives can end so early, there is still beauty.

Then, most importantly, there are the children.  At the event, the MC said that every day, 10 children will be diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In lieu of other disasters and diseases, this isn’t a large number by itself.  However, 10 children are not 10 individuals but 10 families, 10 social networks that are affected by the bad news from a CT scan.  A small group of survivors joined the ride.  They rode on huge, VIP motorcycles in the front of the long procession.  When they were asked later if they enjoyed the ride, each said “yes” politely.  For them, a motorcycle ride is small in comparison to the thrills that they’ve had to endure.  Rather, living a normal life was the best gift they could receive.  They all spoke about their hopes about college, their future lives, and careers.  Their will to live was much stronger than what had plagued them.

Next, we have the bystanders.  There were people stuck in their cars as over 400 motorcycles passed them.  Trips to the store, friends, or Sunday picnics were certainly postponed.  Some yelled angrily into their cell phones, while others sat, complacent.  Families came out of their houses, bemused by the spectacle.  Some waved flags, others held up their children.  The riders waved, revved their engines, and beeped their horns in return.

Finally, there was me.  I don’t own a motorcycle.  I don’t even know how to ride a bicycle without falling off.  I’m a passenger.  I sit on the back of Devin’s sport bike, holding on to his sides.  I lean with him through turns and grasp anything I can when the bike speeds up.  I should be paying attention to the road, but when you’re not the one driving, it’s hard.  You want to look at everything: the leaves, the gold colored fields, the horses chewing lazily on grass, the old wooden fences, the motorcycle inching closer to your left, the passenger in front of you taking pictures while her husband steers, the logo on the back of your boyfriend’s jacket, the way the sky seems to be too blue to be real, the wisps of clouds like broken feathers. Without the box of a car top, you feel like you’re part of everything you pass.

And you want to think about everything too.  You think of the lives of the other riders; the children, men, and women who die every day, cancer or not; how good it feels to be warm and cool at the same time; how safe you feel behind him, despite the fact you could fall off any second; how soft his hair is underneath his helmet; how bad your legs ache from shifting your weight; how if you had known about this a few days ago, you could have donated more; how different your life is, how 2 years makes such a difference.  You want to catalog every moment, every stray thought or image that moves by as you keep going along a line of riders, whose beginning or end you can’t see, let alone fathom.

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Definitions

It started with little things.  My grandmother would forget words.  Having a conversation with her was like filling in a crossword puzzle:

“I’m looking for my…for my… that thing you use to start a…a car.”

“Your  keys?”

No one seemed to think much of it at the time.  People get old.  People forget things.  We didn’t want to name what she had.  We didn’t want to give it words.

When she got bitten by a snake, she told my grandfather that a bug had bit her.  It wasn’t until the next morning, when her hand was swollen like ripe fruit, that my grandfather knew to take her to the hospital.  My aunt asked her what color it was, how it moved when it slithered away.  That’s how they knew to give her the right anti-venom.

Words began to lose meaning.  My grandmother showed my sister the pictures on her wall.  Each one was labeled with a name.  She would forget my name sometimes, but she still knew who I was.  At least then she did. The last time I visited her, she asked where I was living.  “Boston,” I said.  She asked me again ten minutes later.  I told her again, knowing that it didn’t mean anything to her.  It was a name of a place she couldn’t fathom anymore.  But she nodded, playing along.  She smiled, but her eyes weren’t smiling.

When my grandmother speaks, it’s a jumble of words, like the contents of a torn-up newspaper.  Her voice is quiet, so you have to listen carefully.  At least that’s what my sister tells me.  I haven’t seen my grandmother in two years, except for the occasional photos that my aunt sends me.  I wish she wouldn’t send them, because I don’t recognize the woman in those pictures.

For me, the definition of “grandmother” is a woman who taught me how to buy stamps, who gave me extra candy on Halloween, who made me Polaroid vacation albums, who told me that she prayed everyday that she would live to see my children.  I want to thank her for the bracelet she gave me, the one she wore on her wedding day, the one that she gave me the last time she recognized me.  I want to tell her that I’m sorry for all the years I went to her house as a kid and watched TV in silence.  When I see her in a few months, though, I won’t say any of this.  I’ll sit next to her, trying not to notice how thin she is.  I’ll say “hi”, hoping maybe she’ll respond with the same, hoping that she’ll say anything, hoping that silence won’t be the last conversation that I’ll ever have with her.

Salt rained

flowers

Salt rained from the sky

Softly like baby feet, and

Landed on slimy skins.

And as they writhed and melted,

twisting in curlicues in

the white crystals,

She thought she could hear screams

Emiting from silenced vocals chords,

Echoing in the garden they had dared to enter.

I’m not sorry (…yet)

feet

Sheila decided to steal Lisa’s grandmother like one would decide to buy apples at the grocery store.  As she carried the last box of her belongings down the stairs to the moving truck, Sheila stopped in the living room. She grabbed the little urn full of Lisa’s grandmother off the top of the television and dropped it in her box.  The urn made a small clunky noise, like bracelets in a glass jar.

***

Sheila was moving out a month earlier than she had told Lisa.  But that was Lisa’s problem now, not hers.  Sheila liked to think of herself as a nice person, one who you could count on to watch your dog while you were on vacation or ask a loan of twenty dollars from without fear of paying interest in return.

Apparently, Lisa did not think so.  She made that very clear to Sheila when she shook her awake the day after her birthday.  Sheila was still hung-over, so it took her a few minutes to realize why Lisa was yelling—all she could focus on was how loud it was, like a wave of steel dominos crashing down into a cacophonous, chaotic form.

So what if Sheila had a few people over on a Tuesday night (and by a few, she really meant 10)?  And so what if said people spilled beer on the carpet, decided to make pancakes at 2 a.m., and sing out of tune to 80s’ hair metal?  It was Sheila’s birthday, so didn’t that give her a special dispensation to disregard the sleeping habits of her roommate for one day of the year?

Apparently, Lisa did not think so.

Fine.  Fair enough.  But it had only happened once.  How many other times had she been helpful?  How many times had she washed both their dishes, bought groceries, and cleaned cat puke off the carpet without being asked?  How many times had she agreed to clean both the bathroom and the kitchen every week, when Lisa only had to vacuum the stairs?  Didn’t Sheila deserve a second chance?

Again, Lisa did not think so.

Sheila had two months to find a new apartment.

***

It took Sheila only 3 weeks.  Rather than tell Lisa, Sheila secretly packed.  Lisa never came into her room anymore anyway, so it wasn’t too hard to pack her clothes and books in boxes that she had stashed in her closet.  On Monday, Sheila pretended to be too sick to go to work.  As soon as Lisa left, Sheila called the moving truck.

Moving out early was bad enough—Lisa hadn’t even found a new roommate to take her place yet, so rent was going to be a problem.  Why then, was it necessary to steal her grandmother too?

Sheila didn’t know why she did it.  As she followed the moving truck in her car, she imagined the little urn, clinking like glass beads each time the truck bounced from the craters of potholes in the streets.

***

“You did what?” said Beth, helping her move a box of books.  Sheila had known Beth since her sophomore year at Hunter.  Beth wanted to be a famous writer, or a social worker, or marketing executive—it changed frequently.  Sheila had stopped paying attention, but she was pretty sure Beth was in an urban renewal phase.

“I told you…I just took it.  Like that.”

“Woooooow.” Beth’s mouth made a perfect o shape, outlined by bubblegum shaded lip gloss.  “That is incredible!”

“What?” Sheila looked up from the box.  “Beth, I stole someone’s grandmother.”

“Yeah, but she totally deserved it!  Who evicts someone the day after their birthday?  That’s completely wrong!”

Sheila lowered the box to the floor.  She started prying at the tape with her fingers.

“I mean,” Beth continued, “I knew she was weird when you first answered her craigslist ad.”

“Like, how?”  Sheila tore the line of tape off from the top of the box.

“I dunno, I guess…When I went with you to see the place, just got a weird vibe from her.  She never smiled once.”

Sheila nodded.  She started taking books out of the box.

“And that one time I came over and you made grilled cheese.  You used one of her pans—the one with the stains on it.  After we cleaned it, Lisa said you were the one who made it dirty!”

“Well, Beth, it did look a little dirtier…”

“That’s not the point, Sheila.  It was dirty to begin with.”

“I think she only freaked out because it was one of the pans her grandmother gave her…” Sheila stopped for a moment.  “But…she said she hated her grandmother.  Seriously, I don’t understand her.”

“Who keeps their grandmother on top of a television anyway?”

“Someone with issues,” Sheila replied.  She pulled the urn out of the box.

“Is that it?” asked Beth.

“Yep.”

“It’s a little bit small.”

“It’s only a…part of her.  Apparently the whole family got a small piece to keep.”
Beth looked at Sheila as if she were describing a family of cannibals.

“Yeah,” said Sheila.  “I know.”  She turned the urn around in her hand.  It was a light blue color with small pink flowers.  “What do I do with this?”

Beth smiled.  “I have an idea.”

***

Sheila and Beth took the subway down to the South Street Seaport and made their way to the walkway by the river.  They found a spot by the railings, overlooking the dark water that shone like a wet, black stone.  It was early on a Sunday morning, so only two people walked by.

“Are you ready?” asked Beth.  Sheila nodded and took out the little urn.

She knew it was crazy. But as she wound back her arm, preparing to throw, she told herself that she wanted this.  Lisa had ruined her birthday.  Sheila had stolen her grandmother.  And at least the ocean was a better resting place than a television.

Sheila threw the urn as hard as she could toward the water.  It flew in a small, blue arc before landing, making a splash the size of a fist.  She looked away, because if she had gazed at the water with the sheen of black ice much longer, she would actually feel guilty.

Arnie

light

It happened when Arnie and I were playing “Sammy Sosa” in the park down the street from my house in Morton, a small suburb outside Philadelphia.  Arnie and I were best friends.  It sounds cliché now.  Now, at 19, I can’t even imagine trusting someone the way I did him—with complete conviction, without doubt.  But back then, it actually meant something.  And as much as I want to lie to myself, to forget what happened that day, I know it still means something to me.

***

We first met during fifth-grade at after-school baseball.  We didn’t play against other schools, just each other—the formal baseball leagues didn’t start until sixth grade.  I only knew a few things about him then: his parents were divorced, he always had a serious look on his face, and he was the only kid I could never strike out.  I hated it when he would come up to bat, because no matter what I threw at him—curveball, fastball—he’d hit it every time.

We never spoke to each other.  Our relationship was a silent exchange, him at the plate and me on the mound.  Near the end of the year, we had our closest game yet.  It was the last inning, and my team was winning by one run.  I struck out the first two batters easily, but I wasn’t hopeful.  I knew that Arnie was up next.

He came up to the plate, swinging at the air.  He’d swing fast, then slowly with purpose, as if he were visualizing an instant replay on a jumbotron.  I held my breath, feeling the air strain against my lungs.  I fingered the ball carefully—it felt unfamiliar, like a glass figurine, in my hand.  I brought it up to my glove, stared at Arnie hard, wound up the ball, then threw.  It seemed like a quick succession, one pitch after another, but it also felt slow, like I was moving underwater.  I didn’t even realize until a minute later, when my teammates rushed the mound and flew upon me in a crowd of smiles, that we had won.  I had struck out Arnie for the first time.

While I was walking home after the game, I felt a timid finger tap my shoulder.

“Hey,” said Arnie.  He smiled nervously, revealing a dark gap where his front tooth used to be.  Arnie was really self-conscious about his gap—he only fully smiled when he was nervous or excited. I never got the chance to ask him how he had lost the tooth.

“Hey,” I replied.

“You’re a really good pitcher,”

“Thanks,” I said.  “But I just struck you out,” I said.  “Aren’t you mad?”

“Well, a little,” he admitted, still smiling.  “But that just means you can make me better.”

“What do you mean?”

“I want you to help me practice.  And,” he added, quickly, “in return, I could let you strike me out at least once every game, just so you don’t feel like you’re betraying your team or anything.”

“That’s pretty nice of you,” I said.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said.  He brushed his long hair out of his eyes and looked at the ground.  “We’ll be together the real baseball team next year anyway.  So what do you say?”

***

Arnie’s dream was to play major league baseball.  Since he was ten, when his father was still around to take him to games, Arnie had been planning.  He hoped that by the time he got into high school, he’d catch the eye of a talent scout and from that point, he would start his major-league career.  That’s what I liked about Arnie.  He was always thinking, especially about the future.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I admired his passion.  But I did question it at times.

“Arnie,” I said.  We were searching for balls during one of our practices.  “Could I ask you something?”

“If it’s about Catherine D’Olio again, don’t worry about it, Reg,” he said, picking a ball from one of the bushes.  “She had a big smile on her face after you helped her pick up her books.”

“Hah yeah, I saw that too,” I said, blushing a bit.  “It’s something else, though.  Your baseball plan.”

“What about it?” he asked.

“Well, you’re a really good hitter.  Probably the best on the baseball team.”

“Thanks to you, Reg.”

“Well, only a little.  Anyway, you’re good.  But, there’s a lot of other people who are too.  How do you know you’ll get on a team?”

Arnie paused.  His eyes were looking at nothing in particular, but I knew he was thinking.

“You know those high school kids we see sometimes, Reg?  The ones that that hang out by the dumpsters?”

I nodded.  Every town has a group of kids like them, the ones who never grow up, who become adults without knowing what that means.  The ones who, even after they’ve graduated, still hang out with high school kids because they’re terrified of people their own age.

“I want to live a great life instead of talk about how I could have had one,” said Arnie.  “I’ll do anything to get on a team because I need to get out of here.  You should get out too when you can.”

“But I don’t even know what I want to do, Arn.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure something out.  Something great, something that helps people.  Maybe a doctor or something.”  He bent down to pick up another ball.

Although Arnie never did, I found my way out of Morton.  But I can’t say whether or not that was a good thing.

***

Every Sunday we practiced in the park.  I’d pitch balls to Arnie, a few easy ones at first to get him warmed up, then moved on to faster throws.  We only had five balls, so after they had all been pitched or hit we went out looking for them.  During our last practice two months ago, my fingers were getting numb from the January wind.  I called out to Arnie that this would be the last pitch.  Arnie smashed it so far that the only way we knew that it had even landed was from the cries of a car alarm in the distance.

“Race ya,” he said, smiling with what was left of his teeth.  He was halfway across the park before I even started after him.

“No fair,” I yelled between breaths as I attempted to catch up.  He turned his head mid-sprint to grin at me, showing off his missing tooth.  Just as he stepped onto the road a van rounded the corner, going way too fast.

“Arn!  Stop—” My screams mixed with the screeching brakes.  The van stopped, and for a second I thought Arnie would be okay.  But then I noticed that he had stopped moving too—he was frozen in a strange position of still running.  His one foot was about land while the heel of his other one was rising, preparing to push off.  Only a quarter of an inch separated Arnie from the van’s fly-encrusted grill and the air around the tires was clouded with hanging specks of dust and rubber bits.

What was going on?  I looked around and saw everything had stopped moving.  I couldn’t feel the wind anymore, but I could still see dried leaves suspended in the air, bits of trash on the street halted mid-motion.  No car alarms sounded, no lingering birds sang.

I ran over to Arnie and tried to pull his rigid body to safety.  Maybe there was a reason why everything stopped. Maybe I was supposed to save him.  But Arnie wouldn’t budge.  I couldn’t move anything, not even his fingers.  I kicked his legs, the van, the tires, and screamed at a God that I knew was laughing at me.  There was nothing I could do.  After maybe ten minutes (how can you count time when it’s stopped?) I gave up, sat on the curb, and waited.  He was my best friend, and someone had to be there with him when he died.  Eventually, time started again—like a frozen engine that you have to kick a few times.  I watched as Arnie went under the tires, and I almost felt relieved that it had finally happened.