Friday, February 24, 2017

The Wheel

Lula thought it would be nice to ride on the back of the bike while everyone else walked. And it was an excuse to finally get away from her mother who privately complained about the heat when no one was looking. The day was too hot for picnics, too hot for conversations and boiled eggs with crusty bread. The sun danced through the sycamores, wild strawberries were waiting to be picked and tasted off the vine, and the forest air was thick with bees and the heady fragrance of summer flowers. Who cares? Besides Mon had offered.

“We’ll be the first to pick the spot for lunch. And the rest can meet up with us.”

Mon, short for Monique, was between thirty and forty. She was tall and blonde with sporty short hair, thin glasses, white shorts, a denim shirt, boat shoes, no socks. From behind, she could have passed for a boy. A former aristocrat, she was the village pharmacist and her mother’s new best friend since they moved to St Omera. Mon’s family and cousins would be there. New friends for Lula, who’s eyes were often found glued to some Gaston Lagaffe comic book. There was talk of pate (was it made from horsemeat?) with brined black olives, Justine’s homemade cellar cider and a roaring spit fire into the night.

Although she had never been alone with Mon before, Lula said she would like the ride very much.“There’s a little lake close to here pass the field” said Mon. “If you want, we can take a dip to cool off. I know the path and the spots where you can see the dragonflies. We’ll be lucky to have the whole lake to ourselves before everyone else. Today is a perfect day for a swim.”

Truth be told, Lula didn’t know how to swim but she had no way of telling Mon. The moment had already passed. She obediently climbed onto the back of the bike, her legs straddled on each side. She didn’t know if she ought to hold onto the seat or place her hands intimately around Mon’s waist. Instead, she settled for one hand on the seat and the other faintly, nonchalantly even on Mon’s hip. Was this the proper etiquette? She had no clue and plus they weren’t related so it made Lula all the more uncomfortable to be touching another person. The notion of touch was strange and shocking. Grotesque and exciting. Several times, Lula walked into the intimate moment while her parents kissed, her mother instantly withdrew, sitting as still as a mannequin, denying what had happened. By “parents”, she didn’t know what quite to call them yet, it was her mother and recent step father. Without a word, she found a man in their living room one day, then Lula was at a church and posing in front of people she didn’t know, her mother’s co-workers at the pottery factory where she worked as a secretary. The wedding was in the newspaper. Her step father was a refugee from a place with a recent war, a former astrologer, the first bi-racial couple to be wed, the caption read. There’s a picture of them signing the civic marriage certificate in front of the mayor, and in the background, you can see Lula making a face, lips frowning and eyelids inside out with her school friend Martine.

Mon took off and started peddling. The path was heavy with nettles so the pace was slow and leisurely. Occasionally, a light tap beat against Lula’s sneakers, a reminder of the spokes of the wheel beneath her. Trees lined the meandering path, everywhere around her a flowing buzz and blur of green and yellow. Flashes of speckled sun glared into Lula’s eyes. Above birds flew, not in formation but scattered like a broken arrow.

They approached a big dip on the path and then something heavy rubbed against Lula’s ankle.

She thought for some time if there was something wrong with the bike, (a flat tire, perhaps?) for the scenery around her stood still. Lula felt a rush of heat emanating from her legs and then a sensation of pressure. Mon was now standing on the bike using her legs to pump but the bike would not budge.What if it was her foot that caught on the wheel? Lula found it alarming that she wouldn’t dare look down. She could not. She looked at the sky above again but there were no birds. She studied the pattern of Mon’s shirt, its uninteresting lines, blue against white. There was. There was an unmistakable pressure on her right ankle. A deep pressure and an alarming sound that sucked the breath out of Lula. Was that a snap of a twig or of twisting bone?

Please stop, please Mon! That was what she wanted to say but her lips could not move. The back of Mon’s head stared back into Lula’s brown eyes. There was an abundance of wispy blonde hair. So pure, so careless and messy. In the summer light, it almost looked like golden wheat. There was perspiration, collecting on the sides of Mon’s neck, as both her hands gripped the handle bar, working no doubt, and her legs stood perched and flexed ready to unblock whatever it was that impeded momentum.

Now, Lula could have shifted and removed her ankle from the wheel, if it was caught. She could have firmly squeezed both her hands around Mon’s waist to let her know that she ought to stop whatever she was doing. She could have whispered into Mon’s ear, Excuse me, so Lula could release her trapped ankle. This solution was so obvious, so direct and painless. And yet, it didn’t occur to Lula. She could not wield her own voice. Not yet. Could not command it to speak up. Mon had done nothing wrong. She was so kind and affectionate. A woman with such peaceful and perfect features. Noble even. Who had three high born children of her own, who themselves at fifteen, thirteen and eleven were robust, blue eyed and blonde, who rode horses and swam in lakes, who were beautiful and looked up to. Lula could not insist that Mon was responsible for this predicament. Even if she did say, Please stop, she knew it would sound insolent, vulgar.

But there was more. Had Lula felt this before? This complete separation of self from body? When was it? She imagined being on an airplane, her body limp, resting on someone’s lap. Only a dress on, naked legs. The humdrum and draft of filtered air. She was cold, hot tears against cheeks, a scratched throat from screaming until there was nothing left to utter. A barren well that echo chambered silence. She wanted to know what it meant to feel this void again. Was it anger? Was it guilt? Was she abandoned? What was happening? Lula wanted to know what was going on. She wanted to know what would happen, in this moment.

Mon’s right foot inched forward, calves ready for the finish. A wave of hot coals rushed over Lula’s ankle, punching upward into her temples and brain. She felt a rush of sharp pricks and spikes. She thought of a hammer beating against a nail, beating against a nail, and a knife against an onion, the disgusting pungency of onion, the overwhelming smell, the cutting and slicing, the heavy knife inconveniently cutting and jabbing, stabbing and jabbing, releasing fuzzy stupid membranes, inflamed and vulnerable, the forever damaged peptides.

All this felt riveting to Lula. Mon’s impossible pedaling, so patient and constant, so present. Lula could no longer hold on, could no longer deny the exuberant flow of intraocular fluid that swirled now and escaped those bloodshot eyes, finally tearing, finally, until nothing could reach Lula, not even Mon’s maddening scream when she looked down and caught sight of the wheel.

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