62: My First Bike

62: My First Bike

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

My First Bike

Christmas is not as much about opening our presents
as opening our hearts.

~Janice Maeditere

The doorbell chimed and my heartbeat lurched into an anxious cadence as I walked to the door. My stepfather Roger appeared casual in a button-down, light-blue shirt and jeans. I shook his hand and gazed into a face weathered from age and alcohol.

My mother had gone to Vegas with friends, and my wife, Quyen, suggested we invite my stepfather over for dinner so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas. I was hesitant because I knew how he could get when he drank. I really didn’t think he’d show.

He entered and cast a quick glance at the Christmas tree before heading with me into the family room. Quyen came out from the kitchen to greet Roger and asked if he wanted something to drink. He eyed me nervously and said, “Maybe a Coke.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as Quyen went to get him a glass. Roger settled on the couch and sighed like a man shouldering the weight of too many burdens. He looked around and asked, “So where’s the baby?”

Kevin was nine months old, and this would be their first meeting. Roger hadn’t come with my mother to the hospital when my son was born, and he had never accompanied her when she visited. There was a part of me that still resented him for that. I sat in a chair facing Roger and conveyed that Kevin was napping.

After some small talk, we arrived at an awkward silence. Finally, Roger said, “So how’s work?”

I thought for a moment about how much to disclose. “Sometimes, it’s pretty rough. There’s a lot of petty squabbling at the school.”

Roger leaned forward. “Raymond, twenty years.” He paused as if that was all he was going to say. “For twenty years, I put up with that kind of crap in the Navy. I’m telling you; it never ends. The worst part was at China Lake. . . .”

As he spoke, a memory surfaced. I was eight, and we had just moved to China Lake, a naval weapons center in the Mojave Desert where Roger had been stationed. It was December. There was no snow on the ground, and we didn’t have a Christmas tree that year. Packed boxes were still strewn about our tiny, Navy housing unit.

Roger had just married my mother, but I didn’t know what to make of him. He and I didn’t talk much, a pattern that continued throughout the years. Mom told me he came from a small town called Pengilly in Minnesota. He wasn’t close to his family and joined the Navy to get away from the harsh winters. That was all I knew about him.

On Christmas day, I woke to find a shiny new bike in the living room. It was a Huffy Stingray, the color of moist summer grass. The metallic frame sparkled like jewelry, and the long, padded banana seat glistened a bright, shimmering green. Even the kickstand gleamed. I marveled at the wide, Cheetah Slick back tire with zigzag treading.

At my stepfather’s encouragement, I grasped the waffle handle grips for the first time, and they fit in my hands as if they’d been molded for them. The bike left me speechless.

Roger broke the silence, “Don’t just stand there, Raymond. Take it for a ride!”

I shrugged because I didn’t know how.

Roger said, “I’ll help you.”

We rolled the bicycle outside. My stepfather held the bike up, and I climbed onto the seat. I looked at him, and when he nodded, I began to pedal. As soon as we started forward, I dropped my feet to the ground.

“I’ve got you, Raymond; you’re not gonna fall. Just keep pedaling,” he said.

I hesitated, but did as he instructed. We began moving, and this time, I continued to pedal. My stepfather held my seat with his strong, steady hand and jogged behind me as we went down the street. Riding a bike for the first time, I felt like a glider pilot sailing across a cloudless sky.

We zipped all the way down our street and turned around. Then I raced back. We must’ve done that twenty times on Christmas Day, and Roger stayed with me every step of the way.

In the next few days, when I rode faster, he ran harder. Then, during one of the many jaunts down our street, Roger said, “Raymond, don’t turn around, but you’ve been riding on your own.”

Still pumping the pedals, I could only utter, “What?”

Roger said, “Raymond, I haven’t been holding you.”

He jogged with me the rest of that day, making sure I was okay before he let me go out on my own.

Now, Roger sat with me in the family room at Christmas and told me stories about the people he had worked with in the Navy. Then he talked about what it was like going to school in Minnesota. He informed me he owned a German Shepherd named Michael that wouldn’t touch the food set before him until Roger instructed him to eat. Throughout Roger’s childhood, Michael was his best friend, the one he trusted most. I listened and nodded, and after awhile, Quyen brought Kevin into the family room. She put our son in his walker, and he giggled and launched himself around the room, bumping into the couch and the TV before going over to Roger.

Roger peered at my son for a moment, then reached out his hand and said, “How are ya, little fella?” Kevin latched onto Roger’s index finger and let out a delighted shriek.

We had a pleasant, uneventful dinner of ham, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and my stepfather’s favorite — pumpkin pie. We watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas together, and I gave Roger a present from under the tree. Surprise registered on his face, and he remained silent — about as awe-struck as an eight-year-old seeing his first bike.

Later in the evening, when my stepfather stood up to go home, he looked at Quyen and Kevin before turning to me. He said, “You have a really nice family,” in a soft, cracking voice. Tears welled up in his eyes.

I paused a moment and said, “Merry Christmas, Dad. Thanks for coming over,” and I meant every word.

~Ray M. Wong

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