Vince Cousino Anila rides his bike, trying to escape the shadow of the abusive father he won’t become.
I should be better at this by now. I set out this morning riding alone against last night’s frost, and the memories I’d wasted most of the last two decades trying to leave behind. If I keep moving, I stay just warm enough to avoid shivering. Every time I stop, though, I start to freeze almost instantly.
It’s 2007, and I’m cycling the first “century” of my life. Although it’s a charity ride with lots of other people, somewhere, the only company I enjoy for most of what, by the time it’s over, is 103 miles is the hope that something inside me will have been given permission to hurt enough to snap finally. And my hope is that if I can accept how it feels when it does, I may finally start to be free of it.
I should be better at this by now, I think. I’m a Zen teacher, for fuck’s sake. But after 12 years of Zen practice—some of it fairly diligent, some half-assed, but most of it shot through with the totality of a desperation I’d been feeling for so long that I no longer knew if I had merely once imagined that there had ever been some boundary between whatever I might be, and it—after a dozen years, it’s become clear to me, finally, that I’ll never be able to meditate my way around the things for which I started sitting Zen in the first place. Turns out, just the opposite. All I can see anymore, when I sit in meditation, is the need to face these parts of myself, of my history, directly, utterly, without narrative. And I couldn’t begin to describe how angry this has made me.
Periodically, as I’m riding, I gaze down at the picture of my three-year-old daughter taped to my handlebars. I need this all to work for her, somehow. I haven’t hit her since the first time, when I slapped her hand as she reached for the hot water running from the bathroom faucet after I had warned her against it. The way she looked at me, confused about this new thing between us, like she would now have to read me closer, to begin deciding in any given moment how she herself was to meet the world based on little more than something in my voice that day or the way I might’ve shut the car door just then.
I hadn’t owned a bike in years when I bought this one the year before. I went with a “hybrid,” as vague as my reasons for wanting to ride it in the first place. I started riding it in Detroit, where we lived. In the mornings, I’d have downtown all to myself. I often found riding very similar to Zen meditation: yeah yeah, it could clear the head and all that; but like the meditation cushion the bike would accept any anger or aggression I threw at it. And on the bike, I could suffer as much, could empty as much of myself into it, as I needed to on any given day. A hard ride is a kind of burial. And a century sounded fucking hard. As soon as I heard there were such things out there, I started training for one.
When winter came, I “rode” indoors on a special flywheel I bought that made the bike stationary. And as the months passed, I learned as I hammered away on that thing to invite the old memories to come and be seared by the pain in my legs, by the fact that my heart and lungs felt like they might actually be collapsing in on themselves. The day my father threw me in that cold, green pool with all my clothes on because . . . I still have no idea why. I was about nine, and I had a sense that maybe it was wrong, if only because random. I must have deserved it somehow, though; how else to explain it? Or the time we were playing, and he chased me, and I thought he was gonna tickle me out in that field, and wow he caught me quick this time, he never catches me, ow that hurt, wha . . ., shit, stop it, why are you and now I’m crying “I’m sorry dad I’m sorry” on my legs back arms. I sat there, hugging my knees, watching him recede far off into his garage to do whatever he did in there that made him keep the door locked. . . .
Another time when I was ten he chased and caught me when my cousins were around, some aunts and uncles on my mom’s side. I was afraid to face everyone afterward, ashamed that I had done something bad enough for that to happen. I remember it seemed so odd that everyone seemed so sympathetic toward me; so odd that maybe I didn’t actually deserve whatever beating I had just received.
How normal it was for all of us to hold our breaths when he came home from work, waiting for whichever version of him walked through the door that day. The door wouldn’t be half open and already I’d know how to behave. If he was in a bad mood, I’d be quiet, retreat to somewhere. Good mood and I’d start telling jokes, try to maintain the whole thing, always convinced I could if I were funny enough. Always convinced I could if I were good enough. And I was never quite good enough. In any way.
I’m feeling pretty good on the bike until about mile 50 when I begin to crack. My goal was to finish the whole thing in under six hours, and with the cold and wind I’m well off the pace. My legs start cramping up, my back is seizing, and I find myself changing hand positions on the handlebars every ten seconds. All I start thinking about is surviving until the next aid station. I’m alone and empty, and every time I notice my daughter’s picture on the handlebars, I find something inside me silently apologizing for failing her. It’s not just physically that I begin to shatter.
I ride this way for what feels like decades. Begin to retreat back into that little boy who knows his place. Who tries only so much, and even then when no one is watching. It’s not that bad. It’s who I am. There’s even some old Zen teaching to justify it, let’s see, yes, “let go of winning and losing.” I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter. It’s not that bad.
In the middle of nowhere, there’s an aid station around mile 70 at a little firehouse. I stop to stretch out my legs—which is almost worse than staying on the bike. I grab a banana; go take a piss. And just before I leave, I notice, as I’m filling my second water bottle, the excuses. I notice the excuses for why I’m not going to accomplish what I came here today to accomplish, and I notice that I’ve been rehearsing them for half the day. It was too cold. Too windy. I didn’t hydrate properly. Next time.
And I’d been rehearsing them my whole life. Just like him.
When I hopped back on the bike, I had 30 miles to bury myself if I was going to finish in under six hours. Physically, the next hour-and-a-half was in some ways the hardest of my entire life. The pain moved up from my legs and back into my neck, my arms, down into my numb hands. Physically, I was an utter mess. And I honestly could not have been happier. I realized that I knew how to suffer. And I knew for the first time in my life, unequivocally, that I had my own fucking agency.
When I crossed a hundred miles, there were no cameras, no crowds. There were no other riders in sight. I downshifted and exhaled. Sat up off the bars and stretched my neck, my shoulders. And then, reaching down to grab a water bottle, I saw my daughter looking up at me. I still don’t know which one of us winked first.
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photo: s-t-r-a-n-g-e / flickr