“You’re all muscle,” he said as he rode up alongside me. I was pushing – straining, actually – to pedal my way up the hill and reach the more level Beach Drive. It was a sunny, near-90 degree Sunday morning and I was out for a bike ride near my house just outside Washington, DC. I had just been stopped at a traffic light waiting to cross a busy road, accompanied by 5 other cyclists, none of whom said a word to each other. I noted the lack of any even subtle signs of acknowledgement, in spite of the fact that we were all out on our bikes to enjoy the ride, the fresh warm air and the little-trafficked, leaf-topped roads.
“You look good,” he added, and then passed me by, his yellow shirt scattering the sunlight. I muttered something to the effect that in spite of my muscles, I still couldn’t keep up with the other cyclists. Most of them were the guys in skin-tight shorts and racing jerseys who ride in a peloton, taking up the entire road. They’re serious cyclists – racers, a group to which I don’t belong. Nor long to be part of. Mr. Yellowshirt didn’t seem to be of that ilk, but he was a fast rider, disappearing into the distance without further ado.
Alone again after the posse had passed, I pondered on whether being “nothing but muscle” was a good thing or not. If you know me, you’re aware that I’m on the thin side. As some people have said, I’m just skin and bones. Are they trying to be complimentary, or should I be insulted? I think it’s the former, but who knows… In any case, I have other assets besides my internal structural support and the semi-impermeable layer that covers my body. The question of the morning was whether my muscles could be considered among them. Body builders go gaga about bulging muscles, but the thought of spending many waking hours on treadmills, stair masters and ellipticals, or lifting weights on monstrous machines that look like they could crush you in a second, repels me.
I was coming to the conclusion that I needn’t be concerned about the size and quality of my muscles. After all, those that I have perform quite well for me. I’m able to hike mountains, ride my bike, swim, do yoga, walk, talk, smile, etc. without looking like a muscle man. I decided to forget about the guy’s comment. Chalk it up to idle chatter of someone – unlike the other cyclists I’d just seen – who just wanted to acknowledge me as he passed. I reached for my water bottle, took a sip and slid it back into its holder on the bike frame. Only the plastic rack broke and fell, as did my water bottle, which I promptly rode over. Luckily, no harm was done, but I had to stop and retrieve my belongings scattered along the roadside.
Somehow (I’m not sure how), Mr. Yellowshirt came up from behind, and inquired, “Are you alright?” As he sped by I assured him that I was fine, and by the time I’d finished my short statement, he was already 20 yards ahead. I saw him slow down. Keep going, I thought. But no, he circled back and came up alongside me. Once back my bike he initiated conversation, beginning with the mundane: Where are you riding to, how far are you going, where did you begin? This was followed by an explanation of his weekend physical exploits: a 35-mile bicycle ride yesterday followed by a run, and 28 miles of biking this morning. Then, he’d be off to watch his son play baseball. His 12-year old, he told me, is one of the best players on the team and a really great kid – friendly and supportive of everyone. Not just because he’s his son; the coach even says so. Yeah, yeah….
Next up in the line of inquiry were questions about where I’m from and how long I’ve lived in the DC area. He’s been here much longer. Okay, all fairly typical questions of a stranger who doesn’t know where else to take a conversation. Never mind the fact that he could have picked up on our mutual interest in bicycling to generate a discussion of greater duration and more pertinent interest.
“Are you married?” came next. No need to beat around the bush, I thought.
“Yes,” I responded.
“How’s it going?” A strange thing to ask. And, a loaded question. I surmised that he was divorced, thus able to relate to a difficult marriage.
“Very well,” I responded. “We’ve just had our first anniversary, and it’s been really great.”
“Just one year? Is this your first marriage? Or, your second? Or, third?” he asked. Who was he taking me for??
“First.” “And only,” I added.
He seemed incredulous. Didn’t know what to say next, so he spit out a variation of the typical Washington question. “What does your husband do?”
“My wife,” I stated.
“What does your husband do?” he repeated. Not even considering the fact that I might have a wife.
“My wife is a Park Planner.”
He recovered quickly. “I’ve always wanted to work in parks, to take care of animals and nature,” he responded. I pointed out that most of what Eileen does is deskwork, doesn’t involve live critters, and is subject to the whims of local politicians and overly vocal – or should I say, demanding? – community members. That lead him to explain how he’d been active in local community issues until he found himself being blamed for being the messenger of bad news – the one who informs the neighbors that there are certain regulations that you need to live by. “These 30-year olds think they can do and have whatever they want. That’s how they were brought up. Not like our generation.”
I humored him a bit, lamely keeping up my half of the conversation, and trying to keep up with his pace. I’m ready for this to end. I just want to pedal at my own speed, look at the trees, listen to the birds, and think my own thoughts. I doubt he read my thoughts, but I soon sensed him beginning to withdraw. Whether it was because I had quashed his dreams of becoming a park ranger, or the realization that I – a happily, newlywed lesbian – was off limits, I don’t know. It didn’t matter. We pedaled along in silence, and I considered suggesting that he feel free to go ahead, to ride at his own speed. No need to slow down because of me. Luckily, it was he who made the break, turning off towards Wisconsin Avenue as I continued north.
Phew. I’m free again. I was glad not to be playing that game anymore. I like to ride my bicycle for many reasons, but I don’t flex my muscles to find a date. As for Mr. Yellowshirt, I’d suggest that muscling one’s way into a conversation can be worth a try, but chances are it may not get you anywhere except a bit further down the road.