HEARTBRAKE by Joelle Renstrom

April 17, 2012

It all happened in slow motion: walking toward my house in the zoom and whiz of rush hour, squinting against the sun, groceries in hand. I approach my front door, digging for my keys, and I see my helmet on the ground, upturned like a flipped turtle. My Kryptonite lock dangles from the wooden porch railing. Uncomprehending, my eyes move back and forth, helmet to lock to helmet to lock.

No.

No.

No.

I’ve been a bike commuter since 2003, when I was living in New York City. Impulsively, I bought a bike for $25 off of Craig’s List; after years of walking around the city, I wanted to move faster, stir up my own breeze. The gears didn’t shift and the seat was stuck in a low position, making it look and feel like I was riding a kindergartner’s bike, but I was hooked. Since then, I go almost nowhere without a bike—I even rent bikes in foreign countries when I travel. Being a biker has opened up the world in ways I couldn’t previously have imagined.

For the last five years, I’d been riding a Raleigh hybrid. Back then, it did the trick with its thick tires that gamely crunch through glass and don’t slip on sand or ice. I brought it to Boston in 2008 and had been commuting on it 60-90 minutes a day. Before I knew what else was out there, I thought it was perfectly fine, if a little hefty.

The Raleigh’s sturdiness became an impediment on longer rides. After about 30 miles, I’d move in slow motion, feeling as though I was trying to push the pedals through drying cement. For a long time, it didn’t work in some gears; I’d have to leave it in third all the time, so I’d have to stand and grind and push up hills.

Once, I did a biking leg of a triathlon on the Raleigh. I got eaten alive, lapped by racers crouched onto their aerobars, nestled into their bikes like jockeys. I gritted my teeth and kept going—that’s the motto of the Raleigh.

I’d been fantasizing about getting a roadbike for years; even after numerous upgrades and tweaks, I’d simply outgrown the Raleigh. But every spring, when I’d seriously consider buying a new bike, I’d think, either I can buy the bike or take a trip this summer and every year, the trip would win out.

Until this spring.

My boyfriend, having spent a year watching me wrestle with the Raleigh and having to stop during our rides together to tend to its various idiosyncrasies, and having listened to me speak lustily about a new bike, bought me a generous gift certificate to a local bike shop. A huge push toward something I’ve wanted for years is among the best gifts I’ve ever gotten, and something I’d appreciate daily—a gift of access to the city, the coast, and, in many ways, myself.

I ended up getting an Interurban Torker roadbike, and customized it for my gritty, long commute. It cost more than I ever thought I’d spend on a bike; without the gift certificate, I would have bought something exactly half as sweet.

The simple sight of it awed me. Dark blue, shiny, majestic. Sleek and slim, half the heft of the Raleigh. After I got it home, I spent some time admiring it, thinking, “can you believe my luck?!” It’s that sense of disbelief you get when dating someone you think is perhaps too attractive for you.

I adjusted the toe clips and seat and rigged it up with the waterbottle holder, lights, new pannier bags, skull reflector stickers.

Then there was nothing to do but ride.

I think I held my breath—it didn’t feel like I was touching the ground. My first ride was to the Tavern at the End of the World at the edge of town. I got there in seven minutes, and thought about canceling on my friend so I could keep riding. On the way home, I might have flown; I just remember gliding and grinning and suddenly being at my front door.

That night, I carried the Raleigh down to the basement. I felt guilty, like I was retiring a lover who’d stuck by me for years. I imagined a Velveteen Rabbit scenario in which the Raleigh, downcast and lonely, wondered why I didn’t think it was real anymore. I felt somewhat superficial for having fallen so hard for my shiny new toy.

The next day I rode the Minute Man, a path from Cambridge through Arlington and Lexington, to Bedford. Counting the ride there, it’s exactly thirty miles. On the Torker, I went door to door, in traffic, in just over 90 minutes. The frame coaxed my body into an elegant and powerful geometry. Sitting higher up on the seat gave me increased torque and speed. I leaned forward and raced through some sections of the path; I’d never gone so fast on two wheels. I had no idea biking could be like this. By the time I reached Bedford, I was completely and utterly in love.

Where had this bike been all my life?

I broke land speed records all the time. I was faster than pumas.

For two months, my Torker and I were deliriously happy. The time it took me to commute to work decreased by about 20%, and many days, I didn’t even break a sweat getting there. I chose hilly routes so I could ride upward with unparalleled ease, as though the Torker had a deal with gravity. I smirked as I passed other bikers, cars, buses. Now a hotshot, I weaved in and out of traffic with dexterity and confidence, and, I admit, perhaps a dangerous dose of bravado. I was a superhero on that bike.

Of course, I was careful about securing it; I used a Kryptonite lock and made sure I wasn’t leaving the quick-release front wheel vulnerable. I live on a safe, friendly, and busy through-street in Somerville, and I kept the bike on the front porch right by the window of the people who live on the ground floor. Simply put, I had become secure in our relationship; I believed it was for real, and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

And then, during rush hour, in the amount of time it took me to go to the store and buy some beer, it was gone.

The most logical explanation is that someone had been scoping my bike (and who could blame them, really?), gotten the right tool ahead of time, waited until I left the house, and then cut the lock and taken it with such efficiency that no one noticed. The thief also took my bike bags and all the books, tools, and gear inside.

I imagine this as a kidnapping, rough and inhumane. Ridiculously, I imagine my bike resisting in some subtle way, having to be wrestled away. I imagine my bike in some dark dungeon somewhere, scared and alone, wondering why I haven’t rescued it.

I reported the theft to the police and have been scouring Craig’s List and Ebay. I doubt that whoever has my bike would be so stupid, especially given the professional theft job, but you never know.

My last ride on the Torker was to the Somerville Traffic and Parking Department, to buy new visitor parking passes. What a mundane last ride; at the very least, I wish we’d done something special.

The next morning I trudged downstairs, depressed and defeated. The Raleigh was there, steadfast as always. I lugged it up the stairs and saddled up, feeling like I’d just returned to an ex after my new lover split town. I had nothing else, nothing better, and had that awful feeling that maybe I never would again.

Just a couple months ago, this bike was my partner. Now I feel somewhat pathetic riding it. Humbled, shamed, low to the ground. Its imperfections and limitations, at one point simple a fact of life, are now reminders of how good things used to be.

As I ride to work, I’m not watching traffic or lights—I’m scanning every pole, tree, and fencepost for the Torker. Its shape and color are not so unusual, so I find myself squinting at brakes, handlebars, bike racks, looking for the idiosyncrasies I had grown to love, the way we adore a lover’s scars and quirks. The ends of the handlebars had popped off and the tape was coming unwrapped; the skull reflectors were already peeling. After work I ride around Somerville, ducking down every side street, suspiciously eyeing all the bikes on porches and in yards, fighting the urge to call for my bike, as though it could respond and signal for help.

I’m now in the phase of the grieving process in which I blame myself. Sure, that Kryptonite lock kept my bike (and often the bikes of friends that I locked with mine) safe for over five years. It’s true that I live in a nice residential neighborhood with just enough traffic for there to be eyes all the time. Yes, one’s front porch should be a safe place, and was, for my bike and others. Still, I should have known. If I was so won over by my bike, I should’ve realized how attractive it would be to others, especially in this economy. I could have, and should have, locked it three times over, let it live in my bedroom, kept it safe.

Strangely, amid the guilt, regret, and heartbreak, there’s barely any anger except that which I feel toward myself. Sure, I’d love to get my hands on the thief, but I’m not fueled by rage. I’m simply sad in that quiet and mournful way that indicates resignation. I’m trying to make peace with the premature end of our relationship.

I’m grateful for the Raleigh, my old faithful. It still gets me where I need to go. While heavy and slow, it’s reliable and true. The Raleigh will never break my heart.

Still, I can’t stop comparing the two, or thinking about how sublime life was with the Torker. In the quiet before sleep, I issue thought-prayers to the god of the wheel, calling out silently for my lover to come home.

Joelle Renstrom lives in Boston where she teaches writing and literature at Boston University and Northeastern University. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Carousel, the Sycamore Review, Briarpatch, Guernica and others; a chapbook of her poetry was published by the University of Arkansas Press. She is a recipient of the CBC Television Jim Burt Prize in Creative Writing, the Hopwood Award for Poetry, the Virginia Voss Writing Award, the Wesleyan Writers Conference Scholarship, and a 2012 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship Grant.

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37 Responses to HEARTBRAKE by Joelle Renstrom

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