“Alright Florence, the wheels on your bike are pumped up and ready to go. Hop on, and pedal towards me slowly. I want you to be able to feel the rhythm of your legs and your pedals moving. Don’t worry about falling over, because you won’t be able to, and for the moment speed doesn’t matter. Slow and steady wins the race. Now let’s do this!” My dad clapped his hands and gave me a thumbs up. His eyes caught the light of the midday sun and his smile seemed like it was dividing his face in half. I pulled the hem of my t-shirt down a bit more and wiped my brow nervously. I pushed off from the curb and pedalled once, twice, three times.
That was a year ago. Time has passed slowly but surely, like the sand contained within an hourglass. All of my immediate family have come to East Coast Park so we could do some bike-riding. Either my bike has shrunk or I have grown, so instead of bringing my own bike my parents rented one for me, one for Selina and a tandem bike for the two of them. My hair was tied back in a messy stub of a ponytail, about the same length as my thumb. I was wearing stiff cork sandals that were not suited to the current activity. I felt like I was an unnatural occurrence - a glitch, an error, a mistake. I wiped my hands on my shorts to calm my nerves and took a deep breath, filling my lungs with air.
“Come on Florence! Keep pedalling and don’t stop. You need the momentum to keep you going, so you don’t fall!” My dad shouted towards me, his breath being carried away by the howling, screeching wind. His hands were cupped around his mouth, acting like a loudspeaker to project his voice further. He reminded me of a sports coach - proud when you reached your goals, frustrated but determined to make you better when you failed. I took a deep breath and pushed off from the curb, biting my chapped lips and inhaling the salty ocean air. Usually, I loved the beach and going to east coast park to build sandcastles was my favorite thing to do in the world. I loved the ocean and felt a natural connection to the water, the sand and the sun. Having the wind blow through my short brown hair was one of the most amazing feelings and I wished to go to the beach everyday. But that evening the salty smell of the air reminded me not of caramel but of sea-sickness and nausea. Beautiful but ferocious butterflies flew rampant in my stomach. If my life were a cartoon, I would have been green as a cucumber.
My heart pulsed like the beat of drums at Chinese new year. I pedalled once, twice and opened my eyes as wide as the wheels on my bike. The bike had moved forward because of my two unnecessarily hard pushes. Without me noticing, the bike inclined towards the ground and I fell. My feet touched the ground with a dull thud breaking my fall and I sighed. I wasn’t going to get the hang of riding a bike, and that was final. I watched my dad cross his arms and exhale impatiently. I wanted more than anything to take off my shoes and run towards the warm, golden sand and feel the cool sea water in between my toes. Riding a bike on a pavement while at the beach seemed extremely unnatural and strange. Why would anyone ride a bike when they can build sandcastles?
“Dad, there’s no point doing this. I can’t do it and won’t be able to.” As soon as those sombre words tumbled out of my nine year-old mouth I felt the area go silent. Whether it was my ears playing tricks on me or something else, I will never know, but it felt like the bright enthusiastic chatting of happy couples and families had been toned down into a muffled murmuring, like the disapproving tutting a grandmother would give to a naughty grandchild. The butterflies in my stomach returned even fiercer than before, bashing and crashing into the sides of my stomach.
“Florence, my daughter will not be a quitter. You are going to learn how to ride a bike. Do your friends know how to ride bikes?” My dad glared at me as if he was challenging me to defy him. Before I could answer he added, “I’m sure most of them do. Don’t you want to be able to ride a bike too, like them?”
That was it. That final sentence was the lone warrior that managed to bring down all of my defences, leaving me vulnerable to any manipulation or persuasion. I thought back to the first day of school and how I had felt different and excluded. From now on, learning to ride a bike was not just to please my parents anymore. It was to prove to myself I was capable of taking on this challenge.
I gritted my teeth and pedalled off again. As I pushed off, I felt my leg brush against a small part of the pedal accidentally. A small part of a healing scab peeled off, like the skin on an onion. I felt hot tears rushing to my eyes, like soldiers rushing to defend their territory. Maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the right thing for me to do. Should I stop and give up? Looking backwards, I saw my parents focusing all their attention on me. I couldn’t stop now. I wanted to prove I was a strong and capable girl.
No. Stop it. Don’t show the enemy that you’re vulnerable, Florence, I thought to myself as I pulled over once again to wipe the plump, round-ish tears from my eyes before they could roll down my cheeks. I sniffed a couple of times and took a drink of water. Even though the water was only a little warm, it felt like scalding oil was being poured down my throat and I had difficulty swallowing. My hands were glistening with beads of moisture and slowly wiped my hands on my shorts. I watched my dad smirk and nod towards my mum, before they shared an intense glance. My eye caught my dad staring intensely at me and he hastily averted his eyes, looking at a leisurely fly buzzing by. How I wished I could be that fly, free to go wherever it wanted and with not a care in the world. Nobody offered me a tissue, so I dried my irritated red eyes on my sleeve.
I caught a quick glimpse of myself in a puddle of water in the cracked pavement. Red and bloodshot eyes, lips zipped shut into a tight line, eyebrows crinkled in a undulating line across my forehead. This wasn’t me. Since when had I started looking like that?
“I’m ready, let’s go.” My voice sounded slightly cracked and shaky, like the sounds it made when I tried to whisper loudly.
I pedalled onwards, ignoring the searing sting from my leg. It felt like I was being branded by a hot iron, only slightly less intense and more drawn out. My parents made a u-turn from the front and told my sister to lead the “parade” through the park. I could feel my dad’s eyes burning a hole through my neck, a sure sign he was concentrating on me. In the back of my head I heard a sarcastic, mocking voice telling me to pedal faster or else I would fall - as if I didn’t know that much already.
Come on Florence! You need more momentum! Don’t you want to pedal a bit further without falling? I shook all evil thoughts out of my head. Be quiet, brain. Dad isn’t THAT bad to me, just a little strict and short-tempered sometimes! I scrambled the thoughts in my mind like eggs in a pan. He’s just showing a little tough love and discipline so you can learn a new skill.
My dad was not actually a distant and cold-blooded tiger parent. Sure, he was strict and had high expectations for my sister and me, but his ego was not overly-inflated and he was usually relaxed and affectionate. He liked to wear bright coloured t-shirts and casual shorts outside of work, but he had rectangular glasses with silver temples which made him look a bit more fierce than he actually was. He liked to tell stories either about his childhood and Chinese proverbs. It was strange to see my dad so uptight about a matter as simple as riding a bike. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the task that made it more painful to know that I couldn’t achieve it.
I turned my head back quickly to shoot a glance at my parents. I winced as my hair slashed my neck like a whip, telling me to pedal faster. My dad’s gaze reminded me of a stealthy lion stalking an innocent zebra in the grassy savannahs of Africa. I shuddered at the thought. Shush Florence. Just because he’s being a little bit distant instead of showing the usual amount of affection towards you doesn’t mean he wants to eat you. I smiled at the thought of my dad with a bushy lion's mane and turned my mind back to the task ahead.
As I slowed down to brush my hair out of my eyes, I flicked my head back and snuck a peek at my parents. My dad was chattering happily to my mum. Learning to ride a bike couldn’t be that hard if they could pedal, steer and talk all at the same time! I mentally applied some superglue to my hands and gripped the handles as if I was trying to hold on to a precious family heirloom.
I looked around absorbing the imagery surrounding me and I saw a flash of silver and black on the pavement beside me. It had rained the night before and the water filled all little nooks and crannies that could be seen - this puddle was long and had a strange shape, distorting the night sky and I leaned over to get a closer look. I saw a little girl’s face that looked pale, scared and sweaty. The little girl stared back at me, with eyes as wide as saucers and a tiny little mouth drawn into a pink rosebud at the bottom of her pointy and pale face. When the wind blew, the water rippled and she looked like the person in The Scream.
I realized the little girl was me and I pedalled away as fast as I could. I couldn’t let myself look like that, not even if it was a deformation. Was this a sign telling me that I should toughen up? My sister’s voice played over and over in my head. Man up, man up, man up....
My eyes caught a slope approaching rapidly, reminding me a little bit of a cheetah chasing after its prey. Once again, I was the victim of a fierce African animal. A great battle took place within me and the two parties involved in the fight were Victim and Victor. Victim insisted that I was the weaker person between my dad and I, but Victor told me that I was capable of learning how to ride my bike and that I would come out of it stronger than I had ever been before.
Victor was the winning team. After that, my attitude towards the slope was much more cheerful and optimistic. The slope would certainly give me a bit more momentum and I wouldn’t have to pedal, thanks to gravity. It would give me a chance to get used to the rhythm. The wind rushed through my hair and I heard it murmuring in my ear: Here’s your chance Florence, take it or leave it. Show your dad what you’ve got. I bit the inside of my cheek to brace myself. Unfortunately I bit a bit too hard and a salty metallic taste flooded over my tongue. No matter. It was time to be brave.
I stopped pedalling and just felt myself gliding downwards, down the slope. It felt like freedom. The warm, salty-smelling air and the rush of adrenaline felt like a key opening a lock that had been chaining me down for as long as I could remember. I wanted to push my bike up the hill and go again, but time was slipping by, just how water trickles through the gaps between your fingers.
My sister stopped pedalling and stopped, rearing over to the side of the pavement. I followed.
“So how was that, Florence? Fun? I bet you definitely know how to ride a bike now, don’t you?” My dad pushed his uncombed hair away from his eyebrows and smirked at me cheekily. His grin reminded me of the smiles monkeys would give you after stealing food or a hat from you at the zoo. I fiddled with my hands as if I was rolling an imaginary piece of blue-tack back and forth in my palms. My sister looked towards us, her eyes darting backwards and forwards between us as if she were following a tennis match.
“Yes, I definitely know how to ride a bike now, dad. That was so thrilling. Can we come again sometime?” I attempted to fake sarcasm, but my true feelings gave way and I couldn’t help but reveal how I really felt about learning to ride a bike.
I looked down at my shoes to hide my cheeks, which were rapidly reddening. A puddle caught my eye, and I stared into it as if it were a crystal ball that could predict my future. This time, instead of a sad, disappointed and frightened little girl I saw a girl who was stronger and more confident. This little girl had a grin that stretched from ear to ear, a glowing complexion and she held her head higher. I felt like a little caterpillar who had metamorphosed into a butterfly over only 45 minutes, and I wasn’t ever going to look back.