In the summer of 1999, I learned to ride a bike out of sheer stubbornness.
I had expressed no real interest in two-wheeling at six, the collectively determined age at which children may attempt it. But the next year my family visited our former church in Minnesota and I saw Keena Slagter zip down the driveway sans training wheels. Keena, who was in kindergarten. I refused to be outdone by a child. I resolved to learn immediately.
It took a little longer than that, of course. My parents obtained a bicycle: red frame, red tassels, long banana seat with a metal handle by which my dad held me upright on our wobbling laps of the cul-de-sac. I don’t remember how many days we spent making those rounds. I just remember one overcast afternoon when my father looked me in the eyes and swore that he would hold tight to the seat. I acknowledged his pledge with a curt nod. I turned around and began peddling, feeling the bike steady under me when it tilted too far. I passed one driveway, then two. Things were going swimmingly. I could feel the wind teasing my pigtails. I was positively gliding. Then I glanced backward, realized my dad was no longer behind me, and promptly fell off the bike.
My dad loped over and disentangled me from the bicycle. “You promised,” I wailed. “You promised and you let go!” I had tipped over in front of everyone—a small cohort on a cul-de-sac in a Minnesota town of seven hundred, but still. I had scraped my knee, too. My dad had failed me, my bike had failed me, I had failed. It was all over now.
I was, eventually, persuaded to get back on the banana seat. Probably not that afternoon—my pride would not have allowed it. But that same pride motivated the whole project, so I rode laps around the cul-de-sac until I could show up the kindergarteners down the street. I moved on to a purple two-wheeler a few summers later, and another red bike after that. Every summer, I fell. Every year I’d scrape my knees and elbows, cut my shins or land thumb-first in the gravel. Every year, at least once, I’d remember the twist in my guts as the bike lurched beneath me.
But I also remember the brief moment before I looked back, with the wind in my pigtails, when I thought it was impossible to fall.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.