He is on a practice run, whizzing under highway overpasses down by the Hudson, standing up on the pedals to save himself from the cobblestones. He wobbles dangerously, narrowly avoids getting nailed by a bus as he turns left on Union Street and stops to adjust his load. He has dusted off an old set of panniers he inherited from his father, and he’s experimenting with the best way to pack them. It is like flying in a small airplane, and he is the steward, asking some passengers to move to the front of the plane, to better distribute their weight. He’s back on the bike, riding inland past women with strollers, bumping up and over the canal and smelling it, swampy in the most unnatural way possible. He finishes on his block, saluting the ghost bike on the corner of Classon, the one with a garland of silk flowers wound around the basket, as he passes.
Bike tripping is what Jake’s preparing for. He is going to cycle across the country, from New York City to Portland, where he has some friends. He says to his brother, to his mother, to himself: after this, I’ll focus on getting into the union. After this, I’ll start a long project of my own. But this is something I always wanted to do. It has been nagging him for years, how bad he wants that feeling of finishing something big. At first he’d been scared to ride in this town. He had a nasty spill early on, a manhole cover slippery from rain that skidded his bike sideways and out from under him so fast. He rolled instinctively out of the street just in time, with pavement burns on his face. It had taken Jake six months to ride again but he did it, sweaty-palmed. He worked hard all fall and winter, traveling around to shoot B-roll for an HBO show, a clothing commercial, a music video. A month ago, after he’d wrapped a spring feature, a low-budget project with lower-budget actors, he spent a few days working the Steadicam kinks out of his shoulders and got to it. He rode. He looked at maps, traced routes, looked for bike-friendly smaller roads, and made X’s where he had friends or family. He’d stay in cheap hotels, otherwise. He chose his favorite bike, an old racer with a slightly heavy frame for stability, and put touring tires on it—wider, but still smooth—because he didn’t want to be changing flats all the time. He put a fresh layer of tape on his handlebars, gripped the lowest part of the curve with fingers close together, then moved his hands up to the flat area on top, where he’d hold on when he was taking it easy.
His older brother Thomas, who is taller, with better facial hair, has a shop on Graham where he builds custom bikes, and Jake spends part of his days off lounging around there, running his hands along the slim steel frames. Thomas wears coveralls and protective glasses, even in the heat. He learned to weld at their hippie college in Oregon, where they were two years apart, and his precision, his grace, is what made these bikes worth the two grand or so they cost. “Okay,” Jake says. “What tools can I absolutely not live without?”
Thomas wipes sweat on his sleeve. “Tire lever. A pump. I have one you can borrow. A box wrench, a spoke wrench, a large crescent wrench, all three, a chain tool, a screwdriver, and a patch kit, in case you can’t change the tube right away.”
“How many extra tubes, do you think?”
“Hard to say. At least four or five, but you could probably get some on the way, too. Anyway, that’s not tool-related. That can be tomorrow’s question.”
Jake makes a list in a small black notebook he bought for exactly this purpose. Thomas made a rule, one question per day. Otherwise you’re going to make me insane, and I have work to do, he said. The shop is in an old warehouse building, with high ceilings and big, many-paned windows, and the heat and light from the welding torch make the sun coming in look lazy, warm, and yellow in comparison.
“I’m hungry.” Thomas unzips his coveralls, steps out of them in cutoff shorts and a T-shirt soaked with sweat. He pulls it over his head, hangs it on a peg, wiggles into a new one. They walk to the restaurant their college friend Julie owns, a popular place that has Southern comfort food and pie and they sit across from each other, drinking iced coffee and eating buttermilk biscuit sandwiches with runny eggs and sprouts. They talk with their mouths full.
“You’ll be able to ride with your eyes closed in Portland,” Thomas says. “After this place, which requires a death wish.”
“When I get there, I’m going to ride over the bridge no-hands.”
“No-hands, fist pumps all the way, while eating a donut.” Thomas swishes his iced coffee. “You couldn’t pay me to go back there. It would be nice to see everyone, though.” Half of their friends are still there. “Are you going to give Laura a call?”
Jake shrugs. “Yeah, why not. I’ll drop her a line, see if she wants to get beers with all of us one night.”
“Do you talk to her, ever?” Thomas stretches his long legs out under the table, folds his arms.
“What do you think? No, man. Do you?”
“Once in a while. Seems to like being back there. She does better with the year-round damp.” Thomas picks up the last fragment of biscuit from Jake’s plate with two fingers.
“What’s she doing for work?”
“I forget. A nonprofit, or something. A magazine? You should ask her.”
“I will, if I see her,” Jake says.
“If I had money to burn, I’d go with you. You need a big brother who knows what he’s doing.”
“I don’t have money to burn.”
“I know. I didn’t mean it like that. I wish I could go with you, is what I meant.”
“I wish you could too,” Jake says, and he sees Thomas in front of him, pedaling steadily, a swath of back sweat soaking through the nylon jersey he always rides in, sitting up to stretch out every twenty miles or so, letting his long arms dangle, rotating his wrists. They keep getting closer, as they get older, despite how obsessed Thomas has become with the shop, despite how restless Jake mostly feels.
Jake leaves on a Monday in late August, flies over the bridge west into New Jersey. He wears wicking underwear and black shorts with a padded seat. What, are these for my old lady’s ass? he’d said. But Thomas told him there was no way around it, especially while he is still breaking in his new saddle. He concentrates on moving his legs in time, his water pack in precisely the middle of his back; light, polarized sunglasses. It’s 6 a.m., too early to be muggy, and he turns his head slightly to watch the sun come up out of the river. Two nights earlier they’d had a little gathering at one of their favorite outdoor bars, just an excuse to get everyone together and sit around and drink. They filled a picnic table, sweating in the hot night, taking turns going into the bar, which was a converted garage, to buy pitchers. Jake took two drags of a cigarette and passed it off, and Thomas made a big deal about it, what a changed man Jake is, what a virtuous man. “You’re right, I am changed,” Jake said. “I’m a machine.” Their female friends rolled their eyes. He took back the cigarette. Later, when they were drunk and walking home, Thomas had stopped in the street and held Jake by the shoulders. “Please, please, please be careful. Please. Be careful. Call me every day.” “I will, T.” Thomas pulled him all the way in, so Jake could smell his brother’s beery breath, and when he let him go, Jake lost his balance and stumbled against a streetlight. This made them laugh, and they had to squat in the street to stay upright, elbows resting on thighs.
Jake comes down off of the bridge into New Jersey, pumping one fist in the air, and rides through Hoboken, Jersey City, and west, as far as he can see. A hundred and fifty miles on small roads—easy, really. He’s in good shape. It’s still warm, Indian summer, and he drinks from his pack, stops to refill it and his backup bottles near the Delaware Water Gap. He is riding on shoulders, listening, feeling the cars that pass on his left side, their back draft moving him. During this first leg he thinks a lot, about the misty city he’s headed for, how difficult it is to imagine making it there at all. Three springs ago, when they were still living in the house on Hawthorne, in southeast Portland, Thomas had said, “If you’re going to do a ride like that you have to stay in the present,” and when Jake said something sarcastic like that’s some woo woo shit, brother, Thomas hadn’t smiled. “I’m serious. You can only think about one day at a time, especially during the first half.” They’d made theoretical plans like this then, plans to do a trip together, and they talked up long, sunny days and the pleasant kind of achy-tired at night, when they’d get wasted on one beer and go to bed and wake up and do it again. They’d never done it, though. Instead, the fall after he graduated, Thomas brought a girl home, a girl with her hair in her face and a pale, prominent collarbone. “This is Laura,” he said, in the offhand way that meant he was really into her. Jake registered this and nodded in an equally offhand way. “Nice to meet you, welcome to the spook-house,” he said. It was October and gloomier than usual. She smiled. Then Jake went out and got on his bike, rode to class.
He thought about this first time meeting her while he pedaled in the narrow shoulder, and how he couldn’t have known how such a little girl would fill that house during the next year. He came home and she and Thomas were on the couch with their feet on each other, were working on their bikes on spread-out newspapers on the porch, were cutting carrots and parsnips to roast in the kitchen, and they invited him to join so he did. He felt like he had never seen his brother so genuine, so warm. “This girl,” Thomas said. “This girl is something.” What’s so special about her is hard to say. Her mouth got spectacularly stained when she drank red wine and she didn’t notice, or didn’t care, laughed so hard he could see her gums.
After dinner they’d go upstairs and shut the door. Sometimes Jake ran into her on her way to the bathroom afterwards, she always had to pee, and she smiled at him, or, when they knew each other better, grabbed his shoulder or forearm, her face flushed.
The house had been a duplex once, so there were two kitchens—one upstairs, one down. Sometimes when it was late they all met in the upstairs one and stood around, their arms folded, and talked or smoked or took sips of whiskey. He remembered one night in particular, Laura’s hair in a ponytail, Thomas wearing an old flannel shirt and soccer shorts, and something about their faces at that hour, in that light, made Jake shake his head, looking at them. “You two are going to have beautiful babies,” he said. They looked in opposite directions, Thomas out the window, laughing, and Laura down at her feet.
In the evening Jake makes it to the house by the lake in Pennsylvania. He sits on the deck with his parents and looks out at the water, which is still. It will be full of floating leaves in a few weeks. His mother puts her hands all over his head. “You’re looking bony,” she says. “Are you eating enough? Are you drinking enough?”
He shakes his head against her probing fingers. “Ma.” She looks tired herself, is still working long shifts at the hospital in Wilkes-Barre. “It’s you I’m worried about.”
“It’d be nice if Tom was going with you,” his father says.
“It sure would be.” Which is mostly true. He feels guilty, because he hasn’t told Thomas or any of them about plans he made to stay at Laura’s for a night when he finally makes it, a month from now. She’s just one of the friends they have out there. I’m visiting the crew, he’d said in his email, shuttling around. She’d answered quickly, casually. Sure, J, come on by. We can hit all the old spots. He sits back in the deck chair cushion, kneading his sore quads. “I’m riding through this whole state tomorrow,” he says. “Steel City, here I come.” He has an aunt outside of Pittsburgh.
“There’s no way you’ll make it even half that far,” his father says. Jake’s father is still riding in sixty-mile road races in the greater Scranton area and getting times faster than men half his age. When Jake and Thomas were young, he used to take them on long rides, up steep dirt hills. Usually one of them ended up crying.
“We’ll see,” Jake says. He gets up and leaves the table.
He stays for one night, in the guest room, where the sheets smell like an unfamiliar laundry detergent, and eats a mixing bowl full of oatmeal in the morning. It is hard to leave, but he pushes the bike ahead of him out the front door, walks it up the long driveway, and he’s gone.
Over the Allegheny Mountains and into Ohio, where it’s still green and flat and where there are only billboards advertising Cracker Barrels and adult video stores. “Leaving the fine state of our birth,” he says to Thomas’s voicemail. “It should be you and me and Dad right now.” He flexes his feet against his toe clips and focuses on the upward movement of his legs, not just the pushing down, because this is how he really gets leverage. First his thighs are noodles, then they harden like two-by-fours. Sometimes they are not part of his body, just twin pistons moving relentlessly, powered by a place deep in his lower back. His knees feel greased up. On hot days he stops every thirty miles to fill his water pack. His calves cramp, he walks it off, he studies his veins and the way that they’re pulsing, bulging. He pisses in the woods, he sleeps on couches or air mattresses or cheap hotel beds.
He pops a tire on a pothole somewhere outside of Columbus and comes down on the crossbar hard, almost comes all the way off the bike, sees the road from that sick, fast angle which means his face is headed for it. He wobbles, curses, stays upright. He sits on the side of the road with his head on his knees until he can see straight. Later, he washes the sweat out of his clothes in a hotel sink, wringing out the extra water, hangs them on towel racks, checks in with his nuts to see how sore they are, which is very. There’s a deep ache under and above them too, a bruise that he can feel from his lower belly to his tailbone. In the morning, he sits gingerly on the saddle, and he has a miserable day of riding on a busy road. The pain is all he can think about, his mind hangs onto it in a childish self-pity loop. It nags him and makes ripples all the way to the tips of his fingers and into his thighs, saps his energy. He quits early, crawls into a Holiday Inn bed half dead.
He calls Thomas in the morning, ready to ditch his bike and his gear and get on the next flight home.
“Rough few days?” his brother says. Jake can hear the shop in the background, metal on metal, talking. Thomas has three or four guys who work for him on and off. He wishes he was there, with them, watching Thomas make neat metal seams. “That’s how it goes, though. You’ll be good.”
Jake leans his head against the concrete side of the gas station where he’s stopped. “I feel like such shit, man. I don’t know if I can keep doing it.”
“You’ll do it. Just get back on the bike. Sing some songs. Remember when we drove the Forester across? Not the same, I know, but you have to expect dark times, when you’re doing something like this. Buck up.”
The three of them had left the spook-house for good in the middle of November, almost exactly two years ago. He was eager to get his feet wet in the New York film scene, and he was sick of working at the bookstore. Laura had a job lined up reading slush for a literary agent, and Thomas was already using a downstairs room as a makeshift shop, accumulating frames and pedals and saddles and refurbishing old junkers and selling them at Saturday Market. So much, and so little, had happened since, and he wasn’t sure he could trust the way he remembered her then, the way she and Thomas mooned all over each other, the way he could sometimes hear the change in her breath in the next bed that meant she was coming, and biting her hand to keep quiet, the way she had a tendency to reach a hand back from the passenger seat and grab his lower leg.
This, he did remember: Her sitting at the table, a few days before they left, with a map of the United States spread all the way out. Her hands were wrapped around a cup of tea. She looked up at him when he came in the door, smiled in the sleepy way she had when she was wearing a thick sweater, putting her face right down next to the mug so she could feel the steam. “Hi, J,” she said. He listened for Thomas but the house was quiet.
He touched the top of her head with just his fingertips on his way to the sink. His hands were wet and raw, greasy from his chain, which had come off on his way up the hill to the spook-house. It was raining. It would rain for the next few months. “It’s nasty out there,” he said. “How’s the route planning coming?”
It was dim in the kitchen and she was hunched over the map, studying it. “It’s coming. Come here, and tell me what you think makes the most sense, Midwest-wise. Is there any way to make it pretty direct, but also not die of boredom?”
“No,” he said. “But let’s take a look.” He pulled up a chair next to her, bent his head to where her small, chewed-on finger was pointing. She bit her nails with a ferocity that made Jake worry for the raw skin around them. He could smell her tea-breath, like old, wet mint. She’d already moved out of her place, and she’d been staying with them for three weeks, leaving her open toiletry bag on the sink, its girl guts spilling everywhere. It threw Jake off to see her lipstick and face cream and anxiety meds while he was brushing his teeth.
“I’ve always wondered about the Badlands,” she said. “Could we go up that far? I wonder if there will be snow?”
Jake looked at the Dakotas. He let his head tilt towards her, almost touching but not quite, so that he could feel her body heat on his ear. Thomas came in, they hadn’t heard him on the stairs, and found them this way. “A little light on the subject?” he said, because the kitchen was almost dark. He flipped the switch.
Other days, he is surprised by how little his mind wanders. He focuses on the road, on the white line in front of him, watching for irregularities and avoiding them easily, subtle swerves and swings. He moves with and around the cars, muscling for space alongside them when there’s no shoulder, veering onto smaller roads to lose them, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri plates. Missourah. He is averaging eighty miles a day, sometimes closer to a hundred, sometimes less. He has forgotten what his legs used to feel like before they had heavy and complaining minds of their own, stiff and weak at the same time, burning so acutely at mile ninety or so, up a rare hill in the Midwest, that he has to say “come on, come on, come on,” through his teeth. Sometimes he has to push them with his hands. He’s developed a numbness in one side of his groin, and it buzzes and tingles all the way down to his knee. He prods it on the flat, worries about it a little, hopes it won’t be permanent, hopes it won’t interfere with his ability to have children, later in life. Cycling makes jerking off usually out of the question, which is probably for the best, especially on nights he spends in shabby Super–8s or on a cousin’s dog-hair-covered couches.
He takes a maintenance day at a college friend’s in the outskirts of St. Louis. He broke a spoke somewhere amidst the cornfields along Route 50, and his wheel is wobbly, untrue. It’s still warm here in mid-September, humid even. The friend, David, is getting his master’s at Wash U, a big, flannel-wearing guy with a reddish beard that could use a trim. They drink beers in his small backyard. “I can’t believe how lean and mean you are, man. Jesus.”
Jake flips his bike, wheels up, spins them and watches one kick out the tiniest bit as it turns. Wheel off, tire off, tube off, down to the rim tape. “It’s not that hard when you’re sweating out the amount of water I am.” Jake is hyper, but also brittle, overtired. He hasn’t talked to anyone in two days. “Also, diarrhea.”
“Really? From what?”
Jake shrugs. “I don’t know, overexertion? Weird food? I can only eat so many nuts and protein bars before I stop at a diner for a double cheeseburger.”
“That will do it,” David says.
It’s getting dark, and Jake rushes to finish the job, popping out the dangling ends of one spoke and screwing in a new one. He replaces his tools neatly, it’s very orderly inside his panniers, and sits down on the steps. Even when he’s stopped it feels like he’s still moving, especially when he lies down at night. His legs are part lead, part crawling with what feels like thin-limbed insects.
David leans back on his elbows against his porch. “Anyway. Tell me about Tom. Is he still building bikes?”
“He’s making a living at it, if you can believe that,” Jake says. “Lucky bastard.”
“That guy. I heard about him and Laura, that’s a shitty thing.”
“Yeah. It was a mess.” It is strange to hear her name out loud, after he’s been saying it to himself a million different ways, a million different miles. Laura. Lah-rah. Low-rah. He is starting to worry that he’ll stumble over it, when he finally sees her, because it’s so familiar it has turned into something else, a word without meaning. He is starting to think that he could stumble over her, too. “He doesn’t talk about it much, now.”
“He never did talk about things much.”
“She left really quickly,” Jake says. “Overnight. Even though things were happening, things were getting bad for a while. You could feel it with them.”
“Anything in particular? Or just that feeling you get, when you know it’s fucked.”
“I don’t know. Neither one of them was talking to me about it.” Jake’s cheeks are warm, from the humidity, from the alcohol. “T told me he said he didn’t want to do it anymore, and she was gone the next morning. Her suitcase, some of her clothes, that was basically all she took.”
“She is.” Jake stands up, stretches, and his legs buckle slightly. He reaches for the porch railing. “I’m exhausted. Thanks for the brew, and the bed, I appreciate it.”
On their father’s bike rides, on the windy paved roads that cars whipped around, even in the rain, even when there were thick layers of leaves, he rode behind them and watched for cars in a tiny rearview mirror attached to his helmet. “Car.” He said in a loud monotone. “Car. Car.” And the boys were careful to stay in the shoulder, to ride straight without wobbling. Jake leaves St. Louis and rides due north, towards Minneapolis, towards the Dakotas, saying “Car” all the way. By the time he hits Bismarck the sky is big and he wants to ride with his head thrown back, to see more of it. He is having recurring daydreams so sharp they feel like hallucinations of himself falling, of his legs stopping, of his feet sticking in the toe clips because of some malfunction and just going right over, slow, heavy. If he’s not assertive with the cars he feels scared of them, his back wheel vulnerable, and sometimes when he goes over bumps or into holes he thinks for a second that he’s been clipped, and he knows it wouldn’t take much more than a feather touch from a bumper to send him over the handlebars. He sees this, too. Sees his body in black and white jolting off the seat and sailing, slow-mo, up and over and down onto the pavement. It helps to focus on his legs. It helps to count.
“This scenery,” he tells his brother, “is unbelievable. I wish you were here.” Everything raised and dusty buttes and spires like the moon, almost as desolate, except for the green mixed in, the prairie grass turning gold in the cooler air. He gets caught in a rainstorm on an empty stretch in northern Montana. Raining in a way it can only rain out here, where the sky is huge, where you can see everything happen. First the clouds gathering, darkening, and then bleeding, blurring, sending gray appendages down towards the land. He is giddy, grinning, when the first raindrops start to hit his face. Then harder, until they’re whapping onto his cheeks and nose and catching in his uneven beard. It happens fast, and there is nowhere to go. He pulls over, drags the bike down into a ditch, and fumbles in his pack for a tarp he carries for this purpose. He crouches under it, his face against his wet frame, a shivering blue blip in all this gray. The temperature has dropped and he’s soaked to the bone, his fingers and toes white, his lips stiff and thick-feeling. Well, I’m going to die out here. I’m going to freeze to death in October. He feels fear, and then he feels a scarier calm, something like resignation.
His mind is in constant forward motion. It has been left to its own devices. What has become hazy is this memory: The three of them rolling down the driveway of his parents’ house in Harford on the day before Thanksgiving, after six days on the road. Himself in the back seat in the tiny space they’d made amidst books and lampshades and extension cords, his legs bent unnaturally against the back of the passenger seat, where Laura was sitting. Her saying, Get your knees out of my back for the hundredth time, saying This is your house! I’m finally getting to see it. All of them kissing parents, showing pictures. What is very clear and very painful to him, as the rain pounds onto the tarp, is what happened after.
Jake had put on a sweatshirt and gone out to the deck. He wanted to look at the lake, and the stars. It was dark out there and he didn’t notice her at first, standing right up against the railing, holding onto the wood with both hands, the hood of her sweatshirt up. From where he was he could see a tiny bit of her profile, of her nose, and her chin was lifted up into the wind. She was taking big deep breaths in through her nose and letting them out loudly through her mouth. In, out. Filling her chest. She was smiling, happy, despite the exhaustion and the bad food and seven days of sweaty pits. And he thought for less than a second about retracing his steps, about tiptoeing backwards, before he went forward instead. It felt exactly the same as the minute you realize for sure you’re going to throw up. He came up behind her and put his arms around her, all the way around her sweat-shirted torso, and put his nose to the top of her head. She was still. Then she relaxed against his chest, her belly softening, her head coming back and turning slightly so her temple was against his mouth. He’d been within a few inches of her for days, for months, it seemed, but up close she was disheveled, windblown, and new.
When he backed away she didn’t turn and he could not even be sure she’d known it was him, instead of Thomas. He went into the living room and talked to his brother, looked at apartments on Craigslist, talked about the first rides they’d take when they got there, and he did not look up when she came in eventually and curled in the big chair by the fire, opened a book. When they went to bed, Jake on the couch downstairs and Laura and Thomas in the guest room, she came to say goodnight. She dangled her arm over the back of the couch and he grabbed her hand and held on, and she held on.
He does not die in Montana. He crawls out from under the tarp, shivering in what feels like convulsions. Get back on the damn bike. According to his route, there’s supposed to be something soon, someplace dry, twenty more miles or so. At first he can barely move his legs, but he concentrates, counts, a one and a two and a three, come on, guy. He has no service on his phone or he might call Thomas right now, just to hear his voice, just to hear him say, stop being a little bitch, J. He pedals like he’s pushing through something hardening and sweet. He slides his hands all the way down the curves of his handlebars, to his drops, and pretends that someone has taken him by the shoulders, that someone is pulling him forward.
When he does make it to the tiny motel near Chester, Montana, the woman at the front desk takes one look at him and comes out from behind it and wedges herself under his shoulder with one strong arm around his back, so he sags against her instead of going all the way down to the linoleum. He sleeps for a whole day, waking up sweaty, wrapped in his sheets. He towels off his bike. He drinks about a gallon of water, and eats pancakes at the local café, then spends the morning on the toilet. He thinks for the second, or fiftieth, time about stopping, but he’s not sure where he would go if he did. He’s in the middle of the wilderness, on a sagging hotel mattress with a comforter made of something stiff and shiny. There are two possibilities. She opens the door, she kisses him on the mouth, she kisses him tongue first. She opens the door, and gives him a sisterly hug, with her face and her mouth discreetly to one side. Either way you’ll know, he tells himself.
Jake had done a stupid, dangerous thing on the deck that night, but he was not delusional. He could see the way that she looked at his brother, with a kind of electricity, with a certain sadness and pride. He backed way away, subtly, fake-it-til-you-make-it. He was cool. Thomas and Laura moved in together. Jake found a place he liked in Prospect Heights. He biked around. He worked on film sets and built up a good reputation and fucked, then dated, a talented makeup girl named Lily, who was deliciously round everywhere, he found out when he took off her clothes. He helped Thomas work on the shop space for the months before it opened, spackling and painting and shop-vaccing. Laura was there a lot at first, in her loose cargo painting pants, and then not as much, and the cold came off his brother like vapor. “I’m just not in it, anymore,” he said. “I’m somewhere else.”
And when Thomas finally did show up at the door of Jake’s apartment, his shoulders so hunched his chest was concave, saying she’s moving out, or maybe she’s moving back, Jake took two steps backwards into his hallway and Thomas fell into him. They stood like that, for a long time. This is what he’s thinking about, his brother’s face in his shoulder, during the last, spectacular leg, the gorge leg, riding along the river and following the road as it cuts through the rock and the trees. The trees are lit up red and yellow, stretching all the way up to the sky. He is thinking about his brother crying. The fall out here is muted, more delicate than it is on the east coast, but the way the air is cold when it comes in through his nostrils is the same. He feels strong. Bonneville, Multnomah, Sandy River, names that remind him of being younger, of being mostly stupider, of driving their clunker cars out here on the weekends and hiking into the woods with a bag of trail mix and one water bottle for all of them to share.
His legs move easily. He barely recognizes them, looking down. He watches himself on repeat coming into the city, Halsey to Burnside, straight over the Burnside Bridge, pumping his fists every time. He’s got it. He has done it. He will get there tonight. He’ll ride down into Old Town, where Laura lives now in one of the old brick buildings, above a storefront. She will be the same, maybe thinner, after everything, her dark hair longer than it was when she left, her bangs moved to the side, too long to go straight down. She’ll say “Jake! Fancy meeting you here.” She will come close to him, and look up at his chin from underneath.
But when he is actually there, where it is dusky and full of ghosts and he can see where the sun has just set on the other side of the bridge over the river, when he sees the tall buildings of downtown with their lights starting to show and he can hear the people coming outside and going to restaurants, going to bars, he stops abruptly, right where the bridge begins. He takes his feet out of the toe clips and stands, watching it all. He doesn’t remember why he wanted to do this so badly. His stomach feels empty, dropping towards the pavement. He is not sure if the people walking by him can see him. This is the loneliest homecoming, and he has made it this way himself. He is afraid that she won’t be able to see him as he was, even though he sees her over and over, the way she looked right before she left—with Thomas at that party they had to celebrate the shop’s grand opening—in riding boots and black jeans and an orange scarf, quiet and pale. And he had wanted to strangle Thomas for being so far away, just wrap his hands around that skinny neck and Adam’s apple. After what feels like ten minutes, or an hour, he gets back on the bike. He doesn’t even feel the saddle anymore. He rides over the bridge without his helmet on, the air sticking in the sweat on his forehead. He rides slowly, he looks left and right, lights, city, river.
He thunks down off the bridge, makes a left on Fifth Avenue and rides through downtown, looking for the signs and marquees he knows, passing street kids, college kids, clusters of food trucks. His legs are moving on their own, taking him along. He sees her building, above a leather outfitter, and the windows on the third floor, low light behind curtains he knows are hers. He’s seen them before, in the apartment she shared with Thomas. He lets his pedals spin easy, looking for her shadow moving behind them. He thinks about her pulling a curtain aside an inch or two, looking down at the street, looking for him. He stops and watches. Whatever is behind the curtains is full and soft. It is hard for Jake to swallow. This can only go two ways. It will go or it will not go. He watches the curtains, which are moving slightly from the breeze coming in the open window, or from the breeze she makes when she walks by, padding around on her skinny bare feet.
But it can go only one way. Jake knows that now. The timing isn’t right. He is too tired. “Why don’t I call you tomorrow,” he says, in the quiet. “I’ll just drop you a line tomorrow.” They’ll get coffee. They’ll catch up. He walks the bike backwards a few steps, straddling it, and makes a clumsy turn in the street. Now that he’s not facing the building, now that he can’t see the curtains, it’s easier to go back the way he came, slowly at first, then faster.