It's very late, or very early, depending on your point of view, in the far far West. The streets are quiet and there are some frogs or toads or some other amphibians gurgling a few feet outside my window. In the distance I hear motorcyclists chasing each other on what must be our deserted COVID-quieted freeway. The sound carries well in the night, and I know it's a rush for the riders as long as they don't take too high a line into a big curve and drift into the concrete median. I've actually heard that happen a couple of times, on other nights, where the high pitched whine suddenly stops and I read about why in the next day's paper. Tonight, though, the noise doesn't stop and I'm grateful for the sound of youthful energy reaching my ears.
One night, when I was in college in eastern Washington state (past reality), I took a friend's Honda 650 for a ride. Not the biggest bike, but still dangerous if not handled properly. It was late and there was a mid-March chill, but the roads were deserted and bare. I was throttling up and down, enjoying the speed, the ripping wind, the dark solitude.
The only sign of the past winter, aside from the biting air, was the gravel the snow plows had dumped on the roads to improve traction in snow and ice. Traffic had pushed most of the gravel to the sides of the road, but there was also a strip of gravel a few inches wide that had collected on the centerline.
I ended up riding on this long straightaway wrapping the revs higher and higher, my speed well beyond the road's limit. I got to a spot where the road rose to go above some train tracks and as it rose the road curved to the right. I kept my speed up but then I felt the bike slowly start drifting beneath me, sliding to the left, toward the centerline and all that loose gravel. I gently backed off the throttle but it was too late and the bike kept drifting left. And then I was in the gravel and the rear tire started to fishtail and I had to decide whether to hit the brake or lay the bike down or let the thing continue to drift into the oncoming lane in the middle of a blind curve. But luck shined on me, or God's grace, or maybe it was simple physics and logic. I guessed correctly that if I didn't try to stop the bike's drifting I would make it through the gravel and eventually be on dry, clear pavement, even if I ended up heading in the opposite lane. And logic prevailed as well: it was in the middle of the night and there were no headlights coming toward me. If I could just gently slow the bike down and if no one was coming at me with their lights off, I was going to be okay. And that was what I was able to do. I got through the gravel and slowed the bike down. No one was coming toward me. My heart pounded and my adrenaline might have been in overdrive, but I was safe. I rode back to campus under the speed limit the whole way and had the strangest sensation of being very, very small and enclosed, as if wrapped up in a cocoon. That feeling lasted until the next day, and I didn't ride again until ten years later.
COVID has made me reflect on stuff I haven't thought about in decades. It has made me fearful and reminded me of other times I've felt this way. But those other times lasted seconds or minutes and I didn't ruminate on them. This situation often feels like dread is perched on my shoulder. I eat dinner with my wife and boys and much of the talk is normal. Teasing banter among the brothers. Questions about classes or the latest version of Call of Duty. Arguments over the All Decade NFL Team. But there's a stack of masks and a box of surgical gloves by the back door. There's a grocery shopping trip that feels like a battle plan. There's Clorox wipes everywhere.
And then one of the boys asks a sincere but kinda dumb question like is Barcelona in Europe, or how big is a moose, or another one mentions how surprised he was at how intense the teammates are at his east coast school. "No one's chill, Dad," he says. And these moments make me almost indescribably happy. I never want them to end. They are creating memory, something that will be nostalgia in the not-to-distant future, something that I will look back on and enjoy with a bittersweet pang of love and hope and a little loss because I know these times won't last forever but if I can just think about it hard and long enough maybe time will stop and we'll all be safe and we'll all hear a mitt catch a ball, and see teams warming up in the distance, their sharp white uniforms glowing in the springtime sun.
Here's a story by Raymond Carver that's worth a read, if you have the time and inclination. It's about a reality we've all faced in one way or another, and it gives me hope. I promise: it's not a sestina or a villanelle or a limerick. It's just a story.