Takeoff

i learned to ride a bike the way we all do:

you, running beside me, one hand on my back, 

other hand with mine, gripping the handles. all I had to do 

was pedal, and keep my eyes on where i was going,

my legs generating momentum, and i would start to fly 

or whatever the equivalent of flying in a forward grounded motion 

would be called and this was everything i wanted 

and your hands would lift, and i would wobble, panic, tilt — 

 

your hands, never more than inches away, would return.

you let go but never let me go 

even when the time for holding handles had passed,

your eyes tethered to my back 

even as i took my first exhilarating flight 

to the lamppost around the bend, and back.

 

two years later, i smashed my face into the road.

i’d set out on my own to join a neighborhood race, 

trying (always trying) to be one of the guys, 

chasing after that brash gaggle of suburb boys

who were everything i wanted to be — 

i fell behind, lost control, wheels against the turned-up asphalt 

across the street from our neighbor’s house,

tumbled over the handles, landed on my teeth.

 

i remember the heat and the blood, the piercing grit

of summer tar, gravel in my lip, tears stinging

the scrape that was my lower face.

the mom who lived next door rushed me inside, 

wrapped ice in a paper towel, soothed all at once

the pain and the shock and the shame.

 

weeks later we took a trip to boston and i 

stared at myself in a rest area mirror, upper lip

still swollen like the bill of a cartoon duck

that i’d try to pull back in and wince at the pain of it.

the world, i just knew, was looking at me funny, 

a small failure wearing humiliation like a halloween mask.

you never know how long these things take to heal.

 

i didn’t hold it against you: you

who taught me to ride alone, empowered me

to soar and to stumble.

but sometimes, when i think of your hands letting go,

of all the maps you drew without keys,

of all your stories with morals crafted like lampposts 

meant to anchor my wobbling trajectory,

when i think of my reflection in that grimy upstate restroom

and newer, invisible wounds that have yet to fade —

i remind myself that the ones who let go of the handles

are still learning to pedal themselves.

 

i have learned to smile at the scars in the mirror.

forgiveness has taught me to share these with a world

that winces at its appearance, too. i believe that one day, 

without the fear of blood on the asphalt, 

our eyes set beyond the bend in the road,

you and i will know what it means to fly.