Refrains of a Metal Unicorn
In order to take the first step toward invincibility, you have to recognize its limits.
Riding’s only scary if you don’t know how.
You’ve heard guys say this too many times to count, accompanied by the predictable Man the fuck up or the even less surprising Stop being a pussy. With motorcyclists, especially guys, there’s this reliance on ego, on the assumption that testosterone erodes fear; they believe that – as long as they have big enough balls – they are omnipotent, infallible, and fucking untouchable.
That is, until their bro-tanked biceps collide with the searing California pavement at 80, 45, even 15 miles an hour. Then all those hours they spent with their legs stuck to the tattoo parlor’s slightly damp leather chair, as expressionless as recollected male role models, that zero-fucks attitude they’ve worked so goddamned hard to cultivate peels away, along with their precisely inked flesh. They didn’t know what being burned alive felt like until they scrubbed gravel from road rash, until their hide hangs in ribbons from elbows and they have to graft skin from their ass to reconstruct marbleized arms. Instead of a god, they are a walking statue, some surgeon’s interpretation of the divine, broken and weathered by time.
But that’s the difference between you and the guys: You understand consequences. Every time you shove the full-face over your head and zip up your armored jacket you see the split-second image of your prone body lying in wait on the concrete, a half-broken mess of bloody limbs and mangled flesh, a harrowing premonition of the crash to come.
But instead of your joints locking up, you unlock the steering column, rev your engine, prepare to ride into the pit of your stomach. Fuck, you accelerate into it, hearing the wind’s whistle over internal screams that make you feel more divine than pretending the fear wasn’t there. In order to take the first step toward invincibility, you have to recognize its limits.
Because being on a motorcycle makes you feel fucking invincible. You glide through traffic, shedding humanity to evolve into some half-metal animal at one with your surroundings. You become soothsayer of the mechanic, reading automotive futures like tea leaves: the Civic pulling out in front of you, the Suburban changing lanes sans signal, the Lexus blowing through the red light. You give Priuses wide berth because they’re always doing weird shit, like driving 10 mph below the speed limit or the wrong direction down one-way streets, never confident in where they’re going. And Caddies try to race you, failing to see the irony in betting their 60-grand, 4,000-pound, V-8 against your 600cc cruiser you bought for less than $2,000 off Craigslist. Your bike might be more than two decades old but she still beats cars off the line. You laugh every time it happens, even when the car speeds off in front of you after you hit your target speed, fast enough to get ahead of traffic but not reckless enough to garner cops’ attention. At least Caddies are better than the Beamers who get mad when you lane split, trying to force enough space to follow your lead only to get stuck, five cars back pounding their fists against leather steering wheels as you cruise through a yellow light.
In Los Angeles, drivers are miserable, swearing daily in their cars, forever stuck behind some out-of-state license plate who has no idea where they’re going. In LA, there’s too many people and no open roads, everyone is trying to get where they were supposed to be five – fuck, now six – minutes ago. No one wants to be driving, and everyone wishes the public transportation system didn’t suck, cursing earthquakes, and Mother Nature, and every other person on this godforsaken planet for taking up space. Driving in LA turns people into misanthropes, sadomasochists who would sooner get into an accident than allow someone else to get somewhere first. If they’re going down, they’re sure as shit taking you with them.
But who needs an ego when you’re invincible, you think, bobbing your head in rhythm to the music pouring through your helmet as you push and pull your handlebars, effortlessly evading potholes and human shortcomings while admiring the beauty of reflected light and the sound of wind socializing with the engine humming beneath you. You understand the importance of balance as you downshift to stop, veering to your left to let the little Ninja300 zip past, rider hunkered over the gas. You understand camaraderie as you wave to oncoming motorcyclists or head-nod to riders who pull up next to you, each one a friend you haven’t met yet and will forget by the next traffic light. You even throw a peace sign to the scooters bopping around side streets, although they always seem too scared to wave back, knuckles clenched white over throttles and a tension in their shoulders that doesn’t look like much fun at all.
You’re glad you didn’t settle for a Vespa, even though you failed the motorcycle safety class in San Jose the first time and drove home crying, mascara blurring your eyes. You resented your ex-boyfriend for passing on his first try, too stubborn to admit physicality came easier to him. You aced the written test, of course. You were so frustrated you almost quit, except you had already dissolved your savings to buy that teal Shadow which matched your preferred eyeliner, and you’d be damned to give them the satisfaction of being right, even if you weren’t really sure who they were but knew they were decidedly male: the incorporeal patriarchy dictating female limitations. Plus, your older brother rode, and you decided a long time ago you could do anything he could, Boy Scouts be damned.
Quitting wasn’t an option, so you pushed that throat-knot down into your stomach and signed up for another class. You practiced riding at night on your own bike, so terrified to drop it and fuck up its paint job with the telltale noob scratches that you rarely went above first gear. You almost canceled your second course, but when they told you they couldn’t refund your money, you decided you might as well just suck it up.
You were still nervous when you showed up, sweat trickling down your bra and numbing your fingers, even though the sun hadn’t begun to bake the pavement yet. But when you straddled the provided beater bike, a Rebel250, it felt manageable, maneuverable, a 300-pound toy compared to your 450-pound Shadow. And where your Shadow was finicky – stalling repeatedly when you tried to cold-start the engine at night – the Rebel was forgiving, worn down by dozens of inexperienced hands. The scratches on its black gas tank and chrome pipes made you not feel as guilty when you dropped it, which of course you still did. But you let go of your frustration, took a breath deep enough to fog up your helmet, and hopped back on.
Instead of the first time, when you had shied away from your classmates, focusing on your private feminist rebellion, you found conversation eased your anxiety. When test day came, you cheered your classmates on, drowning your doubts in support. And when you passed with hands so shaky you could barely fill out the exit paperwork, you realized that riding is not a zero-sum game.
With your new M1 license, you felt justified binge watching Sons of Anarchy but you quickly got pissed at the overt sexism laid bare in motorcycle culture. Sure, the show’s about a motorcycle club that runs drugs and does illegal shit (read: white, male, definitely not progressive) but you figured there would be one girl that had her own bike: the rebel – possibly a love interest for the male protagonist because her existence needs his validation – someone to represent the more than 14 percent of bike owners in the United States who are women. But the leather chapped female characters only rode bitch, manicured nails gripping sissy bars or their man’s jacket. Like their sisters before them, they had been designated passengers, passive objects without agency whose utility extended as far as the male gaze.
And so you told every woman you knew to get a bike, half out of spite, believing you could help crush sexism in a male-dominated industry. A few of your friends listened. One poured hours into getting a beater café racer up and running, another modified a Grom because she was too petite to ride anything larger. A year and a different Californian city later, you convinced another to take the class, and before you knew it she was riding her Rebel250 to Joshua Tree and back. They had surpassed you – in mechanical abilities, in fearlessness, in general badassery – and you almost didn’t care. You wanted an army of biker chicks scattered up and down the California coast who laughed as they rode past men’s stares. But none of you could have prepared for what comes after the stares.
In a black padded motorcycle jacket and Shoei RF-1200 – a men’s helmet, technically, adorned in an iridescent skull you fell in love with the moment you saw it after realizing manufacturers only made women’s in various shades of pink, purple, and ugly – you are androgynous as you ride past, free of human conventions as long as you keep moving. You don’t have to think about floral marketing ploys used to target women or about how male designers can’t seem to understand what a female body looks like that isn’t 5’4” and 115 pounds; you don’t have to think. But once you stop, the eyes have time to adjust to the knee-high boots and eyeliner: You become, once again, publicly female, the unwilling focus of constant male curiosity.
“People act like a girl on a motorcycle is like seeing a fucking unicorn,” Rebel250 says as you gear up for a ride. “Like, calm down.” She shakes her head, angrily shoving her white helmet in place. You smile, knowing too well what she means.
Every time you dismount, guys chat you up. Old white dudes with bearded pot bellies show you ill-lit smartphone pictures of garage bikes or explain the huge Harley they just sold – $2,000 paint job, candy-apple red, chromed-out everything – and the beast they’re gonna trade up for, some sofa-on-wheels so heavy the pegs scrape sparks into the road every time it turns. Nothing that big sounds like a good time, but they don’t care what you prefer. After all, their minds are too occluded by their own desires to understand you might have your own.
To men, a woman on a bike is an object in focus, something unusual that warrants commentary: a dog walking on her hind legs. They yell at you from the sidewalk while you’re stopped at a light, counting the seconds ticking away on the adjacent pedestrian crosswalk before you hit the throttle, or they sidle up next to you at the pump as you’re trying to concentrate on the gas flowing too quickly into your tank. They ask you a question, unaware that you can’t make out words under a half-foot of helmet and padding, and when you shrug in response, you can hear their anger pushing against your body even if you have no clue what they’re saying. They think their comments about the size and color of the engine that warms your thighs on cold nights are unique, important, and damn you for ignoring them. You almost feel bad but then remember they don’t want to talk to you; they want to talk at you. They don’t care if you just want to be left alone.
“What do you ride,” they ask at the Trader Joe’s checkout counter or in the line at 7-11 when you’re just trying to buy a water before work, helmet still on, music obscuring the nuances of their speech.
Not your dick, you think, but answer instead, “Honda Shadow 600. Do you ride?” You feign politeness but are sizing them up. You can tell a lot about a person by what kind of bike they ride.
“Oh I don’t. I’ve always wanted to though,” comes the inevitable reply, never surprising but always disappointing. You know exactly what kind of guy they are; they don’t care about your response but they feel the need to prove that your existence doesn’t challenge their masculinity.
You could have said anything because they probably don’t know the difference. Next time you’ll make something up – Harley Speedster, ten thousand ccs, I call it the Anaconda. You laugh to yourself as they keep talking. You should have learned to stop listening a long time ago.
Sometimes they accost you in parking lots, emerging from leather interiors of cars you’ll never be able to afford, luxurious pieces of artistry you could still beat off the line, no problem. You don’t even ride that fast – you’re no squid – but they feel the need to mansplain automotive safety features to you in their business casual slacks and button-down shirt.
“I noticed you weren’t using your turn signals when you were switching lanes,” he says in his most disappointed dad voice.
“Yeah, most motorcycles don’t,” you counter, not adding that most So-Cal drivers also refrain from this inconvenience. On a bike, heavy reliance on indicators can become a hazard, like when you’re circumventing cars illegally parked mid-street. As the smallest body on the road, your best bet is getting out ahead of traffic by any means possible, avoiding that split-second oh-shit moment when you glance ahead to find a pedestrian staggering, a viked-up driver slowing, and you rip your brakes too hard. Down you slide, lucky to surface with only broken limbs.
But he doesn’t know that – how could he? – and so he persists, informing you of implausible facts your brain shutters through like index cards. “It’s really not safe. My son said, ‘Dad, she didn’t use her turn signals.’”
You look around, but this son is nowhere to be seen. Even if he does exist, you seriously doubt he’d be able to tell your gender as you passed or would know about signaling. In fact, you’re willing to bet it was only after this alleged father figure saw you take off your helmet that he realized he would not want his daughter lane splitting and felt entitled to invade your thoughts and your space.
The more you think, the more you have to stifle the urge to scream, eyes narrowing into arrowheads as you zip a retort into your leather jacket. You know it’s useless to argue, but fury boils up from your womb and sears oil into your veins. Your mind feels slow and thick but your heart’s beating hard in your ears because you know this conversation would never happen if you were a guy. You take a breath to steady your hands.
“Lane splitting’s legal in California,” you say simply. “I’m going faster than the flow of traffic, so it’s really a non-issue.”
He keeps talking but you’re done. You put on your helmet, crank your music, find solace in the machine. She might be fickle, but at least she doesn’t presume ignorance because of what’s between your legs.
You named her Hati (HAHT-ee) after the Norse wolf who chases the Sun to devour at Ragnarök. You don’t know much about Germanic lore but you know that you feel like a Valkyrie astride her, racing towards the apocalypse, leaving your anger in her wake. Because she is the One Who Hates, your fury dissipates as your fingers twist back the throttle; you never realize how much holding your tongue constrains your breathing until you scream into fourth gear and feel the wind breathe calm into your face. Her hatred cleanses your mind, emptying yourself into palm trees that hang suspended on coastal horizons. By the time you pull up to the garage below your too-small apartment, Hati will have devoured you, each ride a little death from which you are reborn, free and at peace.
But like any great relationship, sometimes she is the source of your frustration, her mechanics an additional irritation crawling under your skin. She’s an old soul with stripped bolts and most parts about a millimeter from where you feel they should be; a simple task like changing her oil or cleaning her carbs always takes several hours longer than you think it should and the tools she came with are never the ones you need. If you weren’t so annoyed by her quirks, you’d see the irony; after all, you know exactly how she feels.
But it’s hard to empathize with her when you’ve got a migraine so bad you can’t see out of your good right eye, courtesy of womanhood’s monthly blessing. You just want to get home to lie down in the dark, but she senses your irritability and refuses to start, emptily clicking in place of her usual gruff hum.
She’s done this to you before. The first time, you thought her battery was drained. Luckily, you were at your apartment so you could remove her plastic sides, unbolt the battery, charge it, and hook her back up. It took a while to get the bolts holding her battery to catch but you thought you were just being impatient, hands slick from the California sun, and eventually she purred to life, good as new.
But then it happened again two weeks later – those empty clicks, the green neutral light that stayed cold – and you were at the library, no battery charger in sight, plus you’d just charged her, no way she was dead. You didn’t know what to do but you had tools in your backpack, so you wrenched tight the bolts on her battery, sweat collecting in your sports bra’s lining. You didn’t do much but you felt like a badass with a wrench in your hand, fiddling with your bike in a library parking lot. And when she started right up, you felt independent, useful in the most primal of ways: a problem arose and you solved it, knowing zilch about mechanics. Take that, you thought as you rode away, leaving patriarchy in the California dust.
But now you have no patience for stripped bolts rattling loose after you barreled over three bridges on to work this morning, the ocean wind surging through your veins. In between the throbbing beats of your skull, those empty clicks sound like karma for some ancient sin, and you think you might die under the impossible sun, shriveling up into its pulsating heat.
Shut up, you tell your pain, annoyed at self-pity, refocusing your working eye on the necessary ritual. You lay Hati bare, naked for the world to see as you remove her painted shields, tighten her bolts, and pray she doesn’t die on the shoulderless bridges while you ride back. Hati listens, staying alive. You don’t remember the ride, convinced she got you home safe on her own. You knew she was magic the first time you saw her.
The next morning, you take her to the mechanic shop around the corner for new bolts to demonstrate your gratitude.
The guy at the garage smiles warmly when he sees you – a pleasant divergence from the eye rolls that car mechanics send your way – though your eye twitches when he calls you “sweetheart.” You explain Hati’s situation, give him the battery info, hoping he’ll have a set on hand you can buy and bolt yourself in the parking lot. You are surprised when he walks out to your bike instead, tools and bolts in hand, leaving other customers unattended. With his hands on Hati’s battery, you feel grateful but useless beside him, shooting the shit to justify your presence.
“God, this thing is a bitch to work on,” he admits, having to get a second set of bolts and then a third because the first two just didn’t quite work, even though they should have. You feel accomplished despite your idleness. It’s not just you.
He wipes the grease from his hands, and you ask how much you owe him.
He just winks at you with a sideways smile and says, “Don’t worry about it.”
You remember that there are perks to being a metal unicorn. Despite how independent you like to think you are, sometimes it’s nice just to have someone else deal with Hati. In fact, sometimes she’s more than you can handle.
“Know your limits,” the motorcycle safety instructor told your class, drilling the motto over and over until it wound itself at the root of your skull. “Know your limits.” You had repeated the mantra although you didn’t understand it, and maybe even didn’t believe it. You couldn’t have. You hadn’t really started riding yet. You thought he was talking about drinking or taking turns too fast, the external limitations of your bike or environment imposed upon limitless internal abilities – mitigating factors. But the more you ride, the more you understand that the limits he meant were your own.
The first time you dropped her was stupid. You had just gotten your license but hadn’t ridden her in a while; her weight felt untenable after the 250cc toy Rebels. Her battery was dying, and your ex had to push-start her down your driveway. With her engine sputtering, you hopped on, rode a few blocks around the neighborhood to try to bring her back to life, but stalled on turning right turn from a stop sign. The fall happened in slow motion and you ended up on your side with her dead on top of you. You had to wriggle out from underneath her; some guy who’d been smoking a spliff in his parked car helped you upright her, pulling her off to the side of the street. You had a few scrapes on your arms and legs but your ego hurt the most, and you made your ex come ride her back to your house: her punishment for falling. You didn’t want to admit that you hadn’t given her enough gas off the stop.
The second time was even dumber. You were at your friends’ house, your bike and your ex’s parked on the street. The two of you went to ride back to your house, less than a mile away, but as you accelerated to pull out, your handlebars wouldn’t move and you began to tip over, realizing mid-fall you forgot to unlock your steering column. Laid out in the middle of the street, you did not appreciate the irony that in trying to protect your bike from being stolen, you had dropped it. Your ex helped you right it as you cursed yourself, knowing there was no way to blame this on Hati. This was all you.
You didn’t ride her for a month, fearful of your own stupidity, angered by your tendency to forget small but significant details. No matter how many stories your guy friends told you of dropping bikes or how many instances you read on Reddit of other motorcyclists crashing from stupid shit, you couldn’t get over your own fallibility, the humanity that Hati accentuates.
In total, it took you the better part of two years to get comfortable riding her, to understand her, to feel like she was an extension of your body. Even then you often found yourself at the mercy of your own inadequacy.
Like the first time you tried to add air to your tires only to ride to work on a dangerously low front tire. You decided you’d deal with it when you got off, convinced the first pump you tried had been broken. You went to two different gas stations, used two different air pumps, but the front tire wouldn’t fill, deflating alongside your patience. You almost said fuck it and rode home but thought that the tire might be punctured, so you pulled your bike off to the side and got a ride home from a coworker who had seen you stranded on the roadside with your head in your hands.
Later that night, your ex returned you to Hati on the back of his bike. Together, you rode to a gas station. He filled her front tire with air – no puncture, no problem – and you realized you had been letting air out of the tire instead of filling it. You wished this was the first time you felt this utterly fallible and human but knew it won’t be the last.
Because being human is what riding is really about. The invincibility you taste lane splitting through traffic or drowning speech in the thrum of your engine isn’t yours; it’s her mechanized immortality that you are human enough to believe you can control, human enough to believe that, astride her, you too can be free from the moral confines of agency as you race towards the separation between choice and inevitability.
But then you stomp her back break too hard to avoid a semi pulling out in front of you and your backend fishtails – this is it, you think, we’re going down, imagining her sliding out from underneath you, the sparks as her chrome meets the pavement, the scrape and crunch of metal and bones, the rubber screech of tires, the smell of oil and fire.
She rights herself as if by magic and comes to a stop. You put your foot down, concrete steady beneath your shaking boot, the same place you left it. You gently let off the clutch and twist back the throttle, accelerating through gears. She responds the same, no memory of your cruelty. As you glide down the road, the only thing to remind you of your proximity to human inevitability is the heart pounding in your ears.
As your stomach slowly unclenches, you realize you’re not riding into your fear of the bike, of her power, her steady immortality juxtaposed against your weak and quivering meat. Instead, you ride towards your fear of yourself, of the free will that is humanity’s curse disguised as a blessing. Hati lays bare the consequences of split-second decisions; she strips you of the possibility of what-ifs for the reality of what-is. She makes you live in the absolute present, affording no time to be paralyzed by indecision.
She is your mirror, your flaws reflected in her metallic gleam: your arrogance and self-pity, your anger and frailty, human fallibility manifest in machine. She is fear incarnate, the wolf destined to devour the sun, offering neither seatbelts nor airbags to protect you from yourself. Astride her, you race towards the end of the world, your personal Armageddon: even metal unicorns cannot escape the inevitable.