Copyright is held by the author.
PAUSED ON the bridge connecting the east and west sides of Brackenridge Park, Sophie leaned her bicycle against the railing next to Ben’s and pressed her back into the rocks of the limestone quarry, the two of them against the world.
Her friend pulled a knife from his pocket and snapped it open, the streetlamps flanking the lookout point casting his skin in yellow. Ben looked about 18, though they were both in their late 30s. He was wiry and funny, always wearing a maniacal grin.
Sophie craned her neck forward to watch the traffic circuit the freeway to downtown San Antonio and out to the conurbations and suburbs of the northeast. The city was sprawling — more like multiple ones wedged together — with many streets looping back to where they started. Beneath the concrete pillars, neighbourhoods spread out like warrens, their nodules and tunnelled passages throbbing with heat and electricity. To the west, beyond the scope of the well-lit proving grounds, the junctures broke off into a series of narrow lanes lined in bungalows and shotgun houses. At the end of one was the apartment building where Ben lived. How many times had they traveled through the park to get from his part of town to hers, she wondered?
Graffiti covered the wall behind them, with drawings of caterpillars metamorphosing to butterflies overlapping the twisted letters. Drugs are cool. Welcome to the escape, the wordsread.Standing in her black gym shorts and plaid shirt, a teenaged outfit that had carried over into adulthood, Sophie felt as if she should have belonged there.
Ben pitched a toe into the dry earth and flexed a muscular calf. Once a top-flight cyclist who’d raced with packs of professionals, he’d eased up on that lifestyle in recent years, though he often urged her to break away, whether they biked together or separately.
“Want to get out of here?” he asked. “We could go to my place and play a game, work on your skills. I’ll ride you home.”
She pictured him taking one of hundreds of board games off the shelves of his efficiency apartment and setting it on the fold-out table, then removing each piece carefully from the box and laying it on the green baize, as if uncovering items from a sacred trove. One hour would divide to two as they delved into the individual stories. Sophie didn’t like games that much, but it was something they could do together.
Raising the volume on the portable speaker she kept strapped to her handlebars, she agreed to go, though even after she said yes, Ben asked again to be sure. Seconds later, he was gone, speeding down the trail ahead of them.
They kept a steady pace during the ride to the west entrance. Sophie hewed to the right and pushed hard, causing gravel to spray out from under her tires that tumbled down the camber. A man standing on the balcony of a high-rise apartment — his shirt unbuttoned and waving like a flag in the wind — shouted for them to pedal faster. Ben balanced like an acrobat on a tightrope, skidding across utility holes that sent his wheels flying sideways. He ran red lights and made sudden turns without signalling and pedaled quickly past drive-outs.
Sophie decided to chart her own course, turning onto a side street that wound up to the highway and hollering that she’d meet him at the bottom where the two converged. Instead, he followed at a sprint, dropping her before veering onto the frontage lane and casting a roguish grin over his shoulder as he cruised down the ramp and breezed through two intersections.
“I don’t mess around with traffic,” he said as she pulled up to the stoplight next to him. “Look both ways, and go if no one’s there. Either lead or get out of the way.”
“I said I’d meet you at the bottom,” she panted. “Didn’t you hear me?”
He shook his head, bewildered.
“Sorry, it was too noisy. We can go back if you want.”
“Forget it. Maybe another time.”
Two lanes over, a surly-looking woman on a bike tinkered with the quick release on her rear hub as she waited for the light to change. Ben waved to get her attention, but the woman scowled. When the signal turned green, she blasted into the intersection.
“I’ve seen that lady before,” he said.
“Who is she?”
“Don’t know. I think she may be an addict.”
“That’s too bad. I hope she’s alright.”
“Yeah. Maybe we should invite her over for a beer.”
Below the drive, they pedaled past a long, black iron fence spanning a crumbled sidewalk with a potter’s field peeking through its rungs. Sophie had seen couples take children there on weekends to sit along the steps of the sunken theatre and wander among the garden’s statues, pools, and arches. On top of a pink granite entablature rested a bronze casting of a saint whom she recalled as Juan Diego, the Catholic visionary, his bronze head peaked skyward and arms spread wide amidst a fusion of brugmansia and palm. The sites were designed to appeal to pedestrian élan, though the land belonged to affluent families who owned ranches in the hill country, their money deposited in myriad passion projects. To her chagrin, she spotted a homeless person laying in one of the corners of the conservatorship’s gated entrance amidst a pile of blankets.
She turned to Ben, asking defiantly why any of it was there. Born and raised on the Southside, his ancestors’ names were engraved in cornerstones of the historic district. He knew the tales buried in their glyphs and had shared them with her, so she thought he’d have the answer. Instead, he gave the landmark a quick smile and shrugged.
“Because it is. For recreation and history.”
“What we need are better public roads and infrastructure,” she said, “and places that are friendly to people like us.”
“These roads are friendly.”
“Last week, some driver turning right almost ran me over. I didn’t even have a chance to pull onto the shoulder.”
“Well, you’ve got to take the lane. Show them you know what you’re doing.”
“These routes aren’t safe for cars, let alone bikes.”
“Bikes belong on roads, riding with cars. Walls won’t protect you.” His eyes danced. “Want to take a break?”
“I’m not tired.”
“Let’s take one, anyway.”
Dismounting, he leaned his bike against the gate and began to recite one of the poems that he first performed for her outside the bike shop where he worked. They were clever epigrams and twists on the local vernacular. Though annoyed, she laughed along to the lyrics, and when he finished, they shifted topics to movies and shows they’d seen: the one where the robot boy was saved from destruction by being taken out to the forest by his caretakers; the karate master who opened a dojo 40 years later and seeded a new rivalry with his foe; that 1980s flick about the high school kids that people considered a cult classic, though the characters were miserable in most of the scenes.
“That was such a sleazy movie,” Sophie said.
“I like the part where her best friend gives her sex advice.”
“If I were going to be in a movie with anyone, I’d want it to be with you.”
“Thanks, Ben. That’s heartfelt.”
“Look at all this picturesque scenery and inspiration. There was a spark between us, Sophie. We had a vibe.”
“Yeah, and it was platonic.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means lots of picturesque scenery and inspiration — more than enough. In fact, I think it’s time to go.”
“All right,” he said, but neither of them moved. She changed topics to work, telling him she’d been extra busy writing grants and didn’t ever feel like she should be doing anything else. The shop was in good business, he said. The owner was opening a third store, implementing best practices, the whole deal.
“We’re lucky,” she said.
“Yeah, except I won’t ever get to go home. The customers will be coming in until we close, asking about sunglasses.”
“Think job security.”
“People with half-shaved heads and dogs they love more than their children. What’s the fascination?”
“To each his own.”
“I guess. It’s odd, though. You’d never wear your hair like that.”
“Maybe I would.”
“Some people can’t be trusted.”
“What about your colleagues? You can trust them.”
“You tell them things.”
“Only Gus and Zach.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m glad I didn’t send you any photos of me posing nude.”
Her Svengali scooted up next to her, shivering with pleasure. A minute elapsed before they spoke again.
“Oh, Sophie,” he swooned. “You’re the tallest girl I know. How tall are you?”
“Tall enough to see what’s ahead of us.”
Sure enough, a group of riders had gathered in a parking lot across the street, taillights blinking as they prepared for wheels down. Ben shot the throng a look of scorn. He hated group rides. Between the colourful garb and parade marshals, Sophie picked out a couple of people with whom she remembered riding. In those days, the close-knit peloton would climb the craggy hills together, only to witness cyclists that fit his profile fly past and leave them in the dust. The slow pace suited her, though it was ultimately why she left. Curiously, she often reverted to that same tempo in the years since. The slip was gradual, so she didn’t notice until times like these, when her heart ached with recollection.
Gazing toward the horizon past the giraffe-like humps of earth that rose up from the cliffs and sagebrush, Sophie spotted a burst of flame like the last rays of sunlight being expelled into the hot, dry air from earlier.
“What’s the matter?” Ben asked, noticing her wistful expression. “You look melancholy.”
“Nothing.” She turned the dial on the speaker again, cranking the volume on an early-2000s throwback. “Let’s keep going.”
They mounted their bikes and followed the rest of the fence past a small yard dotted with more benches and sculptures, the tract retreating to woods and grass that appeared just as verdant at night. Ben stuck with her for several blocks before hightailing it again.
Sophie arrived five minutes later to his apartment, a sienna-brown building feathered in the foliage of a centuries-old live oak, to find him standing in the centre of his kitchen floor stripping down to a pair of banana-printed underwear.
He opened the fridge proudly and pulled out two bottles of kombucha, pouring them into separate plastic glasses that stirred a gentle fizz. His eyes lit up like a pinball machine as he drank.
“Taste this,” he said, handing her a cup. “It’s not just any drink. It’s tropical kombucha.”
She took a sip and swirled it around her mouth, the fermented taste piquing her taste buds. It was good, though his reaction was what drew her attention. The look on his face had bloomed with a kind of childlike radiance that conjured rabbits nuzzling tiny flowers and lollipops on parade. The simple thought of sharing the drink with her appeared to have returned him to that paradise.
When Sophie smiled in wonder, he laughed in recognition.
“You like it, then.”
“I love it.”
“Are you hungry? I can make us something quick.”
“I could eat.”
He walked to the stove and slid two entrees onto the top rack, side by side. Studying his body as he worked, she noticed its graceful range — how his calves, smooth as sculpted clay, peeked out from beneath the shorts like fleshy exclamation points, and the way his shoes shuffled across the linoleum. Her eyes darted around, landing on random objects: a pair of cleats resting in a shoebox by the door, a crossbow hanging on the gray plaster wall, a series of framed artworks painted in refulgent colors, the light clutter on the table and countertop. The apartment had two rooms, and the air was cool and sealed, with a strong, herbal smell. Ben made being single look effortless, and despite the occasional bouts of loneliness, Sophie had learned to enjoy her own independence. Still, solitude had caused her to turn inward, so that venturing out was often a reminder of how difficult forging new relationships could be.
“You know, sometimes, a pair of shoes is all I’d want or need to be happy,” she smiled. “Or a shiny, new bike.”
They played a game whose pieces were gold coins and jewels, which Ben won, though she started to gain on him in the third round. Afterward, he pulled on a mesh mask and blew into a panpipe through the nylon fabric. They could carry on like that for hours, lost in the other’s schemes. Her mind drifted to the days she’d worked from home and he brought her lunch in his carrier and they’d sit and have a picnic on the rug or lay across the divan. She’d pull books off the shelves and turn to their dog-eared pages. Stuff he never read and most likely wouldn’t remember, though it gave her pleasure knowing she could offer him a bit of wisdom. Albert Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, was a favourite: the tale of a mortal condemned to push a heavy rock to the summit of a hill, only to have it fall to the bottom repeatedly. She’d put on Chaka Khan records and Donna Summer in every season. The only true music was country, Ben said, listening anyway. He confided tales of past girlfriends, telling her about their jewellery, perfume, or taste in clothes, how far they’d gone in bed. That was over, he said. It was about her now.
Sometimes, while riding alone, she’d pause on corners and be touched by an audacious desire to bridge the divide that existed between them. That desire would start to take on the form of actual infrastructure, her mind willing the crumbling city to new life. The possibility gave her the hope that Camus wrote about — even the part where he described how abstract evidence gave way to poetry and colour for those who’d forgotten it. As casual as their relationship was, it had changed Sophie’s outlook. Even when he wasn’t around, his voice echoed in her head. In the early morning hours, she’d awaken to the delicate rustle of leaves on the tree branches outside her window, feeling as if she’d just been born.
She tried to recall the occasion in the park where they met several years before, but couldn’t locate a starting point. It was as if she’d always known him, his face cast in her memory like those on the stone statues.
In the protean ambience of night, their voices dropped to a lower pitch. They began talking more intimately, only to each other. Ben turned serious when she asked about racing.
“It was always sort of a letdown after the competitions were over — like, so much work was expended for a moment of victory,” he said. “Do you ever feel that way?”
She tilted her head in consideration. “Most of the fun I’ve experienced has been in anticipation of events rather than what happens in real time.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” he said.
“Not that you feel like they were a cheap thrill?”
“That what was?”
“No. Well, they were in the sense that I didn’t make any money off them.”
“It was worth it, though, right? I mean, at least leading up to that instant where the victorious feeling faded.”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “Life’s a trip. It’s been a pretty wild ride.”
She agreed that it could be. They joked around some more, until she told him she was tired. He tried convincing her to stay, but she wanted to go home. He insisted on joining her so she wouldn’t have to navigate the corridors alone.
On the way there, Sophie caught flashbacks of places they’d visited: greenways and footpaths and alleys lined in low-slung houses and favelas, where parked cars and trash bins were tucked next to the walls of flats, and stray cats roamed. When they returned to the spot with the black iron fence, the statue appeared larger than life, as if it were not only a statue, but also a sort of promise. Sophie had listened intently to Ben’s poems and stories, like those related by the docents who presided over the Spanish Missions. Still, she was never quite convinced the town’s heritage was all it had to offer. All at once, the shining forms sank into the past like dead dreams, and reality revealed itself as a farrago of concrete, tar, and wires of which they were both a part and apart, parergons to the other’s triumphs and failures. She felt the grit and gravel beneath her tires and recognized it as one of her first sensations of the world into which she was introduced while pieces of it sundered, the earth caving in with no single way to save it from disintegration.
She looked at Ben and resented his sunny personality and fresh-laundered scent, the way his cool indifference had revealed itself to be a permanent character trait. Her eyes dropped to her grungy wardrobe and kid bike, and she wondered how two people who were so mismatched had wound up together. Even after knowing him for several years and embarking on journeys of countless miles, their friendship was still locomotive, two bodies sliding past each other, building heat and friction without getting too close. What did the state of the roads matter when they all led to shrines of empty stone? Distance was their story. They were alone when they found each other, and that was how it would stay.
Through the gate, a heart-shaped ex-voto shimmered in the pink streetlight, and the candles floated in the reliquaries. The theatre was now dark as a mausoleum. What else was there but scenery, Sophie wondered? Death was a cortege of highway traffic.
Up ahead, the road extended like a long arm across the landscape. She thought of Ben’s skin pressed taut against hers, the stretch embodying the tireless, physical quest for a path that led somewhere.
He pulled slightly ahead of her the rest of the way, looking over his shoulder to ratchet up another challenge, will her to go faster and slip beneath the yellow signals before they decanted to red. It was not a coincidence, Sophie decided upon reaching the old bridge in the park, they found themselves back where they started.
Ben’s voice echoed down the rocky alcove as he posed a question like before that, beneath the smooth cadence, intoned doing something more drastic, such as pushing off the edge to enter a free-fall, his voice brimming with reassurance that it might have been a fitting end to their adventures.
Sophie scrawled her eyes in both directions, wishing the group riders would appear.
“What is it?” Ben asked, his body the outline of a person. She wished he’d be talkative — tell her she was pretty, tall, or tough, or not to worry, because he’d always take care of her. But he stood silently with his feet planted and fingers gripping the handlebars. Through the arabesques of the trees, Sophie detected herds of deer. She’d seen them on other nights, flanking the shoulders, paused on the median, or leaping into the bracken, their heels pounding soft, green thrift. Their presence was unnerving and reminded her too much of him.
“Do you remember meeting here?” she asked.
He nodded, shifting his weight from right foot to left.
“I was with a friend.”
She recalled him being alone and gaping at her with that same otherworldly look, unsure about how to react to the sight of a long-lost playmate emerging from the cold, steel trusses of the adult world.
Music still crepitated through her speaker, though it had the effect of feedback. Ben took a tender step forward, his sudden closeness giving her chills. His usually sportive gaze had softened. The bridge fantasy returned — the longing to make a connection.
“That thing’s got to go,” he said. “It’s unsafe strapped to those bars. It could fall off and roll under your tires. Then, where would you be?”
She strained back against the wall to cut it down to her dimensions. The geology upon which the suspension was founded was solid, though the ballasts shuddered to the rhythm of cars and trucks riding the underpass.
“What’s it going to be?” Ben urged. Sophie stared down at the front wheel of his bike twisting in the dirt as he waited for an answer. A sign staked into the ground flashed in her headlight, majuscule, white letters stripped and weathered on a green plane. The message was something about the history of the park.
She anticipated him leading them forward, but as the seconds elapsed and he remained motionless, time meted out by their slowed breath, she realized he was waiting for her to go first.
Somewhere out there, she thought, the social riders were traveling the city at a crawl. There’d be hundreds of them — too many to count. Around midnight, they’d take their slow roll to South Cherry or Nolan streets, ramble through La Vaca, stopping at a Southtown bar. Chingonas with tattoos and wingtip eyeliner and hard drinking problems would pull up a chair beside some people they recognized from school. Hearing the ring of their bells, the newlyweds who’d just settled down in the German and Spanish colonial houses in the affluent King William neighbourhood would stir from their cloistered comfort to peer through their windows, sending their husbands rolling out on new townies and cruisers to find out about all the commotion.
Sophie could watch it unfold with her eyes closed. It was not too late to join them, return to the social. Yet, standing at Ben’s side, she felt closer to him than anyone.
The last thing she saw before steering them down the sinuous trail toward her home was the magnified image of the aglet quivering on the end of her shoelace. She didn’t look back, and Ben followed wordlessly, his nose pressed to the metal knowing there was much to do, and that a city to mend lay underneath them.