When I was nine years old, the object of my desire was a yellow bike. It had high, curving handlebars like a chopper, the rubber grips trailing multicolored tassels. It had a long banana seat of richest vinyl. In fact, the bike itself was exactly the color of a banana – ripe and tantalizing. It occupied my thoughts, waking and sleeping, all summer long.
I’d seen it in the toy section of King’s department store in South Portland, Maine. Even then, in the early 80s, King’s was going the way of the dodo. Many of its shelves were nearly empty, the scant offerings opened or broken or covered in a film of dust. It’s where my mom bought my imitation Bean boots and Toughskins for the upcoming school year. And it was on that shopping trip that I first beheld the Yellow Bike.
My mother’s response when the begging began was a flat “No.” I had a perfectly good bike, a red boy’s bike we’d bought at a yard sale the previous year, which was already too short for my legs. But I couldn’t let it go. I fantasized about riding the Yellow Bike through my neighborhood, and through my grandparents’ neighborhood (I practically lived with them in those days), coasting along, maybe even doing daring tricks like standing on the seat or putting my feet through the handlebars. The Yellow Bike was magnificent – so bright, so shiny, so…feminine. My vanity knew no bounds, and I whined and wheedled for weeks. I wanted that damn girly bike.
I had never in my young life experienced this kind of all-consuming need, this wanting. The Yellow Bike haunted me. It wouldn’t leave me alone. I was possessed.
Then one day, shortly after school began, I walked home to my grandparents’ house. When I reached the driveway, I saw the garage door was up, and could see my grandfather inside. As I drew closer, I saw something else: a graceful form of most vibrant yellow, chrome gleaming, kickstand down, leaning jauntily, the tassels curling like unicorn tails. I may have dropped my book bag. I know I broke into a dead run.
It turns out my grandparents bought the bike for me. I remember hugging my grandfather, hanging off him as though he were a tire swing, babbling a gibberish of gratitude. My grandfather (who I still called GaGa) tried to look stern, but I could tell he was pleased.
“Can I ride it?” I asked breathlessly. “Can I ride it right now?”
“Just hold your horses,” he said. “I’m almost finished.”
As I watched, my expression of unbridled joy began to sag into one of confusion. Then dismay.
“GaGa, what are you doing?” My eyes darted between him and the bike like those of a trapped animal. What was that in his hands? What in the name of Nancy Drew was he bolting to the back of my perfect bicycle?
“We need to make it safe, sugar plum,” was his cryptic reply.
When he was done, a six-foot orange pole bobbed from the back of the bike. It was topped by a triangular flag, also electric orange, emblazoned with the cheery salute, HEY BABY! He grasped the handlebars and the grip at the back of the seat, beckoning me to climb aboard. “Now drivers can see you.” I hesitated. “Go on.”
Drivers? Astronauts would see me from space. I never imagined I would be reluctant to ride this Holy Grail of bikes, that I would dither for even a moment before leaping onto the pedals and tearing out of the driveway, peeling out in a cloud of dust. But now…
That summer, my best friend Katherine Murray, who lived two houses down, had moved to California. Within weeks, a new family took up residence, and their son (we’ll call him Scut Farkus -yes, I’ve seen A Christmas Story an unhealthy number of times) had made it his mission to torment me every chance he got. That he lived in Katherine’s house, once the scene of so much happiness, was a particularly bitter irony. He chased me around the neighborhood, whipping me with his new Indiana Jones plastic bullwhip. Just last weekend, he’d tied me to a tree.
But when I saw the puzzled look spreading on GaGa’s face, I took hold of the handlebars. I didn’t want to disappoint him, or sour this amazing gift – and his equally amazing generosity – by arguing or showing my chagrin. “I love it,” I said, climbing into the seat. And then I set off, pedaling furiously up the driveway. I knew in my heart that Scut might leave me alone were it just me and the bike — but there was no way he would allow that orange flag to fly.
Maybe Scut Farkus isn’t home. Or maybe he’s inside playing with his Hot Wheels. I told myself these comforting lies as I pedaled down the street, feet pumping, and his house loomed into view. Maybe…
Scut was out in his driveway stomping on ants. I knew him by his slouch, his bulk, and his curly brown hair, always oddly moist. In that moment, some terrible synchronicity, or maybe telepathy, made him look up just as I rode past. It was as if he’d heard my panicked thoughts. Our eyes locked. Scut grinned a carnivorous, wolfish smile, his eyes moving from mine to the orange flag fluttering by. Within seconds he was on his Huffy in hot pursuit.
I’d like to say I outran him. Or outwitted him when I veered off onto the path through the woods. I’d like to say I stood up to him, that I fought him and won, or even persuaded him with my impassioned eloquence to leave off the bullying and become a nicer person. But that’s not what happened.
He ran me off the path, and I went tumbling into a stand of ferns. I hid in the underbrush while Scut took hold of my bike and, in an instant, snapped off the HEY BABY! flag. Then he stomped on the yellow bike, just as he had the ants in his driveway, bending a handlebar and breaking a whole lot of spokes. Finally, he carried the flag off like a war trophy, popping wheelies as he went.
I rode home slowly, the wounded yellow bike wobbling, weeping openly as I coasted down the middle of the road. There were no cars, and thankfully, no neighbors outdoors to witness my own little Greek tragedy. When I got back to my grandparents’ house, I sat down on the curb, afraid to go inside. At last, as twilight fell, I parked my bike in the garage and trudged into the house.
I never told GaGa what really happened. I said I’d wrecked the bike myself in the woods, and he was none too pleased. He repaired it within a couple of days (and replaced the orange flag) admonishing me to be more careful with my things. And I was. I took my bike home to my own neighborhood and never rode by Scut’s house again.
For a long time, I carried this scene around inside me in a box labeled Most Embarrassing Memory Ever. I was mortified when I thought about it, sure that it marked me forever as a Totally Pathetic Loser. In time, Scut Farkus moved away, but I made a solemn vow to myself I would never tell anyone of the Yellow Bike Debacle of 1981.
Then one evening in high school, I was sitting around with the cast of our upcoming school play. The director had asked us to share memories from childhood – in particular embarrassing or painful ones. The play we were producing was Stephen King’s Rage, which among other things, deals with the pain kids carry around and the terrible consequences that can follow. I think he wanted us to get in touch with our own demons, and also build the trust we needed to work together on such an emotionally arduous play.
Everyone shared stories that, while unique to the individual, were universal in their themes of childhood angst and tragedy. When my turn came, I was stunned to find myself recounting the episode of the yellow bike. I couldn’t stop my mouth from moving, or the story from pouring forth. But the strangest thing was, midway through the tale (when I got to the part about the HEY BABY! flag) I found I was cackling uncontrollably. I was so overcome by hilarity I could hardly draw enough breath to continue. And everyone else was laughing, too. Not mean laughter, not mocking. But an outpouring of innocent, cleansing, raucous mirth; cathartic not just for me — but I think for them, too.
This is not to say that pain isn’t, well, painful. Nor am I making light of bullying — I can say from personal experience that it’s awful. But sometimes pain can be transformed into something else. Sure, we can learn and grow from it. We hope we can move on from it. But it was when I shared my painful story that it finally lost its power over me. In telling the story of the yellow bike, I made it mine, and the healing effect was sublime.
I think about this when I’m writing. Most writers, either consciously or unconsciously, imbue their characters and stories with the emotional truths of their own lives. Let’s face it: in addition to spinning a good yarn, we’re working out our own…stuff. It’s a kind of therapy, both for the author and the reader. That’s when a story really comes alive. When you tell the truth about life, the good, bad and even the ugly, you engage the hearts and minds of your readers. Because they can see themselves in your story, and they can relate.
The yellow bike taught me that our darkest moments can, sometimes, become something more. We are the authors of our own life story and we decide the tone and theme of that narrative. These episodes from everyone’s lives — joy, pain, sorrow, hilarity, and everything in between — are universal human experiences. They are also the seeds of good and interesting fiction.
What do you think of all this? Is there catharsis in sharing your own stories? Do you channel your memories and emotions into your work? As a reader, are you drawn to stories where characters are vulnerable and flawed?
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