Of Rusted Bars and Bent Spokes

Clak-clak-clack.

With every rotation of the pedal, the chains continued to harshly grind against the gears and back cassette of the bike.

I squeezed another generous helping of canola oil into a kitchen towel and viciously rubbed the dirty chains. I understood that oil was a slippery substance, a lubricant used in machinery to prevent parts from clashing and making these rough noises. Unfortunately, the educational system never taught my nine-year-old self the difference between kerosene and regular cooking oil, and when I cranked the pedal again, the clak-clak-clak returned to mock me.

Annoyed, I tossed the rag, snatched the bottle of canola, and poured the remaining quarter liter over the chain. The viscid coating, thickening and dripping like syrup, only attracted a pancake of dust and made the bike more difficult to pedal.

There had been a time when the only sound the bike made was the sweet purring of spinning wheels. Three summers before my foolish chain greasing attempt, I strolled to the park with a new, sleek two-wheeler by my side. With vibrant party streamers dangling off the handles, glossy pink bars, and pearly white seats, the bike seized the attention of every park-goer. I bathed in the limelight as well, and when a neighbor girl spotted the ride, she glared at me briefly before rearranging her face and giving me a falsetto hello.

"Nice bike," she chimed, swaying from her heels to her toes. "Is it new?"

"Yup." I walked on, but the girl was persistent and followed. The bike wheeled in the middle, the handles wobbling back and forth between us, curious of our interaction.

After the girl failed the coax the bike out of me, she stomped away, and I turned around to gladly watch her go - I was immune to her pleading and was never the sharing type of person. However, in my distraction, I didn't pay attention to my steering and the bike pedal grazed against my leg. I hissed at the wound and gave the bike a dirty look.

"Jeez, what are you mad at," I joked as I hopped on, not expecting a neon pink bike to have a strong moral conscience. But the bike did, and like an untamed stallion, made every attempt to shake off its selfish owner and have her crashing into the ground.

Although my bike remained lively throughout the summers, it hibernated most winters. So, one early spring morning, six months after the canola incident, I unlocked my bike from the railing for a refreshing ride around the block. The last of the heavy Massachusetts snow had melted, and I had been pretty excited about the reunion with my bike. A speedy trip with a familiar friend was more preferable than a sluggish solitary walk.

To my disappointment, I was greeted with rusted bars, a missing taillight, and multiple creaks and groans. My excitement turned to embarrassment, and I heaved my bike indoors and ran a bucket of water and rolls of toilet paper. I settled down and began one of many quick-fix maintenance. I scrubbed the handles and bars with the dampened toilet paper, trying to remove the rust. I would learn of oxidization years later in chemistry, but for now, I washed meticulously in hopes of saving my bike.

When there existed fluorescent-white rubber handles, gleaming spokes, adorned designs of bold flower bombs, and a sparkling tail light, words like maintenance did not. I slammed the bike on concrete, tossed it against trees, dragged it up stairs, and banged it against walls and doors. When I rode, I tried idiotic stunts that would land both the bike and me in numerous injuries. And when wheels were not busy being furiously rubbed away, I left the bike outside to collect dust on lazy days and rust on quiet nights. Merciless rains would sometimes pelt down and soak the metal and plastics on solemn moments.

On the September I entered the middle school I sat on the outside stone stairs and examined my bike. The vibrant streamers, once brilliant and obnoxious, faded to a few limp hairs on a bald head. The rubber handles, once neon white and voluminous, were abraded so many times, the rusted metal bars underneath became visible at the ends. Where the metal was not exposed, the dirty and oily gray rubber flapped pitifully along with the streamers. The pink frame was recognized as a gruesome salmon, caked with oxidized iron. The saddle had been replaced with a bundle of cheap cloth after the plastic ripped and pealed off. The brakes fell off altogether, a metal limb lost somewhere in the vast park. The spokes had also collected an assortment of tethered fabrics, hairs, and other road trash that I could not pry off. I stared and stared, mentally scheming of ways to salvage my bike – wrap tape around the handles, buy a few ribbons, scrape off the rust, paint the metal, sow in a new seat… the list was endless. But this time, there was no canola oil bottle next to me, no toilet paper, no tape; I had only a mental list.

"Wow, that thing is DYING," my friend courteously pointed out one day. "And my six year old sis has a bigger bike than that. How do you even fit anymore?"

"Umm… well, I just pedal standing up. And I like the small wheels – it's easy to pedal extremely fast!" I defended, a little flustered.

"… did you tape that thingy on?"

I turned a shade of pink that would make my bike proud.

Still, regardless of my friend's comment, I kept my bike, just like how I kept it every time I moved to another home, or how I kept it after superglue fallen parts. I nearly doubled in age before I finally accepted the inevitability and gave my bike a funeral. Still, as I reluctantly wheeled my bike towards the apartment dumpster, I could not help but wondering what if. What if I hadn't been so careless, been so violent, taken better care of it, didn't do such stupid things... would my bike have survived another year or two?

No, I would have outgrown my bike eventually, I reasoned, if only to excuse my mistakes.

Then I carefully leaned my bike against the garbage and lingered there. I almost wanted to reach out, grab those familiar rubber handles, wheel my bike back to my apartment, and apologize. But that was silly, and my brain was commanding me return home to dinner. Caught in the middle between the hurricanes of desire and logic, I just stood there, staring at my decrepit bike.

The autumn wind blew and, as always, the bike creaked, slightly swaying back and forth. The bike was old, its metal pipes resembling old aching bones, and yet, the way it moved reminded of a baby's carriage, an empty baby carriage, desolate.

Then I noticed something. My bike was not shaking, shuddering, rocking, nor dying – my bike was tougher than that, tougher than me. The bike was waving a goodbye, at the end of its journey, but the wave was far from cheerful. Nor was there any tone of melancholy hanging in the air; merely, the wave was a curt farewell, one bike to biker, and once the wind ended, my bike yawned with one last creak and went to sleep.

I left, feeling pang of regret, but at the same time, was too dispassionate to be overly nostalgic and stay in the cold any longer. The contradiction made no sense, but as I walked away, I knew I was too young, too soft, too naïve to be free from sappy sentiments. Sentiments that nearly prompted me to graffiti on the side of the dumpster bin:

Rest in pieces, dear bike - teacher, companion, and friend.