By Casey O’Malley
My bike commute was born as a prayer. A rattley, squeaky prayer, punctuated with potholes, angry cab drivers, and flat tires. One that sang through the frame of a twenty-year-old mountain bike transplanted to the city. A prayer that took unexpected left turns to avoid the traffic sneaking up Fifth Avenue, one that surprised with a bold swoop through the traffic circle. It was an invocation to escape from the mechanized, scheduled world and to soar, unfettered, on the noisy streets. It was prayer to get out, without actually leaving. It worked.
I went to church as a child because my mom went to church as a child. That’s what Sundays were for – church services followed by bad pastries and small talk in the big meeting room upstairs. I would laugh at the funny names of elderly people on the list of sick and infirm for whom we were supposed to pray (Ethel? Vera? Myrtle?). But, I had never really prayed. Especially not in church. I just stifled eight-year-old giggles with my sisters, kneeling and playing hangman and doodling offensive caricatures, as the comforting drone of other people’s Our father, who art in heaven languished above our frizzy heads.
The closest I got to prayer was furrowing my brow and closing my eyes and thinking thinking thinking about something, repeating its name until I was sure that my thoughts would make something happen. Puppy puppy puppy. Shut up shut up SHUT UP. Kiss me kiss me kiss me.
My attendance at church dwindled until it was consumed by lifeguard shifts, babysitting jobs, and high-school hangovers. I remember one of the last times I went to a youth group meeting, our leaders asked us what a prayer was – really. They asked us how we would explain prayer to someone who didn’t speak English, or didn’t know what religion was.
“It’s a message.”
“A request to someone.”
“Something you let go and you hope that someone finds it who knows what to do with it.”
I like that last one best.
I hadn’t always hated the city. I don’t know how it happened, but I know it happened slowly, as gradually as plate tectonics, and then one day I realized that I far from where I used to be. Four years after arriving, I was ready to leave.
It was the subways that really got to me. Gum stuck on newspaper dispensers, turnstiles, floors and walls, as if measles had struck the skeleton of the city. Lunch-box-sized rats slinking through the swampy garbage slurry that covered the tracks of the subways, their low-slung bellies swimming from side to side in the squelching muck. The three-dimensional wall of flesh that consumed you as you entered the car, swallowed up by other people’s bodies and backpacks and somehow you absorbed their stress as well.
Most of all, I hated that I was becoming like them. That I rolled my eyes when a tired-looking young mother tried to wrangle a stroller onto an obviously full subway car. That I stared at my phone pretending to text someone when an earnest man with a limp and an upturned cap walked by me at the bus stop. I would prefer to stare blankly at yet another ad for Dr. Zizmor than make eye contact with a stranger on the subway. I would see my neighbor, the one who lived in the apartment below me and who I always bumped into at the mailboxes, waiting for the subway on the platform; neither of us would acknowledge the other, not with a smile a nod or even sustained eye contact.
Underground, I was at my worst. Everyone was. Descending the subway steps made me cruel and judgmental. It transformed the people next to me into things I had to put with for a few more stops. I threw elbows. I mumbled under my breath and sighed exasperatedly as I power-walked by people climbing the steps out of a subway station too slowly. I rolled my eyes at tourists and people taking up too much space.
You get angry when you ride the subway everyday. It is a prison, really, closing its mechanized doors on your foot, your backpack, your hand, without mercy. You are serving a sentence, and will be stuck there until your time is up. It might be three stops, might be seventeen.
So I took to the streets, two-wheeled and nimble, on the second incarnation of my mom’s old mountain bike (“It hurts my neck,” she had always said, letting it sit unused in the basement as I grew up). New tires. New lights. New freedom.
I could make it to campus in twelve and a half cherished minutes. My rides became my new religion, and I relished the way the wind snapped at my knobby, exposed ankles. I loved the quick maneuvers I learned to dodge potholes and scurrying rats.
I rode with my heavy chain lock slung around my hips, and I grew to love its weight around my waist. I cherished the way it clinked and clanked as I pedaled, sounding like the dainty tinkle of ice cubes in a cocktail. To me, this chain with its ¼-inch thick links was as graceful and seductive as a belly dancer’s sash.
I took late-night rides through Central Park, the rolling man-made topography pushing my bike down gentle hills and up inclines, my pedals pushing me along instead of vice versa. The nighttime silence of the park was cozy, wrapped up, insulated by the blanket of urban noise and flashing lights that surrounded the oasis. I would hoot shyly as I cruised under bridges, a restrained yawp of elation, a whispered “yahoo.” I was self-conscious in front of the audience that lurked somewhere in the dark, probably up in the armpits of these very bridges under which I raced. There was always an audience (I realized that quickly, after moving to the city, but understood it slowly). But on my bike, I could out-run the audience and the watchers. I could escape their watching. And I could almost flee my knowledge that someone was assessing, judging, and pretending to ignore me all the time.
This bike-prayer worked. I found it, and I knew what to do with it.
You learn more, travelling with the earth instead of under it. You learn the shortcuts. You learn the intensity of hills and the fear of icy speed on winter nights. You learn that the “don’t walk” hand flashes exactly ten times on all the stoplights north of 110th street. You learn that there is a poker game every Thursday night hosted on a card table that is nestled on the road’s shoulder between the parked cars near the intersection of 112th and St. Nick. You learn that there’s usually a man sleeping by the dumpster on Morningside and 110th and you learn to give him room–once he threw a bottle.
And then things broke. I say “things,” but I mean me. My twenty-year-old eyeball went on strike; a vein blocked and then exploded. I woke up one morning to a black screen, with only sliver of sight – a slice of my bedroom ceiling peeking through at the very top of my vision in my right eye. That was the first day.
My right eye’s vision came and went. Doctors injected different potions into my eye—some made my symptoms better, some did nothing, some made my symptoms worse. My days became defined by what usually happened: On Wednesdays, I normally got blood drawn. On Fridays, I got the results over the phone. On Mondays, I went to the ophthalmologist to get my eye pressure checked. No one knew what to do with me, a young woman in a patient waiting room of elderly people with tired eyes. A child, really, in a crowd of grandmas who walked with canes and walkers.
After appointments, most other patients hailed cabs. Occasionally, there were sleek Lincoln town cars, captained by dapper drivers who helped their elderly passengers stand up, holding frail elbows like too-hot tea cups. I biked. They stared at me – tried to stare, really, from their lemur-like dilated eyes.
You keep biking, because you don’t know what else to do.
I made it back to my childhood home for the holidays that year, with the doctors’ unconvincing assurance that a flight wouldn’t damage my blood vessels any more. Back home, I reverted to the childlike habits I thought I had grown out of – borrowing siblings’ clothing and sleeping until noon. I spent snail-like mornings flipping through every section of the local newspaper, relishing the smell of the paper and the realness of the news; years of Internet-only information left me craving an article I could hold.
One Sunday, my mom, ever dedicated to her Sunday church routine, left a church bulletin on the kitchen table, the unassuming beige paper that guides worshippers through which hymns to sing and when to sit and when to stand. It mingled with the Sunday ads of the paper, snuggling in between a deal offered in loud font promising YOUR MONEY BACK and sheet of coupons for a new type of yogurt. The bulletin was a speed bump as I scanned from “Local” to “Opinion,” and I got snagged on the sick and inform prayer list on the back—my name was on the top.
I would have expected a rush of gratitude, or at least a feeling of warmth that others were thinking about me and, yes, even praying for me. It didn’t come. Instead my palms went clammy and lips pursed together – “how dare they?” was my first thought. Other people’s prayers haunted me, the shadow of unknown people following me through my every move. I felt jumpy and spied-upon. I felt like someone had pasted my secrets on the Internet. I felt turned inside out.
That’s not how prayer should feel.
I stopped biking when the doctors still couldn’t find answers. It had been three months, and my right eye grew more uncooperative. Each week, my blood work returned: always negative, always normal, and the doctors paused longer as they scanned the results. They ordered more vials, more tests, more guesses. I stopped riding, mostly because I started falling asleep everywhere – the library and the lecture hall; the grocery store and the barstool.
“Hormones and stress,” the doctors finally settled on, as spring drew near, triumphant that they had solved me, their confusing young patient. “Be glad it only affected your eye, not your brain!”
Dutifully, I was glad. But I knew it wasn’t stress. I knew, directly and tangibly, that it was this city that had made me sick and nearly blind. I could feel my body’s thoroughfares congested like those of Manhattan, my blood thickening and clotting and stopping, just like Times Square traffic. I could sense this city infecting my blood and my character.
I sent my bike away piece by piece. I knew I would move away, soon, and I started my departure with a slow trickle of bike parts parceled out in cardboard boxes. First the wheels; then the frame. I kept my helmet for weeks longer than I needed to.
I was left with my feet and my shoes. My bike-prayer withered away and all that remained was the slow plod of my footsteps, because I still refused to enter the fleshy subway cars that repelled me. I stretched my days out like taffy, walking everywhere, and scheduling a two-hour buffer between commitments so I could stroll from the Upper East Side to Midtown.
You learn the most on foot. You see things; things you didn’t notice before from a bike and can’t see from the metallic subway. A shy mural of handprints, painted on the wall of a local school. The sound of someone learning how to play clarinet wafting out of a third story apartment window. A tiny bakery with a handful of beautiful, bird-shaped pastries on display. The smell of a community garden’s compost pile sneaks into your nose – the tiny sliver of real earth nursed by caring hands. You see a father teaching his hip-height son how to wash the windows of the family store. And suddenly, you’re crying, watching the dad gently readjust his son’s tiny fingers on the handle of the squeegee. Their chatter, joyful and rapid, halts your feet; the son’s bubbly laughter tightens your throat. You leave a handful of quickly-evaporating teardrops on the sidewalk, and watch them shake as a train rages underneath it all.
Casey O’Malley lives in Salt Lake City. She is a writer and a middle and high school English teacher.