Against his better judgement, Dad decided to engage me on my own turf. If I was going to make radical exercise a non-negotiable part of my life, then he’d join me in the middle of it, and if possible keep my from killing myself in the process.
“Abby, I signed you and me up for FreeWheel in June. It’s a week-long bike ride, averaging 60 miles per day.”
“Seriously?” This sounded ideal! A perfect excuse to workout without my parents second guessing my every move. “Just you and me?”
“Yep, just you and me. Hopefully, we can train together some on the weekends. I was thinking this could give you a goal to work toward with your workouts. A goal with a start and an end point. But you are going to have to really eat, too.”
“Oh I will, I promise!” I was ecstatic, like a kid with a Christmas pony. My mind jumped through the numbers. Sixty miles per day. How many calories can I burn on a 30 mile training ride? And of course I’ll eat, tons of carbs. Bananas count, right?
FreeWheel was my father’s worst nightmare. A hectic work schedule prevented him from training sufficiently, but by sheer grit he pushed through four days of wind, rain, hills, and watching his daughter kill herself.
“Abby, you’re supposed to stop pedaling when you go down hill. Just coast and give your legs a break.”
Wind gushed in my ears as we screamed down a lightly travelled section of Highway 66. This piece of rural Oklahoma was new to me, but in my diluted perception, it looked like every other place in Oklahoma. In the Ozarks, we did see wild buffalo, tiny specks so far out on the plain that Dad pulled out the binoculars to make sure we weren’t just admiring deer.
The yellow stripes on the side of the roads were dotted with familiar roadkill, armadillo, armadillo, cat, snake, armadillo. A few Freewheelers felt spunky and stopped to prop an empty Coke bottle between the stiff paws of a decaying armadillo. Stupid creatures, they say that they jump up underneath cars, creaming themselves on the undercarriage, when they had already been lucky enough to survive the wheels.
I might have taken note. I’d been lucky so far, only losing my period and my figure but clinging to my life. Metaphorically, I was caught between the tires of a speeding vehicle and debating whether or not to jump or lay low.
Freewheelers camp each night of their journey in small towns along the route. Girls Scouts and old ladies from the Methodist church pour into the campsites, usually set up on high school football fields or city parks.
On the third night of our trip, the ride’s organizers set up a microphone on a tiny concrete slap. A dilapidated pavilion served as a stage.
“Tonight we are holding an impromptu talent show!” The announcer looked like sting bean. Her tousled hair perched like a scruffy sparrow on her head. Between her neon green shorts and hot pink cyclist’s shoes, her knees peaked out bronzed and speckled with mud.
“Anyone and everyone come show us whatcha got! Sing, play, dance, whatever. The mic will be open till 8.”
The mic stood lonely and silent on the stage for at least 15 minutes. Finally, a couple college boys did a slapstick skit and a man on a harmonica followed.
“Dad, I was thinking about going up there and singing the Star Spangled Banner.”
“That’s a really hard song, Abby.”
“I know, but I’ve sung it at church. I think I can do it.”
“I’m afraid you’ll freeze or get embarrassed. Why don’t we just watch the others tonight?”
“Come on, Dad.”
“You do whatever you want to do. I just think it’s a bad idea.”
I wandered away from Dad. Waves of confidence were unfamiliar to me. Usually, I dwelt in the mud of self-doubt, and everyone around me seemed to confirm my propensity to fail. Dad didn’t even think I could sing the National Anthem.
My mind roiled between my ears. My folks don’t think I am smart enough to feed myself. I’m not as smart as Jennifer, or good enough to play softball. I’m not pretty enough for a boyfriend.
But these waves came, swelling from my heart. This one challenge felt like a microcosm. If I can sing the National Anthem in front of hundreds of people, then I can do anything. I will validate myself there. Surely a stupid, fat and worthless person wouldn’t dare to stand up before strangers and sing such a difficult song.
My head abandoned my hands and feet as they made their way to the stage. A few minutes had passed since the last gutsy performer and weary cyclists had turned to their dinner of hotdogs, tater-tots and fresh strawberries.
The mic popped when I lifted it from the cradle. Heads turned to look at me. Now or never. Dad’s words echoed, “I just don’t want you to embarrass yourself.”
“O say can you see,” I heard my own voice. Graciously, my brain transferred all of it’s anxiety to my hands leaving my voice round and clear. “By the dawn’s early light.” When I came to the end of the first verse a splatter of applause began. But I launched into the last, less familiar verse. “O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand, Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.”
The air seemed cruelly quiet as I dropped the last note. The worst part was walking away. Self consciously, I slid the mic back into its cradle and walked off the back of the stage as if I suddenly had somewhere else to be. Dad found me near the merry-go-round a few minutes later.
“Abby, that was amazing! I’m so proud of you! Did you notice the National Guard guys come to attention?”
I hadn’t noticed the National Guard at all. Apparently the armory was attached to the public park and the cadre had been invited to join us for dinner.
Daddy wrapped his arms around me. “I’m so proud of you.”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t hear him. See, I’m good! Daddy, believe I’m talented, believe I’m strong, brave and independent. I hear you, but are you proud of me yet?