Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Burritos and Motorcycles

One time, a long time ago (five months) I wanted to get my motorcycle license. There are two ways to do this: taking a weekend course and receiving the license at the end, or getting a learner’s permit and riding next to a licensed motorcyclist for a number of months. Since I’m impulsive and a little bit on the instant-gratification side, I signed up for a weekend course in late August.
The course took place about an hour and a half from Richmond. I had arranged to stay with a friend, but with a lot of dramatic sighs and a few crime statistics I managed to get my boyfriend to agree to join me. The course took place Saturday and Sunday from 6AM to 5PM.
We bought the suggested jackets, so thick it looked like they were made to keep a grizzly bear at bay in Alaska while keeping the wearer warm from a blizzard, from the thrift store. They smelled a bit like my friend’s grandma’s ancient cat, which is to say they didn’t smell particularly good. But we would be so prepared against road rash that they would probably give us our license just because we showed such excellent forethought.
We obligingly woke up at four in the morning. Even the sun hadn’t risen yet. My boyfriend, being of the opinion that without protein a day is lost, made us egg and bologna sandwiches and packed them in little baggies with chips for the ride. The sky transitioned from charcoal grey to slate grey, and the morning was surprisingly chilly. I began to feel pretty good about the gloves, jeans, jacket, and eye protection we were required to wear. I even set the jacket over my shoulders to keep the chill off me. We settled into my boyfriend’s car and took off into the night (which is the appropriate word since there was no sign of a sun).
About twenty minutes into our drive, when we hit rolling hills and open fields on our eastward way to Richmond, the sun rose.
I had never driven east into the sun while it was rising. I think it should be illegal. It wasn’t a matter of impaired vision, it was absent vision. We drove into white pain. Sunglasses only made the white agony a sort of yellow agony. Since the light came from the bottom of the windshield, the visor did no good. My boyfriend settled for holding his hand out in front of him like he could stave off the sun’s attacks.
I ate my sandwich with my eyes closed and a shirt draped over my head. I left the shirt there even when I was done, which concealed the fact that I was also taking a nap. I tried to be exciting and say things every now and then when we hit a bump and I woke up, but I’m pretty sure it was not convincing.

The sun finally chilled out when we reached the place, settling innocently behind the tree line like it hadn’t just tried to commit homicide on every commuter traveling east. A small, newly built two story office building sat next to two blacktops lined with haystacks and a number of squiggly lines that would have a lot more significance to me in the coming days.
The four hours spent in the classroom went by like I walk my basset hound, with a lot of resistance and boring bits accentuated by exciting parts like when he finds the appropriate fencepost. We watched videos on safety made in the nineties with bangs and scrunchies and one-liners that would make Horatio from CSI blush. We also did group activities. Me, my boyfriend, and our table of forty to fifty year old men collaborated on multiple choice questions regarding appropriate riding gear.
Finally, we moved to the blacktops. I was so excited I put all my gear on early. The boots, the giant sunglasses, the jacket, the jeans, and the gloves were ready for action before they even called us together. I popped the helmet on as soon as they gave it to me, feeling like a pro.
By the time we marched out to the blacktop to pick our motorbikes, now required to wear our gear, I had sweated through sections of my jeans. The helmet let no breeze in. I peered through my sunglasses with a giant heat-collector sucking all the energy out of my head.
There were twelve bikes, ten of which were the same make. A tiny Honda Rebel had been provided for the smaller riders, and a Kawasaki for the largest. I was put on the Rebel and my boyfriend the Kawasaki.
We spent an hour walking our bikes. This was actually the worst part for me. The bike weighed more than twice as much as I did, and had a bad habit of leaning away from me so I had little leverage to hold it up. I’m a bit vain concerning my strength, though, so I pressed on pretending I was having a grand time. I actually got pretty good at turning it, but I slipped up on one turn and had half a second where I almost lost it. That wasn’t particularly strange—others had even dropped their bike. But since I was twenty years old and 5”2, they sensed weakness. A kind man with a beard walked behind me the latter half of the hour supporting the bike. He kept talking to me in a cheerful tone, but I couldn’t hear him around my helmet and the stalling hum of the bikes. If I turned around I’d inadvertently turn the handlebars and lose control of the bike, so I kept yelling “yeah” in what I hoped was an encouraging voice intermittently whenever he stopped talking.

(Boyfriend was much better at walking the bike)

After our first day, we were feeling hot and defeated. We never quite managed to go in a straight line. I’m pretty sure I was dehydrated. I kept seeing spots and saying silly things like “I want to fly it like Hagrid”, which I would believe even if I wasn’t ill but probably wouldn’t say out loud.
We drove home into the sunset. The visors helped this time and the sun seemed to have had some of the fight taken out of it, because it wasn’t quite so painful. My boyfriend kept trying to get me to drink, which I kept refusing because I was pretty sure if I opened my mouth I would vomit. My head felt like it was imploding and undulating at the same time, so my boyfriend drove again, even though it was my turn.
We stayed at my boyfriend’s apartment to help with the commute. My evening consisted of a chicken noodle dinner, drinking lots of water, a cold shower so I wouldn’t get more dehydrated, and sleep. Wonderful, blissful, perfect sleep. After six hours on a blacktop in oversized winter coats in 90 degree heat with limited water breaks, we were pretty sure we were going to hibernate.
We awoke to the acrid smell of smoke and the fire alarm. The previous day left me a bit less than ready for action, but my boyfriend remained insistent I wake up and evacuate the apartment. So I stumbled into the living area and came face to face with a complete stranger.
I probably should have said something like “who are you?” or “why are you in my boyfriend’s apartment?” He seemed to have brought along a guitar, skateboard, camera and tripod, and several baseball caps as well as sleeping attire. He looked about fifteen, wore a baseball cap and pyjamas, and stared blankly at us. I mumbled a ‘hello’ and moved towards the door.
My boyfriend, likely as inhibited by sleepiness and dehydration as myself, opted to evacuate rather than figure out the mysterious high school student. Smoke clouded the room, lights flashed on and off, and there was this underlying scent of burning plastic and ground meat.
I remember reading in books when people had to witness a person burning, it smelled like pork and they were disgusted to find they liked the smell. Oh God, I thought. His roommate didn’t make it. My boyfriend had already reached the door and turned to see why I wasn’t following. I think I woke up about then and got my bearings. Black smoke poured out of the kitchen. I walked into the heart of the fire and saw that someone had put a burrito, still wrapped in aluminum and plastic, onto my boyfriend’s new pan and tried to cook it. 

I turned the stove off. The stranger said “sorry, fell asleep” in a slurred, drunken voice. He adjusted the baseball cap. My boyfriend opened the windows so the kitchen could air out. We left the sleepy drunken kid in the living room with the open windows and burnt burrito and went back to bed, where we locked the door and slid some heavy bags in front of it.
The next day was the final day of training and the test. Since neither of us could drive in straight lines yet, we were understandably nervous. My parents and little sister were going to meet us at the course after the test. We were near their house, and they wanted to take us to dinner. I planned to ride like a champ.
And through the day, I think I did. I shifted gears all the way up to third and back down. I weaved between cones, I stopped on a pin (figuratively. Realistically I stopped between two cones about three feet apart), I leaned into my turns and accelerated even when I didn’t want to. The only thing I could not complete was the figure eight within a designated box. My dad had warned me about it when he took his test. He said he failed it miserably, but still managed to pass because he did not put a foot down. Then he said, to calm me down, “everyone passes, unless you’re too scared to go up to third gear or can’t brake right”. I botched the figure eight every time. Even after our twentieth practice, when all my classmates had it down perfectly and my boyfriend was labeled the king of figure eights, I made a skewed nine holding a balloon instead of an eight. 

At five, we began to test. At that point the previous night’s limited sleep had caught up to us, as well as the heat and blacktop. As we stood in line for the first part, the figure eights, I saw my parents’ van pull up.
The line continued to progress and I became nervous about the next part of the test. My boyfriend kept hissing hints at me. “Just tap so you lean into it, and accelerate on the turns. You’ll get it, trust me!” I repeated his advice and tried to practice without moving. Lean left, tap brakes, lean right, tap gas.
They gestured for me to go. I made a figure eight, but pretended there was no such thing as a box. It took up half the blacktop, and scoffed at any sort of rectangular barrier. I just managed to tap a corner of it so I could get any points at all. Then I rode around the perimeter of the blacktop to the end of the line and watched my boyfriend. Despite his excellent advice and perfect eights on every practice run, he made a sad seven half outside the box and walked the bike around a corner. Probably stage fright. I cheered enthusiastically.
The rest of the test went off without a hitch. We both performed well. I’d looked at the point system before, and we could pass without scoring well on the figure eight. We finally switched our bikes off and gathered together. My parents and little sister popped out, waiting with the rest of us to hear our results.
“You passed,” my dad said, “I watched you, you didn’t mess up once. Plus you have to be pretty awful not to pass, anyway. They practically hand it to you! I’ve never known anyone to fail!”
I failed.
So did my boyfriend. We found out later that the weekend we selected had been a designated coach training weekend. They were being graded on how they graded us, to determine if they were strict enough to remain motorcycle trainers. More than half the class failed.
My mom tried not to smile, since she disapproved of me riding. I saw my dad pocket a booklet of used motorcycles for sale. My boyfriend made his grim face, the one that usually precedes several hours of video games.
“Let’s go to a Mexican restaurant!” my sister said, undaunted by the terrible thing that had just befallen us.
So we ate Mexican, and it was delicious. And that’s how I got my impulse to ride a motorcycle out of my system.
I still don’t know why that kid was in my boyfriend’s apartment. He did a good job of cleaning the pan, though. At least, the parts of it that hadn’t melted.