He had spent the first four years of his life like that. Funny bowl cut, as soon as it had been long enough to force that way, crammed underneath various comical-looking biking helmets—paint splatters, Disney characters, whatever was accessible and cheap. Unbelievable. Sometimes he marveled at the fact that his hair retained the ability to get crumpled, stuck up, tangled in the wind. Part of him assumed that it would be forever plastered in that flat manner, suppressed by toddler safety gear. It seemed to him that he had worn it for a lifetime.

His mother’s hair was pretty, angular, honey-brown. It changed direction as they turned corners, but stayed the same in sheen. Sun or rain, it shone, as though supported by beams of built-in light. She always remained bareheaded.

Sometimes she would lift her bum off of the seat, pumping furiously with her muscular thin legs to avoid a swerving car or to triumph over a particularly steep hill. In the aftermath of storms, she would ride carefully, thoughtfully, avoiding puddles and stopping instead of slowing down.
But on other occasions, she was reckless, he knew, even then in his baby mind. He supposed in retrospect that she was trying to end it for the both of them during those careening journeys—trips to the store where red lights weren’t acknowledged and car horns sounded hollowly and incessantly in his ears. How did they sound in hers? He would never know.

There was no residual anger on his part, no feeling that she deserved to be punished for riding like a maniac with a young child through chaotic city streets. It made sense to him. His mother’s frustration, her sadness, and her reasons for sabotage seemed to flow out of her narrow back into his brain during those formative bike years, providing him with an intrinsic perspective that could never have been achieved through mere conversation. By looking at her non-face side, her taut neck, sharp shoulder blades jutting from worn-out second-hand T-shirts, her bony but peacefully rippling spine, he gained an education in longing. He somewhat understood, at least enough to love her, the old her, without question, despite pungent memories of her cycling right into traffic, him bouncing randomly in his brittle grey seat, too young to be afraid.

Part-time, she worked at a coffee shop, not a chain but an appealing local stop owned by three rough but basically decent brothers. They would give him hot chocolate, and pinch his cheeks, and spin him forcefully around by his outstretched arms, almost wrenching them out of their sockets with their heft. No harm done though, he was still here on earth, he was still alive, and probably a better person for experiencing their iffy, stubbled and ultimately good-natured ways. As far as he knew not one of them had ever hurt his mother, but there are some things a child never knows. There was an overriding feeling of benediction, though, of good will. Her scars had been inflicted by others, he was sure, long before, not by them.

Friends were in large numbers during the early years, but sincerity wasn’t a component. The preferred method of interaction was to ask nothing and tell too much. In those first few thousand days of his they lived near the coffee store, in a marketplace on top of a general grocery. The cereal there was always past its due date but they gobbled it up anyway, just the two of them, sharing something stale but special, exclusively theirs. Their tiny apartment had a tiny window that both of them could shimmy through expertly; the adjoining roof they hopped onto was hot, tar-like, and full of possibilities. In later years he comprehended that she had been with someone in an apartment across the street and down from theirs. The man, Jim, had thick limbs and creased dimples and she would visit him sometimes, mostly on her own, and they would emerge from his stale-aired bachelor onto the fire escape, her lover’s journey maybe more awkward because he was so big and bulky. It was impossible to blur the image of Jim and his mother, waving at him across time, it seemed, from the side door of their lust nest to the roof where he ran around, looked after negligently by one of the many people who drifted in and out of their lives, perpetually sleepy people smoking cigarettes or joints or deeply sipping cheap red wine.

"Stay with him," she would whisper as she ducked out to let Jim possess her, blowing her son a light but meaningful kiss. "I’ll be back later."
Roof to fire escape, silent communication and sometimes articulated affection between mother and son, the pattern repeated itself many times. He began to believe that he could actually see the air circulating between the two locations, his mother’s breathy desperation, Jim’s forceful alcoholic vibe and his own child-like emissions. The moon changed, as did the shadows of the different bodies wandering, late-night, in the market, but the feeling stayed the same. It was one of crazy safeness, of dangerous security. Even now it made his stomach flutter with a sick but pleasing excitement.

One night he tried to jump, he tried to propel himself hundreds of feet across space to be with her. Did he really mean to do it? Hard to say—someone wearing a kerchief and white sandals made a successful swipe at him before he had lift-off—was he that close to the edge?

"You little shit, don’t run towards the end of the roof again, okay?" The kerchief and face waggled like a finger in front of him. "Good thing your mom wasn’t out there, just then—that would have given her a fucking heart attack. It almost gave me a fucking heart attack, and I barely know you! Now sit over here"—a gesture with the sandaled foot—"and don’t move until she comes back, okay? Okay?"

Okay. But where was she? He couldn’t see her. Sometimes, he thought he remembered, she would be gone for days. Just across the street, but for days, nonetheless.

As he got older, she mysteriously became more and more like the other mothers he saw at school (she bought a car, they moved into a small house, she even joined a committee or two). He could never exactly pinpoint when she smoothed out her rough, rough edges. Through his high school years, then university, with loans and scholarships, as they sold the house, and moved into an even littler one (although it was less boxy than the last), she got better jobs—even got a degree, eventually—it was through these developments that he began to view her as pathetic, weak. Compromising. Or was it simply because he grew up, stopped thinking of her as a goddess on bike wheels, as a creature who achieved perfection through her flaws, as children often do (but can’t put into words)? He could never be sure.

All he knew was that the more she got herself together, the more she took courses, the shorter she cut her hair so that it obediently followed the shape of her fragile skull, the more respect he lost for her.

Or maybe he just got different.

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