On Bike Crashes, Compassion, and Other Kinds of Love

I didn’t know where the arm around me came from, but there it was.

I swiveled my neck: from the asphalt of Marshall Avenue’s right, westbound lane, where my friend R lay prone on her back–eyes open, bike helmet still on, face frozen in fear–to the face attached to the arm, that of a blond women in pink cycling gear. I’d never seen her before, and likely won’t again.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, her grasp still firm against my shoulder. “I know you feel like it is, but it isn’t.”

I nodded slightly, let the air between my ribs expand. It was just what I needed to hear.

To be clear: I was fine, and R, we’d learn some four hours in Regents Hospital’s Emergency Room later, was mostly okay, too–bruised, but not broken.

We’d been riding home from a reading in St. Paul, speeding down the (notoriously perilous) hill before Lake Street’s bridge, when the traffic light changed and I stopped short; R was closer to me than I thought, and crashed into my bike from behind–causing her to fall forward and collide with the curb.

I didn’t see her fall happen, but other people did, and a startling number of them stopped to help. Within, seemingly, moments, a small village had assembled to attend: there was the young woman in yoga clothes who instantly parked her SUV behind us and called 911 (and also, later, spirited away our bicycles to lock them in her backyard so we could ride the ambulance); the older woman with short hair and a floral scarf who stood watch over oncoming traffic; the neighbor with the small dog who walked over after driving past and insisted on giving us her contact information in case we needed rides later that night. A doctor, even, who suddenly appeared, knelt down to take R’s vital signs before the EMTs arrived.

When they did, the kindness continued: the pair of (not gonna lie, Central Casting Handsome) men who drove us to the hospital were charming and kind, as was everyone who proceeded to help us: from the techs to the aides to the doctors to each and every nurse. Surrounded by strangers, we felt in such good care.

I have known R, a fellow writer, less than the length of one year. In that time we’ve grown close, connected over shared interests and values and similar struggles with our parents. I wouldn’t list her as an emergency contact or think of her first in a crisis. But in that moment, she was nothing short of family: it didn’t cross my mind to leave her side. Just as, when we finally got ahold of our mutual friend (and R’s roommate) M, she didn’t consider doing anything but exactly what she did: pack up a pair of tuna sandwiches, meet us in the ER, make us laugh (someone had to document the flower vase-esque Female Urinal), and drive us both home. 

*

My Tuesday therapy appointments tend to begin roughly the same: breathless from the bike ride and (inevitable) anxiety of being a few minutes late, I spill onto the couch and, as I contemplate where to begin narrating the week’s (inevitable) dramas, she calmly asks how I’m doing.

Routinely, lately, my response includes some variation on the following: that amidst the moments of sad and unsteady and doubt, that overall, I feel so supported.

During our most recent session, I observed that some of the most important support I’ve felt lately has come from people who I didn’t expect, and not from those who I might have thought.

This is something I’ve noted before–that it isn’t necessarily my closest or oldest friends whose presence, lately, has felt most significant. That, instead, I’ve felt held up by people relatively new in my life–in particular, a set of writer friends whose vastness of empathy, compassion and smarts can feel, at times, like some great karmic gift.

But in the past, that observation felt tinged with some sadness, some regret. It does tend to be sad when once intimate ties feel loose. But when I spoke to my therapist this week and as I sit at the coffee shop counter writing this now, I feel detached from any disappointment; instead, I feel flush with gratitude for the support that has lately felt so essential, and so strong. 

Yesterday, the day after the crash, I spent the morning in tears: not of sadness or fear or the tiredness of having been up late in florescent hospital halls, but simply from being overwhelmed–with thanks and awe toward the strangers who stopped to help.

We tend to place a premium on permanent ties: the notion of unconditional love that we’re supposed to get from our parents, from the life partners we choose.

But that love can be more conditional than we’d like to think; less durable than we let ourselves believe. And lately, with those ties damaged, I’ve had to trust that the necessary net would come from elsewhere. This means first, I suppose, learning to trust myself: you can’t rest faith in people you don’t know or see. But learning to trust ourselves might also mean trusting our capacity to draw the kind of support that, in different moments, we differently need. 

We want to be able to envision the love that will get us through. And there is, of course, something beautiful and important about long-term intimates: friendships and marriages that endure across decades. But in this moment I feel equally appreciative of more transient intimacy; of the kind of love that might come out of nowhere and might only be around for moments–but in those moments, might mean the whole world. 

 

On a New (ish) Relationship and Things (Not) To Think About

As anticipated, my new-but-now-longer-than-three-month relationship no longer shimmers with the gloss of perfection–same for D, the person I’m in it with.

Don’t misunderstand: both things–he and the relationship–continue to be the source of many things happy, as things that aren’t flawless often do. I still get giddy about seeing him and feel extremely fortunate to have him, and us.

But we seem to have entered this sort of in-between sphere: the relationship is no longer brand new, and yet–it’s coming on four months now–it’s not exactly a thing of profound length. We’re not quite in the honeymoon stage anymore, that time when you just can’t stop thinking of the person and want to be with them all the time and believe them more or less perfect. Okay, maybe a little bit.

Anyhow. There’s a baseline commitment–breaking news, internet: in a few weeks, I’m taking the boy home to meet the family!–but no talk of anything significantly longer term.

In other words: we’ve yet to discuss the fact that in about twelve months, godwilling, I will be done with my MFA and don’t know where I’ll want to go (you know me and my persistent, unresolved New York-or-not-New-York angst), while his career (read: pension) means he’s not going to leave New Mexico for the next nineteen years.

As he put it when I, sort of accidentally, brought up the point a few weeks ago: that’s a conversation for another time.

What time, though, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know when you move from the short term commitment we currently occupy, of meeting the family and going to weddings and making plans for months ahead, to the kind that necessitates that conversation. The talk about whether-this-is-possibly-forever-or-not.

I’m certainly not anxious to get there. As I’ve been realizing, the territory is entirely unfamiliar.

There were a lot of strange things about my first and only long term love. Most notably, that, when we started dating, he was thirty-five and I was nineteen.

That particular strange thing generated a lot of other strange things: namely that, in my head and I’m pretty sure in his, the possibility of permanence never took up much space.

Sure, there were moments. One, in particular, that I always think of–spending time one summer with my friend K, an older woman who is now my ex’s girlfriend (also, a conversation for another time) by the pool at her St. Paul country club. We sometimes saw Garrison Keillor there, striding by in long maroon trunks and a serious scowl.

We also saw, reliably, a lot of little kids. And a lot of young mothers with those kids: playing and policing the floating landscape of bright yellow butterfly wings, purple floating rafts and bendy foam noodles.

Growing up in New York City, the squad I saw parenting was an aging one. I thought thirty-five was young to have kids. But since then I’ve been drawn to the idea, at least, of being a young parent. And in that moment I remember thinking: I should just do it. Marry the guy I’m with. Have babies now. Play in the pool with the rafts and the moms and call it a day.

And then the moment passed. I returned to my normal way of thinking: that I was far too young and inexperienced to even consider settling down. That sooner or later I’d have to pursue opportunities, professional and otherwise, outside Minnesota. That my first real relationship would not be my last.

A way of thinking that, I now realize, was something of a luxury. It allowed me to enjoy the relationship, the person and my time with him, for what it was. Never–or, perhaps, rarely–did questions about longevity loom in the back of my mind. I was able to appreciate the present without the constant distraction of the future.

Now, I have no such luxury. Now, as I fall for someone in an increasingly serious way, I can’t help but let thoughts of what might be, accompany–and sometimes, I fear, interrupt–those of what is.

I hate this. Four months is a short time. Possible flaws and issues have only just begun to surface, and I’m sure they will continue. They always do. The question isn’t how close things are, or us together, is to perfect, but whether it’s the right thing–let’s be honest, whether it’s a good-enough thing (Jesus, have I lost all my romanticism?)–for me and for him.

And that, there’s no doubt, is a question for another time.