My mom used to like telling people about how she was in labor with me for over 36 hours. She would laugh and say that I was so comfortably curled up inside that I didn’t feel like coming out, and when I was finally forced to come out (two weeks late), I stretched out my arms and legs like a starfish all the way down.
Physical activity was just not my thing. It never was, not since I was born. According to the family photo albums, it took me two-and-a-half years to learn how to walk. That led me to hate the playground. I was probably one of the few kids who did. Running around, climbing rope ladders, getting sand thrown in my face and my shovel stolen. Just the thought of having to climb the ladder to the top of the slide with a whole bunch of pushy kids behind me, I would get butterflies in my stomach, my legs would feel like cooked noodles, and sweat would start trickling down my forehead to the tip of my chin. Even now, it brings me back to that Shel Silverstein poem “Whatif,” where he talks about all the doubts and fears that dance around inside of him.
When my sister was born, it all got worse. Apparently she was in such a rush to get out of my mom’s stomach that she almost fell onto the floor. My sister came out screaming so loud that she busted a hole in her lungs, and had to stay in the intensive care unit for a week. Those family albums show her walking, then running, and then riding a skateboard, when she was three years old.
When I was five, my parents started pushing me to join all sorts of activities, which unfortunately were all physically demanding. Gymnastics, swimming, soccer, tae kwon do, and even golf. ae kwon do was the worst. It was a big room filled with kids kicking and punching stuff. Why would I ever do that? I cried, wet, salty tears pouring down my face, fists balled up, feet stuck to the ground, as my mom tried to gently nudge—and then finally shoved—me in. It was like those scary movies where people get forced into a torture chamber. I remember thinking, Why are they making me do this? I obviously don’t want to do it! When we left, I was so relieved that I didn’t even care that the other kids were staring at my blotchy, red face.
When I got older, around seven or eight, it was gymnastics for both me and my sister. We were in different classes, but I could see her across the gym, having the time of her life, swinging across the bars and jumping on balance beams. I, on the other hand, couldn’t even figure out how to do a simple cartwheel. I could see myself in the mirror doing this crabby, bent-over thing. My sister, who was two years younger than me, was doing stuff I never expected to learn. As much as I longed to be able to do anything that looked good, I knew I would never be able to. The feeling of hopelessness and disappointment was so thick and heavy that sometimes I couldn’t breathe. And jealousy too. There was a horrible piece of me that wanted her to mess up. Not totally fail, but just enough so that I might feel better about myself.
A couple years ago, when my mom brought up the idea of learning how to ride a bike and how cool it was, I instantly thought of the disasters that had happened when I was younger. I looked down at the beige rug covered in ornate designs so that I wouldn’t have to look at her. Then maybe she would forget I was there. My sister was exuberant, jumping up and down, squealing with anticipation, begging to go now. My hands were clammy and had found a binder clip to play with clumsily. That was when my dad marched triumphantly into the room with a brand-new, shiny, purple bike. He told us that it was the best bike to learn on, and if we got good, we could get a second one so we could ride together. He said it like we were all super happy to do this, like we had planned this together a long time ago.
But we hadn’t, at least not me. I sat there at the mahogany dining table, my heart beating faster, my head hurting because of all the blood rushing to it. I was numb, not sure what to say, trying to think what I should do. My mom told me to go to the park with my dad so I could learn first. But I was frozen. So, she decided that my sister could go first. I was relieved but still troubled, knowing that I would still have to learn later. Grow up, I told myself. Grow up, grow up.
They left, my sister squealing with delight. I continued to sit, glued to my seat. My hands now fiddling with a rubber band, the rubber weaving in and out, forming an intricate design. My mother came over and plopped down next to me in the cushioned beige chair, her laptop in hand, its rose-gold border gleaming in the bright ceiling light.
“You know, I understand how you might not like these things,” she said as she scrolled down the page on her screen, not looking at me.
“It’s not that I don’t like sports; it’s that I don’t like trying new sports,” I said defensively, instantly regretting the words that had just come out of my mouth. My dad always talked about how sporty he’d been as a kid, my mom was always willing to try anything and never seemed to feel embarrassed, and my sister was perfect. In this family, saying stuff like what I just said was basically admitting that I was a big loser.
My mom looked up at me over the rim of her charcoal-black glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. “The point of trying out all these different things is that you never know what you’ll end up liking or being good at. If you never get out there and try, how will you ever find out?” She rested her head on her fist, pausing to take a breath. “Nobody is good the first time out. Nobody already knows how to ride a bike.”
“Nobody is good the first time out. Nobody already knows how to ride a bike.”
I shrugged and frowned, which caused my mother to tilt her head sideways and look me up and down, her lips pressed together, as if deciding what type of person I would become. My head was filled with thoughts, doubts, and fears, my mouth trying to let the words out. But I knew there was only a little space, for one or two, before she would start lecturing me again. As if reading my mind: “If you’re concerned about being compared to someone else, you’re not. No one is judging you. We know everyone has different strengths, including you.”
I wanted to say, I should be better than my sister! I’m older, so I should be her role model! She shouldn’t be mine! But I didn’t. I could feel tears welling up and my throat swelling. I didn’t want my mother to see, so I looked down and hid my face in my hair. I swallowed, trying to get past the lump in my throat, wondering how I was supposed to have courage and not be afraid of little things like riding a bike.
My mom sighed, raising her eyebrows in an arch. Getting up from her chair, she said, “Give yourself a break and realize that everyone stumbles before they can walk.”
An hour and a half later, my dad came home with my sister. She was filled with joy, begging to know when she could go out and ride again. I was still sitting in the exact same place. From the kitchen, my mom raised an eyebrow and tilted her head at me. My dad stood there with a glass of water, “You know, you should give it a chance. You see how happy your sister is.”
As soon as he said that, I sighed, and thought, Again with the comparing? I said out loud, “I know, but she’s totally different than me!”
My dad looked at me, his eyes twinkling in amusement, and said sarcastically, “You think?” He cleared his throat and got serious. “Look, if you don’t want to give this a try, we understand. But we think you can do it, just like millions of other people, young and old, and we actually think you will like it if you give it a try.”
I frowned and rolled my eyes. “Fine. I’ll try it, but I can’t guarantee I’ll like it.”
My dad smiled, “Of course. That’s all we ask: just give it a chance.”
I slowly put on my cerulean blue sneakers, my fingers fumbling to tie the laces, my heart feeling like it was going to explode. It’s now or never, I told myself.
I followed my dad down the street to Central Park, through crowds of tourists and barking dogs, numb with dread. We passed into the lush greenery and along the dirt path, leading away from the ashy grey stone gateway. This is it. But my brain told me that I didn’t truly want to do this. I had visions of blood flowing out of big open gashes spread across my arms and legs.
We got to the flat cement area next to the volleyball courts, where the skateboarders ride. There were all kinds of people out that day, and I self-consciously looked around to spot anyone who might be watching me. My dad held the bike and told me to throw my leg over and jump on the seat. I got on the bike and it wobbled dangerously and my heart jumped painfully in my chest. But he held the handlebars firmly.
“I’m going to hold on to you. Don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “Just start pushing down with your feet, like you used to do with your tricycle.”
One push after another, the bike slowly started to budge. I started to push my feet down harder. The pedals were surprisingly easy to move, but the bike tilted from side to side and I kept my eyes glued to my feet. I was sure that I would fall if my dad wasn’t holding me up. We went back and forth on the pavement several times, and my thighs started to burn. But then I realized it was easier if I wasn’t looking down at my feet, measuring each push. I started to look forward and suddenly my feet moved more easily and it felt like I wasn’t tilting so much. My dad was still holding on, but now he had to run to keep up.
Finally, on the ninth or tenth time, I said, “I think I can do it myself!” He looked at me with a mixture of happiness and surprise, and then, he let go. I started peddling like crazy at that point, my legs suddenly not burning at all, feeling light as feathers falling off a bird, moving faster with each down motion. I was flying. I took deep breaths, smelling the fresh green spring air mingled with salty hotdogs and mustardy soft pretzels. I could see the skateboarders in front of me, feel the wind blowing gently against my face. I felt free, as if my arms were wings, and my feet were lifting me up from the ground. I squeezed the hand brakes and slowed down to stop. I turned to look at my dad. He was smiling, proud and happy: “Great job!”
I smiled. “Can I keep going?”
As we walked home, I was oblivious to the fact that the vendors were packing up their trucks and that the sun was almost down. I had a grin stretched so wide and for so long that my face hurt. I could hear the birds chirping happily, giving me a sense of hope and a new beginning. I thought to myself, That wasn’t so bad at all! Maybe I’m better at this physical activity thing than I thought! My dad was saying something about how he was right all along, but I wasn’t listening. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
When we got home, my mom asked, “How was it?”
I smiled, “Great!” I paused and then continued: “I learned how to ride a bike, and it was really fun!”
She had a huge smile on her face. “Well, good!” She poured me a glass of water and I took it from her, walking over to my chair at the dinner table where I had been glued with fear just a few hours earlier. The coldness shocked my fingertips and I sat down, again feeling numb, but this time because of all the wonderful feelings swelling in my heart.