Biking

A love story

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1.

This year I made a resolution to bike through the winter. Usually by January I’ve traded in my bike for public transportation and taxis, but I always feel biking’s absence from my life. It’s not just the exercise. In winter it’s too easy to spend your days shuffling tiredly between dark and dark. It’s too easy to hibernate, to let your life shrink down until you could live it on the tip of a pencil.

I bought my first bike — as an adult, I mean — at age 30, on something of a whim. I was in the midst of a protracted breakup, and I needed a little fun in my life. At first I only cruised around Philadelphia on weekends, or took slow rides on a path by the river, though soon enough I found myself biking to work. I found myself biking to run errands and to meet friends at bars and restaurants. Within a year I’d gotten rid of my car.

I always tell people I don’t believe in resolutions, but each year I find myself making a few anyway. I always tell people I don’t care about birthdays, but I recently turned 39, and it feels like a big one.

 

2.

My 30s, it occurs to me, have been my decade of biking. They’ve also been my decade of dating. You’re probably supposed to date in your 20s, but in my 20s I had girlfriends, women I met through work, or school, or friends of friends. Usually we knew each other a while first, so when we decided to be together we were just together: an all-or-nothing proposition. In between these relationships I tended to feel unmoored, and vaguely nervous I’d never meet anyone else, though on some level I must have recognized that this fear, like so many other fears, was absurd.

I’m not suggesting any particular biking-dating correlation. These are just the facts of my life, the way these facts have arranged themselves. In my 20s I drove a car and had a problem with serial monogamy, and in my 30s I’ve ridden a bike and gone on dates. Many, many dates. Mostly with women I met on the internet. First dates and second dates and third dates and sometimes, though far less often, fourth and fifth dates. After which, in my experience, you stop counting.

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3.

The most important piece of equipment for winter biking is a good pair of gloves. You’d be surprised how many lousy gloves exist in the world. Gloves that fail to break the wind, that leave you wondering if you’ll ever feel your fingertips again.

My daily commute is about a half-hour each way, which isn’t so bad, though it takes real motivation to get started. I can hear the wind whipping against my apartment’s windows. The sky is a patchwork of grays. It’s only a ten-minute walk to the subway: I could listen to music, read a book.

Though after a few minutes on my bike the blood starts to flow. Once I hit the traffic of Center City my adrenaline starts to flow, too. For the last couple miles, once I’ve cleared the convention center and Reading Terminal Market, the road widens and traffic thins and I can build up speed, pumping my legs, pushing myself. By the time I arrive at work I always feel refreshed, energized, though by the next morning I will have forgotten that feeling and once again it will require a concerted effort to remind myself. There’s a lesson in that, I’m sure — in both the forgetting and the remembering — though I suppose there’s a lesson in everything if what you’re looking for are lessons.

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4.

The first woman I met online, her old apartment is on my route to work, and I sometimes think of her when I bike past. I have mostly fond memories of the couple months we spent together. I remember that we sometimes shared a late-night cigarette on her fire escape. I remember the perpetually damp swimsuit that hung on the back of her bathroom door, and the New York Times “Modern Love” column pinned to her refrigerator. I remember that she saw an analyst — that was the word she used, the first time I’d heard it outside of Woody Allen movies — and they sometimes spent an entire session decoding her dreams, which sounded to me like a delightful indulgence.

On our second date, we were eating dinner when it started to snow, and it was still snowing maybe 30 minutes later when we kissed in front of City Hall. Later still, both of us back in our respective beds, we exchanged a series of emails, recapping the date, putting off sleep.

It snowed a lot that winter, and I hardly biked at all. I remember feeling anxious a lot. One Saturday we went to a matinee, and I spent the whole movie worrying over my stomach, which was tying itself into increasingly elaborate knots. I felt better once the movie was over and we were back outside, and better still after a couple drinks, though I had to fake my way through our discussion of the film, which had something to do with French schoolchildren. When I described the cinematography as “claustrophobic,” she gave me an odd look.

She’s married now, and lives in London. The internet makes it far too easy to learn these things. She still takes artsy photos and posts them to her Flickr feed. She looks happy, healthy. “You don’t have to apologize,” she said, at the end of things. “I could tell, even from the beginning, you weren’t totally over your ex.”

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5.

The key to uncluttering your mind isn’t stillness, but motion. This is why people take walks to clear their heads. It’s why people run. It’s not why I started biking, but it’s one of the main reasons I’ve continued.

Not that you can ever clear your head entirely. There are always stray song lyrics in there. Conversations with ex-girlfriends. In books about meditation you’re told to picture your mind as a conveyor belt: a thought appears, you consider it, and then you pull the lever to whisk it away. But my mind is more like a lazy Susan, the same thoughts circling past again and again. It’s like one of those dim sum places where the waiter keeps wheeling over the cart of Americanized Chinese food — General Tso’s, pork lo mein — when what you really want is whatever that table in the corner is having. Are those soup dumplings?

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6.

I tried, just now, to estimate how many first dates I’ve been on in my 30s, but I don’t even know where to start with that math. This isn’t bragging, believe me. One of the most important lessons of online dating is that it’s best to meet up with someone fairly quickly, rather than waste a bunch of time sending long-winded messages back and forth. There are too many things you can’t know until you’re sitting across from each other.

My friend Colleen says “first date” is the wrong term, actually, that instead we should call it “date zero.” You meet for coffee or a couple beers. You make small talk and try to keep it from feeling too much like a job interview. If you both clear each others’ hurdles, you make plans to get together for a real date.

Colleen and I had a pretty good date zero. This was seven or eight months ago. Then we had a really good first date, and a second, and a third and a fourth and a fifth. We went for drinks, and then dinner, and then more drinks. We went bowling. She laughed at my stupid jokes. We saw the movie Brooklyn, and we held hands for the last ten minutes. And then, rather suddenly, I felt the air go out of things. This happens sometimes. A feeling like something’s missing, like you’ve taken it as far as it’ll go.

It becomes a familiar checkpoint: a month, or six weeks, the amount of time it takes to start really getting to know a person, to see their habits and quirks and flaws, and for them to start noticing yours. It’s the real moment of decision, more so than when you sent an initial message, or responded to theirs, or when you asked them out on a second date, or when you kissed on a street corner or took each other to bed. Soon, you’ll need to have a talk about where things are going. You’ll need to delete your online profile, or at least temporarily disable it.

I could tell you all the reasons I didn’t see that happening with Colleen, and I could tell you the reasons I didn’t see it happening with several other women, and these reasons, taken in isolation, would sound reasonable enough. When it’s happened in the reverse, when someone has decided I’m not such a great match after all, that she’d rather keep looking, I’ve tended to think: fair enough.

But taken together, it’s hard not to start seeing some patterns. A reasonable person might scan the last decade of my dating history and ask: Well, what exactly are you looking for, anyway?

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7.

Reasonable people have asked, including an ex-girlfriend, a few weeks ago. We’d met for coffee in my neighborhood. She’d just come from a rock-climbing gym, and she kept apologizing about sweating. The subtext to her question was that I don’t know what I want. Or that I want something which doesn’t exist. I know she thinks I have unrealistic expectations for love. To her mind, a relationship is a logical undertaking, especially at our age. You decide what’s important to you, weigh the pros and cons, and then you commit to building a life together. She’s always been more pragmatic than I am, which I admire, though when we were together it sometimes drove me nuts.

We met online, several years ago. On our first date we drank expensive cocktails and ate tater tots, and at the end of the night she said, “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.” Later, I had to explain why that hadn’t filled me with hope for a second date.

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8.

Sorry, this was supposed to be about biking.

My first bike, at age 30, was a vintage three-speed cruiser with pedal brakes. It got stolen two years later, but I’d been looking to upgrade anyway to something faster. I bought an old Schwinn Sprint off craigslist, and it’s been my bike ever since. Over the past seven years I’ve replaced the brakes, the seat, the chain (at least twice), the rear derailleur, the tires, and both wheels. I’ve ridden it to work, and to run errands, and to meet dates at restaurants and bars. A couple years ago, with an ex, I rode it out to Valley Forge and back — 50 miles. A couple weeks later I strapped it to her car rack for a weekend in the Poconos.

Two bikes in nine years. There’s probably a joke in there about commitment.

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9.

My 30s have been a lot different than I expected. That I’ve spent nearly all of them in Philadelphia might be the biggest surprise. I moved here at 29 with a woman I’d met in grad school, a woman I thought I’d marry. When people asked why we chose this city, I’d sometimes tell them it was a compromise, one in which we could both be equally miserable. This was meant to be a joke, but I can see now it was never very funny.

For that first year, Philadelphia struck me as an angry city. A difficult place to live. I was teaching part-time at two colleges, and trying to maintain enough freelance work to pay the bills. My girlfriend was teaching Special Ed. math at one of the city’s toughest, and most neglected, high schools. At night, we barely had the energy to talk to each other.

She was from New York, and she never learned to ride a bike. I tried to teach her once. We were visiting my parents in Florida. I ran alongside her, one hand on her back and the other on the frame. But each time I let go she’d start wobbling. “I don’t like this,” she kept saying. “I don’t like this one bit.”

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10.

If you do enough online dating, you start to develop deal-breakers. You get better at spotting red flags. If someone’s favorite author is Ayn Rand. If she describes her musical preferences as “anything but rap.” If she’s wearing a bikini in her profile picture, or a pink Philadelphia Eagles hat. If she’s really into Crossfit. If she talks too much about her ex, or her close personal relationship with Jesus.

Though you also worry sometimes you’re being too picky, or picky about the wrong sorts of things. Each profile presents a tiny identity crisis. Is the heavily tattooed environmental lawyer too cool for you? If you dated a kindergarten teacher, would you have to start going to bed early, and would your eventual home be littered with art supplies? When someone says they enjoy camping, or rock climbing, do they mean in theory or in practice?

It can start to feel like shopping for shoes. Suddenly you have 15 browser tabs open. You’re squinting at people’s pictures and trying to imagine the two of you into various scenes: dive bar, work function, weekend getaway.

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11.

A few weeks ago, a woman in a white Mustang swerved into the bike lane and almost hit me. I yelled, and smacked her car with my palm, because it was clear she had no idea I was there. At the next light, she rolled her window down and demanded to know what my problem was.

“You almost swerved into me,” I said.

“You almost swerved into me,” she said.

This statement was so baffling I didn’t know how to respond right away. “You do realize,” I said finally, “that you’re literally in the bike lane right now?”

“Whatever, faggot,” she said, and then she rolled her window back up. I took a picture of her license plate with my phone, in case she hit me later, either accidentally or on purpose.

I’ve only been hit by a car once, and I was jogging, not biking. A turning SUV didn’t see me in the crosswalk. I went up onto its hood and then into the air, like a cartoon character, before landing on my back near the curb. The driver was very apologetic. A woman in scrubs who’d been walking home from work offered me her water bottle. I remember thinking she was cute. “I guess this means I don’t have to jog the rest of the way home,” I said.

Later, the woman I was dating administered a quiz from the internet to make sure I wasn’t concussed. A couple weeks after that, she told me she’d met someone else. She seemed surprised by my surprise.

“I thought you took your profile down,” I said.

“I mean you’re a nice guy,” she said. “But we’re pretty different, aren’t we?”

“You didn’t take your profile down?”

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she looked disappointed to find I was still there. “In the final analysis,” she said, “I think I need to be with someone a little — I don’t know — happier?”

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12.

My decade of biking. My decade of dating. My decade of Philadelphia. In the early part of my 30s I felt as if the narrative of my life had jumped the tracks. I was single again, and living alone in a city I didn’t like all that much. I was having panic attacks, though I didn’t yet know that’s what they were.

It would be an oversimplification to say that biking saved me. What saved me was talk therapy and anti-depressants, though biking helped, especially when I decided, after a year, that I didn’t want to take the anti-depressants anymore. I learned to crave the adrenaline rush of city biking. I began to see my anxiety as a ball of nervous energy that lived in my gut and had to be exhausted again each day.

Online dating helped, too, at least up to a point. It forced me out of my apartment, curbed my instinct for hibernation. And it was nice to be reminded that I could sit across from a relative stranger and make conversation. That I could make someone laugh. That I could occasionally be charming enough to earn a second date. In my 20s I’d often stuck around in so-so relationships because I couldn’t envision something better, and online dating is all about helping you envision something better.

Though that can be the danger, too: the illusion of infinite choice. There’s always another profile to click on, another first date to try. And on a computer screen, your matches aren’t yet real people, but only the ideas of people. Potential energy.

Actually, the real danger of online dating is that this illusion isn’t entirely an illusion. You could probably spend the rest of your life going on first and second and third dates. You could spend the rest of your life waiting for something different to happen.

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13.

A few weeks ago, my mother was telling me about a specialist she’d seen for what’s become a chronic swallowing problem. “He was so young,” she said. “He was probably your age.”

“Mom, 39 is a totally normal age for a doctor,” I said. “Plenty of doctors are 39.”

After I said that I felt sort of lousy, like maybe I’d forced my mother to think about something she didn’t want to think about. Though she’s never been particularly sensitive about aging. A few years ago, she and my dad adopted a dog, after their old dog had died. “Well,” she said. “I guess this will probably be my last dog.”

When I was in my 20s, my mom thought I should date more often. “Like actual dates,” she’d say. “What happened to meeting new people? Keeping your options open?”

She doesn’t say that anymore, though she still has plenty of opinions about my love life.

A few years ago, she left me a voicemail to say that when she died, she didn’t want me to sell all her jewelry. I called her back, worried something terrible had happened, but it turned out she and my dad had just met with a lawyer to have their wills drawn up, something they’d been meaning to do for years. The lawyer told them since I was an only child, as long as they trusted my judgment they didn’t need to itemize.

“I know you’re single now,” my mother said. “But you might still get married one day. And I always thought your wife might want some of my jewelry.” She laughed. “Unless you marry someone awful, in which case I’m giving it all to your cousins.”

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14.

I always tell people I don’t believe in resolutions because I know the failure rate. All those gym memberships going unused by Valentine’s Day. The scale pushed back under the bed. The quinoa and lentils pushed to the back of the cupboard. But what’s the other option? So much of life, it seems to me — or maybe just my life, because I shouldn’t generalize about other people — is a struggle between cynicism and hope, optimism and realism, what I want and what it’s fair to expect.

I managed to stick to my winter biking resolution this year, though I did skip one day, after a blizzard dropped 22 inches of snow on Philadelphia. You can’t plan for everything.

I made a couple other resolutions this year, too, though for now I’m keeping those to myself.

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15.

A couple months ago I was in bed with a woman and we were talking about our histories with pets, which is the kind of thing that passes for pillow talk in your late 30s. I told her I liked dogs, but that if we were being honest I was really more of a cat person.

Sometimes, in the dark, you can actually hear someone making a face.

“Cats and I get along,” I said. “We have an understanding.”

“So,” she said. “Does that mean you’re kind of moody and aloof?”

I laughed, because we were still at the stage where these conversations were meant to be funny. “Sometimes?” I said. “I’m working on it.”

A week or so later we had one of those five-week talks. We agreed that while we had fun together, we didn’t really see a long-term potential. We were drinking wine during this conversation, and at the end of it we hugged. It was almost disturbingly good-natured. We wished each other luck, and promised to keep in touch.

On the bike ride home, I thought about taking a break from online dating. It can start to feel like a part-time job, and it’s exhausting in other ways, too: an accumulation of tiny failures. Without it, I could spend more time with my friends. I could work on meeting people in the old-fashioned ways, if I could still remember what those were.

I thought about Philadelphia, a city that’s begun, finally, to feel like home. I thought about how different my life is at 39 than any life I ever could’ve imagined for myself, and I thought about how much I like that life: another surprise. I thought about happiness, how just like unhappiness it can sneak up on you, catch you unawares. You know it’s been a gradual process, something you’ve had to work for, but when it washes over you it feels like a sudden, unexpected gift.

Like spring, which was suddenly right around the corner. I realized that I’d forgotten to put on my gloves, back at the bar, and I realized simultaneously that I no longer needed them. •

Images courtesy of the Henk Sijgers, Karen Christine Hibbard, Serena Washington, abefetterman, Seth WerkheiserScott Morris, scsmith4 and Dylan T. Moore via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Mike Ingram is a founding editor of Barrelhouse Magazine and co-host of the weekly Book Fight! podcast. You can follow him on twitter at mikeingram00
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