“Sick bike, man.” This was a much younger fellow, parking his red Honda next to me earlier today. Because I am forty-five years old my first thought was to listen carefully to the big Kawasaki’s idle, to figure out what I’d missed, to uncover the audible diagnosis that my fellow rider’s stethoscope had picked up as sick. But he meant sick bike, that’s all. Sick means good.
His bike was very healthy. An NC700X, the sensible adventure-ish bike with an engine made by cutting the Honda Fit’s inline-four neatly in half. It has a trunk where the fuel tank should be. Same bike my ex-wife’s husband rode until he moved up to a red 2014 Interceptor in October. I like the reasonable utility of it. When I was this fellow’s age, I rode a Ninja 600R. But that was back when you could buy a fast used sportbike for under two grand and actually insure the thing before turning twenty-five.
Society has cucked these twentysomething men, and I’m not just talking about the process by which they have to get written consent in triplicate and enter a Facebook-official relationship just so they can use the requisite dental dam to go down on some pink-dyed-hair 250-pound Women’s Studies major with garbage tattoos and a pitbull attitude. Even if they could afford a real sportbike, they couldn’t insure it. The same is true for ponycars and hot hatches and whatnot. We Gen-Xers like to bitch about the kids but we forget that we were the last generation to be permitted any sort of entry into adult jobs, responsibilities, identities. And that’s why the guy who buys a Ninja or a Mustang GT now in 2016 isn’t the same kind of person who bought one in 1996 — he’s the same fucking guy, actually. Yet we still resent the Boomers, and rightly so, for being the last generation to have access to wealth, retirement, respectable society, and blameless drunk driving.
Oh well. Sucks to be him. At least the kid has a motorcycle. I can only imagine what kind of grief his parents give him. You ride a 47-horsepower twin-cylinder bike with a trunk and Mom thinks you’ve joined the Sons of Anarchy. So his NX700X is a much bigger statement of rebellion than my Ninja ever was. All of this went into my decision to give him a slow nod and a corresponding, “Dig that NC, man.” Good for him.
At lunchtime I fired up the ZX-14R again and headed a few miles out to an old-school restaurant on the West Side of Columbus, It’s been open seventy years, but it’s about to close. The area surrounding it has gone from respectable to problematic to outright murderous. The local prosecutors and some of the cops eat here, which meant that I felt safe parking my bike about three hundred feet from the project-housing stoop where five of the local vibrant youth were idly chittering, with the innocent menace of crows plucking at a crippled animal’s eye, about what they’d do if they could get their hands on the Kawasaki. But that doesn’t mean that people want to come here at night, and it doesn’t mean they’ll drive by twenty brand-new downtown restaurants to do it.
There was a mixup. I was supposed to have lunch with an old friend and client. I’d been his daughter’s BMX team manager and coach in 1991, when she was five years old and I was twenty. She now has a husband and two children. I’d arrived a little early so as not to miss my friend, but he’d been even earlier. And they’d seated him elsewhere. So for about half an hour, we both ate our appetizers and cursed the other one’s tardiness. Eventually he looked at his phone and came up front to finish the meal with me.
Before that happened, though, I saw a young woman holding a child bounce up to me and say, “Jack!” Without my prescription sunglasses, I’d taken her for my friend’s daughter, the former BMX racer who ended up being on the US Olympic team as an alternate. But it was not her, as I realized when I stood up and drew close enough for the two of us to awkwardly side-hug in a baby-respecting way. It was… well, let’s call her Eileen.
I met Eileen six years ago. She was the sister of a close friend I’d made working at Honda. She was beautiful, blonde with big eyes and a slim but slightly hippy figure, perfect skin, vibrating with a sort of barely concealed excitement all the time. I think I loved her the moment I saw her. Sometimes, as Margot Timmins sang, you meet someone and your guts just burn. I think she kind of dug me too. A professional music teacher who performed in a remarkably popular country cover band, she was not quite thirty, never married, dabbling her way through a series of men that predictably alternated between wealthy and handsome.
I wanted to ask her out and/or give her some sort of engagement ring, preferably before the close of the evening in which we met. Unfortunately for me, however, there was a minor impediment to all of this. I thought of her little brother as my little brother, too. Dating Eileen would mean that I’d lose my friend. Not right away, mind you; she and her brother lived together, they were thick as thieves, I could have been an easy third wheel. But at some point it would have come to an close and I’d have lost them both.
So I did nothing, or almost nothing. She became close friends with my girlfriend at the time. And then, around the time that I was moving said girlfriend out of my house, she married her childhood sweetheart, returning to the Capistrano of her hometown love after thirteen years in the wilderness. Shortly afterwards, she became pregnant.
I don’t know whether I was relieved or depressed to find that she was still beautiful after pregnancy, although she’d taken her hair to a mousy shade of brown and the scandalously deep decolletage of her typical dresses had been replaced by something that was almost motherly. We talked for a moment, inquiring after friends and children, a sort of verbal white noise so we could just stand in each others’ company. I asked about her brother; thanks to a series of unfortunate circumstances, I hadn’t seen him in a year. She said he was fine, safe, half the country away.
At that moment I realized that I had lost them both anyway, that my dogged and deliberate self-sacrifice had been for nothing at all. I felt that vertiginous advent of despair, the sick feeling that you have when you make a mistake halfway through a long BMX jump and you know that you’ll be landing on your knees or hands or face.
“We should get together,” Eileen lied.
“Absolutely. Immediately,” I pretended. Then we touched hands and she walked off.
Half an hour later, I started the bike and headed back to work. I’d wanted to savor that dark-chocolate sorrow of seeing Eileen, of having lost her. But it’s so hard to stay unhappy on this big-hearted Clydesdale Pegasus, this machine that warps time and space. I pondered the facts of the matter; I could never have loved that flighty, narcissistic girl the way I love Danger Girl. We had very little in common. She wanted a child; I only want to parent my son and be grateful for him.
This was the best of all possible worlds, each of us with the right person, having what we wanted. With a twinge of annoyance, I realized that I hadn’t managed to stay unhappy for even ten minutes. You’ll laugh but as a writer you need sorrow, you really do, you sow the field of your imagination with discontent then reap the whirlwind. A lane opened up ahead of me and I twisted the Kawasaki’s front wheel off the ground between Marconi and Front Streets, an oh-so-brief expression of mechanical defiance and joy. Touched back down. Back to the salt mines. How would I appear to my friend on the Honda NC700X, the earnest young man, if he could see the workings of my heart, the things that animate me, the worm-worn pathways of despair and triumph and longing and satisfaction? Me and my Ninja, roaring past the downtown bystanders, shift to third and blur the world, not sick, but also not well.