It is a warm Sunday afternoon and the sky is mostly clear and it has not rained all day, which is very unusual for this time of year. The motorbike is black and yellow and a full day old with 6 kilometers from riding home from the ‘dealership’, which was just a small shop on Randall St.
It is a Sunday so the streets are very quiet but this is Jess’s first time on the bike so we are on 16th St seaside of Payne Avenue where it is good tarmac and especially quiet expect for where cars occasionally enter and exit an apartment complex. I have explained to Jess how we go through a checklist before we ride a motorbike: how we check the brake fluid and the brakes, the engine oil, the tire pressure, the lights and turn signals, and the horn. I have explained how the clutch works - Jess has never driven a standard automobile before (she starts lessons a few weeks after this first day of motorcycle training) - and how there is a range and a ‘sweet spot’ where the engine begins to engage with the wheels through the transmission.
‘Walking the bike teaches you to find the sweet spot,’ I explain. ‘ You give a little gas and you ease off on the clutch so that you feel the engine engage but not all the way. So you go slow and you just let you your feet walk on either side to keep the bike balanced steady. But the engine is what makes you go forward.’
She tries this and she stalls a couple times but she gets it quickly, more quickly than I expect her to. She walks the bike forward only she is not walking, just using her feet to steady her balance. The bike feels heavy between her legs but that is because she is new to this and anything between her legs would feel heavy but soon it will feel light because this motorcycle is a pip-squeak.
Soon and before I tell her to she is riding. She rides in first gear which is not a smooth gear but it is riding. When she comes to the end of where we are training she puts her feet down and holds the clutch and turns by walking the bike with her legs.
‘You’re riding!’ I say.
She does not smile because she is focusing and she is not happy while she is focusing. Also, she is expecting something to go wrong, for the bike to fall over and pin her, even though it will not, and she cannot have been smiling only moments before a fall. That would make her feel silly.
Jessica is the underdog and the way the underdog works is to set low expectations and then beat those expectations every time. If she is smiling, then she is having fun, and, if she is having fun, then this is easy. If this is easy, then she must be doing something more challenging, but, if she does something more challenging too soon, she might not exceed expectations.
‘You’re riding wonderfully!’ I repeat and only her frown acknowledges my remark.
She rides to the end of the cul-de-sac and back and then does it again and then many more times after that. She practices starting and stopping. She does wonderfully well that day.
It is hard to find time to practice in the days that follow. There are only a couple hours of daylight when I return from work in the afternoons. Also, most days it has rained so that the tarmac is wet or it is still raining in the afternoon when we have planned to practice. She is scared but she wants to learn. When she is hesitant I nudge her and we go out and she rides wonderfully.
Over the next few practice sessions, which occur over the next few weeks, she learns to shift into second and then third gear. She learns to stop with the handbrake and the footbrake. She learns to turn without putting her feet down and weave through an obstacle course that I make of fallen coconuts; she turns circles, one after another, and she rides crazy eights in both directions.
When Jessica decides to learn something, she learns it all the way. She reads every online motorcycle magazine and all the blogs and especially the discussion forums for and by female riders. She is fascinated by the experiences that people have learning - mostly the problems - and she quotes from the blogs and sends me questions about riding techniques through Skype during the workday.
‘How can people fall over when they stop?’ she writes.
‘What do you mean?’ I respond.
‘Someone wrote that she forgets to put her feet down when she stops and the bike falls over. How can someone forget to put their feet down?’
Often my answers are meant to console as much as explain because I am afraid that she is scaring herself by reading about all the silly mistakes that some beginner riders make.
‘Remember, these people who are posting are mostly the uncoordinated minority - the extremes. Most who, for example, don’t fall off the bike every time they stop, don’t post because they don’t have these crazy problems to write about.’
But she is not scaring herself. She is learning about the problems that others are having so that she will know what to do if and when that happens to her, so that it won’t happen to her. She is the kind of learner who reads all the books before she ever takes the class so that she will already know the answers before the questions are ever taught.
After a few practice sessions, it is a Sunday and I suggest that she is ready to leave 16th St and go onto Payne Avenue, which is a secondary road with some traffic but is still ‘residential’ (if that term means anything here).
‘I’m not ready,’ she says.
‘You are,’ I say.
‘No,’ she says.
So I suggest we practice turns onto a hard-packed dirt road that comes before Payne Avenue.
‘I don’t want to go on dirt,’ she says.
‘It’s hard dirt,’ I say. ‘It will grip good to your tires.’
‘There are people watching,’ she says.
‘There are always people watching,’ I say.
‘I don’t like when they watch,’ she says. She is nervous now because she knows it is time to take the next step and she playing the underdog.
‘You are a white woman on a motorbike in Africa. They're gonna watch!’
‘Let them go and then I will turn,’ she says.
This goes on for a time until I get annoyed and then I wise up.
‘Fine,’ I say in the tone of voice that I know she knows is meant to shame.
But I go one step further.
‘If you’re not going to listen to me, then I’m going home.’
I start to walk. She waits for me to turn back but I do not. She inches the bike forward to catch up.
‘Where are you going?’ she says conciliatory and a little desperate now.
‘Home,’ I say.
‘Don’t go. I’ll do the turn thing. OK?’ she says.
‘No. I’m done. I’m going home,’ I say. ‘You bring the bike or you walk it or you leave it here. But me, I’m going home.’
I continue to walk and she sits straddling the bike, thinking and wishing that she could go back to doing the easy turn on the hard, good dirt road and knowing that there is no bluff in my voice.
I turn the corner onto Payne Avenue and I continue walking. A moment later I hear the motorcycle engine come to life behind me and then she is alongside me. She rides slowly to keep pace with me but I slow my pace so that she must ride past or walk it. I know she will not walk the bike now that she is on Payne Avenue and riding and she is the underdog that has exceeded expectations once again. She waits for me at the turn onto 19th St.
‘OK. I did it. Now you ride it the rest of the way.’
‘Nope,' I say and I continue past her.
‘Come on,’ she says but I am walking out of earshot.
She turns left onto 19th St and then rides up to Warner Avenue and turns right and comes to a stop before our apartment complex.
‘OK. I did it. Now will you ride it in?’ she says.
The guard is opening the gate and I walk past her into the complex. Another moment and she rides into the parking lot and parks the motorbike in our usual spot beside the apartment entrance. When she parks and gets off and turns off the engine, she takes off her yellow helmet and smiles sheepishly at me.
I hug her and I say, ‘You did great. I’m very, very proud of you, underdog.’ I squeeze harder and I feel her go limp-relieved in my arms.