On Saturdays in the summer I love to go for bike rides, but mom says we always have to tell her before we take off on our bikes. I take out my purple bike with the flowered banana seat and tassels on the handlebars. I borrowed some of mom’s clothespins and a couple of playing cards and clipped them onto the wheel spokes. The cards flipping against the spokes sound like a motorcycle when I’m riding fast.
It’s the summer of 1974. We live in an apartment next to an overpass not far from downtown Albany, NY. It’s us three kids, mom and dad and Auntie, my mother’s baby sister, in the first floor apartment and a Korean couple with a baby on the second floor. We never see the Koreans, I only know they live there because mom complains that their cooking is bringing ants into our house.
Mom is on the phone so I can’t ask her if I can go for a ride. I don’t want to waste the day waiting around while she talks. Besides, it looks like its going to rain and then I won’t be able to ride at all. I’m waiting forever and I hate waiting. It’s so boring. What could she be talking about that’s so important anyways? My question will only take one second. Maybe if I scream loud enough she’ll come out here. MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! I‘m screaming so loud and for so long my throat hurts. I know she can hear me.
Auntie comes to the door. “What do you want?” she asks.
“I want my mom.”
“Come here,“ she says.
“Just get over here!“ She’s yelling now.
I mumble “stupid” under my breath as I walk to the front steps, just loud enough for her to hear. As soon as my feet touch the bottom step I feel the back of her hand on the side of my face. My ear is ringing and my cheek stings.
“That’s from your mother. She said for you to shut your mouth when she’s on the phone. “
I am so mad. Auntie never hits me. My own mother doesn’t hit me. She thinks she’s the boss of me but she’s not. I get on my bike and take off anyways. If I can’t ask for permission, then mom can’t be mad at me. I take my chances and speed away down the street, my bellbottoms flapping in the breeze. I don’t even have time to put a rubber band around my ankle to stop my pants from getting caught in the chain.
For a few minutes I forget the pain and how mad I am. I am free. I ride for a long time up and down the block, down side streets and past houses I’ve never seen before. I’m not sure I’ll remember the way home and I don’t even care.
All of a sudden my leg gets caught and the bike jerks to a stop sending me toppling onto the pavement. My hand is scraped and covered in dirt. My pant leg is caught in the chain. I’m in the road and I can’t get up.
I remember how my father showed me to turn the pedal backwards to get the pants unstuck. I try moving the pedal backwards. It won’t budge. I try going forward instead. This just makes it get more stuck. My pants are covered in black grease from the chain. My mom is going to kill me for ruining a good pair of school pants. I struggle for a long time. The sky gets dark. Thunder booms in the distance. I’m so scared. How will my family know where I am? I should have told mom I was going for a ride. I shouldn’t have gone this far. Frantically I pull at the pant leg. It won’t come loose. Maybe if I can stand up? I could walk home and carry the bike. I try standing but I fall again. I start crying. It’s no use.
A blue car pulls up and a man with long wavy blonde hair and a big mustache gets out.
“Hey, are you ok kid?” he asks.
“No, my pants are stuck in the chain and I can’t get them out. “ I’m bawling my eyes out now and I can taste the salty tears. “Can you please help me?”
“It’s ok. Let me give it a try.”
The stranger tries turning the pedal backwards and then forward a little.
“You sure got yourself stuck. These pants don’t want to come out of that chain. “ He tugs at the pants one last time, “We’re gonna have to take em off.”
“No!” I sob. “Can’t you pick me up and put my bike and me in your back seat?”
He laughs. “No, that won’t work. Back seat’s too small for a bike.”
I swallow my tears. In a voice barely above a whisper, I beg the stranger. “Can you please go to my house and have my mother come and get me? My address is 101 Salem Boulevard.”
“I can’t leave you here in the street. What if another car comes by and doesn’t see you on the ground and you get run over? Come on, I’ll give you a hand.“
He helps me up and I lean on his shoulder while he helps me take my pants off, the free leg first. Then I have to sit back on the ground and the stranger has to help me with the stuck leg.
Now I’m standing there in my underpants and to make things worse, I’m still wearing the ones that say Friday and its Saturday. The strange man sees me in my underpants! He tells me to get in the front seat with him and he puts my bike with the pants still attached into the trunk. I tell him my address again and then sit there silently the whole way home, with my hands in my lap to cover my underpants.
When we get to my house I hear another boom of thunder and big drops of rain splash on the windshield.
“Looks like we got you home just in time.”
My mother is waiting on the front steps.
As I get out of the car in my underpants, she stands there, her eye brows raised and eyes bulging at the sight of me and speaks in her polite voice, the one she uses when she answers the telephone, “Margie, honey I’ve been worried about you. Where have you been? Who’s your new friend?”
The stranger takes my bike out of the trunk with the pants still attached and lays it on the grass.
“ I’m Tommy. I was driving by and saw her on the side of the road crying. She got her pants stuck in the bike chain. Lucky I drove by when I did or she’d still be on the side of the road in this storm.“
“Oh my. Yes, thank you so much for helping her. Margie, say thank you to this nice man for helping you.”
“Thank you,” I blurt out and run past my mother right into the house, without even another glance at the stranger.
There is Auntie sitting at the kitchen table with her arms crossed. “Where have you been? You just wait until your mother gets ahold of you!”
“It’s none of your business because you’re not my mother,” I scream as I run to my room slamming the door behind me. I collapse on my bed, bury my face in the pillow and sob. This is all her fault for slapping me in the first place. I hate her and I hate mom for telling her to slap me. I wish I never came home. Then they would feel really bad for what they did.
Outside the sky is black. Lightening flashes and the wind whips through my open window sending a lamp crashing to the floor. It feels like the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy gets caught in the twister.
I must have fallen asleep for a while and I wake to a knock at the door and the sound of my mother’s voice. “Margie, supper’s ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” I reply.
She opens the door and pokes her head in. “You’ve had an eventful day. You must be hungry.”
“I’m not eating if she’s here,” I say.
“I’ve already spoken to her. I didn’t really mean for her to slap you. And she should never have let you ride off on your bike like that.”
“I’m not in trouble?”
“I think you’ve suffered enough consequences for your actions today. Come eat with us. I think everyone would like to hear more about your big adventure.”
I get up from the bed and join my family at the table. Auntie smiles, “I’m glad you made it back safely.” Instantly my anger melts away.
All these years later I understand how it really was between us. At seven Auntie loomed larger than life to me — she seemed like just another bossy adult in the house. In reality, she was more like an older sister who really did love us. What I didn’t see as a young girl, was an emotionally struggling twenty-five-year-old woman, living with her older sister’s family and dealing with a sassy niece and unruly nephews. Twenty-five years have passed since Auntie left us and I think of her often and miss the sound of her laughter. I’m not angry anymore.