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Grateful

A simple bike ride to school occasions a complex meditation on life

7:35 a.m. My mind is still heavy with sleep, barely woken up by my hurried breakfast. It only allows one thought in at a time, so two words are looping through my head: get ready. I take a last gulp of lukewarm tea and place my lunchbox in the basket on the side of my bicycle. I try to get my thoughts in order as I strap on my helmet and roll the bike out of the garage. I tie my sneakers, the laces chafing my cold fingers, and pull two layers of warm mittens onto my hands. I pause for a moment to look back at my house. It is the smallest on my street, painted a dull brown. I can see warm golden light flooding the rooms inside, illuminating the furniture, each piece of which seems to be having a friendly conversation with the others. I glimpse my younger brother’s face inside. He is smiling. The contented spirit of the house seems to reach out of the dusty windows and embrace me. I carry an image of it in my heart. My talisman.

7:40 a.m. I pedal out onto the street. The crisp, chilly morning air wraps around me like a cloak, blowing the wisps of sleepiness out of my hair and eyelids. Somewhere, I can hear the cheerful fluting of an early songbird. I blink and lean forward in the saddle. I am ready.

7:43 a.m. After a couple of minutes, I take a sudden turn onto the main road. The change hits me like a slap—the formerly empty streets are filled with rushing, honking cars, the peace of the morning cut to pieces with sound and motion. But both environments are so familiar to me that I take a strange pleasure in the new leg of my route.

7:46 a.m. My bike grinds to a halt in front of the main intersection. It is filled with early morning traffic. I walk my bike to a pole and press the walk button, then lean back in my seat to wait.

Gradually, a crowd of children appears behind me, filling up the sidewalk. They wait on their bikes, some chattering quietly. Others sit and stare ahead, breathless from their ride. They all have the same look in their eyes—that expression of blank determination. It is the only expression to have when the cold is biting through two layers of mittens and numbing your cheeks. Scarves and conversation are the thawing agents for those kids. The thing that thaws my fingers is the thought that there are some things that are gifted only to me—the sight of my tiny, welcoming house, my muddy-but-strong Goodwill sneakers, the texture of tattered cloth in my fingers. That knowledge is as much a part of my body as my arms and legs, throbbing slowly in the chilly air. I can see this knowledge flickering in their determined-yet-carefree faces, but it is more than a flicker in me. It is a flame, keeping me alive.

7:48 a.m. The cars are facing each other like bulls rearing for a fight, engines growling softly. It takes me a moment to register the faint, ghostly white form flickering ahead: the walk sign. A second later, the group of bicycles is whooshing across the road. We are like a single form, the colors of the bikes blending and blurring together as we ride. We reach the sidewalk and disperse like colorful butterflies, many remaining in tight groups of two or three. I ride alone, as always, savoring the scent of the apple blossoms, which have fallen over the bike path like a carpet.

7:55 a.m. I take a turn into a wooded, shady trail. The trees arch over me. Red and gold ivy climbs over the walls on either side of me, spiraling and curling over the peeling paint. With satisfaction, I think about how the trail will look coming home from school: sun-dappled, the green-gold shadows dancing on the path before me. Only a few riders accompany me on this leg of the route, going and coming: I will enjoy the beauty alone. That is the moment I look forward to all day, the thought sustaining me through seven hours of misery and happiness, dappling the hallways of the school like sunlight on the road.

I gaze at the picturesque sight with the same bittersweet pleasure I feel every morning

8:00 a.m. The few bikers remaining with me turn right at the intersection, their flashy wheels glinting as they move. I pause and watch them for a few moments. The road ahead of them is smooth and nearly shiny, the spotless streets lined with green ginkgo trees, immaculate bushes, and sprawling, pastel-hued houses. Their colorful coats dot the landscape, and I gaze at the picturesque sight with the same bittersweet pleasure I feel every morning. Finally, I take a quick glance at my cracked pink watch and ride precipitately in the opposite direction.

8:02 a.m. I ride in the middle of the road—there is no bike path here. The path becomes increasingly cracked and dusty as I move forward, and I watch the ground carefully, avoiding a fall. The houses, packed together like sardines, line the streets. The idea crosses my mind, as it does every morning, that the grimy-yet-sunshiny yellow walls look suffocated, like caged tigers. But the simile, however impressive, does not fit. The houses are more like the stray cats that sometimes sleep on the road in this part of town— bedraggled and tired, yet strangely contented. The thought leaves my mind as quickly as it came, and I wave to an acquaintance standing on her doorstep. The time to linger and dream is gone.

8:05 a.m. My school, from the outside, looks much like the identical yellow houses that captured my imagination a few streets down. It has a bed of flowers growing in the front. Just daisies, nothing more—yet they tug at my heart every morning as I pass their dusty, begrimed container. Their surroundings seem to have no effect on the delicate rosy petals, a testimony to the resilience of the least flashy blooms.

I park my bike and undo my ponytail. The dingy walls of my school make something taste bitter in my mouth as I walk past them in the morning. Images flash through my head. The smooth, painted walls of the school on the other side of town. The sparkling, decorated bicycles of my fellow bikers alongside my own scratched black one, a picture I always try to forget. The expensive backpacks stuffed carelessly into bike bags.

Something aches in my chest. The word darts through my mind, the color of earthbound spring weeds: envy.

And then I think of the splendid wooded trail, the roads filled with apple blossoms, the colorful whoosh of the bicycles crossing the road. I think of the cheerful yellow houses packed along the sides of the street. I think of my brother’s smiling face in the window. My heart feels light. Winged. There are some things that are gifted only to me.

Vandana Ravi
Vandana Ravi, 12
Palo Alto, CA

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