When my brother was thirteen and I was ten, he outgrew both a blue denim jacket decorated with the Harley Davidson logo and the 50 cc minibike that went with it. Because there were no boy cousins younger than him to inherit these coveted items, they languished in closet and garage. No one bothered to object when I put on the cast-off jacket and outgrown helmet and set about learning to ride.
I loved the bike; even after a year or more of riding it, when I'd grown weight and strength in my legs to kick-start it with a casual flick of my right leg, I still reared up, holding the handlebars, letting my whole body ride down on the kick-starter, revving the engine ostentatiously, popping the clutch to pull a wheelie, exagerrating the bump when the front wheel hit the pavement again-a motorcycle-starting ritual meant to communicate to spectators: I am big and bad on my big bad bike; you could not start this hawg; you could not control it when it reared; you could not harness the wild horses let loose by the contained explosions of its internal combustion engine.
There were no spectators.
No one watched and admired the way I rose off the seat as the bike became momentarily airborne on the whoop-de-doos in our makeshift dirt-bike course. No one marveled at the way I could hold the bike steady at a dead stop on a 60° incline in the ditch, waiting for a car to pass so I could cross the street. No one made note of my wide-legged stance, my battered sneakers flat on the ground, my confident posture, my smooth start when the way was clear, the grace of my hands on throttle and clutch. The neighbors complained that I went too fast up the street, revved the engine too loud, but no one said, "that girl sure loves speed," or commented favorably on the dust my back tire raised in the turn-around at the dead end, spinning a one-eighty in the gravel as I slammed the brakes.
I might have been butch, who can say, had there been one person watching who appreciated me then, even another little girl in the neighborhood who thrilled to ride behind me, arms around my waist, a sedate half-mile in second gear, but there was not. I outgrew first the jacket then the bike and they were not replaced. I was told I was too old for motorcycles. I put away my jeans, shaved my legs, and started wearing the skirts my mother had filled my closet with. I paced the wood floors of our house, listening to the grown-up clack of my first high heels. I loved that sound, and the shape of my legs in four-inch pumps.
I loved all the accoutrements of adolescent girlhood: color-coordinated sweaters, socks, and lipsticks; fourteen shades of eyeshadow only $1.99 by mail order with no obligation to buy anything more, ever; portable curling irons; trashy gossip magazines and pin-up posters, but I also loved my minibike, dusty and unused in the corner of the garage.
Every girlish thing I hoped for, I got, from a subscription to Seventeen magazine and a phone in my room to a boyfriend with a car and a job. But the new motorcycle I asked for every Christmas and birthday never arrived. In the driveway, I mounted my brother's bike easily though I was not allowed to start it. I touched both feet flat to the ground as I straddled the seat. "See, I'm big enough," I said to myself, moving my hands on throttle, clutch, and brakes, my toe tucked under the gearshift. "And I remember how." I still remember. At thirty, when I stand in my pretty dress in a room full of lesbians and admire some stocky muscled butch in a black leather jacket and mortorcycle boots, I am thinking always of the roar of my engine and the dust I raised at twelve.
© 1997 Su Penn
Return to Su's homepage