Princeton, the town that houses the university, is picturesque with cobblestones roads and cute coffee houses. It is set apart from any busy highways with only a small two lane road leading to it.
It is a quiet town surrounded by heavy industrial area. Chemical plants, pharmaceutical firms, research centres, if it is big and world renowned, chances are they have an office close to Princeton.
A bike path runs through the town and extends out of it in both directions, west towards Lawrenceville, and east towards Plainsboro. I lived in Lawrenceville, a much smaller town filled with people who couldn’t afford to live in Princeton, so we biked into it on this dirt path every morning, or through it to Plainsboro and the companies there.
My neighbour was a short female scientist who once said in a random conversation, “I could never go out with someone like you because I don’t want my children to be short. I would like to give them some hope.”
She said it in a clinical way, like she was positing a theory: “Marry you = No hope” then she went on to list other plans for her life, blah, blah, blah, second Ph.D.
Perhaps she said it to ward me off before I got any ideas and said something like, “You know, we Nigerians, we have to stick together.”
Later, when she asked for my plans, I mumbled something.
She looked over, “What did you say?”
“What I SAID WAS: I have no plans, I am just trying to get through today without killing anyone!”
I biked to work three days a week, and got a ride with my scientist neighbour on the other two days.
I am not one to do things halfway. You’ll never hear me say, “I dabble.” I most certainly do not. When I run, I go running in the mornings, and in the evenings. I eat a runner’s diet. I read about running, I write about running, I wear a pedometer, I record my miles, I enter competitions. So when I biked, I had an aerodynamic helmet, I had gloves, I had a water bottle with a suction-release cap, I had a biking jacket, biking shoes and biking glasses.
I would do my stretches, climb onto the bike, and a solemn silence would settle upon the town as I blazed through it. I would head over the bridge and hit the path going over 30 mph. I would lean into the first turn, tap the right brake, extend my left leg and dig my heel in as the rear wheel bit into the gravel.
Bike down the road, into the next town, beside the river. What a rush. Three times a week.
One morning, halfway through my biking route, I was past the populated parts of town, onto a secluded riverbank and reaching a rough section with lots of trees. The bike bobbed up and down on half-buried roots, but I was in control. I stood up and weaved left, weaved right, pedalling harder. The bicycle’s shock absorbers smoothed out the bumpy ride.
Then suddenly, my front tire hit a large protruding root, throwing me into an unintended wheelie. The impact dislodged the front tire from the rest of the bicycle, and in that instant while I was in the air, I looked down and saw the front tire roll off on its own like it wasn’t part of the bike. The rest of the bike came down heavily, pitching me forward. I flipped over the handlebars and fell face first. My hands did not reach out to protect me. They were presumably still holding on to the handlebars in disbelief. My face hit a rock, and it cleaved my biking goggles into perfect halves, two separate pieces like homemade monocles.
I landed with a thud and lay there with blood streaming down the bridge of my nose. The bottom part of my body was tangled in the bike frame still on the path, while my head was off the path cushioned within my helmet on sparse grass and sharp stones.
After an indeterminate length of time lying there not moving, a woman stopped and called out:
“Hey! You there! Are you alright?”
I turned my head to the side to look at her, and I checked, bending my arms and legs, wiggling my fingers, then my toes.
“Yeah…. I think I’m okay.”
“Good!” She yelled back, “Now could you move your bike off the road, it’s blocking the path.”
Without sitting up, I crawled off the road deeper into the undergrowth using my feet to hook the carcass of my bike and pull it with me.
I heard her climb back on her bicycle and ride off. I got up about 15 minutes later. I carried the front tire in my left hand, and dragged the frame of the bike with my right limping all the way to work.
At the medical center at work, the doctor examined me, turned away and started putting on latex gloves. Over her shoulder, she said, “You’re going to need stitches on that.”
Three stitches. On my face.
I went to my desk afterwards and called my neighbour’s extension. Told her I wouldn’t be able to bike back home so I would need a ride.
I toughed it through a woozy day, and at the end, she called to say she was downstairs. She waited in the driver’s seat as I tossed the broken pieces of my bicycle into the truck of her car. As I got in, she turned to look at me, face swollen, huge bandage on the bridge of my nose covering most of my face making me look cross-eyed.
Her face was lined with pity, but not in a good way. Pity and something else, like she was saying to herself: “Tsk, tsk, a grown man falling off a bicycle. Definitely not someone like you,”
We drove home in silence.