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The bike I rode at our Chiang Mai, Thailand, boarding school was inherited from my older brother. He had received it it already well-used, and he and his buddy Steve had not exactly gone easy on it back when we lived in the village. So it was not much to look at: faded red, maybe pretty once, with worn front basket and backseat long gone. The wheel rims were rusted, I remember, because I used to stare at them and think about rust–what made it happen, how blighted it made the wheels look, and how odd that my brother could rub it off with some compound on a rag. It was like a toothless, blotchy, gaunt, yet sinewy older woman.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed that bike from the time I arrived at the dorm as an eight-year-old. It was serviceable for cruising around the network of side streets (soi is the Thai word for something like an alleyway) and perfectly good for trips to the corner store, where we bought cheap sweets for one baht. It was best, though, for joining the boys in the street in front of the dormitory. We rode back and forth and in circles, refining our stunts. Although it was no BMX, this bike of mine could be coaxed do wheelies. Next, I mastered the skill of riding around with my hands at my sides. I loved the joke, probably from our dorm’s old copies of Boys’ Life, where each time a kid pedals past his mom, he announces a new trick: “Look, Mom, no hands.” He progresses through his repertoire until he says, “Look, Mom, no teeth!” None of us thought of wearing helmets, but nobody seemed to get hurt.
I’m glad bikes don’t have feelings because my elderly but tough conveyance would have been crushed on my eleventh birthday. There was a surprise for me, my dorm parents told me. An extra special present didn’t really go with the protocol for gift-giving at boarding school. What was it? I was led to where the gift was waiting. A bike–new, shiny red, and no rust anywhere. And one of the first things I noticed was a generous white basket at the front, to which was affixed a sign that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANGIE!” Maybe wheelies and jumps were no longer possible, but with the intact seat on the back, I could give my friends rides, helmet-free, in our sunny, tree-lined soi a block from the river.
All efforts to find out who was behind this unexpected gift came to nothing, although I was suspicious of certain staff members. The grown-ups weren’t talking. They had their reasons, and they had made a pact to never reveal the benefactor’s name. In fact, their obfuscations were so effective, to this day I’m still mulling over how it came about. In the eighties, we never dreamed of anything like Facebook, where we would all be re-connected in the future with instant communication. I think it’s time for some belated inquiries.Published in