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Emily June Street
I trailed in Papan's wake, keeping half a block between us as we passed the extravagant townhouses that bordered Vreeland Park. I couldn't imagine what Papan would do if he found me walking the streets unescorted, dressed like a boy in Gabriel's clothes. He'd surely have Maman lock me upstairs for the next year or so, or take a stinging belt to my palms. Or, more likely, marry me off to the first willing wastrel he could find.
I sidestepped a puddle and darted across Green Street. A crowd had gathered beside the park gates. A velocipede race at Vreeland's practice track had brought the crowd and Papan — not to mention me — out on this humid afternoon. I couldn't miss Gabriel's first qualifying race. Nothing, no fear of punishment or reprisals, could have kept me cooped up at home pacing the parlor in anxious anticipation with Maman. I had told her that my nerves for my brother had brought on a megrim and I needed to rest in my room undisturbed. Maman would understand the manufactured excuse, as she suffered that affliction frequently herself. I expected to be out for no more than an hour, and I could make it back home before she looked in on me if I hurried.
Papan entered the park and met up with two other men. I caught snippets of their conversation as I sidled along with my head down, taking care to make large steps that ate up space.
"Everyone's a rookie in this race," one of Papan's friends said. "Your son is racing, isn't he, Escot?"
"Should we bet on your boy?" the other one asked Papan. "Have you seen him race here at Vreeland?"
Papan had no answers for them. He'd never seen Gabriel race. Like most track swaddies, he spent the entire racing season observing the professionals at the Arena. There was no money to be made scouting the new talent coming up at the Vreeland practice track.
I knew the incoming talent well. I'd spent countless hours watching Gabriel and his cohort ride, longing to race myself, feeling the motions in my body with my entire soul twisted in a knot of envy that could never unfurl. Watching my twin brother compete was torture, but I kept coming back despite every danger — Papan's wrath, a ruined reputation, public censure, Maman's distress — because my vicarious pleasure in watching Gabriel was as close to racing as I could get.
Papan headed through the gates with his friends, their dapper coattails snapping in the breeze, out of place at Vreeland where the dress code was casual. The early qualifying races took place at Vreeland until the wheat had been sorted from the chaff, at which point the track swaddies would return to their favored locale of the grand Arena.
I couldn't have gone to watch the race without dressing like a boy, and I couldn't have dressed up like a boy to watch the race without Gabriel's complicity. My brother permitted me to wear his clothes; he kept my secret and condoned my lies. I yanked at his jacket, making certain it covered my breasts, and followed Papan and the swaddies. They had begun to make bets. Though it was barely past noon on a Moonday, I suspected they had already been drinking. Papan had taken a shot of malt whisk directly after breaking his fast. He had offered a "good luck" shot to Gabriel and scoffed at his refusal, saying, "What kind of man are you if you can't handle a shot of malt whisk on a big occasion?"
Gabriel had gotten that hunted look in his eyes, the one I knew he couldn't afford right before a race. I had to bite my tongue to avoid snapping at Papan to lay off my twin brother. I'd learned from Papan's belt to keep my silence. Papan was deeply concerned about Gabriel's being a proper man and my being a proper woman, as if fitting his children into their prescribed boxes was his main duty as a parent. As if that would make up for all his own shortcomings.
I darted into the bleachers behind Papan and his friends, thinking about the past and how I had come to this deception.
My obsession, this love affair I had with velocipedes, had all begun on our eighth birthday. We had walked from the house together, Gabriel holding my hand, his palm clammy with excitement.
The new velocipede, a two-wheeler, red, shining in the sun, leaned against the gate.
Gabriel had given a great shout and launched himself at the new toy. It took him only a few tries to balance, and then off he'd gone, zipping around the yard.
My present that year had been a new petticoat. I'd wanted to ride like Gabriel, but even if the rules of the riesen class hadn't forbidden it, my new skirt would have hindered me.
Maman had stood behind me that morning, one hand on my shoulder as we watched Gabriel. Her fingers dug into my flesh the way the new petticoat dug into my waist. I thought at the time that her tension came from fear for Gabriel's safety.
Now I wondered if she had felt the desire coursing through me — the fierce longing born as I watched my brother on the velo. Maman had pulled me back. "Emmeline! Remember yourself, young lady. Show some grace and restraint."
But I couldn't hide my desires from myself. That, I thought, watching Gabriel as he rode unfettered out the gate and onto the street. I have to do that.
From that moment, all I wanted was to ride, a tainting dream that colored all the days of my confined childhood.
The velo jockeys lined up at the starting line. Papan and the other track swaddies sat closer to the track, but I knew the best vantage point — two rows down from the top bleacher — from long experience as a clandestine spectator at Vreeland. I scanned the row of novice jockeys to find Gabriel in third wheel position. Gabriel's coach, Mr. Kersey, held Gabriel's velocipede steady as Gabriel mounted it. The velo was not up to par with those ridden by the competition, and this disadvantage might cost him. Papan's financial situation had been on a downhill decline for many years — largely on account of his reckless gambling habit — and Maman had not yet found the funds to replace Gabriel's old model.
The top four jockeys in Gabriel's race would advance to the next round of trials. In a field of six riders, the odds were in Gabriel's favor. Even so, two jockeys would be eliminated. I interlaced my fingers in my lap and squeezed. Please, don't let Gabriel lose. The Escot family had pinned our financial hopes on Gabriel's success. To be a velo jockey was the only respectable profession a riesen man — who should not have to stoop to doing paid labor — could seek. In the stratified world of Serenian society, the Arena, the great forum for the velocipede races, was surprisingly egalitarian. Riesen men competed with commoners and even foreigners. The only criterion by which a velocipede jockey was judged was his record of wins, and winning earned money — money we desperately needed.
Gabriel had been working towards this dream for ten years, ever since that first red velocipede. He had put in endless hours of practice: calisthenics, riding a trainer indoors in winter, riding outdoors with Mr. Kersey when the weather was fine. I knew the muscle-burning pain of those training sessions. I had joined Gabriel nearly every morning, performing exercises in the secrecy of his bedroom: push-ups, handstands, squats, curls, stretches. We exercised diligently, and after, when Gabriel rode outside where I could not follow, I used the stationary trainer and a skipping rope in his room to build up the fitness of my heart and breath.
I kept hoping someday I would find a way to ride outside. Though I lived for my secret indoor sessions, they were paltry consolation prizes compared to the pleasure of a true ride.
A cheer erupted in the stands as the jockeys strapped on their helmets and pulled down their goggles. The six competitors dropped into their handlebars and put their heads down. The noise abated as everyone in the stands leaned forward to watch.
Bang! The starting shot fired. The jockeys surged forwards, forming a line as they descended to the bottom edge of the raked track.
I held my breath. The thrill of a keir-race never got old: the speed as the pack sprinted off the starting line, the anticipation as they spun through the park's battered old track. Watching a race made me want to sing and scream at once. My legs ached to pedal; my hands clutched my borrowed trousers like handlebars. God, I needed to race.
I'd raced in my dreams for years, perched atop a velo, the other cyclists packed around me so close I could count their breaths. I loved every second of that recurring dream, even the near crashes. Watching Gabriel's race only intensified my longing. But women, riesen or otherwise, did not jockey, not ever.
As the bell rang for the final lap, the jockeys sped up en masse, darting and swerving as they battled for the four top positions. The pack barreled around the final curve in such a tight formation I thought surely someone would fall, but like a flock of birds or a school of fish, they moved in fluid choreography, flying into the final straightaway.
The spectators shrieked and yelled and whistled. I burst up from my seat, biting my cheek as Gabriel pedaled furiously, head down, pushing beyond his neighbor and moving into second place.
And just like that, it was over. Gabriel had crossed the finish line second! My heart hammered against my ribs. He'd done it!
I dropped onto the bleacher and exhaled. Below, Papan cheered wildly as his friends smacked him on the back to congratulate him on his son's success.
I heard their conversation as I snuck down past them, my cap brim shading my face: "Your boy, Escot — he gave a good show!"
"He's got the right build for riding — slender, supple, and strong. He'd better work on developing his thighs, though."
"He seems a bit small for an Arena jockey, Escot. Better feed him up if he's to make it to the Arena. He needs to bulk up."
Papan's reply only twisted my heart with further envy. "Gabriel's got real potential. With a little more training, he'll come out right. Never fear, we'll make a proper velo man of him."
Papan had never seen potential of any kind in me. I had never been a proper daughter. I'd resisted the training of my governess and secretly defied the narrow rules that governed the life of a riesen, upper-class, woman. How I hated it all: the corsets, the mincing steps, the placid composure I was expected to display at all times. The boredom! God, the boredom: needlepoint, corsetry, flower arrangements, the art of conversation, the bruncheons. Feminine amusements had never interested me, and I could not bury my resentments. Maman and Papan both thought me a sullen, recalcitrant girl.
I could never be a perfect daughter, and Gabriel could never quite live up to Papan's expectations of him as a man. He and I were opposites in so many ways. I was edgy; Gabriel was calm. Gabriel deliberated every choice, even what flavor ice to order, for ages; I made my decisions in a flash and never looked back. He was cautious; I was impulsive. Gabriel accepted his lot in life as fate ordained; I railed against my place in the world. I thought God very cruel to house my more masculine impulses in female flesh, to give me the longing to race, but deny me the requisite anatomy to do it.
My legs trembled as I hurried away from the track. I needed to get home before Maman checked on me.
I got caught behind some spectators from the practice track, riesen swaddies with superfine coats and tall top hats. I couldn't dart around them so I had to slow down.
Then I saw what held them up. A familiar-looking woman with a folding card table spread with pamphlets: the notorious Lavinia Beau who campaigned for Serenian women's suffrage as well as other unpopular causes. She wore a simple white blouse, a long but serviceable skirt, and no corset.
"Damned radical!" hissed one of the swaddies, brushing her pamphlets into the dirt as he passed her table.
"Don't you need a permit for a booth in Vreeland?" another said. "We'll send the park managers after you. They won't approve of this." He picked up a pamphlet and glanced at it scornfully. "What drivel!" He ripped the paper in half and crumpled it in his fist. "Get back home where you belong, woman."
The last swaddy only spit at Lavinia Beau's feet before the pack of them moved on. She sighed heavily, sidestepped the spittle, and began to retrieve her papers.
I bent to help her, eyeing the inflammatory titles. Rational Dress. Suffrage for All. What Does Equality Mean for Women?
"Thank you." She smiled up at me. "Perhaps you'd like to keep those?" She nodded at the pamphlets I held. "Though it appears you've got your own version of rational dress all figured out."
I blinked, horrified that she had recognized me as a woman. "Uh, thank you," I muttered, stuffing the papers in my pocket. She'd tried to give me pamphlets at other times when I'd come to the park to walk with Gabriel, but he always steered me away from her, as though if I got too close her radical notions might taint me.
"Wait a moment," she called as I hurried away. "Miss, miss! You seem like someone who could help our cause —"
I broke into a run, fearing someone would hear her.
* * *
Gabriel had been all smiles for the two days following his successful qualifying race. On Mercenday he came running upstairs after his morning ride with Mr. Kersey and found me making the beds and sweeping, my usual chores now that Maman had let the last housemaid go. Maman never let me do chores that required hard work: "You already have such indelicate proportions, Emmeline. Your arms are too muscular and we mustn't let them grow any further." She also would not allow me to wash dishes or do laundry: "A lady's hands reveal all her secrets, so you must keep yours pristine and soft. What will people think if they see yours red and peeling?"
Gabriel stood before me, grinning. "C'mon, Emmy, let's go over to Vreeland," he exclaimed with uncharacteristic animation.
I dropped the sheets on the bed. "Vreeland? Now?"
He beamed and pushed his pale blond hair, so similar to my own, from his forehead. He still wore his cycling leathers, and old sweat made his hair stick straight up. He dug into one of his pockets and pulled out a coin. I leapt across the room to examine this rare prize. Gabriel and I never had any pocket money. "A guinea! Gabriel, how did you get a guinea?"
"I won my bet with Horace Barre," he said. "He said I would not qualify past the first race."
A little voice inside my head told me I ought to make Gabriel give the coin to Maman. We needed money so badly; every small bit mattered. A good daughter would place her family's needs above her own desires, would scold Gabriel for placing bets at all. After Papan's poor example, how could he? But a devilish idea struck me. "Oh, Gabriel, can we rent velos at the park?"
The rental slugs at Vreeland were the only place a respectable female could ride a velo — properly, in a dress, accompanied by a man.
Gabriel deliberated, staring at his coin as if the answer to my question might be written there. He bit his lip and turned the coin over and over again in his hand. "Fine," he said finally. "But you cannot tell Maman. You know how upset she would be to know we spent good money on something like this."
I didn't even grace that with an answer. Gabriel knew I would never tell.
The opportunity to ride even the slow rental slugs at Vreeland Park thrilled me — I'd been dying to try to balance on a real two-wheeler for years. Gabriel and I scurried toward the park with contagious glee, running through the gates in a very undignified fashion. I laughed with anticipation, even though my heavy dress made me fall behind. But when Gabriel had paid his coin for our rentals and pushed out the velo he meant for me to ride, I was disappointed. It had four wheels.
"Get me a two-wheeler, Gabriel," I cried, turning away from the monstrous slug he had selected.
"But women don't ride those." Gabriel pushed the quad velo at me. "This is the type that lets you ride with a your long skirt and petticoats." He gave me a warning look to silence the objections he saw lurking on my face.
I relented, fearing that Gabriel would curb our outing entirely if I persisted. The quad velo was so heavy that no matter how hard I pedaled, it moved only at a crawl. I scowled. I craved breathless speed, not this plodding amble.
Gabriel had rented a two-wheeled design for himself, of course, and he zipped around in circles, sweeping right and left on the wide path ahead of me.
"Do you like it?" he called over his shoulder. He meant the question sincerely, and I had to bite back the bitter words that wanted to escape my mouth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Velocipede Races"
Copyright © 2015 Emily June Street.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
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