1969 Honda CL 125 Scrambler, maroon and chrome, an on-off road bike with a high exhaust and skid plates: my dad’s last motorcycle and my earliest memory. He took the helmetless kids on the block for rides one day. We lined up for our turn, like for a carnival ride, and we each got one lap around the long, steep block. Although I waited with impatience for my turn, I wanted the ride to end as soon as it started. My perch felt precarious. I wasn’t big enough to straddle the seat, and my kindergartener’s legs stuck straight out from under my mini, flower-child dress. I grabbed Dad’s waist to keep me aboard, and I cherished a brief moment of physical closeness with my aloof father. This was the first and last time that I would feel small on a motorcycle’s passenger seat, which tend to be the size and consistency of a toaster. We were not to mention the ride to Mom, who never went out on any of Dad’s motorbikes.
Every morning, Dad took a cloverleaf freeway off-ramp on his way to work. He rode flat out in third gear, the Honda leaning sideways as he accelerated into the tight turn, popping into fourth as he exited the curve. He couldn’t make himself slow down or wear a helmet. He never went down on a bike, but he felt that motorcycling was too risky once he had a family. Dad sold the bike and never bought another, although he kept his helmet for forty years. I never got another ride from him.
Two months before I met him, my husband crashed into a chain-link fence on his six-year-old motorcycle: a 1981 Suzuki Twin Turbo GS-1100, black with orange stripes. Among the first of the high performance bikes that gave birth to the term “crotch rocket,” the bike could hit 120 mph in a ten-second quarter-mile, which is about how far Richard traveled a few hours after his submarine docked. After fifty-six days underwater, Richard had no land legs, much less the ability to steer a bike marketed as The Speed King through a network of cul-de-sacs. Itching for freedom and movement, he took the bike out for a quick test spin. He wore flip flops, swim trunks, a tank top, and sunglasses. No helmet. The bike left the road in a curve and hit a fence’s center post head-on. The impact cracked the bike’s engine casing. Richard flew up onto the top of the fence, which carved twin tracks down his scalp. The fence boomeranged him back into the center of the street, fifty feet away. I think of the cracked engine and Richard’s head as the same entity, but at the time no one knew how badly his brain had been damaged. The military hospital only fixed his broken arm. He hid an abundant amount of non-regulation hair under his sailor’s cap, so I guess they figured there was enough cushioning to dispense with X-rays or brain scans.
Two months after the collision, arm cast removed, Richard crossed on a Don’t Walk to the street corner where I was standing with a friend, waiting for the Walk. “You girls look bored,” he said, which I guess I was. There was something intriguingly off-kilter about him. He tried an unusual pickup tactic. He took my fingers and ran them along the Frankenstein’s monster scars on his scalp, palpable even under copious eighties hair product and a stiff mat of hair. He was definitely not run-of-the-mill; most guys who’ve just had their brains raked probably aren’t.
I believe that Richard continued to date me over the summer because he needed my dad’s pickup truck to haul his 1970 Triumph Tiger 650 to a friend’s garage. We were ill-matched, this moody boy and I, but he expanded my vocabulary with terms like “Project Bike.” I thought this meant someday riding a restored, antique motorcycle, a gorgeous and coveted object of beauty, but later I learned the true definition: doesn’t run now and never will. Two months after I met him, Richard had another head injury, owing to poor decision-making that turned out to be a direct result of that fence forking his brain. Those moods of his that spiraled increasingly out of control led to my decision to stop dating him; they were really the symptoms of an undiagnosed and untreated Traumatic Brain Injury. He said the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place to the wrong group of people, who wiped his head against the concrete and put him into a coma. When he awoke, the doctor proclaimed him a vegetable. I don’t know what happened to the Triumph, which he never got started.
My brother’s low-rider was the biggest Harley Davidson on the market: a 1985 FXRS 1340 Low Glide blockhead. Unfortunately, it glided too low in a too-small cloverleaf just a mile from the cloverleaf Dad used to take. My brother spent the next year in and out of the hospital, undergoing six surgeries to save his arm, which is now more metal than bone. Meanwhile, I drove Richard to the same hospital a few times a week and would visit my brother while Richard learned to walk and talk again. I never had the chance to stop dating him, and, besides, he slept most of the time now, so he wasn’t much trouble. Since we were already living the life of an old married couple, we got hitched.
The Navy wisely decided that it would be best to never trust Richard with steering a nuclear submarine again, but rather than lingering like an eggplant as the doctor predicted, Richard became an egghead. He surpassed me in advanced degrees and became a college teacher so that he could have summers off for motorcycle trips. After seven years together, we threw out the birth control and bought a classic bike, a 1971 BMW R75 Slash 5. It made no sense at the time, but we hadn’t done anything by the book thus far. We fell over on our first tandem ride. Not far along, no permanent damage. Rather similar to the miscarriage that followed not much later. With both, we shrugged, then got back on the horse and tried again. I hadn’t ridden the motorcycle while pregnant, and I never would. Although my mother thought the bike might “vibrate that baby right out of you,” the doctor rolled his eyes and waved that possibility away. But I knew my literature. Holly Golightly “lost the heir” after she galloped her horse through New York City streets. A century earlier, Middlemarch’s equally spirited Rosamond Vincy also miscarried after saddling up, so I wouldn’t tempt fate on the back of a machine with the power of fifty horses but only two hooves.
The next spring I bought my very own first motorcycle: a 1969 Honda CL 125, now called an Enduro. A gritty little all-terrain endurance machine with studded tires that could handle mud and rocks. I knew a lot of women who’d had one miscarriage, but I didn’t know any who had two like me. I’d left the beaten path and was on the road to learning a lot about endurance, but I didn’t know a damn thing about manual transmissions, and this bike had no electric start. Kick-starting a motorcycle is sexy, we all know that, but it took me a dozen tries to leverage my not insignificant weight against a peg of iron until the engine flatulated to life. Then I’d stall out as I staccatoed instead of eased out the clutch. I never left the driveway, but I developed a killer calf muscle. Not until years later did I realize this was the same bike model on which I’d taken my virgin motorcycle ride with my father.
I rode a 1994 Honda 125, a nondescript course-issued bike, for a motorcycle safety course. With its push-start button, I could fire the bike up just fine after killing the engine dozens of times throughout the morning session in a parking lot. Kind of the same with my uterus: started up a pregnancy just fine, then came that sickening lurch and halt. The teacher yelled at me over and over, “More gas! More gas! More gas!” By midday, I still could not get the bike to move forward more than a couple of inches, helped along by my feet more than the engine. Fed up with being at the bottom of the class for the first time in my perfect GPA life, I gave it more gas and popped a wheelie, picking up a surprising amount of speed in first gear as I headed on one tire for the chain-link fence that surrounded the parking lot. I wore a helmet so I would not sport a twin scalp to my husband’s. Still, a spectacular ricochet off the fence looked imminent just as I pulled in the clutch. The motorcycle lowered itself and tapped the earth, and I stopped a few feet short of impact without cutting the engine. I completed the lap, then quit the class. I clearly had no aptitude for a sport disguised as transportation, which required as much testosterone as coordination, neither of which I had.
I learned to work a clutch on an old sports car Richard bought for me after I nearly died with an ectopic pregnancy. Teaching me to operate the car’s manual transmission, Richard practiced the infinite patience he’d thought he wouldn’t need until we had a teenager. Since I could now work a gear shift, and since I’d also lost some of my female organs along with the baby, perhaps I could now be ballsy enough to man-handle a bike. I signed up again for the motorcycle riding course and passed it on the course-issued 1995 Honda 125, this time with no unintentional stunts.
I earned my motorcycle license on a 1983 Yamaha Exciter 185cc, electric blue (faded). I weaved around cones that a Harley rider knocked over one after another, like a drunk bear trampling a row of tulips. I loved this bike, but grannies with shopping carts could pass me on the road on that little machine. I sold it prematurely, wanting something bigger and more powerful, which I guess comes with the territory of boy toys.
We bought a bullet-nosed, fiberglass, detachable Harley sidecar—scuffed black—for Richard’s bike. For a dog, as it turned out.
After the latest pregnancy loss, feeling antsy, Richard decided to take a motorcycle cross-country. I had no desire for more discomfort and unknowns, so I would remain home, hopefully gestating yet another attempt at parenthood. The vintage BMW was too unreliable for the journey, so Richard bought a dark green, 1994 Yamaha Virago 750cc, a barely-used bike with 498 miles on the odometer. I noticed a lot of barely-used bikes for sale. Lots of people quit early in the game. It just wasn’t as easy as it looked.
I got more looks in one week on my next bike than I had in three decades on foot: a 1994 Kawasaki Eliminator 250. Sleek, black with red piping, powerful, another barely-used bike. With a low-end torque and narrow speed band, I shifted four times by the time it hit twenty. Few certainties in life compared to the feel of my boot-toe pressing down on the gear shift, the subsequent chunking of shifting gears, their popping into place that settled in my joints. I craved the visceral sense of control, the sure cause and effect, the transference of power from bone to metal back to vibrating bone. Then the bike would hit its stride and take off on its own. After another miscarriage, I decided last-minute to join Richard on his cross-country trip, but on my own bike. This bike wasn’t big enough, either. After nearly hitting a tree on a practice run and killing my engine in the middle of a six-lane highway, I realized that riding my own motorcycle would handily solve our fertility problem because I would kill myself. While I loved to shift, I never found the confidence to lean into turns. In the end, I made the practical choice and rode cross-country on the back of Richard’s bike. For the record, let’s please call that chrome arch behind me a back rest rather than a sissy bar. If I’m riding at all, I’m no sissy.
We had nothing left to prove after twenty-six states and ten thousand miles on a bike that everyone said would be too small. Scaling down our expectations to a 1962 Sears Allstate scooter 49cc seemed like a good idea. It was a cycle originally sold out of a department store catalog. The 49cc engine must have been giving the finger to some old regulation—or else why not 50cc? Perhaps the one extra cubic centimeter of power would have promoted it from a catalog toy to an adult machine. Cubic centimeter is simply the amount of power, but in reality cc as the measuring unit of displacement is as complicated as the miraculous, tricky, and perfect timing of cell division required of an embryo.
So we already had four cycles. But how could Richard resist a beautiful bike, the man’s version of retail therapy after a fifth miscarriage? He bought a 1967 Triumph Bonneville 750 from a friend. The owner, Theo, a quirky jeweler, designed a tenth-anniversary necklace that Richard surprised me with. Theo had engraved the engine casings with a Tom Pinion 1600s clock design of thistles, leaves, and vines. Hey, if you’re going to tattoo yourself, you might as well tattoo your bike. Second definition of Project Bike: motorcycle that doesn’t run, sold from friend to friend to friend in order to decorate a succession of garages. A bike that gives a gaggle of guys something to stare at while drinking beer rather than looking each other in the eye and having a meaningful conversation about, say, one’s thwarted desire to become a father. They talk instead about strokes, pistons, and thrust.
A rider should be able to set her feet flat on the ground, which I could do with very few bikes. Our next Project Bike was meant for me: a 1965 Honda Superhawk 305, silver. The Superchicken, as we fondly dubbed it, fit me perfectly, but Richard never found the energy to get it running well. We were both tired. Sold to the same friend who bought the Bonneville. This motorcycle merry-go-round started to feel like me, passed from doctor to doctor to doctor.
By coincidence, our next bike was a 1957 Lambretta 125cc scooter, the same make my father rode home from swing shift at the Pearl Harbor machine shop when I was a baby because it was the only reliable form of transportation Dad could afford. About forty years later, ours was a rare basket case. “Basket Case” meant all of the parts were there but not assembled. Alternate definition for Basket Case: me after six miscarriages. Something simply wasn’t firing right.