Read an Excerpt
I started learning about motorcycles when I was twenty-one. A friend was poring over a photo gallery of sleek, sexy sport bikes on his laptop, and I looked over his shoulder while he fantasized about buying one. Only passing time at first, I quickly found myself taking an interest in his research, egging him on to purchase something he couldn’t possibly afford so that I could hop on the back and feel cool. I imagined myself doing this, but it was all guesswork—I hadn’t been on a motorcycle since I was a little kid, when my dad used to prop me up on the gas tank of his dirt bike and take me up and down the driveway, my mother shouting after us to be careful as we sped away.
“That one,” my friend said, as he settled on a black model with thick, silver exhaust pipes and a seat made for a jockey, slanted forward at an alarmingly steep angle. I was perplexed.
“But—where does the passenger sit?”
“They don’t,” he replied, and from that moment on I knew, without a doubt—I didn’t want to be a passenger on someone else’s motorcycle.
I wanted to be the one riding that motherfucker.
• • •
A FEW MONTHS BEFORE, I’d left a man I loved very much, one who had been my companion across four continents and throughout several years. In the process, I alienated almost everyone I knew in the Southern Hemisphere, lost my Australian residency visa, and abandoned one of my favorite people in the world. Making the choice to leave him was as devastating as it was necessary. I couldn’t see myself anymore, could only make out our two-headed, two-hearted composite, a creature driven by compromise and safety. It was easy to live with Thom in Australia and feel as though I was being brave just by being fourteen time zones away from where I’d begun, but it took coming back to my beginning, to Vermont, to see that somewhere along the way I’d lost the intrepid thirst I’d started out with—and that I wanted it back.
A change in geography is a psychic jolt, like falling in love, or out of it, like doing drugs, or getting sober, like learning something new, or revisiting something forgotten. It’s an electric pulse to the brain, but after the shock fades it’s still the same brain, with the same thoughts and feelings and impulses. It’s only a glimpse, a nudge toward what could be. An alarm going off, presenting the dreamer with a choice: between sleep and lucidity, stasis and change. I’d been hitting Snooze for so long, hopping from place to place, from person to person, hoping it would be enough, but it was only a series of false starts in exotic locales. Transformation takes sweat and tears; it can’t be bought with a plane ticket or an admission of love.
At first the rubble in the wake of that one, abrupt decision to leave Thom overwhelmed me. The shock was dizzying, the wreckage seemingly insurmountable, but as I began picking up the pieces of a different life in New England, one I’d left behind at seventeen, I sensed possibility: more lives, yet to be lived. Work to do, room to grow. I’d put too much of my life force into someone else, had let the weight of my well-being rest on a single pillar in the center of my consciousness. When I let myself imagine what would happen if it all collapsed, I knew I had to do just that. Without the backdrop of Ireland or India or Australia, without Thom standing next to me, I could finally see myself, as if for the first time. I took stock. To find what was worth saving—and what wasn’t.
It makes me think of the old barns and woodsheds along the Vermont country roads where I grew up, most of them in various degrees of disrepair, leaning at impossible angles for years, even decades. Ever so slowly disintegrating, season by season, defying all logic until finally the rotting, nail-bitten planks tilt too far in one direction and whatever beam had held it all together, whatever mystery had kept those walls from folding in, gives. A gust of wind, a heavy rain, and an empty meadow in the morning.
Time moves slowly in Vermont. Farmers leave it to the fields to take back the unused sugar shacks and empty woodsheds—but I’ve never been so patient. I had to demolish in order to rebuild, and so I did it quickly, coldly. I couldn’t wait for the ending to end, couldn’t bear shrugging off the questions I didn’t have answers to. A gutting drive to the bus station, Thom’s backpack on his lap, fists resting on his thighs like grenades, a force field of confusion and tension buzzing between us. Only twenty minutes, yet an impossibly long trip, a strange, horrible good-bye muttered in the parking lot. We agreed that I would keep the car, he would keep the laptop, and we would close the joint bank account, then I set him loose—to make his own way back to Melbourne. There was a tang in the back of my throat as I drove away in the Corolla we’d bought together in California, the taste of battery acid and stale coffee and leftover love. And then, emptiness: an end and a beginning commingling in the dusty void.
• • •
WHEN I WAS SEVENTEEN I bought a backpack and a plane ticket, then wandered for three and a half years. I circled the globe: starting with Ireland, ending with Australia, joining hands in Vermont. During those years, I learned to pull a pint of stout, got robbed twice, made a fool of myself constantly, meandered through western Europe, fell in love, went to India for a while, then gave Thailand a try; I kept moving, stopped moving, settled down in Melbourne, then started moving again. It was the sort of journey that forms a person, as surely all journeys during one’s formative years do—it broke me apart, then built me back up again. I didn’t recognize myself when I came home, didn’t even know if home was the right word anymore, but at the very least, I knew I was made of something. Matter: I knew I was made of matter, which might not sound like much of a thing to know, but it’s the only place to start.
If matter, that which has mass and occupies space, is the fabric of the universe, then energy is the thread that binds it together. In physics, it’s relatively easy to understand ideas like this: to internalize the logic of matter and energy and the laws that follow, but the utter nonsense of being alive, of experiencing things and reacting to them, is murky, often distorted. The emotional landscape is archetypal and cryptic, and the cacophony of pink matter inside my skull seems to churn out nothing but noise. It can be hard to tell what’s real—yet in physics I find clarity from time to time. I find scraps of order. Fleeting moments of comprehension.
Sometimes things come apart, irrevocably and inexplicably. When they do, it helps to go back to the beginning—the root of what is known. Assume nothing, test every plank, every nail. Return to the foundation, take it apart and look at the blocks. Turn them over in your hands, hold them. Then rebuild, slowly, carefully. Watch how they fit together. Matter. Time. Speed. Distance. The less you think you know, the better off you are.
• • •
BACK IN NEW ENGLAND, I mourned my life in Australia and I began to build a new one, without having any idea of what I wanted it to look like. There were shadows of an earlier, younger self fluttering in the wings to contend with, and the jagged, raw edge where Thom and I had been connected, and the way nothing I knew about myself seemed to fit quite like it had before, my personality hanging on me like baggy jeans, a few sizes too big. I felt hollow, deflated, like there weren’t enough organs in my chest, no blood in my veins. A vacuum the size of Australia, next to my beating heart. I had shrunk somehow, a withered soul living in an oversized vessel.
At some point I realized that empty space was what I’d needed all along. The chance to consider my own contents. To cull, reshape, and ultimately to innovate. To find stillness, and then, eventually, discover a new kind of motion.
When I was a kid, my mother used to joke that she’d skin me alive if she ever caught me on the back of a motorcycle. Then, when I was seventeen, she told me she used to ride one. There was an Indian two-stroke, she said, with dusty black saddlebags and oily leather tassels that she rode from San Francisco to Missoula with a man she’d just met. They ran out of money in Washington and cleaned gas station bathrooms in exchange for the fuel to keep going. There was another bike she had, in Philadelphia, a Honda 305 that got stolen, boosted onto a truck in the middle of the night, and another in Vermont, an old Yamaha dirt bike she rode to her job as a public-school art teacher. She strapped a milk crate to the back and filled it with lesson plans and her lunch; it was 1981, and all the kids thought she was something else. I listened to my mother in awe as she counted off the motorcycles she’d owned and the motorcycles she’d ridden. She had me the same year she turned forty; I’d never known her young. She still taught art, but by then she was driving to school in a Toyota hatchback. There was a lot I didn’t know.
I leaned forward and put my elbows on the countertop, and she told me how an old boyfriend taught her to ride his Triumph in an Illinois cornfield sometime during the mid-1960s, just before she dropped out of college. She’d ridden whiny little dirt bikes on the Jersey Shore as a teenager, but never a full-blooded motorcycle, and never with an engine like that—double-cylinder, four-stroke, run home crying or ride straight to Las Vegas polarity shimmering on the chrome finish.
I pictured it: pale green husks against indigo mountains that lay close to the earth, and the two of them, out there in a clearing by some ramshackle, whitewashed barn where the harvest was already cut and stacked. He taught her how to go, but before he could tell her how to stop she’d gone. The bike rumbled and she gunned it, showing off, thinking she had motorcycles down pat.
The front tire leapt into the air, the bike bucked her like a startled horse, and together they galloped forward: my mother, just barely hanging on to the throttle, inadvertently opening it up as far as it would go. She roared toward some hay bales, and when she couldn’t swerve fast enough they caught her neatly, like rough pillows, plumped and piled high. I can see it: her boyfriend running to catch up to where she lay sprawled in the hay, overcome, laughing and sobbing and holding her arm like it had come apart at the elbow.
I love picturing my mother this way: with long dark hair and a leather jacket that’s too big for her. I love thinking of her whipping down the highway, somewhere green and warm, a red handkerchief across her mouth to block the dust, and a big pair of mirrored aviators, pinned to her face by the wind. I wish she had been the one to show me how to ride, but there wasn’t a chance in hell—I don’t know how she taught me to drive a car without having a heart attack, but she’s been telling me to slow down ever since.
• • •
THE MAN WHO did teach me to ride chewed the side of his oily thumb and looked me over: an overexcited twenty-one-year-old running my hands along the sleek lines of a cruiser, impatiently waiting for instructions. A clean V-neck T-shirt glowed white against the permanent grease smudges on his hands and the deep nut-brown of his arms, his black hair smoothed back into a ponytail. Back then he wasn’t quite a friend yet—a friend of a friend—but he was a motorcycle man, and the only one I knew at the time. I had been running into him a lot lately, and pestering him about wanting to learn, until he’d finally succumbed and picked me up at the curb outside my house one afternoon. It was the first time I’d been on a motorcycle since I was a little kid clinging to the handlebars of my dad’s dirt bike, but it felt familiar. We found a dirt road next to a sprawling farm in western Massachusetts to practice on.
The bike was borrowed, loaned by the motorcycle man’s brother—a Yamaha Virago 750, I think. The engine was too much and the frame was too heavy for me at that point, but my feet could touch the ground and that was enough for me. I thought of my mother: sitting among the hay bales, four decades and a thousand miles away, but also somehow right next to me. On either side of the road, cornstalks were chopped low to the ground, and clouds were rolling in from across the river. A few drops of rain flecked my jacket. It was cold and getting late as I pressed the toes of my sneakers into the dirt, trying to master a machine that weighed four times as much as me. When it comes down to it, there are two ways to keep a motorcycle upright—by supporting its weight or by accelerating.
“Show me your gears,” he said, and I dutifully kicked it into first, second, third, fourth, and fifth, then back to neutral.
“Show me your brakes,” he said, and I squeezed the lever under my right hand.
“And your rear brakes?” I touched the pedal with my right foot.
“Good,” he said. “Show me your throttle.” I flicked my wrist and the engine came alive. “Now. Let’s see what you got.”
I felt the hum of 750cc’s against the inside of my thigh and hot metal searing through the thick skin of my jeans—savage energy below me, literally combusting, over and over. Within the engine casing the pistons were firing away, like two empty syringes spurting exhaust instead of vaccine, compressing gas instead of liquid, workhorses shuttling back and forth, filling the chamber, compressing it, and exploding back in the other direction. From pistons to crankshaft to rear wheel, energy flowed until it became the motion in my tires and together we lunged forward.
The first moment of acceleration, when my feet lifted away from the road, buoyed up by the air itself, felt like leaving the ground completely. The weight of the bike dissipated into motion and it felt like ascension. As I straddled it in stillness, with my toes on the ground, it was deadweight, but when I let out the clutch and laid on the throttle, it lightened, became effortlessly balanced; it flew.
I pulled in the clutch, let go of the throttle, and knocked it up to second gear, then I accidentally jammed the throttle on so hard I slid back a few inches in my seat. Up to third, fourth, and the wind stung my neck, my knuckles. Ahead I could see deep, muddy ruts crisscrossing the road and no way around them. I hurried to rein in the engine, to bring it down gear by gear, but I hit the mud too soon and my back tire skidded onto its edge; my connection with the surface of the road slipped away. Instinctively, I tightened my fist on the brakes and the tires locked, the heaviness of stasis returned, and I lost momentum. Without it, I felt a few hundred pounds of churning metal begin to go down and to take me with it; I stopped thinking about how to stay upright and started thinking about how to fall.
The engine died on impact, and even as I slithered out from underneath it I could feel the heat and the hum and the dull ache in my limbs that had begun to sharpen. I stood up and my ankle wobbled. My knee screamed, my palms were skinned raw, but I struggled to heave the bike back up. I took my helmet off and I tried again. The motorcycle man caught up to me, and together we pulled it up off the ground. He checked the bike over, decided it was okay; I checked myself over, couldn’t decide.
• • •
THERE WAS ANOTHER STORY my mother told me, about another crash. This one was a little after she’d wiped out while she was learning in Illinois, in 1968 or so. She had just abandoned her sophomore year at Monmouth College and gone back to her parents’ house in New Jersey while she figured out what to do next. In the meantime, she got an office job designing pamphlets at an insurance company and a blue Honda 305 cruiser to make life more interesting.
She had an old high school friend who had gotten into dirt bike racing, and one weekend the two of them and three other guys made the trip out to western Pennsylvania so that he could compete. The four guys rode in the van with the dirt bike, but my mother decided to ride her motorcycle. It was a beautiful day when they started out, a stubby little caravan of motocross misfits. The race itself was warm and sunny, but on the way home the weather turned. Rain began to bounce against her helmet and the sky darkened. She slowed down, tried to be careful, but she was tense, terrified of how easily she could lose control. There is a delicate ridge one must ride between fear and reason on a motorcycle—lean too far in either direction and there will be consequences.
They were on a winding road in the Pennsylvania mountains, twisting and turning their way down from the misty peak. The van followed her, and as she rounded a corner on a downward slope she braked and lost her traction on the wet asphalt. The wheels locked and slid out from under her. It was over in an instant. She laid the bike down, and together they slid to the shoulder of the road. The scrub grass caught her by the jacket, but the bike kept going. She lay there, a quivering, shaking mess, as the boys stopped the van and ran to her, shouting over the thrum of the rain against the road. Her left side ached from the impact, and she began to cry as they fussed over her, through gritted teeth, trying to will away each tear. They managed to fit her boxy little 305 into the van alongside the losing dirt bike, and they stowed her in the seat of honor, battered and aching from her battle with the road, then proceeded to give her the frame-by-frame replay of her crash the whole way back to New Jersey. She returned to her cubicle at the insurance company after the weekend, and her entire left side was a rainbow of bruises beneath her corporate-casual shell.
• • •
“LOOKIN’ GOOD,” the motorcycle man said after he saw I was just shaken up. I rubbed my knee and brushed mud from my pants. My hands were shaking and my heart was pumping like it might combust. He flicked the starter button and the engine turned over a few times before it caught. He revved it. “It’s now or never,” he said, and I knew what he meant. I hesitated, but I got on, and this time I found fifth gear out there among the shorn crops and the dry farm roads, the dust leaping up behind me like a banner.
• • •
DURING MY MOTORCYCLE safety course a month or so later, we practiced on a big square of asphalt in the middle of a field, way out by a tiny airport. There was a jumble of students: two teenage boys with crotch rockets who couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there; two middle-aged women with long nails and dents on their ring fingers; an older, soft-voiced gentleman who used to ride as a young man and wanted to refresh his skills; and me. At twenty-one, I was done thinking about Australia, but I didn’t know what to think about next. For months I had been in a state of shock, wondering what I had done, how I had managed to destroy everything that felt safe about my life with one well-aimed blow, and what I was supposed to do now. Thom was back in Melbourne, I’d found a place to live in Massachusetts, and time was creeping forward. I needed something to catch me up and catapult me out of the apathy that I was slowly settling into, but something more than an unfamiliar destination—I needed a new route, a different mode of travel. Returning to New England and leaving Thom had been intuitive. It gave me the foundation and the energy to expand as an individual, but the next part, doing that work and embracing that challenge, required effort and attention.
“Imagine there’s a car in front of ya,” our instructor, Joe, said. “And ya gotta stop real fast.” He was a wiry little guy from the North Shore, with a sprout of black-and-gray hair and stubble that had been getting thicker all afternoon. I’ve never seen anyone more passionate about their job. He was crazy about motorcycles, and totally committed to the safety manual—those corny videos, even the pop quizzes at the end of every chapter. He wore an armored jacket and shiny, indestructible-looking pants, and he told us anyone who didn’t wear a helmet was an asshole, no matter what state they lived in. He took a shine to me when I got a 100 on my written test, and when I started zipping around the practice tarmac on the little Kawasaki bike, he called me over, slapped me on the back, and laughed as he told me not to go too fast.
“Now the car in front of ya,” Joe shouted, “is twenty yards away from ya—here.” He scrubbed his toe against a white line painted on the asphalt. We were in a row, a ways off from him. “And they’ve stopped real sudden. Now ya gotta get up to a good speed, then stop on the line.” We nodded. We were ready. “Start your engines,” he shouted. “Okay, Becky, c’mon down.”
Becky’s nails were hot pink and square tipped. She had on black leather knuckle gloves trimmed with tassels. She worked as a nurse, down at Hancock Regional, I think, and her ward was starting an all-women biker crew. She went, and it looked pretty good. Pretty simple. The teenagers went, too, and I admired their tire scorches. “Lily,” Joe called to me, “all good to go.” So I went.
In physics, the word acceleration means the rate of change in velocity—not necessarily an increase. A decrease in velocity is acceleration, too. The movement involved in stopping is the same kind of motion as getting up to speed. Consider an object moving in a straight line at a constant speed, then the same object at rest. The acceleration in both cases is zero, because it’s the fluctuation of speed that is being measured, not the speed itself.
I jammed on my brakes. The sudden change jolted me forward and locked my back tire, but I kept the wheel straight and the front and rear brakes on evenly. I put my heels down, my front tire an inch or two shy of the line. On two wheels it’s hard to remember to stomp down on the rear brake pedal and squeeze hard on the front with even, measured pressure, all the while committing to the change in velocity and, maybe more important, being ready to support the weight of the machine once it stops moving.
Joe strolled over and motioned for me to flip my visor up. “You know how fast you were goin’?” he asked, looking impressed. I shook my head, feeling pleased with myself, trying not to let it show. “Really freaking fast,” he said. “But you stopped clean. You know why you ride just as good, prolly better than those boys over there?” he asked, and he jerked a thumb over at the hot-shit teenagers popping mini-wheelies near the shade tent.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you got balls, kid.”
“Huh,” I said. “Thanks.”
“That an’ a fuckin’ brain. One’s no good without the other.” He laughed and flipped my visor back down, then gave me a resounding smack on the top of my helmet.
Riding that ridge between reason and recklessness, stillness and speed, is the first, maybe the most important, thing I learned about motorcycles. It’s a balance I’d never fully understood in any setting. I experimented with both extremes, in Ireland, hitchhiking on rural roads, taking rides from just about anyone; or in India, refusing to walk to the bazaar alone, making Thom go instead. As a woman traveling by herself I’d confused bravery with stupidity, and as a woman in a partnership I’d confused caution with cowardice. It’s an equilibrium that takes practice, but on a motorcycle there’s not much room for interpretation—some things are just easier to learn when the pavement is keeping score.
“Now,” Joe said, “go do it again.”
I had been casually scanning the local motorcycle classifieds for weeks, but when I finished the safety course and passed the riding test I began to search in earnest, shutting myself in my room for hours at a time to sift through motorcycle listings. I had lived in western Massachusetts for almost a year by then, in a town called Northampton, waiting tables in a French restaurant and partying hard, with a constant rotation of five to six other housemates.
My life in Australia was still vivid, but the details of my old routine had begun to feel distant: riding the train to the city center each morning, walking through Carlton Gardens in flip-flops, high heels stowed in my shoulder bag. Eight-hour days spent at a boutique market-research firm, answering the phone, helping the researchers with their reports, leading focus groups into comfortable rooms where their reactions could be watched and recorded from behind a one-way mirror. Then arriving home a little past six, making dinner, feeding the cat, and later watching television while Thom did the dishes.
Thom and I stayed in touch after we broke up and he returned to Australia. He would send me packages with some of my belongings now and then, a box of clothes, some old letters, a stack of photos. Every time something arrived with an Australian postmark I would sit on my bed and cry. We talked on the phone a few times, e-mailed occasionally. We discussed the possibility of getting back together someday, and while it was earnest at the time, I see now that it was always an empty plan, grasping at straws to damp down the distress of being so far apart and the very real prospect that we would never see each other again.
Although memories of Australia were slowly receding, my current life had yet to sharpen. The ground I stood on felt shaky. I was still expanding, accumulating matter, waiting for my ambitions to materialize and then solidify. The plan with Thom had included a permanent-residency visa and going back to school in Melbourne, but without Thom and without Australia, there was no plan. I still wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree but didn’t know what to study or where to apply—all I knew was I didn’t want to feel lost anymore. I wanted a direction, but I didn’t want to keep drifting to find it. The physical motion of my travels began to seem more evasive than transformative. I knew there had to be a way to move forward without buying a plane ticket.
It didn’t help that almost as soon as I had decided to stay in New England, my parents decided to leave. They sold the house in Vermont where I grew up and moved to Florida, where my father could work outdoors all year round and my mother could continue teaching online college classes but retire from public school, exploring a whole new gardening climate in her free time. After thirty years of hard Vermont winters, they were ready for a change. I understood their reasons for going but was dismayed to lose my childhood home. It seemed like I’d just returned, and already I was packing up my old room, inheriting the furniture and carpets and appliances they didn’t want to transport south.
I grew up in a beautiful, unusual house with tall, expansive windows, my father’s woodshop on the first floor, our home on the second, set on a hill in the middle of a spacious meadow, acres of forest all around. My parents designed and built it together, the art teacher and the carpenter each playing to their strengths. The view of it from the bottom of our driveway, my mother’s gardens sprawled on every side, was rustic and elaborate all at once: a grand gray-blue barn with a silo, a weather-vane shaped like a rooster spinning on the peak of its roof. I had never planned on living there again, but when they sold it and went south I felt more adrift than ever. I ached for an anchor, a place to call home.
For a time, the house in Northampton was that anchor, and although it never quite felt like home, it kept me occupied. Something was always happening at the house on North Street: a stew being cooked; a show being played; a dinner being eaten; a dog visiting, or a small child, or an old friend; a noise band sleeping on the floor; a yard sale out front: a traffic jam in the driveway. We never locked the doors, because there was always someone home, and we never bought bread, because there was always someone living there who worked at the Hungry Ghost bakery and brought home the day-old loaves. It was a transient way to live—the house was for sale the entire time I was there—but that felt okay. After bouncing around the globe, I no longer felt the need to constantly be on the move, but as much as I craved a home, I wasn’t ready to stop completely, to let the dust settle and commit, so it was a good compromise. I was on the verge of something, a new adventure, a stretch of fresh terrain, but I had yet to find the right vehicle to take me over the brink.
I had only two specifications within my modest price range: at five-foot-three, I wanted a motorcycle with a frame low enough for my feet to comfortably touch the ground, and with enough force in the belly of its engine to be taken seriously.