As much as I love a clean house, whenever I would tire of the sound of my mother yelling at my older sister for not folding the towels correctly, or for leaving her backpack on the kitchen counter, again, I would sneak away to find a safe haven. With my father away at work, the pressure of getting stuck in the middle of two tall, feisty redheads could feel, at times, like suffocation by estrogen. My little brother liked to hide in the hallway closet with a flashlight and his Bernstein Bears book collection, but I preferred the garage, which was only accessible from the outside.
Instead of using the automatic garage door opener, which alerted everyone in the house that Dad was home from work, I liked to use the back door hidden behind a fence in the side yard where my sister and I played catch with Dad. The door only creaked when opened slowly, and I knew to catch it before it slammed shut behind me. Before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the smell of dirt and rubber intoxicated my little mind so heavily I had to close my eyes and hold out a hand to the door frame to stabilize myself. The quiet solitude of darkness parked on bare concrete, while being showered with floating dust, sent shivers up my arms. A hug of warm, musty air enveloped my small shoulders and tinged my nose hairs with a slight hint of gasoline.
I breathed deeply the happy scent of rubber tires, fresh with the memory of uphill downhill neighborhood bike rides. Cold steel tools imprinted with large greasy hands, my father’s, and his apple cider vinegar hair tonic still floating above the workbenches, I would select one tool to pick up and hold, just to feel the weight of it, before setting it back exactly where I found it.
Feeling the shock of peeled paint on my fingers and hearing the gasp of a heavy opened drawer after I tiptoed over to inspect all the golf balls we had collected together, Dad and my siblings, I stayed far away from his wall of hand saws and power tools because they grinned at me intimidatingly with their old rusty teeth. The golf balls rolled loudly in a jumbled mess of chaos as I inspected the dresser drawer he turned into a treasure chest full of strays. Some of the golf balls were pure white and others caked in dirt, cool and crumbly to the touch, they reminded me of fresh cut grass and the pungent steam that rises off clumps of wet dirt pulled up by the lawnmower. I thought about how my dad did not fully grasp the nuances of emotional dialogue, but he knew that golfing was a great way to spend quality time with someone.
Inside the garage - my father’s space to fix things - I found the fix I needed to make it through until dinnertime. The feminine overload from inside the house, with my mother’s musky floral department store perfume, and my sister’s sticky fruit and chemical hairspray, and the arguments they were getting into over my sister’s giant hoop earrings, were sometimes too much for this little Slugger. I rode my bike right over a garter snake without even flinching, for Pete’s sake, and I hit more home runs than anyone else on my softball team. But I was beginning to grow up too, middle school was right around the corner, and the masculine breath I inhaled in my father’s garage helped me stay brave and balanced in the face of my own approaching femininity.
As I grew older, after I went bra shopping with my mom and learned how to apply makeup from the cosmetics ladies at Macy’s department store, I stopped pulling strength from my bike riding, Little League, golf ball treasure hunting days. I turned my back on that little tomboy for several decades, enjoying the attention of wearing high heels and flirty sundresses instead, until I found myself healing from a divorce and starting over in San Diego. I decided to sell my car and only use a bicycle to commute around town, a tangible, sensory experience for my newfound self. I was supporting myself financially for the first time in my entire life, and I yearned for the strength and freedom I had found in the bike-riding days of my childhood.
One hot and humid Fourth of July weekend, San Diego was alive with the smell of barbecue charcoal, cold beer, and roasting hotdogs. Sweating salty bullets in shorts and a tank top, I walked into my local bike shop in Ocean Beach for the first time and before I could utter a word, that same rubber and dirt smell flushed up my nostrils and kissed my forehead. I was back in my father’s garage.
“Can I help you?” the bike shop owner walked forward, wiping his greasy hands on an equally greasy rag.
“I want to sell my car and use a bike to get to work...so I need a commuter bike with a rear rack for all my stuff, and one that can go up hills.....” I spoke rapidly, blushing because I wanted to be self-confident but was out of practice.
“I haven’t ridden a bike since I was twelve years old,” I confessed.
He looked me up and down with a discerning eye, sizing my height and build for what type of bike I would need. I straightened my back and looked him in the eye, hoping to convey that I was strong, that I belonged here in this shop full of rubber tires and greasy tools, and would be capable of whatever bike he chose for me.
“I have exactly what you are looking for,” he said.
- Chloe Sparacino