The Kryptonite cable lock hung from Rich’s hand like an industrial umbilical cord. “You’re not going to like this,” he said, turning toward me. Our bikes had been stolen overnight. We’d locked them to a post with a cable and to one another with a U-lock, hidden behind Rich’s truck and below a curtain of pink bougainvillea. My husband’s green eyes had a look in them I’d rarely seen over our 23 years together. I was headed to an outdoor yoga class, and he was going to work, as was our Friday routine.
My bike had been an extension of my body almost every day for 10 years. It surprised me the loss of this object could hurt so much. I made it to yoga that day in a tearful rage. No matter how much deep breathing I did, I could not find peace. When other items had been stolen—books over the years, a car stereo when I was a teen, money on the subway, a computer from a home break-in—I had let them go easily, conceding the thief probably needed them more than I did. I could not find compassion this time. My anger frightened me. Why do people take things that aren’t theirs? And how long had someone been watching our bikes to know how to access them in a hidden place? Like anyone else who has ever had a bike stolen, I felt violated, vulnerable, and disempowered. Humans are such shit, I thought during savasana.
My dad taught me to ride a bike. I was six years old and sick of training wheels. He took me out to the sidewalk one Saturday and unscrewed the training device from the frame.
“Hop on. I’ll hold you,” he said, steadying me with his hands, a cigarette probably hanging from his 70s mustached mouth. I did. “Here we go. Start pedaling,” he instructed. I did, with him jogging alongside me for a while. What comes next is maybe every kid’s first moment of parental betrayal. In my memory, Dad slides out of my peripheral vision. I get scared and look back to see him trotting behind, his hand still firmly on the back of the seat. “I’ve got you,” he says. “Look straight ahead and pedal faster!” I do as he says, knowing I’m safe, knowing he’s got my back. I am flying down the sidewalk, a breeze filtering through my brown pigtails. I am balanced. I am doing it! I am really riding a bike. Then I look back, and Dad is in the distance, clapping and cheering me on from so far away. I turn back toward the handlebars just in time to see the bike’s front tire veer off the sidewalk and straight into a big tree. I fall, my bike on top of me. I am crying. My knees are skinned. Dad comes running. I can tell he feels bad, but he is laughing. “You’re okay.” He brushes the dirt from my knees, lifts my bike up, and encourages me to try again.
As a pre-teen in Southern Maryland, I rode an old ten-speed through the woods or down winding country roads to friends’ houses miles away. Away from my parents’ watchful eyes, the duties of church and school, riding for hours with the wind in my hair. I was a confident rider out for pure pleasure, never aggressive with cars or competitive with others.
My stolen bike, nicknamed “Bikey,” was a Specialized Rockhopper that came off the assembly line in 1988. I turned 18 that year and wasn’t riding bikes anymore. I was a year out of high school, living with a boyfriend—my first real romantic relationship, my first love—in the Washington, DC area. We were star crossed from the start—he a Taurus, me a Leo—it didn’t matter that our families hated us being together, that we never had any money, or that society made a big deal of the differences in our skin tones. We built a fortress of isolation, sure our walls would never be breeched.
And soon bikes were not just forgotten toys of my youth, but my nemeses. Cycling was his thing, something he spent too much time and money on, money we could have used for rent or a phone. We fought more and more. He started hitting and berating me. I went to work in an after school program with bruises on my arms, my neck. I went to work on crutches. I went to work while he blew his paycheck on his bar tab. I went to work as he quit job after job. I went to work while he played in bands and raced his bike and I laughed with the kids and my co-workers about how clumsy I was.
The third time the police came to our apartment due to calls from our neighbors, I left, fleeing to a shelter and pressing charges for assault and battery. I keep the photos and papers filed with the District Court of Maryland in a drawer now, in a folder marked “legal.” The statement of charges says: “He then hit me on top of my head with his bicycle helmet.”
The address under his name is the apartment we once shared. The address under mine is the one of the Abused Persons Program. We had gone from boyfriend and girlfriend to defendant and complainant, just like that. The photos of him, the letters from tour (written on the backs of napkins, set lists, and menus, in crayon, pencil, ballpoint, and marker, one for every day he was away last time), I put those all in a shoebox and threw them into a roaring fireplace at my friend Ariel’s house. She, a self-described “bald, black, Wiccan, dyke,” believed in such ceremonious gestures. I figured it was worth a try.
Even after the judge gave him community service and ordered him no further contact (“no jail time,” he said, “because you’re not married”), even after friends rushed to my side to give me a place to live, even after my work held my job for me despite all of the lies and days missed, I went back. Until I just couldn’t anymore. I would move 300 miles away to start over, but just before I did, he brought me abrand new Nishiki mountain bike, green with a pink logo. I put it in storage. Later, he showed up on my doorstep in New York with a diamond and sapphire engagement ring. We spent the weekend together, he went home, and then I mailed the ring back Finally, there was nothing more to say. I never once rode that bike and I flinched for years whenever I saw men who looked like him in Lycra shorts riding on the sides of roads, even in other cities. A therapist diagnosed me with PTSD.
I wanted a book or a map or someone to tell me what to do to feel normal again. Is there a word for a broken fight-or-flight instinct? For a long time I wondered why was I missing what even the lowest life-forms had to preserve their own survival. I read about karma, how Hindus believe what you’ve done in past lives affects your here and now. What have I done? I asked God, the Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Ganesh, the doctors, the counselors, my shelter roommate Yvonne with the long gold braids and her smiling son named Valentine.
Eventually, I went back to college and earned my degree. I turned down every invitation to romance. I could not afford distraction on the route back to myself. I once lamented to my therapist that I had “wasted two years of my life” with this person, to which she replied, “Better than twenty, like my former marriage.” So each day I just did what I could to get by, slowly inching back toward the things that made me happy, the way a flower turns to the sun.
I met Rich through a friend as I was graduating and moving to California. In our new state we went to punk shows and hiked and swam and rode rented beach cruisers together. The feeling I’d had when riding as a kid came rushing back. My heart downshifted out of trauma mode. I learned this kind of freedom could be mine again but I still couldn’t ride that unused mountain bike. I gave it away.
A friend gave me Bikey in my late 30s. She offered me her precious commuter hybrid, claiming her bicycle collection had grown too large. She showed me how she’d replaced its original handlebars with carbon fiber ones. She had hand-painted neon flowers onto its white frame in reflective paint. She’d inserted tire liners, to help prevent flats. She’d long forgotten the password to the quick-release seat, but I didn’t care. The 25-inch frame was perfect for me. It didn’t matter it was a hardtail. I was in love.
I sold my car and Bikey and I crisscrossed all of Los Angeles. Whizzing around the streets of Hollywood was liberating. I was self-propelled, passing suckers sitting at stoplights, swerving to avoid blue-green broken glass, giving directions when stopped for a drink, and carrying only the essentials. Cycling meant meant taking Lexington, Selma, El Centro or Fountain—never ever Sunset, unless heading east. It forced conversations with homeless people, construction workers, street hustlers, motorcyclists. There was kinship with others on bikes—gangsters, Mormons and Scientologists. Sometimes it meant sparring with cars or taking the sidewalk instead at the hungry mouth of the freeway entrance. Crosswalks were shared with the strollers, the skateboards, the wheelchairs and walkers. Food was calculated as fuel: how much could get me how far and how fast? And if anyone harassed me, I could easily get away.
I never worried about parking. There was no car or insurance payment. My carbon footprint was lighter, and my leg muscles built to Wonder Woman-level. Riding was my small ‘fuck you’ to L.A.’s car culture.
Two weeks after the theft, I woke from a dream where we found my bike, where I was trying to snap pictures of it as a group rode wheeled it away. A few hours later I was coming back from lunch in a Lyft a few blocks from our apartment when I saw a guy riding my bike. I took photos of him and hopped into Rich’s truck as soon as I got home. Rich and I drove back to where we’d seen the thief turn, unsure of what we’d do if we found him. There, on a side street, were two police cars parked haphazardly, with two officers talking to a group of guys camped out on the sidewalk with many bikes. Bikey lay there alone on its side.
I hopped out, waving my police report. “My bike was stolen, two weeks ago . . .” I gasped. Tears streamed from behind my sunglasses. My chest trembled. “And that is it!” I pointed at it with Pee Wee Herman-like flourish. The bike thieves looked at me like I was crazy. One of them said they’d bought it from a swap meet. I was overwhelmed at this close-up look at my steed. Its rear rack was gone. The brakes had been cut. The glow-in-the-dark stickers had been peeled off. My little pink bell had been removed. Some sort of purple plastic wheel had replaced the front tire, and the seat stem was jacked up too high, to make it workable for its last rider.
I studied the faces of the young men being interrogated—one had sores around his lips, another had tattoos on his forehead. They looked like boys I used to know, some lost to addiction, some gone to suicide. I pushed that thought away. “I just want my bike back,” I sniffled. “You or whoever you got them from are stealing from people in your own neighborhood. Not cool. This is my main form of transportation.”
I thought I heard a mumbled “sorry.”
One pointed out that the original wheel from my bike was on another one in their pile. “Do you want it back?” he asked. I nodded and together we switched out the wheels.
Later, I regaled my local bike shop with the story. They practically cheered. “That happens to like, no one . . . in a city of 4 million?” said the mechanic.
After picking it up a few days later, I read the note on the work order:
Bike was stolen and got recovered. Make sure it’s all nice.
This bike had held groceries, notebooks, a computer, flowers, small pets, my body, and essentially my life on its frame for years. On it I rode away from the worst days of my life to the best. I know it could be taken again and one day it might break under the weight of all I have given it. But how could I have ever thought this thing—my joy—could be stolen?
The simple tenderness shown on that receipt touched me. Maybe that word applied to both of us, me and the bike: recovered.
Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, while her essays and reported stories have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, Vice, and more. She is a Contributing Editor at Narratively, co-leads the Hamlet’s Hideaway International Writing retreat in Denmark every summer, and rides her bike all over Los Angeles all year long.