Near the exchange for Highway 96 traveling north on 135 in Wichita, Kansas, there’s a beautiful straightaway where, with the right motorcycle and knowledge, a rider can easily jet up to 100 miles per hour or more before gently slowing, cornering right, and diving down onto the ramp for 96. The curve is wide and, if navigated properly, doesn’t demand a hard brake or any quick, nerve-destroying adjustments. If you’re lucky, the change from one highway to the other is wide, easy and open, and with music pumping through your helmet it feels like being a bird — dipping, diving, twisting, and cutting through the night aimlessly, without a single care in the world.
It feels like flying.
This is a regular occurrence on highways all over the world, but it’s special for me: a person who used to be blind but now not only sees pretty close to perfectly but rides as fast as my nerves and bike will allow.
I wasn’t born blind, nope. I lived a whole 30 years with two perfectly working eyes, before I got married and decided to try to have a baby with my husband. At the time, I was a freelance writer, beautician and nail artist, as well as vice president of an international educational nonprofit. But then we tied the knot, and after a whole lot of hubbub, we ended up with no children and discovered I was newly diabetic. I’d never even heard of Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy until I woke up one October morning and all I could see were black spots everywhere. Some were big, some were small, and they all were floating in my vision. I wasn’t completely blind; I could see light or dark, some shapes here and there, and even make out wobbly, misshapen letters if they were big enough.
A super-casual optometrist threw out that it wasn’t “really that big of a deal,” and I’d just “have to learn to live differently.” As he carelessly ushered us out of his office, he palmed a business card into my husband’s hand for a place here in Wichita that helps people who are Blind or who live with Low Vision learn how to navigate life.
Feeling desperate and destructive, I put out a call on Twitter for help. Some pretty famous Black Twitter Babes amplified it, and within a few days they’d gotten over $7,000 to come my way to help cover my medical bills. I got more than 100 DMs from people all over the country who had relatives with the same disease. Through many, many recommendations and with the little bit of money I now had, I eventually went to see a specialist, a retinal ophthalmologist at Dean McGee Eye Institute (DMEI) in Oklahoma City.
Living as a sighted person for 30 years and having it change overnight wasn’t easy on me. There were times when my parents and husband were afraid I might harm myself. One day, my father sat with me and held my hand in his. I could barely see his blurry brown form, but I could feel his calloused hands around mine. He said, “Baby, you keep saying you can’t see, you can’t do, but what would you do if you could see?”
I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of an unrelenting hope that would change me forever; my father’s question was the beginning of a dream. I barked out a mournful, mirthless laugh and blurted, “You know what I’d do? I’d go live a life. I’d have adventures. I’d get a brand-new Vespa and watch them take it out of the box. I’d never take my vision for granted again.”
In my first appointment with the specialist, my husband relayed that the first optometrist had said I would always be blind and that what I was experiencing would only get worse. My new doctor gave me a low, warm, genuine laugh and said, “I can’t tell you how long it’ll take, but if you stick with me, if you come when I tell you to come and keep your blood sugars controlled, you’ll see again.”
I learned that it would be far more than one or two treatments — and far more than $7,000 — but that I did have a chance. I also learned that our eyes are little miracles. Our eyes are home to some of the most sensitive blood vessels in our bodies. What makes eyes round is both their shape and being filled with a thick, clear liquid called vitreous. Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy happens when outside forces result in diabetic highs and lows, which can damage those blood vessels irreparably. The miracle — and the curse — is that our bodies try to counter it by growing new blood vessels, but they’re rarely stable, so they break and bleed. The blood floats around inside the vitreous, and we see it as dark spots. They call it hemorrhaging. Unfortunately for me, I had a lot of hemorrhaging.
“Imagine if you had a fish tank, and slowly, you kept pouring red dye in it,” my ophthalmologist told us. “It can only be filtered out so quickly — and that doesn’t make much of a difference if someone keeps pouring red dye in it.”
That was where I was: My body was filtering out the blood, but my eyes, as infuriatingly as a nosy uncle who keeps bumbling around and breaking things while saying he’s just trying to help, kept growing new blood vessels that were breaking and pouring more blood into my vitreous.
Over the course of two and a half years, I went every four weeks for laser surgeries. My sight improved progressively, so I knew it was working. Then one day in May, when I visited after all those laser surgeries, my ophthalmologist uttered some pretty magical words to us: “I think you’re fine.”
“Fine?” I asked, “Like … I can drive and stuff?”
“Well, can you see?” He looked at me straight on and asked very seriously.
“Well … yeah,” I admitted, still not believing the news.
“If you can see,” he stated with his usual no-nonsense delivery, “then you’re fine. Do whatever you want — just come back and keep your treatment up.”
Within the week, my parents and husband took me to buy the Vespa I’d said I would get if I could see.
I’d ridden scooters for 10 years by then — cute little 49cc jobbers, like my first one, a Honda Metropolitan, that didn’t require a license and wouldn’t go over 30 even if you were going downhill. But a Vespa isn’t just a scooter, it’s a Vespa. The name and wasp-style body are known all over the world. I’d always classified them as unattainable, something for wealthy people, for beautiful people, for people who were better than me. Not only that: The cost, the maintenance, the motorcycle license — it all seemed like something I’d never be able to experience. Then again, at points it had seemed like sight was something I’d never experience again either. So, my bright yellow Vespa, a 300 GTS Super HPE, fresh out of the box with zero miles on it, financed by my parents, came home with us that day.
Three months later, I was getting back to the business of living life, as fast as I could. I went back to work as a beautician, but this time instead of nails, I spent my days at a local cut-by-numbers place doing quick cuts for little money, where I suffered through their retaliatory crap every six weeks when I had to go back to DMEI for checkups, additional laser surgeries, or Avastin injections:
“Are you sure you need this?” *sigh* “How many more of these ‘surgeries’ are you going to need?” “You can’t even see a little? We’re really shorthanded.”
Maybe you’re shorthanded because you treat people like dog shit? I would think, but never say.
I was, and still am, in debt, literally up to my eyeballs, and I needed the piddly paychecks to cover my $50 monthly payments to DMEI, so that I could keep my treatments up. In addition, being the only Black person at the salon came with its own set of problems. Almost everything I said seemed to get twisted; there was always a “misunderstanding” of some sort that ended with me being seen as angry. Those days were so, so difficult.
My evenings though? Those made everything OK. I was busy freewheeling, frolicking, and feeling good, tooling around the city and the highways. No matter what time I got off work, I strapped my little helmet and the few pieces of gear I owned on and rode the streets while jamming out to my in-helmet speaker system. I was doing exactly what I’d said I would do: never taking my vision for granted, having adventures, and just being glad to be alive.
But I still always felt alone, even at work, surrounded by customers and co–workers, and at home, surrounded by my husband and my dog. Disability and surprise illnesses will do that to you — convince you that you’re completely alone. Your family might be there, your spouse, even children if you have them, but there’s no one who really understands. Truly, it was just me and my wonky eyes, overwhelming medical debt in the amount of “if you were able to have kids, we’d come after them for this after you die,” and Le Bumblebee, the name I gave my Vespa.
I was used to being alone by then. During the time I was without vision, the only emotionally meaningful human interaction I’d had was with my parents or my husband, who I was firmly convinced had only stayed because it would be an asshole thing to do to leave your wife because they had a surprise illness and became disabled. I kept telling him to leave, those years we went back and forth to Oklahoma City, but he never did.
Even while on my bike, I was always a solitary figure, zooming around Wichita. None of my co–workers cared for motorcycles, and my husband kept saying he was interested but never made any attempt to get his license or buy his own Vespa. But it didn’t matter to me: The chokingly moist heat and baking sun were always too tempting to pass up.
As soon as I snagged the Vespa, I joined some motorcycle-centered Facebook groups. I posted cool pictures of Wichita scenery and tried to join in discussions that seemed accessible to me. I often wanted to comment in the wilder, more energetic discussion threads, but I was one of very few scooter riders — and scooters and mopeds, generally speaking, are looked down on by many bigger bike riders.
So, I planned to keep being a “Blinky” (a cute slang term I use to reference my visual disability) Biker Babe, riding my Vespa solo and posting cool landscape pics from those adventures, until all of a sudden, my plan went to shit — in the very best of ways.
I was sitting at a red light, when — good God, Lemon — a small pack of sport bikes crossed me, going left as I waited to go straight. As I sat pretty on my quietly and expensively idling Vespa, at least 20 of them shot by me on their deeper, louder, more impressive bikes, each of them gracefully, slowly, almost sensually dropping their right arm down and giving an upside-down peace sign with a gloved hand: The Biker’s Wave.
No rider had ever given me The Wave before; certainly no group of riders who looked this cool. Their helmets were brightly colored, beautifully designed, and screamed “You Probably Can’t Afford This,” as they passed by. Most of them were outfitted in black jackets, gloves, and pants. A few were wearing no gear at all — no gloves, no helmet, no jacket or armored pants, and I wondered how a person can be so fearless.
My heart expanded three sizes because I’d gotten The Wave from Actual Cool–Looking People — and, just as quickly, it shriveled out of pure jealousy. I imagined being on a bike like that, like Trinity’s Ducati in The Matrix Reloaded, in skintight PVC with my big, curvy body on display while I flew down highways and took risks I’d never considered taking before that day. It was compelling to fantasize about it. And at that moment, I realized it wasn’t the bike I wanted; it was the friends and community, the chaos and noise — that’s what I really wanted. As soon as I got home, I posted a meme in the Facebook group I was most active in:
When they told me I had to wait ’til 600 miles to go over 40 mph I was like “cool cool cool.”
Then I saw 20 people on sport bikes on 37th and Woodlawn today looking cool af and I was riding granny speed on my Vespa like:
What followed later were comments and even private messages from people I’d never spoken with, inviting me to stop by anytime, say hi, and hang out. I never expected, not for a single moment, what would happen from there. It started with meeting a small group of people in the city who rode scooters and mini motorcycles. There was one older gentleman named Richard who collected Vespas and was interested in seeing what a 300 GTS Super like mine could do, so we met up for a ride and coffee. Everything changed that day, absolutely everything.
Richard and I jetted around town, finding small straightaways and wide, easy corners to get a few leans in here and there, until we wanted a break and decided to stop at the QuikTrip on 139th for gas and a few bottles of water. I was immediately embarrassed: There were six guys, about my age, all gassing up their shiny sport bikes; some were BMWs, which can cost the same as a down payment on a small home in Kansas, and there I was, hanging out on my ~Vespa~. I felt like there was no comparison, especially seeing their bikes so near mine.
After paying for the gas and waters, I couldn’t believe what I saw when I came out of the store: Richard was over there talking to them! Though he was having a good time, I figured from their laughter that it was pity and a bit of condescension they were giving him. I sat on the curb and sipped my water, wishing the ground would swallow me. It couldn’t get any worse, could it? No, it could. He was waving me over.
I was scared shitless as I stomped my cigarette out and plastered a smile on my face before energetically hopping over to the group of strangers. My social anxiety was at a 12 out of 10, but I wasn’t going to let it show. We all quickly introduced ourselves, and I tried to remind myself to remember all their names: The One Black Guy was Ellie, and the short, handsome Middle Eastern guy was Baba. The cute white boys were Josh, Chris, and Jeremy. The tall, chubby, Asian guy with the pretty smile was Andrew. (Because this story describes illicit and unsafe activities, most of the names and locations have been changed.)
“Geez Louise, your bikes are all really cool,” was the first thing I dared to say to them.
“Yeah, they’re all right,” Andrew replied easily and lightly. He had an easy way of saying pretty much everything.
“How fast does it go?”
“Ah, I don’t know, like 60, probably,” he shot back with a smile I later learned meant he was bullshitting you.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” Baba said, “if you add a one to it,” and laughed along with Andrew.
One hundred and sixty miles per hour? “Aren’t you ever afraid to go that fast?”
The laughter they returned was warm and welcoming. I didn’t feel pitied at all; I felt them laughing with me, the same way they’d been laughing with Richard, not at me, not at all. It had been my own baggage and bullshit that made me think they were making fun of him.
Within a few moments, Richard had invited himself — and me by proxy — on the ride they’d been filling up for. We lined up our bikes, and right before we left, Ellie looked over his shoulder and said, “When we leave you behind, just meet us at the gas station in Winfield.”
“When you leave? Don’t you mean if?” I laughed.
Ellie immediately shot back, with a deadpan delivery, “No, I mean when,” And we were off.
Everything was fine as we rode down K15 to take a back road to Winfield, on a route called The Corner. I didn’t know then that The Corner was full of beautiful, dangerous curves, dips, and corners that allowed a skilled rider to fill up on adrenaline and have bragging rights when it was over.
As we turned left, we were still with the pack … for about 30 seconds. All of a sudden, the sport bikes were screaming and disappearing. It was chaos. The bikes were gone before I could even register that we’d been left behind.
Richard and I didn’t know where we were going — but we still wanted to ride, so we turned back to the main road and jaunted off to Winfield anyway. We stopped at the Walmart there, smoked a cigarette in the parking lot, and he complained the entire time. He said the guys were trash, they were low class, and that we were better than them because we rode Vespas. I told Richard I thought they were precious, that it was exciting to see them go fast. We agreed to disagree and decided to ride half a block east to snag a cold drink and a bit of lunch at Taco Bell. I was thinking, I’ll never see those guys again. That was fun as shit, though. Man, that was amazing — and then … I heard screaming.
I jerked my head left and saw the six of them, leaned against their bikes, all hollering to get our attention. They hadn’t left us. Ellie had meant what he said. I maneuvered quickly and cut through traffic to get across the street and join them, with Richard in tow.
“How long have you guys been here!?” I asked, laughing.
“Like three hours, probably,” Ellie said, deadpan as ever.
“Yeah, right.” More laughter, this time from everyone. “I can’t believe you waited! That’s … that’s really cool.”
“We told you we would,” Andrew gently chided me.
I figured this was where the fun would end, until Andrew turned to me and said, “You wanna eat lunch with us? We’re going to Double D’s.”
“What’s Double D’s?”
“Uhhh …” Ellie said, gearing up for one of his terrible dad jokes. “It’s where we go for … breasts. The chicken breasts.”
Everyone laughed, and I figured it out: “Is it like Hooters or something? You mind if I invite my husband? Where is it?”
I shot a text to my husband while everyone else got the details sorted — but I was still in the grip of the anxiety I live with every day. This was the first time I’d ever ridden with a “real” pack. I sidled up to Andrew and asked him, as quietly as I could, if he could make sure not to leave me behind. He looked down at me, a soft half-smile on his round face, and gently promised that they wouldn’t. He sweetly reassured me in a carefree and kind manner, one I’d continue to get from him whenever we saw each other, even though he never said much beyond jokes and laughs. From then on, he always spoke to me as if we were already good friends.
A few precious moments after that soft exchange, we were flying down the highway. I wanted to shout that nothing feels as cool as riding with a pack on a highway, but I hadn’t yet ridden next to someone who knows how to wheelie. Andrew was riding next to me the whole way, and a few miles out of Winfield, he slowed until he was behind me, popped a wheelie, and sped past. A half mile or so later, he dropped back down to two wheels and slowed down to be right next to me again — the cute beginning of a wonderful game we played for the rest of the ride. He looked over at me, and although I couldn’t see his face through the mirrored visor on his helmet, he could see my giant smile through my three-quarter Vespa helmet.
The group of us flew recklessly down the empty highway — switching lanes, diving left and right, leaning and dipping whenever the want of it hit us, speeding up and slowing down, enjoying the sun and the weather and the ride. I wanted to see him do another wheelie, so I stuck my index finger in the air, made a few small circles, then lifted my hand a few inches higher — a slick way to say, Do another one? To my immediate surprise and satisfaction, he understood. The expensive helmet with the dark visor nodded. He did this darling little bunny hop on his seat, and before I knew it, the front wheel was up and he was in another one, speeding away while I watched, smiling bigger, and feeling cooler than I ever have in my life.
Once we hit the city’s busiest highway, there was a lot more traffic — but only slightly less speed. The bikes were diving from lane to lane, and I felt a wild freedom I’d never felt before. We were cutting lanes, everyone leaning left and right very dramatically, and I decided right then that I was going to go as fast as my Vespa would go. I’d never been above 70. But today? I was about to figure out exactly how fast this little baby could zoom.
I kept up with them as much as I could, changing lanes, throwing out little signals with my hands, watching like a hawk for any danger on the road, smartly hidden cops, or urgent communication from the pack leader of the moment. Then suddenly, my Vespa died. At least it felt like it did: Jesus Christ, I’mAboutToDie — WhatTheHell?
But just like that, the brief jolt passed, and a split–second later everything was fine, and I was back in the game. I had no idea what the hell could have happened, but it probably had to do with the fact that I never should have ridden a Vespa that fast. I couldn’t tell them that in the middle of a ride, though, so I kept going — and started praying.
Dear Black Baby Jesus, please let me make it to this chicken spot without this bike exploding. Amen. Ashe. So mote it be. Lord, please.
I made it. At Double D’s, my husband came, and attentive and amenable as always, he slid easily into the rapid-fire conversation at the table. We laughed and shared wings while I gushed about all the awesome wheelies and tricks they’d done. I learned what “hitting the wall” meant; that was the feeling I’d felt, what happens when you hit the top speed on your motorcycle and it feels like all the power has gone out of your bike for a second. They were amazed at how fast I rode, that it would go that fast at all. Andrew said, “You ride! You ride.” I was absolutely overjoyed.
We laughed, had a few drinks, and Ellie invited me to join their private Facebook group. While the TroubleMakers were super visible around town, they weren’t a Racing Club or a Motorcycle Club. They weren’t anything official at all — just a group of people who all enjoyed going fast and talking shit. So, that was that: I was officially a TroubleMaker — which meant nothing. The name was like a pacifier carried by an adult, a participation trophy, a free pen from a college campus, sure. But it was a pretty cool pacifier.
From then on, my husband patiently dealt with me being gone every evening riding, hiding from cops, and staying out until 4 a.m. some nights. Gentle as ever, he dealt with the late nights and ridiculous stories. And every evening, I was back at the QuikTrip with the rest of them — the insular group of core members I’d happened to meet that day, as well as the larger, much wilder general group.
On weekends, a few folks might take hours-long treks to another city or town, with a rest stop to eat lunch, bitch about being too full to get home comfortably, and snap a few smiling pictures before speeding home. But nighttime is when riding transforms into something else. In the middle of spring and summer, riders from all over fly to what we jokingly call “Mexico” for races and routes. Mexico isn’t a place, just a way to say, “We’re going out of the city to one of those places we all know, but because we know there are police officers who are members of this Facebook group, we’ll keep it secret and give it a code name.”
The first night I went, there were so many of us — more than I’d seen on all the nights at the QuikTrip. Again, I was the only one on a Vespa. It was dark and getting darker with every mile that we rode outside of the city, as the streetlights — and paved roads — got fewer and farther between. But they weren’t slowing down, and neither was I. We were going to another Mexico and I didn’t want to miss whatever was about to happen. I could tell from the speed and intensity of the ride that this wasn’t something anyone wanted to miss.
I didn’t have a full-face helmet yet, but even with the wind and bugs slamming into my chin, this new level of excitement was intoxicating. I kept smiling to myself; I couldn’t help it. I even made very brief eye contact with a few pleasantly surprised riders on shiny, sleek sport bikes who were amazed that my “little scooter” could keep up with them. We were riding far above the posted speed limits, in nearly pitch–black conditions; the path was only visible because of the moon and the bright LED or HID headlights from the pack. We were flying — like a motorized, humming flock of mechanical birds, in a definite formation now because of the dark, unfamiliar roads. Dipping, softly swerving, leaning left and right, occasionally switching places in the pack — communicating the desire to change position through quick hand gestures or nods, and deeply enjoying the ride in ways that only another rider can truly understand.
Everyone parked at an angle, with the headlights pointed out toward the street. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t have them knowing I didn’t know. When in doubt, follow the leader. But now I understood why: With all the bikes facing the street, the bright lights would let us see, a least for a little while, who’s winning and who’s getting gapped in the races — and also so that we could all hop on our bikes and leave if the cops showed up to break up our little get-together. I was completely and totally caught up in it: the smells, the sounds, the laughter, the shit-talking, all of it. I was busy meeting people I’d never even seen before, asking a ton of questions about them and their bikes, answering their questions about mine, and laughing with them when they asked if I’d ever get a “big boy bike,” because of the way I rode my Vespa. It was chaotic and beautiful and absolutely crazy. I couldn’t believe I’d just seen someone fly by at what had to be well over 90 mph — and they were the one who lost.
I didn’t know until people gathered around me, interested in my Vespa and educating me on racing culture here in the city, that that night was also just a few weeks after the community had suffered some terrible losses. I’d met them at a pivotal time: As a group, they’d recently lost friends and family members in motorcycle accidents, but at the same time, more riders were showing up than had been seen in quite a few years’ time. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one in the middle of a liminal phase of life.
My transition had gone slightly differently though. The autumn before, just when I thought everything was fine and all my worries were behind me, I lost my sight all over again.
I’d gone through all the laser surgeries, and my eyes had filtered out the hemorrhaging I was battling. Then one frozen October morning, as I gingerly stepped from my car to the employee entrance in the back of my workplace — where the lot owners had decided ice removal and salt services weren’t needed — I fell. It seemed to happen in slow motion, and slower still the thud I heard when my head hit the ice. I’m not sure how long I was unconscious, probably a few seconds at most, before a co–worker found me. Within minutes of being ushered inside, my vision started to change. By the time my husband got to the salon to take me to a hospital, I couldn’t see anything in my left eye, and the right seemed to be trying, and failing, to hold up its end. I’d prayed I’d never have to experience this again, but here I was.
The news was grim — both my eyes were hemorrhaging, and it was bad. I could try regular injections of Avastin and see how things turned out, but that could take a long, long time. Or I could have vitrectomy surgeries, one eye at a time; the fastest turnaround for both eyes was three months between surgeries, and then six months for each eye to reach what they called “final vision” (as good as it was going to get, basically). I opted for the vitrectomies. I’d been through weeks, months, years of visual impairment at this point and I knew my mental health couldn’t take another turn of that wheel. Time wasn’t on my side; I needed to work. I needed to ride. I needed to see.
After the surgeries, while The Bee sat in the garage, waiting along with me to see what would happen, I knew I had to make some changes. I decided to go back to college and get an English degree. I quit my job, determined to live a life that didn’t include daily, unrelenting mistreatment and racialized abuse. I’d had one too many abusive interactions, one too many snide comments that were wearing on my mental health, and one too many text messages from the management there, demanding that I come to work earlier than my doctor had advised. Beyond dealing with the abuse, which I’d come to believe was just part of being a worker in America, I knew how fragile my eyes were — even if the owners and managers didn’t — and I wasn’t going to let them take anything away from me. Not my peace, and definitely not my sight.
The vitrectomies meant wearing an eye patch for a while, sleeping in a particular position (for me, sitting straight up) for up to six weeks, and hoping that, as the saline was replaced by the eye creating more vitreous, everything would be OK. After six months of fear, hope, and prayer, in April when I went back for my checkup, the prognosis was really, really good: 20/20 in my right eye, 20/30 in the left.
In May 2021, I was about to graduate from college. I’d driven down to see my parents and, on the way back I got a call from a friend I’d come to call my sister; we’d met in the TroubleMakers. “Sister,” she said, and her voice caught. “Sister …” she trailed off.
“Sissy?” I asked, “What’s going on?”
I heard her voice catch again and she said, “Andrew … uhm …”
I reacted immediately, viscerally, “Sissy? Did Andrew die?”
That was all I heard before the sounds of soft grief and muted crying came through the Bluetooth speakers of my SUV. I hit the gas and drove faster to get to the QuikTrip, where I knew everyone would be. I needed to know what happened to my friend.
I found, with time, that even though I’d found out all the details of his passing, it didn’t matter what happened to my friend — all that mattered was that he wasn’t there anymore, and things were … just less without him. Less riding, less late nights, less excitement. Everything was just less now that the handsome, soft-voiced Asian man with the pretty smile wasn’t around to keep me safe and be my friend. He wasn’t there to remind me, as he often did, “Peech, these people aren’t your friends. Be careful.” Or “I know you want to make friends, but you can’t be friends with everyone just because you ride with them.”
He cared for me and protected me, proud to ride his impressive BMW sport bike next to me on my Vespa. Remember how I said people who ride bigger bikes sometimes look down on scooters and mopeds? He didn’t. He was happy to have me in his pack. He let me tell him I loved him; I often scratched his little round belly with my long acrylic nails and called him my little brother, as he grinned and blushed. He was my baby, immediately, my little love, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him.
Life didn’t seem to want me to take a break though, not for a moment. A month later, in June, I started a part–time job at a vape shop and bought a Yamaha R6 — a sport bike, custom-painted a tricolor shift: green, purple, and blue. I called it Cleo, and riding it was everything I’d thought it would be, and more.
It’s July, and it’s hot as fuck outside, even at 8:30 a.m. We’re taking a day trip from Wichita to Oklahoma City for eats and good times. I’m with two friends I love dearly, Sissy and Ellie, and it’s my first time on Cleo outside of the city. The R6 is low enough that even at just above 5 feet tall, I can put my feet flat on the ground, and I feel more secure than ever before — I can’t even get my feet flat on the ground on the Vespa. We’re leaving at 9:30 so that we can beat the noon sun — and because Ellie always complains about Wichita riders never leaving anywhere on time. I’m pulling up the rear, learning from them as we ride, watching the ways they move and lean, switch gears and zoom away. Within minutes, I’m keeping up with them perfectly well. The three of us in our gear, fancy helmets, shiny bikes — we’re an impressive group as we fly by cars on the highway, I’m sure of it. I’ve never felt so amazing in my life, never felt a feeling like this, not ever. I look down, just for a moment, and my speedometer reads 117 mph.
Jesus Christ, I’m riding almost one hundred and twenty miles per hour. I’m a married person, well, sort of. I’m an adult. I work at a nonprofit. I’m going to grad school in August. I have a strong, secure, librarian vibe. I will fucking shush you. What am I doing? Jesus, I’m going to die. My hands, my legs, everything is frozen, everything is frozen. I have to look up, I can’t keep looking down, I’m going to die if I keep looking down. I can’t look up. I’m just … everything in me is frozen. The road, the shoulder of the road, it seems so close now; it’s magnetic, pulling me closer, maybe this is the moment I’ll go over it, and while my bike flies end over end through the air, I’ll die before I hit the ground. Maybe it’ll happen so fast, I won’t even know I’ve died until I see Jesus and He asks me what the fuck I was thinking. All I can think right now is, thank God Oklahoma has shitty roads. Shitty highways will make you pay attention to your surroundings. If riding by itself can’t keep you focused, hot, sticky road tar sure will.
I’m looking down — it feels like hours, but I’m sure it’s been no more than a few seconds. My music is blasting, and right as I look up, Sissy looks back quickly and points her gloved right hand down, pointer finger extended, drawing my attention to a giant pothole I’ll need to watch out for. I nod and, because she warned me with more than enough time and space to navigate it without slowing much, gently swerve around the gaping hole in the road. As soon as we pass it, haha, that wasn’t much different than swerving on my Vespa, even at 117 miles per hour, I think and look down at my speedometer again. It’s at 124 now — what am I doing?! I wonder to myself.
“Whatever I want,” I say out loud in the privacy of my helmet.
I’m embarrassed, man. All this frantic laughter I’m barking out, and now I’m actively trying to talk myself through the panic inside my helmet. No one can see me moving my mouth inside the pricey, brightly designed “Little Samurai” Arai Corsair-X helmet my family bought me as a graduation gift — especially with the mermaid blue mirrored visor I wear on it. But still, I know I’ve got to calm down. I can slow down if I want to, I know that — in fact, I know these friends well, they’ll slow down, too, as soon as I do. I can slow down if I want to … but I don’t want to.
“Because I can do whatever I want,” I say out loud again, slower this time.
I hear my voice echo in the helmet, deeper, more sure, calmer, “I can do … whatever … whatever I want,” I realize, and I throttle back to go faster, just for a moment.
Fueled by fear and desire, I’m having a nearly orgasmic epiphany on this bike and inside this helmet, right now: I am riding a rocket, an engine on two wheels, slicing through air and sweeping through the little traffic there is on this trip, and I’m choosing to do this. Sure, I have to pay the consequences of my actions, my choices, my wants — but to pay those consequences, I have to make a choice first. I can make any choice I want — God, I feel so big right now. I feel so capable, quick, beautiful — I feel the magic people talk about in all those New Age, certified crystal-carrying, Clairvoyance, Voodoo, Hoodoo, Witchcraft, and Wicca practitioner circles. I feel all the wild energy of a spirit, free of its earthly, earthy body, flying through infinity, a bird, hovering just above the ground — just for a moment, I fully realize I can do whatever I want.
Just months after I got Cleo, it was stolen, and I moved out of the home I’d shared with my husband for six years, and I started grad school — all in the same week. While all this was happening, I found out that I had a side effect of all the laser treatments, something called Macular Edema, or swelling of the macula. So, I’ve continued to get monthly Avastin injections in my eyes, to keep the swelling from permanently taking away my vision.
Chaos is the best word I have for it: unrestrained, unrelenting chaos.
Through it all, the only constants have been my love of my family — yes, including my husband — and riding motorcycles. No matter how horrifying, tragic, or frightening any single moment or combination of moments has been, I can always take my Vespa out and get away.
It has barely been a year since that ride to Oklahoma City — since that moment. I felt like a fairy, caught up in the Wild Hunt, and it changed my entire life. That’s not even remotely hyperbolic. I ended friendships that were harming me, with surgical precision and no regrets. I started a new job, as Editor and Director of Inclusion and Accessibility at the Heaux History Project. I decided I don’t care for the culture of academia, so instead of spending two full years on grad school, I’m taking extra classes and cutting it down to 18 months. My husband and I have decided that even though we’re not going to be together as a couple, we’re not getting divorced — we love each other too much and, honestly, who knows what will happen in the future, when I’m out of this chaotic, transitional space? We agreed: We don’t know and can’t guess, so we’ll just love each other from separate houses. I realize it so clearly, and it feels like it’ll never leave me: I can do whatever I want.
So, I do. I took that epiphany from riding and applied it to the rest of my life: Keeping my eyes up, looking forward, pulling back, seeing the road, making choices, and deciding how to approach, avoid, or interact with what’s ahead.
People say, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll die?”
“How are you so fearless?”
“I’d be more afraid of all the people with their faces glued to their phones.”
“How can you go so fast?”
“Why do you keep doing it?”
My answers are always simple and to the point: I’m more afraid of not living — because I’ve done that before. I’ve been stuck in the same smallish room for months on end, with only movie dialogue to keep me company. I’m more afraid of the silence, the emptiness of not adventuring, than I ever will be of riding fast on a Vespa or an R6 — or the Kawasaki 636 I bought (and quickly sold) after Cleo was stolen. I keep doing it because it feels like flying, above the trouble, the stress, the chaos. It feels like flying into something beautiful and away from the storms of life. I can hop on my bike and get a bird’s eye view of the roads — and of myself, truly — whenever I choose. I can do whatever I want, and I don’t see myself changing that anytime soon.