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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Yellow Lamborghini

When I was nine years old our family lived in Caracas, Venezuela. There was a small shop on a corner a few blocks down the road from our house. It was more of a hut than anything. A trap door flipped up and there was a mean lady in there. She sold candy, magazines and cigarettes. When I rode my bike to my friend’s house we would ride over to the mean lady’s hut to buy gum. There were only two flavors of gum in Venezuela, bubble gum or banana. They came in a rope. You tore off some to chew and saved the rest for later. I didn’t chew gum but my friend did so we went to the hut every few days.

Poverty dictated rules of how to coexist in Caracas. You were rarely hassled but you had to watch your things. Leave something unattended and it was up for grabs. We knew this so we locked our bikes, even if they were parked in our own driveway.

One day at the hut we set our bikes down for a moment. A yellow Lamborghini veered off the busy street and rolled onto the sidewalk in front of the hut. Pneumatic valves hissed and the top opened like a clamshell. A hale young man in disco clothes jumped out and bought a pack of cigarettes from the mean lady. He climbed back in, the pneumatic valves hissed as the top shut and he tore up more of the sidewalk as the yellow roar disappeared into the flow of traffic.

We looked back at our bikes. My friend’s was missing.

“There!” he shouted, pointing down the street at a ragamuffin riding away. “Go after him!”

I scrambled onto my bike and pedaled quickly. The little thief knew I was in pursuit so he cut across traffic to the other side of the freeway. I was not allowed to ride in the street but still I followed him into the fast lanes of oncoming traffic. Tires screeched and horns honked. I felt a strange burst of energy as I pedaled for my life across the freeway. When we lived in Mexico a car struck me and I almost died. I had a broken leg and a fractured skull from that. Now I was doing the same stupid thing. Hit a car and I was dead. Lose my balance and I was dead. Cars swerved, their tires squealing.

I made it to the other side. The little boy on my friend’s bike was a short way ahead, racing up a hill.

I knew the hill.

It was part of the route I took every day. As I would tire I would climb this hill, just making it to the top. The rest of the ride was reward, mostly downhill back to home. I could see the boy begin to struggle on the incline and I knew I could catch him. At school I was a terrible athlete, the last picked for any team. I had a gentle disposition and I was uncoordinated. But on a bike, by myself, I had skills.

I tapped into my reserve and pedaled up the hill with everything I had. It was no contest. The little boy could barely move another few feet before he was teetering. I pumped hard on my pedals a few more times. Then I was there. I grabbed the handlebar of my friend’s bike. I had caught the thief.

The boy looked at me. I looked at him.

Nothing happened.

The boy didn’t get off the bike and run away. He sat. I held the handlebar firmly but he didn’t wrestle away. Stalemate. I didn’t want to fight him. I had never fought anyone. I wanted him to be afraid of police or something.

Older boys emerged from the weeds next to the hill. The little boy hopped off my friend’s bike and an older one climbed on in his place. With a gentle tug he pulled the handlebar free of my grip. No one threatened me but I was confused. I felt I had won this particular contest, like in school where you received a blue ribbon and teachers wrote your name at the top of a list. I wanted to walk away with both bikes.

But the oldest boy rode away while the others crowded around me. I felt my chest cave as I watched my friend’s bike disappear around a corner.

“Ay,” one of the boys lamented, gesturing to the top of the hill.

I turned my bike around to leave. I wanted to go home.

“No,” another boy said and pointed up the hill.

They didn’t block me from leaving but they pleaded with me. I spoke enough Spanish to hear what they were saying but I feigned ignorance. They told me they felt bad about the oldest boy riding away. They wanted fetch my friend’s bike. They wanted to help me.

But I would need to loan them my bike.

I knew they were lying. I also knew the boys could have overpowered me, yet they didn’t. They only pled, telling me how much they wanted to help, to fix this injustice. If only they could use my bike to chase the thief, they would catch him and bring both bikes back to me.

I pretended not to understand. “No hablo espaƱol,” I told them many times.

The fattest of the boys gestured up the hill. He was shirtless and had dirty cutoff jeans. His round potbelly jiggled with his every move. He mimicked pedaling. He brought his arms together as if he were snatching someone. Then he mimicked pedaling back to me.

Please, please believe we want to help.

I stepped off my bike and the fat boy got on. He tapped his heart and pointed up the hill. He gestured for me to wait. The boys disappeared with him.

I sat there for a while, in the weeds on the side of the road. I knew they would never come back. I watched the cars whiz by on the freeway at the bottom of the hill. I came up with the story I would tell my parents at home: I chased the little boy on sidewalks and never sped across the freeway. The boy led me into a trap where I fought valiantly with a brutal gang. The oldest boy—no, a man—had a knife and yet I still fought for the bikes. When the knife was at my throat I released my grip on the handlebars. After going through the story a few more times I rubbed dirt on my cheeks, squeezed my eyes shut so it looked like I had been crying and walked home.

Many years later, when retelling the true version of events to MJ, I asked her opinion why I did what I did, because I still didn’t know. The boys never threatened me. We were about the same age and I could have ridden away. They didn’t have bikes and I did. My friend’s bike would have been stolen but I would have kept my own. I loved that bike.

“You didn’t want them to know you thought that little of them,” MJ said.

It was true. The boys lied to me about their intentions. They weren’t asking for my bike because they were poor and I was rich. For that, they might have had a case. Instead, they tried to deceive me and lied about what they wanted to do with my bike. I knew they were lying, and they also knew that I knew this. They sensed in me the weakness that I could not tell this to them. I could not say to their face I believed in my heart it was their intention to steal. I was always taught compassion and understanding for the underprivileged and they smelled this. The lady in the hut was poor and I never wondered why she was mean. I thought she had a terrible life and she had a right to be mean. I bought gum from her even though I didn’t want any.

When my mother saw me stagger into our house that day I burst into tears and told her the whole story—the fake one—about the gang with the knife. She called my friend’s mother and they talked for a long time while I deflated into the couch in our music room. My mother hung up the phone and told me she was impressed with how I had handled the whole situation.

“Like a mature adult,” she said many times that day. A knife’s twist in my heart, those words.

My father took me to a store the next weekend to buy a new bike. My old one was of simple design with yellow handlebars. The new one was sleeker, black, and it had wavy lines decorating the sides. Emblazoned across the front of the handlebars, in fiery capital letters: BANDIT.

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