I rode up to the girls school just after the bell rang.
It was hot and I was on the Repco mountain bike my parents bought me a few years before, which was just starting to be the right size.
The girls school was on top of a hill. Uphill to get there, steep down on the other side. I could see girls emerging from school buildings and drifting to the front gates as I toiled under my backpack full of homework, to the peak.
I was bookish and teen-aged and as far from being confident with girls as Vanilla Ice was from NWA. My bike was fluoro orange. It was the 1990s.
As I summited, many girls in their checked summer dresses were exiting the school.
They milled around the gates. All of them were dazzling with their long hair and their beauty and their bright bubbly confidence and all of them were definitely looking right at me, thinking “That guy? Is he cool?”
I tried to look straight ahead and thought to myself, “I can look cool, if I just go really fast down this hill.”
I went to change gear.
This was when mountain bikes were hot. They had taken the mantle from BMX, and the more gears you had the better.
The gears had to be Shimano. Some people had SIS but nobody was sure what it stood for. Mine said Shimano, so even though it didn't work properly, it was the best there was.
I kept my bike outside, because that was where you kept bikes. My dad, an otherwise practical man, was not given to bicycle maintenance, and it did not occur to me I could improve the functioning of my bicycle gears by mentioning that they were, practically speaking, totally stuffed.
I pushed the shifter, and knew I would, as usual, struggle with it.
I wasn't going to let my gear levers defeat me in front of all those girls.
I turned my whole palm against the crappy black plastic lever and shoved.
The handlebars turned sharply. The bike stopped. My feet left the pedals and I distinctly recall turning my head toward the gates where the girls were standing. I hoped nobody would be watching as the bright orange bike cart-wheeled and the small boy with the big backpack soared. A vain hope.
I did not soar for ever. My descent onto the asphalt - a surface chosen for its unyielding nature - obliterated layer upon layer of skin and embedded loose gravel deep in my palms.
What followed may be the most reticent display I will ever make.
I did not lie on the road and wail. I did not examine my wounds. I did not hope people would come and fuss over me. I stood immediately, focussing my entire being on not crying.
I grabbed the Repco by the handle bar, haughtily, like it had thrown me off quite unfairly. Casting not a single glance at the assembled school girls, I swung my leg over and pedalled down the hill, remaining this time in a rather easy gear. Far worse than the sting of riding with no knee-skin was the way my face burned and my stomach churned with shame.
By the time I got home my socks were red with blood.
I never once rode home that way again.
Quite some years later I got engaged to a woman who attended that very school. One evening I attended a social event with her and had occasion to tell this story.
She said, “That was you?” before leaving with another man.
I would never tell this story at a social event.