Shifting Gears

Nonfiction by | August 3, 2008

My father believed that life could flourish even when surrounded by cold concrete sidewalks, black asphalt roads and rows upon rows of silent houses sitting on stiff, detached cobbled stone shoulders. Such was Manduriao, Iloilo, my first home. The noiseless streets never drove me away. It only meant that there was more space for laughter and interesting chatter. It meant more space for my dreams, dreams that were expanding and multiplying. It meant more time seeing what else I could when everything seemed so familiar.

After two years, my family moved to La Paz and there I encountered what true greenery was like. Friends shot up all around us like wild grass but they were true and sincere people. I made many friends, enjoyed many annual festivals, and basked in the warm and pleasurably enduring sun. I was a healthy young girl who loved the spacious local park and frequented houses that were never without the wonderful aroma of boiling sinigang and arroz caldo. The night sky was always clear and bright with an assembly of stars to watch every night.

It was indeed my little paradise.

With my trusty bicycle, I would pedal long and hard around the neighborhood believing nobody could catch me. Even if it only was to buy a bottle of soft drinks two blocks away, I would mount my metal steed and zoom off to the store. There was an exhilarating sense of freedom that came with every turn. Each spurt of speed sent me flying down the steep hills of our subdivision. Two kilometers wasn’t far. I didn’t care about the summer heat. What mattered was that I had enough air in both tires and that the bicycle chain ran smoothly.

That bicycle was an eighth birthday gift from my father. The body was spray-painted orange and white. Similarly colored tassels shot from the tips of each grip. The letters BMX shone on the top tube. A white basket hung from the front.

“It’s time you had your own bike,” my father chuckled, “as you’re getting too heavy for me to lug around.”

I was more than happy. The top tube of my father’s mountain bike wasn’t exactly a comfortable seat. I would have my own space and my own set of wheels to turn.

Oh! But what a stubborn friend my bicycle turned out to be! It took me three long weeks to learn to ride, and this newfound friend was none too keen to cooperate. During those times, I became familiar with the pain of a cut and bruised knee. Tears, shouts, and furious kicks, my patience frayed moment by moment.

“Give it one more try. You’ll get the hang of it soon, Pudding.”

My father was the only person patient enough to see me through this ordeal. He caught me when I fell. He held on to my hands when they started shaking on the handles. This man was my gentle giant. I believed in his strength, a strength that was always by my side.

I let my father lead me. La Paz Park became my race track. With him, I unlocked many tricks of the chain while swerving in and out of traffic. After an exhausting battle with gravity, I parted ways with the training wheels. Soon, I would be seen outracing my father on our late afternoons together. I was always in the lead.

My bicycle introduced me to the joy of a sweat-drenched shirt and a flushed face. It gave me something to brag about at dinnertime.

About that time, my father started coming home late, reeking of alcohol, cigarettes in his shirt pocket, and wounds that needed stitching. Street bums made him the butt of grisly jokes. They stole his money, came at him with broken beer bottles, and beat him half unconscious. He would stagger home alone. He told me this himself between the mouthfuls of mashed potato that I fed him. The salt and pepper mixed with my tear as I saw him collapse before my eyes. The happy glint in his eyes had faded. His voice was no longer sweet and slow but bitter and heavy. So much had been taken from him. But this wasn’t what hurt the most. It was the fact that I could not mend a broken heart that had given all and yet been denied so much. A bicycle could only go so far in making me forget the pain of my doleful father.

Four years—that was how long the civil case between my parents and my mother’s distant relative took. She had borrowed a ridiculous sum of money from my father and had promised to pay it back, but she never did. She paid off the judge, spread rumors about our family, and sent thugs to beat up my father. She even threatened to have me removed from the school I was attending.

My father never gave up—his spirit would be something he would give freely when the right time came, but it would be his choice when and where to lay it down. It made me realize how truly proud I was of him. I never questioned my father’s late night strolls again. I saw his battle scars in a new light. I learned to love those wounds because they told me that my father had not given up. He trusted himself enough to go on fighting for who and what he was.

But then again, he still reminded me that, like any other person, he still needed protection. He trusted me enough to take care of his wounds and his now fragile spirit. A bicycle’s wheels still go on turning despite the muddy, rocky road it encounters. It finds courage in every puddle it gets past. I believed it to be the only way with our family.

And yet the wheels—my father’s, my mother’s and even my own had started spinning away from each other. We had begun moving in different speeds and different directions. At home, shouting matches would leave me sleepless for nights. Fights would leave our best plates broken. After numerous trips to the hospital at dawn, my mother had had enough. My father moved out of our house to a flat along the bay on the other side of town in Villa. My mother and I lived with a good friend of hers in La Paz. Violence wasn’t something my mother wanted me to grow up with. But even with my family apart that time, I never felt that it truly was as I always visited my father after school.

It was unnerving that I didn’t have a bicycle with me anymore. It was around that time that I turned my bicycle over to a younger playmate at my father’s request. Then, my father’s mountain bike was also stolen. Walking seemed so monotonous compared to the fleeting flying sensation I experienced with two feet seemingly off the ground.

A short time later, broke and utterly exhausted from a court case that made winning the most useless word possible, my father flew back to Ireland. The news of his death came by phone from my Aunt Philomena, who was filled with anxiety to have seen her youngest brother die at the age of fifty-two, just a day before my birthday. No bicycle ride could take me to him now. It felt like I had turned left when I should have turned right. Tears could not bring him back. He had outraced me somehow..and it was a bitter loss for me at fourteen and a twisted victory for him at his age. Just when I thought all of our races were down and over, I had been sorely wrong all that time.

My father and I had always gone to the market together on weekends. Now, at eighteen, I go without him. I ride a bicycle that isn’t mine. I pedal myself further down the road.

Amidst a basket of mangoes, fish and vegetables, I rest my foot on one of the pedals, the way my father used to when we finished biking for the day. It was then, after four years of shutting him out, that his voice resounded in my ears.

“Give it one more try. You’ll get the hang of it soon, Pudding.”

I’ll try once more, Papa. I’ll start pedaling where my bicycle tracks have left off. With or without my bicycle, I’m still moving forward. My own two feet will suffice. Two feet that will tell me to take my time and stop to take in what I’ve been passing up for so long. These feet won’t fly off with a mind that dearly wishes to forget. I promise, I won’t let it.

And I swear that I’ll meet up with you at the finish line someday, though not too soon.

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