Today is my father’s 35th birthday and I am sitting on the edge of the white porcelain tub in our upstairs bathroom, while my mother swabs cotton puffs soaked in hydrogen peroxide on my road-burned knees. The clear liquid hits my raw skin and immediately foams up, white and stinging as it pulls dirt, gravel and other black bits to the surface. Usually, I think this is sort of fascinating—look at all the stuff in there!—but today, I have other things to think about.
“Ouch!” I complain, wincing away from her touch.
“This doesn’t hurt,” she tells me, and keeps swabbing. How would she know? I wonder. All I can think about besides the open wound of my knees and the fact that I still have to baby-sit tonight, is my bike. My brand new, first-ever, 10-speed. I just got it 3 weeks ago for my 12th birthday. A present from my parents. I’ve been riding it around our cul-de-sac and on the next street over where my friend Jean lives, practicing shifting gears and getting used to the hand brakes and skinny tires, working on my balance. I’ve been doing pretty well and pretty soon Jean and I are going to ask our mothers if we can be allowed to ride bikes to the park together after our homework’s done. Jean’s bike is not as new as mine, which means she’s better at riding. Hers is purple metallic and looks a little like a rocket. I’m so glad that my bike isn’t pink or baby blue like my old ones. It’s red and silver and feels like a real bike to me. No wire basket, no girly streamers. This is going to be so cool.
The cold liquid runs down my leg and soaks the top of my sock. I reach down to wipe it off and notice a little bit of blood there against the white cotton, my blood, and imagine my brand new, first-ever, ten-speed lying splayed in the driveway, it’s frame bent horribly from where the car hit it, the spokes and gears broken, beyond fixable.
“Ouch!” I say again, and this time, though I’m also getting angry now, when I think about it, I really just want to cry.
Today is my father’s 35th birthday and my mother is throwing him a party. She’s running around “like a chicken with its head cut off,” she calls it, vacuuming and dusting and wiping down the bathroom counters and toilets with Scrubbing Bubbles and bleach. I’ve been helping her all morning, cleaning my room first and then sorting through the plastic forks, spoons and knives we keep in the bottom drawer of the oak hutch, far away from the real stuff that belonged to my mother’s grandmother. It’s a whole set of sterling with loopy vines and full blossoming flowers on the ends. Each piece is engraved with the initials “TD.” D for Drew, her last name; T for Tiny, what people called her.
Better though, prettier, I think, is the dresser set—the silver mirror and comb, and the brush with such baby-soft bristles that I wonder how it would get the knots out of anything. Not my thick dishwater mop, that’s for sure, but of course I never try it. It’s so old and special.
I ask my mom what else she needs me to do and she muses, “Well, I still need to run to the store to grab a few things for the party, but I guess I’ll do that later, after I pick up the beer.”
“I can do it,” I say. “I can ride my bike to Quik-Chek. It’s just down the road. Please?”
Just down the road is true enough, but the road in question is Colonial Road and that intersects with Franklin Avenue, the main street in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, where we live. I walk on it every morning to get to my middle school. I walk past old-fashioned Archer’s Stationary store, which, as far as I can tell, sells pretty much everything but stationary, and which has a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the back by the storeroom that I play sometimes, but I’m nowhere near high score. Walking, I always have to worry that a car might splash mud or slush or rainwater up on my school shoes and skirt. It happens sometimes and I have to spend the day like that—wet and dirty in patches. Uncomfortable for hours.
Quik-Chek, a three-aisle convenience store where you can get rare roast beef sandwiches with mayonnaise and tomato sprinkled with salt on rye bread—my all-time favorite—is attached to the gas station on Franklin Ave. Their logo, a check mark inside a square box, always makes me think of finishing tedious tasks like emptying the dishwasher, which I hate. Check. You’re done!
“I don’t know,” she says, eyeing me carefully. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
I would like to swear to God that I can—that’s how sure I am—but I can’t because I know that sort of talk will neither convince nor impress my very Catholic mother. It could even backfire my plan entirely, so I just say, “Yes, Mom, I’m sure,” and she agrees on the condition that I go and come right back. No side trips. She gives me a short grocery list: plastic tablecloth, birthday candles, one jar of Ragu brand spaghetti sauce to plump up the lasagna she’s making for the party tonight. I convince her that I can balance these three items in a bag on my handlebars while I ride. It’ll be fine.
And it would have been fine, except that on the way back from the Quik-Chek, I’m riding like I’m supposed to on the right side of the road—always with traffic, not against—holding the paper sack with the table cloth and birthday candles and the spaghetti sauce between my thumbs, while I steer with my fingers, and I see what’s kind of like a sandbar in the shoulder there and I think maybe I shouldn’t ride into it, maybe these skinny tires will get wobbly on me if I do and I’ll fall into the street. But I can’t really ride around it either, since the asphalt’s pretty crumbly at the edges, so I decide I should probably cross now since, anyway, there’s my street coming up—Ackerman Street—and so I start to drift, I drift as if I hadn’t really decided this, which, of course, I had—this was my bad decision—I drift now, slowly, out into traffic.
The car that hits me—a big American something—is only, thankfully, going 10 or 15 miles per hour. It has just then pulled onto Colonial Road from Franklin Avenue and hasn’t had time to accelerate up to the 35 mile per hour speed limit. The wide chrome smile of the fender kisses my back tire and I’m not, to tell the truth, really surprised to feel myself tumbling, “ass over teakettle,” as my mother calls it, over my handlebars and onto my hands and knees on the street. The paper sack and its contents also fly, but I’m not thinking about that now. I stay the way I land, on all fours, for a long moment, cursing my bad decision to cross, inventorying my pain to see if I am seriously hurt, and worrying that I’ve ruined my father’s birthday.
“You stupid kid!” The woman whose car hit me is yelling and coming toward me now. She looks pale and sweaty and bright red all at the same time. Her hands a blur of motion in the air around her face.
“You didn’t even look!” she screams, “You didn’t look!”
She’s right. I didn’t look. It’s entirely my fault, this accident, I know, so I absorb her anger and her fear the way the pink sponge had absorbed the Scrubbing Bubbles earlier this morning in the bathroom, and just stay there in that cowed position, on all fours like that. I am vaguely aware that someone has come out of the house where G.J., the boy I have a big crush on, and who sometimes shares chewy-sweet caramels and bright blue gob-stoppers that paint our teeth and lips, lives. It’s his mother and she knows my mother. They work together as drive-thru tellers at the bank in the Grand Union shopping center. G.J.’s mother helped my mom choose her costume for the bank’s Halloween party last year. She was a schoolgirl: she wore pigtails and one of my sixth grade dresses. G.J.’s mother recognizes me and runs over, helps me to my feet and then sits me back down on the curb, away from the street, which is now entirely stopped up with traffic.
“Oh my god, honey. Are you okay? Here, sit here and I’ll go call your mom. Is she home? Do you know?”
I nod at her blankly and find that I can’t talk. I’m choking on my own fear now, realizing what has just happened. The woman who hit me is still yelling, but there are other people in the street now too, other motorists and neighbors trying to calm her down and redirect traffic. Her car is undamaged and drivable, but someone is telling her she can’t move it until the cops come. G.J.’s mom, meanwhile, must have realized that she could walk to my house faster than call, because here comes my mother, running across the lawn of the house on the corner of Ackerman Street and Colonial Road. She looks petrified and this is when I really lose it.
“I’m sorry mom…it’s my fault… I should have looked…I didn’t look…I’m such a klutz…”
My mother knows me, knows my instinct to inhabit all blame, to self-deprecate at all times. She also knows, as I do not yet know, that when children are hit by cars, it is never their fault. No matter their bad decision to cross the street and regardless of whether or not they remembered to look. She runs her hand over the top of my head and smoothes down the back of my hair.
Today is my father’s 35th birthday, and I’m sitting on the edge of the curb now, trying to stop crying, while my mother calls him from G.J.’s mother’s phone and says, “Get over here now.” She could have run to our house faster than call, but she doesn’t want to leave me. The yelling woman who hit me is also sitting on the curb, but down the road a bit, away from me. She is also, it looks like, trying to stop crying. The police have been and gone, and no ambulance came because I’m just banged up some, “more scared really, than anything,” someone decides, and not hurt enough to go to the hospital.
The traffic is still being redirected around the accident, but it’s time to get that cleaned up, too, so someone—not the woman—has gotten behind the wheel of her car and is trying to back it up and out of the way. Only something’s making it hard to drive it; something’s stuck, and I can’t see quite what that is, but I can hear the scraping sound of metal on metal and metal on asphalt and I realize it’s my bike, my brand new, first-ever, red and silver ten-speed, still caught up under the front fender, now being dragged by the twisted pedal, the broken foot, back up Colonial Road.
I want to scream, “Stop! Fix it! Please!” and “Don’t!” but my throat is swollen shut from crying and now this new fear—my father walking quickly, not running but not strolling either, across the lawn on the corner. I don’t know what to do, how to sit, where to put my hands, my tattered palms studded with gravel. He’s not smiling, but he doesn’t look angry either. I’m sure he’ll think I’m not really hurt since there’s no ambulance coming, and how will he know, because I know I can’t tell him, that I’m so scared, Dad, because I got hit by a car on my new bike because I didn’t look to see what was coming, and I could be in the hospital or even worse, and it’s your birthday and I caused this; I’ve ruined it all.
I stand up and feel my knees buckle painfully—they will be swollen and raw for days. They will click and snap for years. “Daddy,” I say. And just like always, I walk toward him. I don’t wait for him to come all the way to me, even though this is all I can think about and the only thing in the world that I want, because I’m too afraid that he will stop just short and just stand there, and I won’t get to bury my face in his blue v-neck sweater and breathe in his smell of wool and peppermint and ‘Lectric Shave.
“Daddy, I’m sorry,” I say, because I can’t think of what else to say and because the woman who hit me has stopped yelling now and the traffic is back to 35 miles per hour on Colonial Road and my bike is bent horribly, splayed there on the road, broken and beyond fixable, and because it is his 35th birthday and my klutzy self has about ruined everything, I say, “But look, I saved the Ragu.”
I say this because I know it will make him laugh, will make him think I’m stronger than both of us really, deep down, know I am. I say this word, “saved,” even though we both know it really had nothing at all to do with me since I was busy making bad decisions and flying out over my handlebars and landing on all fours like a wounded puppy. Because that’s what I feel like, to tell the truth, whimpering and expectant down here on the curb, just dying, after all, to be stroked.
The Ragu is, of course, perfectly safe: the paper sack that balanced on my handlebars flew a few feet and landed on the soft grass outside of G.J.’s house, birthday candles still in the box, the glass jar unbroken on the soft ground.