The other day, I took a ride I hadn’t taken in a long, long time.
I ended up in Long Branch, New Jersey, as I’d planned. I rode there back in December. But I made a wrong turn just as I was leaving the industrial and post-industrial necropolis of north-central New Jersey took a very different route from the one I’d planned. I didn’t mind: It was a very satisfying ride that took me away from the traffic streaming in and out of the shopping malls that day, the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend.
But on Sunday I took the route I rode so many times in my youth, through the weathered Jersey Shore communities that line Route 36 from Keyport to the Highlands. So much was as I remembered it from the last time I rode it, twenty years ago, and the first time I rode it, twenty years before that. Then I crossed over the arched bridge that spans the Shrewsbury River where it empties into Sandy Hook Bay and drops into the spit of land that separates the river and bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
At the top of the bridge, the ocean stretches as far as you can see. Whether it was bluer than any eye or stone I’ve ever seen, or grayer than steel, nothing made me better than seeing it and descending that bridge.
Here is something I wrote about the experience of doing that ride for the first time as a woman named Justine—after many, many journeys as a boy and man named Nick:
Yesterday’s ride brought back memories of the race.
I did not make the turn. I could not. I did not for many, many years. But yesterday I did.
Either way meant pedaling uphill. To the left I went. Two hills, instead of one. Between them, a brief flat, where I could regain some of the momentum I’d lost.
But the climbs were neither as long nor as steep as I remembered. I forgot that I’m not in as good shape as I was the last time I did this ride, this race, more than twenty years ago.
To get to the ocean and back. That was all I had to do in those days. To the ocean and back before dark, before the air grew as cold and night as false as the water, as the reflections on it: my reflections.
All I had to do was get back for dinner. At least, that’s all I was told to do. Sunday; you simply did not miss dinner. You couldn’t even be late for it. So there was only so much time to get there, to get to the ocean and back.
I am pedaling on memory now. My body’s memory: the only kind. The first time I did this ride, when I was a teenager. The last time, twenty years later, twenty years ago.
Before the memory, I knew nothing. I could only move ahead, I could only pedal. Gotta make it. I could not stop. My memory of this ride, this race, could not, could not let me. You will. I could not hear; when you’re in this race, you can’t.
On that flat between the climbs, a woman walked toward me. She says something; I can only see her. She knows me perfectly well; I don’t. She does not stop me; I cannot.
She would climb these hills many more times. You’ll make it! How does she know? I have no other choice.
The climb is easier when you have a memory of the race. It’s inevitable. You couldn’t go any other way. There is only the race, the climb, that ends at a bridge that you’ll cross because there is no other way over the bay, to the ocean.
Because I made the turn. Because I couldn’t have gone any other way. Not when a teenaged boy’s elbows and knees slung him forward on his saddle and up the hills. Not when the memory of a woman in late middle age, the electricity in her flesh—his flesh—guides the wheels beneath her, beneath him, over the bridge and to the ocean.
The day is clear. Reflections of the sun pulse; she moves the weight of his bones down a narrow strip between the bay and the ocean all the way to the end. His end, where he turned around for the race. He would have to get there and back while he could; she knew he would but he could not. He could not have known. He could only push; he could only pump.
The sunset is even clearer. Weathered houses stand ready; the abandoned ones lost to the tides. I am pedaling into the wind but my bike rolls as easily and smoothly over cracked asphalt as boats, sails like wings fluttering between ripples of water and clouds.
They will reach their shores, whoever is guiding them, whoever guided them years ago. I came to the end of yesterday’s ride on my memory of a race: the teenaged boy who first followed these roads, the young man who did not know how to turn; the man who would not—and, finally, twenty years later, the woman who could not. She crossed the bridge to the ocean.
Yesterday I rode on the memory of that race, the race that I am.