[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”195″ ]
I stood with my arms slightly lifted like a duckling. Mom tucked her hands under my armpits and raised me to the back seat, while I giggled from the itch. I twisted my hips into a comfortable position, my lunchbox, pencil case, exam papers, and textbooks rattling in my backpack. “I’m ready!” I declared. Mom was already gripping the handlebars. With her right foot, she pushed the ground once, twice, three times. The bike zigzagged under my weight, but Mom steered with ease. She glided for a few seconds before sitting down on the front seat, the white plum blossom prints at the corners of her cotton dress smoothed out by the breeze. Here it started, my daily trip between home and school.
Sitting on the back seat of Mom’s bike felt like being in a 3D movie. Mom never rode fast. When biking downhill, she clamped her fingers around the brake levers until they made a shrill sound and the bike started to jolt. When pedaling uphill, she leaned forward, lowering her back into a bow-shape, and I could suddenly see the road ahead. Most of the time, my eyes wandered, drifting over newly-bloomed peonies, dried purple mulberries, or schoolgirls in uniforms jumping rope with their braids bouncing up and down.
I was a second-grade girl with hair just touching my ears and a backpack hiked on my hips. I ran on the standard 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. schedule with math team and calligraphy practice alternating after class each day. Waiting for me at the school gate, Mom would lean against her sturdy “Flying Pigeon,” their two shadows fused on the ground.
The back seat was not really a seat. Unlike the front seat, a soft pad wrapped in black leather with springs inside, the back seat was made of several crossing steel bars and was originally used to carry Mom’s books or watermelons from the afternoon market. Mom never transformed it into a real child carrier, as did other parents, who screwed onto their back seat an iron basket that had a pair of plastic handlebars and two openings for the child’s legs. Tiny spots of rust always corroded those baskets, but they looked comfortable nonetheless.
The wheels rolled in silence. Around me, rows of poplar trees stood straight like soldiers. In the breeze, their limbs bent and small palms clapped gently.
Mom’s voice came from the front: “What new characters did you learn today?”
“Hmm … Jing Cha, Bang Yang, Mo Fan, and …”
With my right index finger, I started to draw the first character of Jing Cha on the back of her blouse, one stroke after another, careful not to let my fingernail cut too deeply. Three seconds of silence while Mom was reading the touch. The vague trace of the strokes disappeared slowly. I looked up. “Right,” she said without turning her head. “Next one.”
We reached the afternoon market. The smell of soil and vegetation blended with a fishy scent, and the squawk of distant fowl rang in concert with bargaining slang. Mom slowed down when she entered the stream of bikes inching forward in the aisle between two rows of vendors. I lifted up my legs, trying not to kick those squatting at the side to pick out vegetables and fruits. “Those are all fresh. Look!” A vendor with a Shandong dialect briskly broke off two segments of brown lotus roots from the middle, showing an incredulous buyer their snow-white insides. “That’s three jin? Can’t be!” another buyer across the aisle questioned loudly, bending down to examine a bag of eggplants dangling at one side of the steelyard balanced in the vendor’s hand. Further down the aisle, livestock merchants and fish sellers were lined up. Geese crowded in cages, screeching and dodging their master’s fatal hand. Carps flapped their tailfins in small, plastic ponds, opening their mouths above the shallow water into an “O” and gasping for air.
“I want taros!” I demanded in the back seat when a stack of taros, round and even-sized, still covered in dirt as if just dug from the ground, flashed into view. Mashed taros was my favorite dish — our home version of mashed potatoes, but better.
Mom got off the bike, flicked down the kickstand, and tugged her skirt between her knees before kneeling down: “How much is the taro?”
“Two Yuan per jin,” the vendor answered without raising his head.
Mom picked up two taros, rolled them around in her palm before putting them into a nylon bag she pulled out from her pocket. When the bag was half-filled with taros, she handed it to the vendor, who weighed it with a small steelyard, quickly tied the opening into a knot, and gave it back. “Five Yuan.” He opened his right palm and waved it in front of our eyes. Mom paid him and put the bag into the front basket. I could already see the taros, all washed and peeled, rolling onto the cutting board and rolling into the wok, sitting, steaming hot, on a delicate piece of china.
As the border of the sky turned crimson, we were cycling along Weiming Lake — the Nameless Lake, in Peking University. The setting sun, hanging among the clouds like an egg sunny side up, cast its last glow onto the water. The weeping willows on the shore, with their long branches dipped into the lake, stirred ripples glistening like fish scales. College couples snuggled on the benches and whispered into each other’s ears while looking into the distance at the Marble Boat, which sat hushed at the other side of the Lake. Once standing majestically in the middle of the central lake at the Old Summer Palace, later smashed into pieces by foreign invaders, the Boat was reassembled and sent to the University to be preserved. The rough surfaces of the fore and aft had been smoothed by kids sliding down them, and its broad deck had become the secret nest where couples lay and stared at the stars. I remembered the icy feeling of the marble stone against my cheeks, and the tadpoles dashing under water when I once stuck my head over the side of the deck to gaze into the lake.
The path along Weiming Lake led to the University’s West Gate, the landmark of the school built in red pillars and gray tiles. Across the street was Weixiuyuan, the yard where I lived. When we entered the yard, my eyes immediately turned to the second window from the left on the fifth floor of the building on the far east corner. A warm yellow — Dad is home.
Mom parked the bike under the shed and lifted me off. I rubbed my hips, numb from sitting still and pressing against the steel bars. Mom put a horseshoe lock around the bike’s back wheel and clicked it in. Having fulfilled its daily duty, the bike stood motionless with its front wheel slightly tilted, like a napping head.
Once when Mom was fiddling with coins in her purse, her back facing me, I stuck my feet between two spokes of the back wheel and ventured, not without a couple of clumsy kicks and scary slips, to bring myself onto the bike. I flashed her a triumphant smile when she turned back and saw me. The corners of her mouth were drawn back half way, but they froze the moment she spotted the two bent spokes in the back wheel: “Aiya! What did you do!”
Once when Mom was pedaling up the slope just inside the West Gate, I adjusted myself in the back seat and suddenly felt my feet, for the first time, touching the ground. I looked down: the tip of my sneaker had left a faint trace behind me on the dirt ground, next to the heavy print of the bike wheels. As the bike rolled forward, the two lines grew longer side-by-side, in the same direction, at the same speed. I stretched my legs further. Reaching the ground with my toes, I pushed hard against the dirt road once, twice, three times.
Once a pink keychain with a small bike key was dropped into my palm. No more numbness from the crossbars, no more Chinese pop quizzes. Now I could roam around Weiming Lake, stop at the ice-cream vendors at the market, or ride to the poplar woods for hide-and-seek. I would take it slow, just as Mom did, but this time grip the handlebars with my own hands.
Of course it did not happen that way. At 7:30 a.m., I rushed downstairs, threw my backpack into the front basket, jumped onto the bike, and dashed out. I was half-standing on the bike, my hips off the soft front seat, back bowed, neck stretched forward, and eyes focused straight ahead. The wind blowing by my ears reduced the chirping of sparrows and the peddling of vendors to a low hum and the blooming peonies, dried mulberries, and schoolgirls to patches of blurred colors. The back wheel jostled against the cobblestone road, while the steel bars of the empty back seat clinked and clattered. The trunks of the poplars flew by, and the wind sighed. I felt I had left something behind but did not have time to look for it. Class started at 7:50.
Time for school.