ungraspable phantom

on the east bay bike path

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…I account it high time to get to sea. Almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean.” ~ Herman Melville

We were biking down a hill when I realized that something was wrong.

“Does my bike look OK to you?” I asked Alex*.

He turned his head to look at my bike. He was wearing his black baseball cap and it reminded me of a duck-billed platypus—my thoughts in the morning are seldom coherent.

“Your brakes are broken,” he told me, his words coming thick through the cream-cheese bagel he was chewing.

“Bro-ken?” I echoed.

“Yes, like not working,” Alex said, leaving his handlebar to make a snapping gesture.

“How do you know?” I asked as the our bikes gathered speed going downhill.

“Your brake wire,” he pointed.

I looked back and saw a silver wire waving in the wind.

* * *

The question, always the same: How did I get here?

And the answer, always the same: following a whisper. An echo that wasn’t quite an echo. Glimpses of a destination that was familiar, but that I had never seen.

Whispers, of course, are hard to hear. You don’t hear them until they are repeated. Many times. Echoes are the same. And pictures, they only become unblurred if they fly by your eyes often enough…

A walk through India Point park—the clouds grey and the grass wet—passing by a tunnel with fading green letters that I couldn’t read. I had pointed and asked my friend, “Where does that lead?”

“To adventure.”

In my room—with the curtains drawn and the sound of the fan whirring—reading a book: “Thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”

A text from a friend in New York with suggestions for what do in Providence over the summer. A numbered list of suggestions. One familiar.

Lying on the bed staring at the ceiling and the four walls, the walls and then the ceiling.

An off-chance remark: “He left behind his bike with me.”

A recent hurt that I could not forget, and with it the image of a grey tunnel in the distance.

Whispers grow louder. Echoes reverberate. Pictures focus.

It is hard to ignore the signs.

* * *

I rolled the bike over to an empty parking lot. Alex followed my lead and got off his bike.

“That was sick, how you stopped your bike right before the intersection. Dragging your foot so casually,” he said.

I didn’t reply. The incident would keep me awake for days; it had that familiar harrowing quality.

“Here, let me take a look,” Alex said, kneeling on one knee next to the bike—he’s studying to be an engineer and sometimes that gives him the right. I peered over his shoulder.

He gently placed the wire between his thumb and forefinger and tried to re-attach it. He sang under his breath. A Spanish song. After a few attempts and prodding the back tire, he stood up, brushing off the dirt on his jeans.

“Your brakes are already engaged; you’ve been braking the whole way,” he explained.

I grimaced; I had been blaming my recent fondness for Meeting Street chocolate chip pancakes for my exhaustion. “It’s not that bad,” I lied, “Let’s keep going.”

We passed by a laundromat. An empty gas station. The sound of traffic had grown muffled. I could hear he creak of my bike as I pedalled, the rustle of the breeze in the trees and strains of the song Alex was humming. My T-shirt was drenched with sweat, but my legs had found a comfortable rhythm and I let my mind wander.

“Damn,” Alex said from ahead, and stopped his bike.

In the distance stood a hill. It was steep, almost straight up. My foot slipped off the pedal as my bike came to a halt.

“We have to go up that thing?” I asked.

“Looks like it,” Alex said, taking off his cap and fanning himself.

Suddenly my legs hurt a lot more and I was aware of the sun burning my back.

“Whose stupid idea was this?” I asked, glaring at Alex.

He put his cap on and turned to me, “Yours.”

* * *

“Tell me one more time why you want to go biking?” Alex asked, tossing the frisbee across the Quiet Green.

I caught the frisbee and threw it back. It wobbled in the wind and Alex had to run to catch it.

“Because it’ll be an adventure. And we’ll get to see the ocean,” I said.

“What’s so great about the ocean?” Alex asked, throwing the frisbee; it sailed in a smooth red arc towards me.

Or at least where I would have been, had I not gone to rummage in my backpack. I pulled out my copy of Moby Dick.

“Listen to this,” I told Alex, finding the page in the book, “‘We ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.’”

“What’s the key to it all?” Alex asked.

I changed tactics.

“You can get some really good photos on the bike path,” I said, “Then you can Snapchat them to Clara*.”

Alex smiled and a faraway look came in his eyes—the look of someone thinking about which filters to use.

The journey had begun.

* * *

The hill turned out to be a false alarm: The bike path changed directions before we reached it.

We were now cycling along a road, separated from it by a wooden fence, and there were houses with slanting roofs in the distance. Thick bushes flanked us from the other side.

Then suddenly the bushes cleared and the path narrowed to a small strip, and in front of us, on all sides, stretched the ocean.

And our heads crowded with our small thoughts and our own worries, voices and more voices, stilled to hear the sound. The soft, long-drawn breath of the sea.

Alex slowed down ahead of me, and I pulled to the side. We kicked the bike stands into place and sat down on the grass. There were red and blue flowers growing along the path. Overgrown grass covered a rusting railway track. And the water was as blue as the sky.

I had brought along my notebook to write, but the ocean was vast and endless; I knew I could not capture it. The thoughts I tried to bottle in words shook and shuddered; they shattered the glass.

And the ungraspable phantom slipped between my fingers again, but not before reminding me what it meant to be alive.

*The names of individuals in this piece have been changed.