When Claire, my eighteen-year-old, popped into my study and asked if I wanted to “go do the bikes,” of course I said “yes.” Lately I’d been carrying around my sixty-one years like they were extra-large bags of Kingsford charcoal—the nineteen dollar twofer from Smart and Final—one on each shoulder, not quite the world on top of Atlas, but to me just as heavy. I fished around in a bottom drawer, the one I hadn’t opened in at least five years, and found an ancient pair of cotton gym shorts which I pulled on over my boxers. I was scrunching down the tops of my Dad-socks when Claire flashed into the closet, ready to go. She was wearing matte-black space-age-material leggings and a fluorescent green top, hair in a ponytail, with fresh blush and a bit of something on her eyes, not quite all-business. She gave my saggy shorts a dim look.
“Are they too baggy?” I asked.
After a moment of first-year-in-college calculation she said, “It’ll be dark,” but her voice lacked its usual conviction.
We grabbed towels and water bottles, and headed for the car, me still wondering why anyone would want to ride a bicycle that didn’t go anywhere.
The sense of approaching doom, which often went with my willingness to do my daughters’ every bidding, swelled in me like a swallowed toad as we parked in front of the glass windows and walked past the yin/yang sign into a bright lobby. There, a gaggle of tank-topped and ponytailed women of much less than a certain age were gabbing beneath a lime-green sign that spelled out SOULCYCLE. The aroma of candy lip gloss, female deodorant, and fresh sweat combined into a chlorophyllic waft of life springing anew, causing me to wonder, not for the first time, if there was a characteristic old-guy smell that might emanate from me, despite the Mennen’s stick that I’d layered on beneath my vintage, though freshly laundered, CBGB tee-shirt. I looked to Claire for reassurance and saw that she was already opening like a rose in the fecund humidity. She smiled back like it was her birthday.
“You know, they sell workout shorts here,” she said, “but they all say something about SOULCYCLE, so maybe you don’t want—”
“No problem. Help me find an extra-large.” I tried on some black thing that was a little longer and a little tighter than my current rig and that did in fact have a better look about it.
I wore it to the counter and the girl said, “Seventy-three dollars, shall I put it on the card?”
“Seventy-three dollars!” I’m loud when I get excited. A part of me wanted to storm off to Big 5 and pay fifteen bucks for some perfectly serviceable cotton shorts, but of course that’s what I already had so I said, “Fine, put it on the card.” As I felt their slick pressure against my thighs and the way they snugged against my waist I drew myself up a little taller and tucked in my gut. I turned away from the counter and the girl reminded me to take the Lulu Lemon tag off the back.
We entered a darkened room where an army of cycling machines stood in battle-ready columns. Claire helped me lace on the special shoes that would clip into the pedals and positioned me on a bike, adjusting the size with practiced efficiency. Other young ladies were snapping into their machines and sizing up their posture and game face in the wall-to-wall mirrors. Soon, like the opening of a Pink Floyd concert, the lights dimmed and a throbbing beat faded in from the surrounding JBL loudspeakers, synchronizing our pulses as lights potted up on a stage where a raven-haired, Amazon-ish woman perched tall on a bike. She looked like she was built out of steel cabling and iron ingot, or maybe uranium, and as her gaze passed over me I felt a shadow cross my heart. She began pedaling her bike in time with the drum and as synthesizers opened their filters and circled the room with ascending sawtooth waves she spoke into her headpiece, her voice booming out over the music track.
“The only gear we have . . . is GO!” The synths climaxed into a thundering bass line and simultaneously fifty lithe bodies, and me, with a collective inhale, stood, leaned forward, and began pumping like mad. The whole room seemed to elevate off its foundations, and soon my breath was rasping and wheezing like a broken accordion. Muscles I never knew I had were screaming in terror. Surely I’d ridden a bike before. Our mistress of the dark barked orders—up, down, faster, you’re on fire, you’re a beast—and the music grew impossibly louder, until all I was aware was of the rhythm that was displacing my heartbeat, her sharp commands, and pain everywhere.
Everything gets fuzzy at this point, but I do remember glancing over at Claire, who was riding along happily as if she just got out of school and might have had a puppy in her bike basket, smelling the flowers, enjoying the imaginary country air. She smiled at me. “You okay, Dad?” Well, no. I dug back in, thinking that relentless cheerfulness can sometimes be a form of terrorism.
So just as a mother forgets the pain of childbirth . . . no, strike that. Really, no metaphor was necessary to amplify my immense relief when the volume and tempo of the music diminished, we eased back on our machines, and somebody decided to let air back into the room. I detached and dismounted slowly, sweat-soaked and sagging, with a sense that everyone around me was moving too fast, like hummingbirds. I was almost too shaky to stand, embarrassed for myself and for my daughter, feeling stupid for pretending to be forty years younger.
We filed out past the stage where I looked up and thanked the young lady “for the nice workout.” She reached down for my hand, gave it a dry, vise-like squeeze—titanium, I thought, not uranium. She pulled me closer, into her aura of sweat, determination, and take-no-prisoners achievement, and said,
“You. Are. A. Beast. You’re an effing beast. You know that?” she hissed, then almost knocked me off my rubbery legs with a high-five. I wobbled out behind Claire, and used my last reserve of energy to change back into my street shoes and find the door.
Outside the sun shone, birds sang, and cars drove by as if nothing had happened. My pulse was sinking back into double digits and the old accordion bellows seemed to be doing their job. I looked at my daughter walking next to me, her blushed cheeks, sweat-streaked hair, her mind probably thinking about the next exciting thing. I nudged her.
“So I’m an effing beast. Who knew?”
She slipped her hand in my arm and leaned against me; my back straightened and about an inch of cushiony air appeared between the soles of my sneakers and the pavement, and I was thankful that my heart was beating, still beating, but willing to let it burst with pride and love in this moment, thinking that would be as good a way to go as any.