I can’t remember if I was 10, 11, or 12 – but I know I wasn’t yet a teenager – and I was spending a long weekend on the beach at my grandparents’ cottage in Camp Ellis, Maine.
I was on a borrowed bike, looping the neighborhood over and over – making my way very cautiously down the path’s one real hill each and every time. Beach to the right, cottages straight ahead and to the left.
I’ve always talked fast. Thought fast. Jumped on projects. Always the first to raise her hand – but I’ve also never been one for speed. Roller coasters scare me. Running hurts me. I’ve never (ever) had the urge to slam the gas just to see how fast I can go. For me, motorcycles are for looking at, not riding on.
And while I’ve always known that there’s no real chemistry between speed and me, on this day in Maine, when I was 10, 11, or 12, on my final loop around the neighborhood with the beach to my right and all those familiar cottages to the left, instead of pumping my brakes all the way down, I came to a complete stop a the tippity-top.
There was a stop sign at the bottom of the hill – as this road cut through the main road of this quiet beach community.
It was after dinner but well before dark. Still hot even though the sun was setting. The whole sky was painted this pinky-orange. My bike was pink and so was my tank top. I remember feeling like I matched – like I was a part of something – a bigger something. And I really liked how all this pink seemed to make my tan sparkle.
I smelled the ocean – listened for cars – and once I was confident that the coast was clear, I let go of the brakes and let that bike carry me fast and free.
Then I froze. Smack in the middle of main street. As a young man (who looking back now, I assume was a newly licenced driver) came careening around the corner in a fairly beat-up, red sports car.
I likely should have kept going – but I heard the car before I saw it and panicked. The driver slammed his brakes, started to skid and (thankfully) realized he still wasn’t going to stop in time. He made a mad left swerve and managed to just miss.
I still couldn’t move – and he still couldn’t drive away. With the car in park but still running he opened the door, got out, turned around and just stared at me.
I looked up to find my grandparents’ neighbor on her front porch.
She just stared, too.
“I’m..,” that’s all I could manage.
The driver put up one hand, nodded, got back in his car and slowly (very slowly) drove away.
The neighbor called out:
“Honey, you should really get out of the middle of the street. And don’t fly down that hill anymore, okay?”
I nodded, pedaled on and prayed the neighbor wouldn’t tell – and to the best of my knowledge, she didn’t.
Yesterday, on my commute home I noticed two girls – ages 10, 11, or 12 – not yet teenagers, biking down a steep hill at the tail-end of rush-hour.
They ignored the stop sign, too.
The second biker called out the to first, “WAIT!”
But, by then, the first biker was already in the middle of the street – and I (fortunately) was stopped despite having a green light.
I waved them both through and heard the second call out to the first: “Oh my god, what if she hadn’t stopped?”
And all I could think was:
Sometimes you get to receive the warning and sometimes you get to give it. Either way, it’s a gift.