The Bike That Saved My Life

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Two years ago, in January, my husband and I walked into a foreclosed house on a tree-lined street in Bedford-Stuyvesant that no one had lived in for 22 years.

“I could really see us having kids here,” he whispered into my ear as we tiptoed over the detritus of squatters and failed contractors.

For the first three years of our marriage we had been living in a series of rentals, but we dreamed of owning, and this was a whole house. A long-neglected brownstone in need of a ton of work, yes, but a house nonetheless.

We went to housing court in Downtown Brooklyn and bid before a judge. By March we had closed. It wasn’t habitable, so we kept living in our Crown Heights rental as we figured out how to do the work, which was tied up by expired permits and mind-numbing construction bureaucracy.

The construction started to take a toll on the marriage. Then, one morning in June, my husband woke up, looked and me and said, “I don’t think I want kids.”

I raced into the bathroom and threw up.

A week later he said he wasn’t going to be moving into the house after all. Instead, he proposed I move in alone and we take a three-month break from our marriage. He would use that time to gather his thoughts and decide when and if he might join me.

“Please come,” I begged, while suffering from night terrors about the children I would never have. He hemmed and hawed for the rest of the summer but ultimately stood firm. We would take the three months.

In October I moved into the house and prayed my husband would come to his senses. I was in terrible shape — emotionally, but also physically. In our five years together, I had gained 45 pounds. I was bloated and depressed. My joints ached. And I was broke. So very broke. I had naïvely imagined homeownership would be seamless and easy. Instead it sapped everything I had, leaving me with a lot of space but no money. Renovations and building permits had been slower and more costly than I had expected.

I was living alone in an empty house with no heat, boiling water in an electric kettle so I could bathe in a bucket. Friends suggested a gym membership might provide a better alternative, but there wasn’t any cash for that. There wasn’t cash for subway fare. So I started to ride my bike.

It had been years since I’d sat on that saddle, but there didn’t seem to be any other option. Manhattan is mostly flat, but the bridge that takes you there — the Manhattan Bridge — is a mini mountain, sloping up toward its apex for what feels like an eternity.

My first attempt to summit was a dismal failure. I was gasping for air after only a few moments and had to dismount and walk, dragging those two wheels behind me.

Some days, as I huffed my way over that bridge, my eyes would fill with tears. Other days I would arrive at the bridge’s foot in a full-fledged panic attack, sobbing on the phone to whatever friend would answer. It was too long and high, and I was too tired and weak. That damn bridge, like my life, felt insurmountable.

When I would get to the top, I’d sometimes idly wonder about throwing myself off. It wouldn’t have been easy. A seven-foot-high fence lines both sides. But, hey, I had already reached the summit. What was another seven feet? Everything hurt. My muscles ached. My head throbbed. My heart was broken.

At home, things weren’t going much better. I had tracked down old contractors who had worked on the house during its 22-year vacancy. They told me the home was cursed and regaled me with stories of those who had tried to move in over the years, only to watch their lives implode.

I believed every word. Their warnings replayed in my head as I rode my bicycle.

There is a meditative quality to being on a bicycle. You must focus on the chaos that seems to envelop you. Drivers cut you off, swerving into the bike lane. Pedestrians insist on standing in the road while waiting for the light to change.

For months, they were invisible to me. My mind was filled with ruminations about the ways my life was collapsing. Would my husband decide to stay married to me? Would I ever have children? Would there be heat by Christmas?

Bridges are built to be flexible. They need to withstand the pervasive force of gravity, certainly, but also transient forces that work against them. The Manhattan Bridge, which is a suspension bridge, must cope with floods and lightning, traffic and age. Although the circumstances around the bridge may change, it must stand steady. To do this, a bridge must balance two opposing forces: compression (pushing inward) and tension (stretching outward). A balanced bridge is one that has been engineered to find the sweet spot in between.

I know this to be true because, with time, the particulars of bridge engineering began to replace the rolling images of heartbreak in my mind while I balanced on my bike. Cycling was becoming easier. In the first month, grandmothers whizzed by me. By November I was the speed demon overtaking the casual riders. I got a better seat so my behind would stop hurting and gloves so I could keep biking as the weather turned cold.

My body was changing too. I hadn’t dropped much weight, but I was stronger and my joints didn’t ache. My cheeks were flush from the fresh air and exercise. My eyes, no longer filled with tears, were clear.

One evening, on my way home from work, I looked up and saw a giant harvest moon rising over the river. In the middle of the Manhattan Bridge, at its high point, is a notch, a small outpost that juts away from the path, allowing commuters to pause and breathe while the city rushes by.

From this vantage point you can watch the boats ferry New Yorkers between the boroughs or take in the skyline of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, all at once. You are at the center of the city but also apart from it, watching the chaos safely from your perch. That evening, as I watched the flaming orange ball climb in the night sky, I felt a rush of gratitude. I was not alone. The world still had plenty of beauty to offer.

If I could bike that mini mountain of the Manhattan Bridge twice a day, then perhaps, with time, I could also summit my pain.

January arrived. The three months were up. I called my husband, who didn’t want to get a divorce but didn’t want to move in with me either. He liked living alone in the Crown Heights apartment we once had shared. He wanted to keep working on himself.

“We need to get a divorce,” I said. I had been working on myself too, enough to know that I wasn’t willing to wait for this man.

By spring we had our papers, the house had heat, and I had started a new job. As the weather warmed, I found myself back on my bicycle, now commuting up and through Queens. One afternoon, while lost in the meditative quality of riding my bike, I felt a swell of emotion overcome me. I looked up to see that I was back at the top of the Manhattan Bridge for the first time since the divorce. I had ridden up the span so effortlessly, I hadn’t even noticed.

My eyes welled up. There was some sadness — the memory of a fall that had been so hard. And an aching sympathy for a woman who was so heartbroken that she fantasized about throwing her body off a bridge.

Who was that woman? I had come so far that I felt like I no longer knew her. And there were happy tears for that too.

These days I bike all of New York’s bridges, zipping back and forth between the boroughs. I dodge the hordes of tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge, holding tight to the handlebars as my wheels rattle along the wooden planks. The Queensboro offers the best view of the currents that ebb and flow along the East River. I bike the Pulaski so often that I have begun to recognize the faces of strangers, fellow New Yorkers with whom I share the same commuting schedule.

But my favorite bridge, and indeed my favorite spot in the entire city, remains the Manhattan Bridge, with its little nook at the top, the span that took me from point A to point B and helped me regain my balance.

Elaisha Stokes is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn.