Ron Hartley: Without a Helmet

I called him boyfriend as an endearment, like good morning boyfriend or I love you boyfriend; boy meaning he was much younger than me and friend because I desperately needed one. I was coming home from work at Best Buy, knowing his dyed blond hair would be punked up like always into a disarray of golden spiked ends, knowing he’d be waiting to teach me Texas Hold’em online, knowing he was hustling me and that duplicitous love was okay if it helped ease my pain. I was coming home from work at Best Buy knowing, knowing, knowing.

“Let’s go to Poker Planet,” he said, but as it turned out I couldn’t catch on to the math of loss to win ratios. “Just talk to me,” I said. “Tell me a story taller than Poker Planet.”

Boyfriend recalibrated and then delineated the bets, calls, and raises of a heavy game in the backroom of a bar somewhere in the breadth of northern Appalachia. His storytelling voice had a low and confidential resonance, as though high stakes gambling in undisclosed places was one of the more sinister things men did. By the time he got through the ramifications of the flop, turn, and river cards and there were just two players left, his voice was almost a whisper:

“I got a Queen high but pot odds to equity says no. I’m thinking to bail but the dude squirms a little in his chair like he’s got a hemorrhoid problem in his ass, or maybe it’s a hemorrhoid in the head kind of thing so I go all-in instead at fourteen thou and hold onto my eyelids as best I can. The dude looks at me and I’m not blinking, then he folds but doesn’t show and I win with a Queen to his squirm.”

Evening came with boyfriend and me hungry as all hell and nothing in the fridge. We ordered take out: taquitos, fajitas, and enchiladas. We ate watching Nickelodeon cartoons that got funnier with each round of Mojitos. When the eleven o’clock news rolled around, the proximity of my bedroom was ever more there. In all those months in bed alone after my husband left me, the only intimacy I had was with my ceiling fan. I’d lie there watching it spin while touching myself and after awhile if I was still awake I’d think of lists to help lull me to sleep: the ten best movies I’d ever seen, ten best songs I’d ever heard, ten best places I’d ever been . . . until I’d drift away only to wake again and have to think of more lists. But with boyfriend’s beautiful ass edging its way over on the couch next to mine there’d be no need for lists that night. 

He brought his Kawasaki around on a Sunday morning wearing a techie black bodysuit and a helmet fit for intergalactic war. He hadn’t thought to bring an extra helmet, being accustomed to younger more bike-inclined women who had their own helmets. He offered me his but I said no thanks, that getting pulled over might be fun and I’d pay the fine. I wasn’t big on God anymore but crossed myself anyway as I climbed aboard for my first motorcycle ride. Next thing I knew we were revving up a roar of ill-mannered noise through the neighborhood and then hauling ass on the southbound side of an Interstate.

“Where are we going,” I yelled.

“Wherever the road takes us,” he yelled back.

He kept calling out instructions about how to hold on in a two-up run—that my butt needed to be as far back as possible on the higher rear seat, that our bodies needed to lean forward together with me bent like a jack knife over him, my breasts pressed to his back, knees gripping his hips, arms wrapped around his waist, hair grabbing the wind, which rustled through it like a thousand fingers massaging my scalp, my brain and all the angst therein.

We drank black coffee at an off-ramp diner and chowed down like hungry wolves on steak and eggs with heaps of greasy home-fries burnt around the edges. Boyfriend kept talking about an impending poker tournament at the Mohegan Sun. He wanted in and I could see it coming when he asked if I might want to partner up with him in a business-love liaison of sorts. We’d share the fun and split the financing and whatever money we walked away with. He kept going on about it, not yet guessing that I wasn’t divorced, and that my husband had disappeared with me nearly maxed out on credit cards and working for minimum wage. My discretionary cash flow would barely keep me in take-out and Netflix movies from one week to the next, so all I could do to keep our thing together was say “maybe” to a six thousand dollar stake, and “maybe” to half the winnings he said could be as high as up the wazoo. The numerical value of wazoo was up for grabs so I just kept saying “maybe.”

When we got back, the drop off was awkward, his “Catch you later” fading around the curve of the road with all those maybes stuck in his head like inverted spikes on the inside of his helmet. I was left standing there with a squint in my right eye from upwards of a one-hundred mile load of incoming air molecules tearing apart a nerve in my face.

Boyfriend was gone for good, leaving me rootless and begging the question how do I get from here to anywhere without killing myself first. I reckoned with my struggle, cashed in a small life insurance policy, and went looking to buy my own Kawasaki, “like that one over there,” I said to the salesman who then instructed me on the nature of such a machine, that it wasn’t just a Kawasaki, that it was a Ninja Super Sport with a 600cc engine that might be a little overkill for someone like me. “For someone like me?” I queried, and before he could open his mouth again I said, “Wrap it up,” and then haggled him down to a hundred off the sticker price plus a helmet and two lessons. 

My first solo run was on a Sunday morning, again to the same diner. I got spooked by a  monstrous tractor trailer closing in behind me on a downhill and in the suddenness of my move to get out of the middle lane forgot my dealer’s instructions on the counter intuitive nature of steering a motorcycle. I began to push the wrong handlebar to start my lean and began to veer into the right lane instead of the left, causing an SUV there to break hard with its horn blasting. The incident served to sharpen me up and I was soon counter steering better and getting to know the sound of five thousand RPMs to hold a steadier speed. 

At the diner I could sense everybody’s eyes honing in on my new bald-headed look and at the blink that got stuck half-way in my right eye. I sat by a window looking out at my new yellow motorcycle, the same yellow as the yolks of the sunny side eggs I’d made such a wreckage of on my plate. I pushed the plate aside and ordered a blueberry muffin to nibble on as I tried to reason with a darkness I’d been feeling in my bones. It was a vague feeling at first that kept insinuating its purpose on me with more clarity and made the people around me to turn their heads and the waitress to come over and ask if there was anything wrong because I seemed to be crying. 

Of all the directions Boyfriend could have driven in that last day together, he followed a road that had brought me here. The magnetic center of “here” was a Pocono Mountain resort I once stayed at just four or five miles over the county line. The resort was half way up an old mountain road with no guardrails. If I stayed on it I would eventually come to a bend where it widened into a place where you could pull over and spend an hour just looking at the breathtaking vista of the valley below. The sheer drop-off was as high as maybe two vertical football fields and ended in a frozen tumble of boulders and rocks sloping down the rest of the way. It was a visually unimpeded place to take a photograph from and I could shoot it with my cell phone in panoramic mode. I could then post it immediately on Facebook with a message to husband that this was a view from the road I had chosen to run my motorcycle off. “Don’t you remember,” I’d say, “the very place we stopped our car when we did that honeymoon thing so long ago.” 

Later, when I crossed the county line, I got pulled over by a local motorcycle cop. He had a stern demeanor, but there was something about the softness of his gray-blue irises that made me think they were the kind of eyes I could talk to. I said that instead of sharing the body and blood of Christ at communion on Sunday mornings anymore I preferred steak and eggs at a diner downstate, that the egg yolk wreckage on my plate with respect to my yellow motorcycle parked outside distracted me so much I left my helmet there, that I wasn’t aware of the absence of its weight on my skull or of the wind gliding over my aerodynamic bald head because my life had gotten so far off the rails lately.

The cop’s name was Reggie and he listened with a wrinkled brow. He said he didn’t know much about crazies like me but there was one thing he knew for sure, that he liked the look of my head just the way it was and hated to think of what it might look like if I hit a pothole and got thrown without a helmet. We walked around my Kawasaki together and I asked him what he thought of it. He said he liked the color, that it was a classic sport bike look, and then he gave me a blank ticket with his contact info scribbled on the back in case I ever wanted to know why my bike was designed the way it was and how I could get the most out of it. We checked out his Harley Davidson Police Cruiser and he said it was powered by a V-twin engine with massive low-end torque and soul-satisfying sound, things that seemed to me like reasons to live.

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