OPPONENT: Bicycles. Falling off them. And the darkness around the fragile edges of who we are.
True story (well, a poor memory’s remembering of one):
There’s this kid who was a son of a bitch. Now, not the usual puberty infected- make fun of the nerd style prodding of social divisions that determine the edges of acceptable behavior, and sketch the outline of who we can get away with being- kind of a jerk. But a dragging a cat behind his truck with a chain, shotgunning a cow’s knees to see it fall, lighting buildings where people slept on ﬁre kind of real life motherfucker. Someone who, if destined for greatness, would mean tragedy for countless others.
But somewhere in his teens, lo and behold, a miracle. No burning bushes, but an absolute sea change of demeanor. Where was asshole became benevolence. Where once the ﬁrst touch was knuckled anger, became a warm charitable embrace. Found a God and community. Found a job worthy of spending a life doing. Would pile the entirety of existence atop his own concerns.
So, now-amazing man meets an amazing woman. Beautiful, smart, equally invested in things other than herself. And together, the two are just great. Just the kind of coupling we like royalty to seem. The kind of thing that makes you understand mostly bullshit words like “synergy”, and what someone was looking at when they had to make up a word to describe it in the ﬁrst place. Kind of like cactus. Or turkey.
So fast forward a decade. Happy successful married couple, busy with the pulsing vein of life. Then the man starts having headaches. The kind that shut you down for the day. Goes to the doctors, doctors scan his brain. Find a massive tumor. Benign. They think it best to operate, and do so immediately, with great success.
When the man wakes, of course the wife is right there. The man greets consciousness with a particularly sour mood. Wife passes it off to post surgery normalcy. But next day the same prickly personality. Which stretches into next week, month, and so.
Not long after, the now perpetually cranky wanker re-discovers his youthful taste for the blood of others. Things go down fast from there. Divorce follows. As does prison.
And the woman, the amazing woman, is broken maybe for good. And the only inheritance from her life of love, was the fact that it’s focus was not a man but a tumor.
There are two things that I remember for certain: it was a shitty day at work, and I had a birthday party to go to. I was at a university in Chicago’s downtown miracle mile, and it was one of those days when words like “academic community” felt as believable as “unicorn” or “cool ascot” or “unconditional love”. I wanted to go home and curl my corpse into a tight ﬁst to bounce off the debris that invades the paths of all our involuntary orbits.
And I had a birthday party to attend. Now, I can do a party. But when my mood is low and I have pre-ordained plans where I have to be around others – well, ﬂoat a beautifully folded paper swan down a serene moonlit modest river, and then drop a car on it.
So this was my world when I unchained my bicycle and began the eight mile trek up the path that skirts the magniﬁcent sea Lake Michigan.
(Which, by the way, is one of the last homes for true chaos. If you want to shout at creation and dare its ire, don’t trek to some distant arctic climb, or drop into some Amazonian white water bends, or sink to the dark blue bluest abyss where our world’s largest denizens dine. Bike the Chicago lake shore path at rush hour in summer. The tourist herds and their erratic photograph pose herk and jerk. The off-off Broadway, all-spandex, Livestrong-banded, ballsack-swaying Aerodynamicas that can’t do any speed but the pedal to the ﬂoor to try to escape their jobs and lives and wives. The beautiful parade of jugglers, beach volley-ballers, beautiful bad runners, beautiful beautiful runners. The test pilots for discontinued midnight infomercial machines. Or the white tiger, the most dangerous and unpredictable force in the archives of all things: rollerbladers. Fucking rollerbladers.)
Somewhere in that carnival, I and my bike crashed. I hit my head. Hard. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know who or what was involved. I remember very little of the next day.
What I do remember, I remember in just off melodies. Melodies on an occasional wind.
I think someone tried to help me immediately after I crashed. I (almost) remember a very earnest, insistent, and kindhearted effort to get me to the hospital. I remember saying the words “I know you are trying to help me, and I appreciate that, but fuck off now.” (I would like to put my apology to that person on record here. Thank you, and sorry for being a dick, and not in the good way.)
I have a (vague) picture in my brain of staring at an incredibly vast and impossibly vibrant city street. Knowing I knew that street. But for the life of me not knowing which city that street was in.
I (sort of) remember explaining many important things to many people. I don’t remember any faces.
I remember needing to remember my bike. I remember needing to walk, to not stop. To go forth into whatever the hell that blur was up ahead. That underwater haze.
I remember standing like the living dead on corners. I remember sitting in my ofﬁce with my good friend next to me. I remember asking questions and not remembering the answers.
I remember hospital curtains. I remember people complaining of bullet wounds and receiving unexpecting prostate exams on the other side of hospital curtains.
I remember my lily white lady companion walking with worn spring knees back and forth, like an old carnival mechanical duck target. Because the nurse missed the vein the ﬁrst couple times with the I.V. and dear lord that lily white lady hates blood. And needles. And the combination of the two. Especially when the end result is a sudden stream that paints a single stroke across the ﬂoor. (She probably got queasy reading that sentence.)
I remember the feeling of falling back into the form of me. And how conﬁned a space it seemed.
The Ofﬁcial version (pieced together later):
At approximately 5 p.m. on a Chicago weekday the suspect, a white male, mid-thirties, of questionable ﬁtness, met with an unexpected event. The suspect was then missing for a period of four hours, before being discovered standing on the street corner by the building where he enjoyed employment. The subject was discovered in a state of confusion, unable to recognize those he shared the past few years of his life with.
The subject was then taken by a lily white companion to a local hospital emergency room. He immediately approached the ER RN and informed her that he had gotten into a bike accident. The subject prided himself on being a take charge kind of guy in emergency situations. The RN responded by asking what happened and what his injuries were. He responded with a dramatic pause and an earnest “I don’t know”. The RN responded by wanting to kick the subject out of said emergency room until the aforementioned lily white companion mentioned the words head injury, and the subject was strapped down, swept off, and treated to a ceiling scene of whirling ﬂuorescence. And the belly of blinking burping machines.
Subject was stationed in a curtained section of the emergency care ward. The individuals on the other side of the curtains were dealing with a gunshot wound, and stab wounds- from a broken bottle ﬁght (yes, those exist). The man with the bottle wounds was going to have his prostate examined, but was too drunk to understand the explanatory warning from the physicians. (Imagine that guy’s day – stabbed by a buddy with a bottle, ruining a perfectly good evening, and then boom- some stranger’s ﬁnger up your butt.)
The subject did not know what year it was. The subject’s brain continued to swell in its conﬁned brain case. His consciousness shrank to smaller and smaller intervals, plateauing at around thirty seconds. At the reset of each loop of memory, the subject would greet waking to the world with the exact same reactions. Every thirty seconds would go like this.
1. Question: What happened. (Subject would be informed that he crashed his bike.)
2. Question/Statement: How bad is it, it’s bad isn’t it. That seems bad. Dramatic TV doctor slow shake of the head.
3. Urgent Question: Where’s my bike. (More like, WHERE’S MY BIKE.) Informed of its safety. Relief.
4. Sly look, noticing my billowing ass-less hospital gown, and then: Penis joke.
5. Restart consciousness.
(Here’s the thing- upon “waking up”, not only was my thought process exactly the same, but the delivery of those thoughts were exactly the same. The same facial expressions. The same tenor of concern for my bike. The same grim acceptance to the delivery of bad news. The exact same sly look- not only as I delivered a penis joke, but also as I thought of it.
Or let me put it this way, when my brain was repeatedly presented with the same set of data, it responded by sending electricity down the exact same sequence of neural synapses. It chose the exact same path, every time. We are who we are.
And all that is ﬁne, except that by the second hour of this looped existence, my lily white companion was laughing hysterically at my joke. Not because it was good, but because as she anticipated it, and watched me go through the mechanism of its genesis, she couldn’t help but let the laughter spill out early. And I thought I was killing it. Every damn time.
There’s nothing worse than not being in on a joke.)
Subject was held for the night and released the following morning.
I hum merrily merrily life is but a dream at least two times a week. I lost little super hero tricks like knowing the exact last word I left off on in a book, even years later. Or being able to place faces instantly. Knowing all the movies an actor was in.
I’ve lost little not so super tricks like remembering my phone number. And trusting my version of events. And hoping to someday not have dementia.
I also got a glimpse at the core of me, and this is what I learned: At heart, I am a soap opera doctor. I dearly dearly dearly love my bicycle. And I, apparently, will turn to the great face of oblivion and immediately tell a dick joke. I honestly don’t know how to feel about that.