The moment I thought I might die. That’s my favorite memory of cycle touring Ireland’s County Sligo. Nope, I never choose the blue sky days with the perfect sunset because, well, because of the dark genetic stew that is me: a mix of Spanish Jew and Inquisition Catholic. Death is ALWAYS around the corner, ready to tap you on the shoulder. Any of us are just one lipstick swipe away from being shoved off this mountain. Because actions have consequences, people! And there’s no such thing as a free ride, not even on a bicycle.
It was a Wednesday. Hump day. Which means we were well into saddle sore and shoulder crunch; waking up to gray rain after glorious days of warm sun and cold beers didn’t help either. Half our group stayed in the support van and waved us off, clutching bars of chocolate and hot coffee. Bastards. The guide cranked up techno music at the start to get our legs pumping and lift our spirits even though my socks were already soaked and the fleece hat under my helmet was snugged tight.
A poor night’s sleep and bone-cold damp mixed with straight up hill climbing brought on leg cramps like I’ve never suffered. Ever. I groaned, and pushed and pulled and used my glutes like a nut cracker, but the cramping would not stop. Finally, the guide pulled up next to me and wiggled a warm can of Coke. “Two sips is all you need, lad. The caffeine to blow up them blood vessels and the sugar to drive you.” I demurred in my prissy hey-I-was-once-a-vegetarian sort of way. I never drink soda and I’m kind of a snob about that. Bourbon, yes. Gin, always. But never soda. I tried to wave him off, but he was doing his job and getting in my face. Still, only halfway up the hill, the cramps wrapped around both quads and grabbed my hamstrings. Finally, I snatched the damn can to make him go away, took a huge swig, handed it back and BOOYA, power restored. Mother board rebooted. Coke is now in my emergency kit. It’s the perfect bitch slap.
The peloton spread out quickly, especially as we got higher and higher into the back country, where the rolling hills and sharp curves leave you riding alone for long, long stretches. At the top, we gathered to rest, pee behind bushes, and listen to our guide tell us yet another murderous Irish tale of love and heartbreak. Already, this country feels like home. Because I so understand tragedy, rooted in hope. It’s in my DNA, my love of sad endings not tidied up, and an unflinching belief in second chances.
After more Coke, chocolate and water back, the three men pushed off, pretending they’re not competing to see who gets to the bottom of the mountain first. I watch The Ranger’s back disappear, taking a ridiculous amount of pride in his perfect ass, while at the same time cursing him for not waiting. I look back at the journalist, and as much as I like her, I throw her a look that says, “You’re on your own, kiddo. Eat my dust, or in this case, mud.” And she throws me a look that says, “You laugh now, but it will be ME who comes upon your broken body at which point I will ride Miss Daisy-like right past you, ho-humming in my perfect Australia meets London accent.” And we’re off.
Almost immediately, gravity takes over and I pick up speed. The road narrows. Barely wide enough to fit a car. Potholes overflow with rainwater and are, therefore, invisible. The pavement is chunky and full of gravel. My smooth, narrow tires bounce off rocks, suck mud, swerve around lumps of grass. I pick up more speed. I hover off the seat to save my hoohaw so it can live to fight another day. And to lessen the bang, bang, bang up my spine. For months, I have trained for this, both on the bike and in the weight room. I have skills. But none of that means anything now. And that stupid chant, “you got this,” the thing you say to yourself when you’re full of doubt…it’s not helping. In fact, it’s annoying. Gripping the handlebars, I imagine that’s what the school teacher said right before the Challenger exploded.
Like always, the “what ifs” begin. What if I meet a car coming up the mountain and I don’t have time (or room) to swerve? What if a car catches me from behind, scoops me up and throws me into the blackberry bushes? Or worse, a tree? What if I hit a pothole and break my face and end up in the emergency room (didn’t one of the guides just say he’s tired of watching clients end up in the emergency room!) and suffer a concussion and chipped teeth, which will mean an end to my career, because who wants a trainer with memory loss and no front teeth and my husband will leave me because my health care bills will wipe us out and the broken teeth will limit my kissing abilities and make me lisp while I stagger to remember myself, much less who he is, still with a fine butt, and yet I will eventually succumb to drooling and furious blinking with an ass for brains. I was terrified. And yet…I picked up more speed. It’s raining hard now. I can barely see out of my glasses. My hands are numb. Is that chest pain? Am I having a heart attack?
One of my first memories of terror: I was small, so small my dad seemed gigantic. He pulled up his pant leg to reveal a burn scar on his shin, wide and brown and mottled; it looked like a furry forest creature with a huge white eyeball in the middle, where the skin was so thin you think it might be bone popping out. A staring eyeball. Staring at me with a warning. “This is what happens when you play with matches,” my dad said. “You’re not going to play with matches are you?” I shook my head, unable to speak. When he was small and his own dad was a giant, he did not, in fact, play with matches. The wood burning stove exploded, torching the house, killing his brother and mortally wounding my father. But I didn’t hear the truth of that story until much later, when the fear was already ripe. At that moment of smallness, eye to eye with the white eyeball, all I understood was that playing with matches can put a monster on your body. It’s why my father never wore shorts, even at the beach. Why he limped later in life. It’s why when he was dying of cancer, that leg became a weeping, festering open ulcer. It was his weak spot. One I inherited. Bad things happen when you are not careful. When you are not vigilante. There are consequences.
I always consider all the consequences. It’s why I’m good at my job. It’s why my emotional bags are always packed and my passport up to date. It’s why I never take my coat off at parties. It’s why I never tell the whole truth, even to the people I love. It’s why I’m very, very careful. Yet now, I’m in Ireland, holding my breath, careening down a mountain, on a rented bike with questionable brakes and even more questionable tires. I’m full of questions. All of them beginning with why? Why? WHY?
Call it divine intervention. Call it years of yoga training. Call it my father coming back from the grave to put in his two cents. But after I passed the moment when squeezing the soaking wet brakes was an option, when the only move left was to nimbly navigate past the quick blurr of obstacles, a moment really, of no return, I surrendered. Took a breath and loosened the grip on my handlebars. I might die on this mountain. But not like my father. Or my brother who died in his sleep. Or my friend, Carlos, who died at the hands of a serial killer. Or my teacher who shot himself in the heart. I would die doing something I absolutely love. With people I love. In a gorgeous country that is not my own, but is of my choosing. Wearing a really cute outfit. Going very, very fast. Without caution. Or questions. Or regrets.
At the bottom, The Ranger waited, his chest heaving. “Shitballs, man, that was scary,” he exclaimed. “All those blind corners. Anything could have happened!” Then we laughed. Knocked helmets. High-fived.
It was a good day. Without consequence.