Growing up, I was afraid of my body. My mother, who I have never seen break a sweat in my life, taught me that I was fragile and sickly, that the more I used my body, the weaker I would become and that the only safe place to live was inside my brain. As a result, I was late to or avoided many of the hallmarks of childhood: swimming, sports, I didn’t learn to drive until I was 24. Even masturbation was so puzzling that my sister had to sit me down at our kitchen table and draw me a diagram of the vulva. She violently circled the clitoris. “Rub this, Amy. Just don’t tell me about it.”
Nothing, however, scared me more than biking. When I was 13 my dad pushed me around the parking lot of the high school for a few months until I worked up enough confidence to go on the bike path. For about seven glorious minutes I remained upright and independently moving forward. Then it came time to brake. It was cold, so I’d put my hands in the sleeves of my coat, and the only thing I had to do was take them out of my coat to reach the brakes. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. There was only one tree on the bike trail and I rode directly into it. I remember this moment so clearly, not because I fell and ripped my pants or because some five-year-old, who already knew how to ride a two wheeler, laughed at me. I remember this moment because I let fear and embarrassment stop me from getting on a bike again for 10 years.
This past spring I took a two week trip to New Orleans. When I got to the house I was Airbnb-ing at I realized in quick succession that New Orleans is huge, cabs are expensive, and catching a bus is about as likely as catching an emu. The woman I was staying with offered me her bike. It was a big, turquoise cruiser, with mardi gras beads hanging from the frame. I sat on it for a while, my feet on the ground, not moving, thinking about the various ways I could die. I’d taught myself to bike again on the rural back roads of Western Massachusetts, but then I’d stopped once I’d moved to New York because cities seemed too overwhelming. I forced myself to move the pedals forward. When I got to the end of the street, I reached for the handlebars to brake.
There were no brakes. I started to panic again, of course I would be on the only bike that magically didn’t have brakes. I briefly considered the tree method, but something inside me kicked in, something that was not a voice, something that didn’t even come from my head, an impulse I had started to cultivate in my adult life by running, and dancing, and throwing a football, and orgasming, and it made me wait. It made me understand that if I just waited, the bike would eventually slow down and stop. And it did. I hopped off and walked it back to the house, and I had the very strong urge to put it back under the porch and never look at it again, but again, something in my body marched me up the steps and into the living room where the woman of the house was petting her cat. “I’m not sure your bike has brakes?” I said.
She laughed. “You have to push backwards on the pedals, you know, like you did when you were learning to ride a bike as a little kid.”
Biking in New Orleans completely upended my sense of moving through time and space. I was so used to having to wait and consider and check in, and look at Google maps, and grind my teeth as a subway car apologized for the delay and suddenly, after a lifetime of sitting, I was practically flying. And it was my legs, my body that was propelling me forward, not a motor or conductor, there was no metal pod, no walls between myself and the hot air and the music and smell of grilled meat. It’s absurd, but the freedom of it was almost Easy Rideresque. I began to plot out days that would purposely take me from one end of the city to the other, just to fuck with myself. I wanted a shrimp po’ boy in the French Quarter, but I was three miles away looking at Trent Reznor’s mansion in the Garden District. No problem. Twenty minutes later I was face deep in some po’ boy. And as I rode I watched red-faced tourists waiting for the trolley on Magazine Street and marveled at the fact that I wasn’t one of them. Eventually, I stopped planning my days at all. I wandered from one neighborhood to another, stopping in bookstores or museums or a place called The Country Club where you can drink beer in a pool naked. Getting lost just meant discovering a shape or taste or story that gave me pleasure. I even began doing speed trials, leaving the house ten minutes before a play would start or before I’d made restaurant reservations just so I could show myself how fast I could go, to get the feeling of sweat plastering my back, pearling at my temples, my thighs aching and my heart beating in my chest, just to feel alive. When I got overwhelmed because the city was too loud, or too new, or too crowded, I could take that energy onto my bike and connect to the strength of my body rather than the churning anxiety of my head.
Biking also gave me a particular perspective on the external world. I was staying on the border of Treme and Esplanade Ridge. Treme is a big rectangle of blocks that is beginning to gentrify but is still about 75% black, and there are whole sections of the neighborhood that are in ruins nearly a decade after Katrina. I rode down unpaved streets past a police station with a tree growing out of its front window, and the empty frame of a house with “Home is a fleeting feeling I’m trying to find” written in duct tape across the door. And then I crossed North Broad Street, and I saw Esplanade Avenue unfolding before me, a straight away of popsicle colored mansions with wrap-around porches, Greek pillars, and lion statues. Esplanade Ridge is, aside from the Garden District, the wealthiest neighborhood in New Orleans and was one of the first places to be completely restored by the government after Katrina. It is also nearly 100% white and the only people of color I saw there worked at counters or checked coats.
These spatial delineations are real. They take the effort and planning of thousands of people and dollars to make happen. And yet, the boundaries between these two neighborhoods are only 20 feet wide and on my bike, I crossed them in seconds.
It is not surprising that most of the houses in Esplanade Ridge were also equipped with wrought iron fences and security cameras trained on the street. I thought about my own fear, and how confined and angry it had made me feel. How I’d felt endangered to a point of death by the very thing that actually freed me.
On my last night, I stopped in Louis Armstrong Park and watched the sun edge down over the horizon, listening to the soft, sucking sound of the couple making out on the bridge near me. I biked home in the dark, another first. When I got home, I called my mom and told her about my day. She paused, “Have you been drinking? How did you get home, tonight?” I wanted to tell her the truth; how in the dark, the flames from the kerosene lamps seemed to follow me as I passed by them, so that I felt like I was actually pulling light with me as I moved; how the night carries it’s own smell—a settled, earthy wetness that reminded me that despite all the houses and concrete, New Orleans was once a swamp; I wanted to tell her how quiet my mind was. But it was an experience that I couldn’t give to her in words. It was something she would have to feel in her body to understand. I hope she does, someday. “I took a cab,” I said.