In 2017, when I was 10, my parents separated. I was close to my mother, who dressed me up and took me to her friends’ homes where I listened to their conversations in Spanish. My father and I weren’t close. But my siblings and I were forced to move in with my father because he was more financially stable.
One day, my father came home a little earlier than usual and asked my older sister to help him carry something up the stairs. He called me over in a tone that did not match his usual angry or disappointed demeanor. This time he was somewhat excited; he seemed almost proud of himself.
Despite the blue paint chipping off, the used bike he had brought home had its own charm. Someone else may have decided that it was worthless, but the wheels were in good condition, the brakes worked as long as you pressed hard enough, and it didn’t look like it would break after one ride. To me, it was perfect.
I was never an active kid growing up, mostly hanging out alone in my bedroom on my old laptop, but I accepted the gift with gratitude and couldn’t wait to ride on it like the kids from The Goonies. The only thing preventing me was that I didn’t know how to ride a bike.
A New Hobby
My father taught me how to ride, how to keep my balance by holding on to the handlebars, and so on. Once I started to pedal and gained enough speed, I let my feet go, releasing the tension built up in my legs. The wheels navigated the streets by themselves and there was only one thing left to enjoy.
I savored the blurred views ahead. The tree leaves transformed into little blobs colored with different shades of green and the branches lost their detailed, carved texture. I’d go so fast that my worries about my family got lost along the way. For the first time in a while, I was thriving.
I couldn’t wait until school was over and I was finally free to spend all my hours outside. My routine went like this: wake up, eat whatever I could make breakfast out of our practically empty fridge, and wait for my dad to return from another tiring day of standing over a hot stove that had a permanent odor of burnt bacon. Ironically, he never smelled like the classic, American breakfast, only cigarettes.
I’d wait for him by the door and then he’d take me biking over a bridge that overlooked Willow Lake in Flushing. There was a slight rancid smell of worms from neighboring fishermen, but that paled in comparison to the romantic scenes created by the sparkling water and bushes full of red, overripe berries poking through a criss-cross style fence. I had never seen anything so beautiful before.
Along the lake, ducks orchestrated a song by quacking simultaneously. Everything felt fictitious, like I was in some movie, acting in sets built by the greatest architects who made sure I passed by flowers of every color of the rainbow. I am not an expert on the various species, but I could easily recognize the lavender tulips that bloomed toward the sun and welcomed the bees who were as big as a dollar coin.
Part of me was jealous of them: they bathed in the sunlight without the fear of being judged. Once we reached the lake, my father and I retreated to a hidden spot surrounded by lofty trees and dead grasses so nobody could see him drink. When people did see him intoxicated, sometimes they stared or scolded him. I left him under the shade while I skipped along the rocks and hoped I wouldn’t draw any attention.
I’m a Child, Not a Therapist
As we spent more time together by the lake, my father began opening up to me, but sometimes his words made me uncomfortable.
One moment he’d point out the clouds floating in the almost-fake-looking blue sky, telling me to look up and imagine how free it must feel to fly, and the next he’d go on a tangent about how he wanted to end his life.
The first time he talked about his suicidal thoughts, I panicked. I didn’t know how an 11-year-old girl could help. I felt selfish for seeing biking as a therapeutic activity for me while he was opening up about how lonely he felt. I hid my tears as we rode back yet it was overwhelming to hear his thoughts.
After a few of these confessions, I promised myself I’d try to be someone who could bring him joy, not despair. I did whatever he told me to do when we were outside: listen, follow, laugh. I didn’t want to be a burden to him. I didn’t want him to feel like his life was completely hopeless. I felt we were getting closer.
Facing a Harsh Truth
I thought of our time as a gift to both of us—an escape from school for me, and for my father, an escape from work, or life in general. I tried not to focus so much on his rants since they caused me indescribable pain.
One day that summer, after a ride, I went into my bedroom and saw my oldest sister sitting on the edge of her bed. My father had been in the room before, talking to her while I was changing.
“How was it?” my sister asked as I sat beside her.
I am unsure of how we got to the topic, but I will always recall the way my sister told me the following: “You know he only bought you that bike so you wouldn’t be with mom.”
His plan was to give me this bike and place emotional distance between me and my mom while she was also away from me physically. It was true. Once I started biking with him, I rarely saw her.
My mother and I always shared a striking resemblance to each other. When he looked at me, did he see her? I felt like all my effort to be his perfect daughter had failed. No matter what I did, would I always look like the person he hated the most?
My sister noticed my sadness and immediately started to defend herself. “What? I’m not lying, that’s what he said. That’s what he told me when you were gone. You really didn’t know?”
The answer was obvious. Of course I didn’t know. I thought he wanted to spend time with me; I thought he trusted me enough to share his feelings. Yet he couldn’t even tell me his reasons, only his problems. Over the next few months I slowly stopped spending time with him, realizing that our relationship was just like before—we weren’t close and he didn’t really want to get closer.
Although I understood that although my father’s reason for giving me the bicycle was hurtful, I still loved biking. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized that my dad will never change. My tears and prayers have amounted to nothing. I have accepted that he is as toxic as the alcohol he drinks.
My dad doesn’t even remember why or when he bought me the bicycle. All he says is that our biking trips started “a long time ago.” He doesn’t remember telling my sister his reason behind giving me the bike, even though his words have brought me so much hurt. Knowing that he would forever be oblivious to the damage he did, I began focusing on myself. I told him that I didn’t want to go biking with him anymore, that he would never be as attentive to my thoughts as I was with his. For a while he tried to get me to go on rides with him but I resisted and we’ve seemingly drifted our separate ways.
My relationship with my father is not amazing right now, but I believe that I can continue to enjoy biking. Recently, I made new friends who shared my interest in biking and want to make pleasant memories after living with the restrictions of the pandemic.
I invited them to go to the same spot that I went to with my father. It’s special, and in order to reclaim that spot, I wanted to show it to the people who have taught me to seek out joy: my friends. As the red berries stuck to the bridge began to change with the seasons, so did the people I enjoyed the view with.