Context: one long July ride. I pointed myself at Canada, by way of Detroit, by way of Gary, Indiana. I chose these places for very important reasons: because they are the sort of places I love. Because they are places that others do not. And because I was deep in a desire to disappear.
Somewhere along the ribbon of the ride, where minutes and hours sink away and the sunshine is heavy-handed overheard, I find that I have long ago sunk into the road all around me and into my own thoughts. There is a piece of machinery beneath me and, beneath that, the fabric of the asphalt underfoot. And this is where I find my thinking.
Moments exist in their granularity.
Once a year, we spread blankets out on grass and we sit in places we otherwise never would - golf courses, baseball outfields, medians of major throughways, curbs of neighborhood streets – to watch chemical reactions light the sky. We eat food from grills and scorch the ridges of our noses in the sun, and we arrange alternating berries - blueberry; strawberry; blueredblue – along the whipped cream topping of an angel food dessert, and we later pick them out again while eating.
Days like these are built around the traditions we uphold – many of them unknowingly, many of them informal. It is the details that really make them different than any other day; the small bits that make it special – and sometimes we establish these things without knowing that we have, returning to them time and time again because doing so always extracts the meaning that we seek.
This apple pie that only Nana makes; this patterned shirt, red white and blue. The texture of this grass, where we sit and busy ourselves with the task of unbuttoning and re-buttoning this single button as we listen to but do not look at the others talking all around and up above us.
The weight of details is not just true for holidays, though. They also define the plane of the everyday; they give meaning to most all of our moments. This is where memories are made. This is how stories are born.
Other things – dreams and ideas and aspirations and thoughts – exist above all of this; they exist as a fabric draped over the details. And you can go exist up there, too; crawl up into the canopy and sprawl out across it. You are permitted. (In fact, you can take a whole weekend otherwise meant for the minutiae and instead hide away up there, above it all, grazing your fingertips along the seams and staring off into a broad, white sky.)
It’s all a balance.
Riding is a sort of middle ground, between the details and the drape. It is not, as a whole, entirely something you can your hands along; not everything about it is concrete. But it also exists beneath the canopy rather than as a part of the canopy itself; it has a groundedness; a weight. We might assume a lightness and drift above some things, but we must also cling to some part of it – a fingertip wrapped around a wire, at the very least. (And to be fair… sometimes, with riding, it can seem like a fingertip around a wire is all you have.)
There are very real things – the feel of the throttle wrapped up in your right hand; the single live wire running somewhere inside your right forearm and the cloth twisting more and more tightly across your lower back.
It starts raining and the tops of your knees grow wet and that is real.
Red lights rush at you, shove you from some place, and that is very real too.
What seems less real is the ground rushing beneath you. That is just a textile. Because while you sense you could touch it – that it is easily within grasp – there are things that make it and the whole riding thing okay; somehow psychologically feasible. Part of that is putting that possibility – of touching the pavement – out of mind and knowing that you won’t. But part of it is also believing that if you did press yourself against it, the textile, a flowing thing, would yield and give way to your touch.
Moments, they exist in details. And the details of desire exist in the negotiation of having and not having.
The sun starts to settle back, easing lower in the sky. The light expands to amber and the air begins to cool and I find that that coolness is settling into me too. So I do what I do when I get cold on the bike, which is inch myself forward on the seat so I am up against the tank, crowding it, and then press the inside of my thighs against the top of the engine block.
It is a balance of pressing and pulling back; a quiet rhythm; a looped choreography of pulling heat off of his body and pulling my own away.
We are on back roads. We’re on back roads because I wanted back roads, and now, here, is a part of the trip where I do not know where we are but it doesn’t really matter; the route demands a turn out of me every mile or so and it’s late in the day and each time I stop, pulling the bike onto graveled shoulders and my gloves from my hands to check Maps, I can feel the day slowly sinking away around me.
And it’s okay. Do not ask too much here. And do not lose patience. This is what I want.
It’s nearly twilight, the air rich amber, the sky saturated and sultry, when I find myself a suitable stopping point: i.e., one with the promise of beer. I park the bike and find myself at a table, looking up at a waitress and putting to words precisely what else I want: that I want a beer. And that any beer will do. And the waitress – a rider herself, telling me this after seeing my helmet – recommends a pilsner and I tell her yeah, that’ll do just fine.
And I drink the beer and then order another and sit back and stare off and think about the fact that, when it comes to this shortlist of things that I want right now, these things – the beer and the bike and the light – are definitely some of them.
But I also think about the fact that they are only most but not actually all of them.
There are moments marked by having everything you want. If you’re fair to yourself and honest about your happiness, there are many times when you look around and know: yeah, this is everything right now. This does it for me. I want nothing else in this moment. And you can gorge yourself on having the things that you want; can indulge wildly in the fact that you have them.
And then there are other moments when you know you are going without – when something key is missing.
There are times when you cannot have the things that you most want; when what you want is not – either never was or is no longer – accessible. And there are times when you sit with this realization heavy in your lap, with your hands, palms down, resting on top of it. And sometimes you sit like this for some time, deliberating because it is not clear what you should do.
There are some things that simply cease to be. They were once a thing and now are not a thing. Or they are different things. This happens to all things, really – this is what life is. It is being homesick when you cannot go home. It is mourning the expiration of childhood innocence, if you do, as some do. It is making do without Nana’s apple pie after she was lost to the world this spring. It is sitting with the memories of moments alone.
There are other things, however, that never existed to begin with. There is no gravel here; no pain in the lower back. Here, it is built by the limitations only of what we believe. It is the ground rushing beneath, with even the visual itself a fabrication. And much like the ground rushing, rushing just out of touch beneath us, so close and yet so very far away from our plane, we protect and delight ourselves by pretending that we could touch it if we wanted; that if we did, it would not – could not – hurt us.
And sometimes, to be fair, whether or not the thing ever really existed to begin with is something that does not really matter. Sometimes the “going without” here can feel the same, and our negotiation and our compromise can feel similar.
Sometimes we look for substitutes; sometimes we even find one. But then there are other times when we know, almost without trying, that alternatives just won’t do – when we want to honor our desire and resist the temptation to cheapen it with distractions. But then we are caught – snagged in a place between wanting what is not and not wanting what really is. And sometimes we withdraw from the substitutes and disappear from the details – because if we can’t have the right thing, then sometimes we want nothing at all. If we’re good, we can make peace with that temporary disappearance place; we can wait patiently for things in our lives to further unfold; for new things of want to come at us. As they always and invariably do.
Fireflies rise up from the grass around me; exist in flickers and then are gone. I finish the beer, watch as the lines of froth sink down into the bottom of the glass.
I am done with this moment and making my way back to the bike. And now, in this transition to a different moment, approaching that machine, I look up at it and realize that there is nothing more that I want here - in this precise moment, even if no more than a millisecond – than to get back on and ride again.
And that is a thing that I do have.