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I Just Don't Think They Understand
Nonfiction. Bike-related. Written last Thursday (I've been busy)
This morning it was so cold that I cried.
You don’t understand.
I’d seen the forecast and I’m not an idiot and so I wear my thickest socks. I hike them up over the cuffs of track pants, which functionally vacuum seals my legs. I don’t care what it looks like. I wear a jumper. Duh. Two jumpers. And a jacket. And underneath I’ve got on the heavy long sleeve nylon shirt that gives me niple chafing in the summer. So what? I’m human! I sweat! Maddie gave me black wool gloves with sparkly rainbow tips and they will glitter in the sun, because there is some sun out there, but it’s a trick. Stuff the gloves into my sleeves, shove my jumpers into my pants, and now I’m fully insulated, baby. Impenetrable. Impervious. It’s just like painting a beautiful sunrise in that it’s all about layering, stacking contrasting textures on top of one another—that way the cold air gets confused and can’t find your skin. And for a while, in the morning, my eyes are dry as a goddamn desert, and I laugh/cackle to myself that I’m almost too warm, ha ha, and I think idly, cooly (but a warm kind of cool), I think in an internal voice that’s just so smug it hurts, like Icarus pre-dawn, ‘How cold can 8° windchill really be?’
The problem is that I think this while I’m still inside.
I open the door and the air is indeed different. Fresher. Spicier. But I’m not fazed. I’m the human equivalent Fort Knox. I’m the fucking Popemobile. I get my bike ready and strap on my helmet and stand in the sun and feel nothing, feel no warmth at all, and a moment of self-doubt creeps in that I must annihilate before taking off because fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I tell myself that I am warm. And I am. The sky is blue and I am warm. The sun is shining and I’ll shine too.
The road quality in the Inner West is a lottery with very few winning tickets. Even the smoothest bits of tarmac can hide shin-deep potholes, and it is while slamming on the breaks to dodge one such chasm that it begins. My eyes feel… wobbly when I slow down. I carry on and they wobble more. At first I can’t comprehend what’s going on because I am not sad—I’m a little tired, I could stand to be 20° warmer, but I am not sad. There are others out here with me in the morning and they don’t seem sad either. Walkers, commuters, tradies—every one of them is scarfed to the gills, hands shoved into their puffer jackets. I start to weave a little faster through Marrickville’s waking streets and the wind stings my eyes something awful—it feels exactly like being two-thirds of the way through finely dicing an onion, when you start to blink a lot because the air is getting rich and pungent, and you think you might be on the cusp of a real problem. The cold air streams, screams, into my face. My eyes are watering so much that blinking is performing the same essential function as windscreen wipers.
A single tear breaks free and rolls all the way down my cheek, unwiped, because I’m not one of those maniacs who has anything less than five points of contact on the bike for any reason. In the distance, a woman is jogging up the one-way road that I’m riding down. Narrow street. Urban-leafy. One-car wide. Nowhere to hide. As we get closer, we make eye contact, and I’m sure that she slows down and looks at me concerned.
She doesn’t understand.
One tear becomes two. Two become four. At a certain point it’s no longer productive to count them. Obviously the solution is to get home as quickly as possible. That means riding faster. The faster I ride the more my eyes water. The more my eyes water, the greater my need to get home quickly, the faster I must ride. And around we go. Like a spoke on the wheel of eternity, this logic will not end.
Strange things start happening to me as I move from backstreets to… front streets? A great big dirty Hilux suddenly aborts a turn he could have comfortably made in order to give me way, and I think he nods knowingly at me as I pass. Pedestrians hear my sniffling (my nose is running like my eyes) and look at me and then don’t look away. I find myself next to a bus at a set of lights. I idly people watch up and down the windows, like we all do when we’re next to a bus, and I find that a whole bunch of people are watching me, with strange expressions on their faces.
They don’t understand.
But it’s not all bad. In the space of only a few minutes my eyes have impressively adapted to the wind—they are no longer pooling the tears in my eyeballs, and have set up a kind of continuously streaming water-feature down my cheeks. I have lost feeling in my face anyway.
They’re building a new building on Victoria Road. It’s a classic residential monstrosity, with huge trucks and big cranes and a permanently posted traffic control unit to alternately STOP or SLOW the peak hour flow. I almost get myself past the worksite at the rear of a car peloton, but a dirt-filled semitrailer suddenly emerges from the site. I am STOPped. I come to rest a metre or so away from the dude with the sign.
The weirdest thing is that my eyes are on a kind of delay. It’s like they weren’t able to get through the huge backlog of crying when I was moving and so now, even at rest, even shielding them from the wind with my right hand, they continue to weep and gush.
STOP/SLOW operators generally fall into two categories: backpackers looking to cash in on a sweet union gig, or an actual construction worker who has pulled the short straw and is angry about it. My guy is the latter. My guy wears those big black sunglasses tradies sometimes wear, with a cap and dusty boots and barely any protection against the cold. Show off. He’s gruff on the walkie talkie. Mutters something about truck drivers not knowing how to drive, even as the semitrailer is executing a pretty wildly complex five-point manoeuvre with, I’m sure, many more such manoeuvres on the horizon.
As the construction worker turns to assess the number of cars banked up, he sees me. Then he looks at the truck. Then he looks back at me but for longer, his head ever so slightly cocked to the side.
Something that was once hard inside of him has softened, I can see. I smile politely through the tears and I realise very quickly that this is a mistake—it makes me look like I’m trying to be brave. I don’t say anything. I can’t speak anyway, my throat is too cold. My left hand is frozen into a kind of claw around the brake and I have to sniff big serious sniffs to keep the snot at bay.
The STOP/SLOW man once more looks at the truck and then me and then the truck and then me again. He doesn’t take off his sunnies or make any gesture as grand as that, but he does step forward a little, and visibly hesitate, and then sound genuinely quite earnest when he says, ‘It, uhh, it shouldn’t be too much longer, mate.’
He doesn’t understand.