When I was eight, I owned a horse.
Her name was Rainbow, and she was a gorgeous Palomino dyed metallic pink, with a mane that would stream behind her, majestic and dignified, when she raced around her track. She also had four wheels at one point: two 18” white tires, and two wobbly training wheels nailed into her flank while I learned how to ride her.
Rainbow was my first bike, and she and I galloped across the galaxy as I turned tight circles around our two-car driveway. I wasn’t allowed to ride in the streets then, or even on the sidewalk: I was short for my age, and my parents were convinced that no aggressive New Jersey driver would see me on my glittering steed.
I couldn’t ride into the universe, so I brought the universe to me. The furthest corner by the shaded gate was my home base and the stables where Rainbow lived. The mulberry bush nearby housed mean-spirited trolls and a pile of stray bricks was the scene of their latest prank. The boundary between the shadow of an overhanging tree and the sunbaked cement delineated safe, warm Fairyland from evil Shadowland, where bubbles go to die and where I rode like I was being chased. As the afternoon and shadows stretched on, Shadowland would steadily invade Fairyland, and I would send myself on time-sensitive missions to rescue fairies across the driveway while whispering, “Giddy-up, Rainbow!”
As you can imagine, I didn’t have many friends. But I lived in my imagination, where I was a certifiable Horse Girl, and there was no better feeling than wind in my hair and pedals beneath my feet and the sense that I could go anywhere, do anything, on my tiny, tin-framed two-wheeler.
It has been a long time since I saw Narnia in every wardrobe, or bicycles as anything more than an hour spent bumping along a beach boardwalk.
But I’m determined to bike in Cambridge during my gap semester. There is a hazy, half-forgotten dream in my subconscious that I have been waiting to realize ever since I was denied it at eight: me as a sophisticated metropolitan commuter, speeding down city streets, absolutely free to ride wherever I wish.
Realizing this dream requires a vehicle, however. And the global bicycle shortage — a little-known externality of our current pandemic — leads me to the cheapest bike shop in town: our basement.
My big sister’s old bike is purple, much larger than Rainbow was, and yet still too small for me. It is old too. I doubt its capacity to carry me across Longfellow Bridge to my fall semester research job.
So I pitch the idea to my parents firmly, expecting concrete resistance. I nearly fall over when they yield immediately. “That’s a great idea,” my father says, looking up from his daily browsing of slickdeals.net.
“You don’t think it’ll be too dangerous?” I’m flabbergasted. My arguments for convenient transport, health benefits, and COVID-19 safety teeter on the tip of my tongue, ready to spill.
“No,” he shrugs. “Your mom and I did this at your age all the time. That’s how we honeymooned in Beijing, didn’t you know? And in college, we biked from Fuzhou to Suzhou just for fun.”
I imagine their city in their youth, overrun by bicycles balancing luggage, crates of ripe longan, and girlfriends perched sidesaddle on the back. I think of my parents’ reluctance to do most outdoor activities and recall their consistent, quiet willingness to spend family vacations exploring foreign cities on rented bikes.
“No, I didn’t know,” I say.
His eyes light up. “Back then, our bikes were so simple. No gears. When there was a big hill, we’d have to get off and walk it!”
In the next week, multiple packages arrive in rapid succession. I will not suffer from having a simple bike. My father has outfitted my new purple mare with the best accessories on the market: blinding lights, a bell, and a perfectly-sized milk crate for my backpack.
It takes only half a block for me to ride in a straight line again. I’m afraid to close my eyes, but I start to imagine anyway. I am alone on a bike for the first time since childhood, and old habits die hard.
My neighborhood is quiet at dusk. The fireflies emerge slowly, then all at once — fairies to save, perhaps, or the souls of bubbles who have long passed. Blink. I glide past the golf course, and the chain link fence separates the bustling village from the marvelous estate of nearby royalty. Blink. I’m on a narrow bike lane in Somerville on a rainy day, pressing close to the sidewalk; I slow down, bend my left elbow to a right angle, and turn. The stop sign on my block is a pedestrian crosswalk on Mt. Auburn, and then it instantly morphs into a troll bridge with an impossible riddle.
When I pull into the driveway, I am winded both from the hill leading up to my house and the sense that I am returning home after a long, long journey.
It is only a 13 minute ride from my new apartment near Central Square to Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, but I give myself half an hour on my first day of work.
In the coming weeks, I will learn that biking in Cambridge can be terrifying. The freedom I begged for is intoxicating, and I don’t dare use it even when other cyclists do, running red lights and swerving into car lanes and sidewalks at will. Such complete freedom comes at the cost of complete exposure — to wind, and rain, and car doors that swing into your path without signalling.
And it is physically harder than I expect. Longfellow Bridge is long and steep, and I am out of shape. Every breath draws my surgical mask into my mouth in a sharp gasp, then inflates it like a balloon when I exhale. Cars whip by me while I chug along on my lowest gear. I am frighteningly aware that I am one soft body atop a tin-framed two-wheeler, surrounded by steel-shelled giants going 50 miles-per-hour. Who allowed this?
But on that first, brilliant day, I cruise down the bike lane with few worries. For a brief second in Kendall Square, I reimagine myself as my parents in the prime of their youth, falling in love as they ride across Beijing. At the next intersection I might be a Parisian woman delivering baguettes to a friend across town. In the coming days I may only head to HMart for a bag of rice, or to Walgreens to pick up a prescription, but I am someone who bikes in a city — young, strong, independent, busy. Unstoppable, a heroine on a mission once again.
I’m not regressing to childhood delusion — or, at least, I don’t think I am. I’m not looking for magical creatures hiding in potholes, and I don’t pretend I’m riding horseback past Whole Foods.
But maybe there’s a way to outgrow training wheels without outgrowing imagination. Call it visualization, or self-romanticization, or a million more mature, adult behaviors — but in the end, I haven’t left the wild, unfettered imagination of my childhood behind.
I can always get back in Rainbow’s saddle. It’s just like riding a bike.
— Staff writer Rachel Chen can be reached at email@example.com.