Get a grip. I say that a lot now to my son when he’s outside of himself, caught up in a storm of emotion, as happens with five-year-olds. When he gets like this, I look him in the eye and remind him to breathe and it centers him and the winds stop blowing. Sometimes though I like to let him cry, to let go of the handles and fly, to get tossed and turned. Does that sound cruel? I don’t think so. I think it only sounds right.

I remember the first time I heard that expression. Get a grip.

I was six, maybe seven. BMX track, riding with friends. They’re all older than me. They’re performing tricks, showing off. They tell me to get a grip, a good strong grip on the handlebars, and pedal fast like I’m being chased. Then when I reach the top of the hill, they tell me, lift up with my whole body and I’ll soar for a brief moment.

I’m nervous, maybe a little scared.

My fingers clasp firmly around the handles, holding on for dear life as my legs churn in a revolution, carrying me up and over each dirt hill. I gather momentum. A bike and a grip. I hold on to the handlebars. I pedal. I wince with the pain in my legs, the burn of the turning. I want to fly. I am flying.

I jump a hill, turn my handlebars to the side, just like the BMX rider on the poster in my bedroom. I lift up. I feel like I’m floating — timeless and suspended. Just as quickly — too quickly — I’m down. The front wheel lands perpendicular to the bike’s frame, hard and violent. There was no time to turn the wheel back. I feel the force in my elbows and knees, which go slack like a kite without any wind to carry it. My feet leave the pedals and my hands leave the handles. I let go. My body is hurdled. I’m flying through the air, light as a balloon. My head’s cocked. Up in the sky I see a black bird high above me. I watch it soar and coast on the hot air pockets. I watch the bird fly for what feels like forever. Then I’m down. My chin skids across the dirt, my elbows and knees thump thump thump into the ground. I’m down. I’m bleeding. My friends rush over. I’m alright, I say, and I get up and brush the dirt off my pants and touch my chin. I feel the dark, sticky residue on my fingers. My chin stings a little, but I try to conceal it. My friends pat me on the back and disperse back to their bikes and we ride some more.

I remember two days later it was time for school pictures. My mom was mad. In the picture I’m wearing a chinstrap of dry blood and courage from the time I let go of the handlebars and tried to fly.

You ruined your pictures, I remember her saying.

I wonder if I still have the picture. I’m sure I do somewhere.

I think I’d like to show my boy the time his dad let go of the handles. I think he’d be proud. He’d probably ask me to do it again. But I think I’d rather learn to watch him let go and come back down again on his own, cuts and all.


One response to “Handles.

  1. BMX bike riding injury seems to be a rite of passage for young American boys. I remember my own “big” spill, rolling down the gravel hill in front of Mrs. Miller’s house. I’m looking at the two scars from that day on my thumb right now, reflecting on the message in your writing and how those scars, although entirely too painful at the time, elicit fond memories of a now too-distant youth.

    Your writing makes me look back on my own experiences with a lot more wonder and almost wish I could fly again, for a moment.

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