A Late Night on a Motorbike

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

The hum between her thighs rippled throughout her body. Reverberations of excitement spread shocks through her mind. A few bright stars lingered dimly over the Manhattan skyline, to the north. Often she gazed upon the tall skyscrapers in wonder, yet behind that sensation lay a sense of longing for the looming mountains which reminded her so much of Puerto Ricoher home. Where rather than hangout on the porches and street corners, she would run free with her cousins, traversing El Yunque’s dense, green, foliage, eye’s peeled for the occasional iguana. Where car horns and construction were replaced with the ambient sounds of ocean waves, or the relaxing harmonies of the coquis tree frogs. Where her biggest worries included ironing her uniform for school and the unpleasant scratch of sand in her pants, rather than avoiding the inevitable trend her classmates in New York found themselves swept up in: teen pregnancy, drug addiction and jail time.

She wrapped her trembling fingers around the throttle, welcoming its solidity. Northern winds blew the cold night air, kissing her rosy cheeks but stinging at the hole in her heart. It had been too long since she had felt the warm, loving embrace of the summer sun on the beach. She often thought about the endless afternoons of venturing down to the water after school. She and her few friends would gaze out at the sea, ignoring the harsh reflection of the bright sunlight above. They would point outwards, to the northwest, and speak of imaginary Americans, sitting in their imaginary white-picket fenced houses. She’d rip off her long, white socks to soak her sweltering feet in the dazzlingly blue water. It seemed so surreal to her. Life was simpler then, she thought, before the days when she could be found working on an assembly line, minutely filling bottles with Flintstones gummy vitamins. Four dollars an hour, four hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Many girls straight out of high school could be found there, doing just as she was, working to help provide for their families. Many immigrant parents just didn’t make enough money on their own to afford the ever-growing cost of the American lifestyle.

“Que tonto,” she remarked to herself, over the roar of the engine. Her defiant eyes fighting back tears, having given up the yearn to cry over her homeland long ago.

“Too many tears already shed over Puerto Rico. Séa feliz, Johanna,” her mother would tell her often, during the first few days after arriving in New York, as she tenderly stroked the long, black, curly hair Johanna inherited from her.

Many tears were shed when she used to think about her last few days in Puerto Rico. Her father would speak highly of America, saying it was “full of opportunity”. “Mija, he would start, beginning his spiel, “There is much opportunity in America. There is just not enough work here anymore. You’re going to love it there, you just wait.”

Perhaps through lack of imagination or out of fear of depression, Johanna could hardly have imagined leaving her beloved homeland, least of all loving any place more. Puerto Rico was where she felt she belonged. She remembered feeling as if she had no choice in the matter. Her mother was more comforting. She had tried to explain to Johanna, in the best way she could, why they had to uproot their lives. Stories of friends poured out of Johanna’s mother’s mouth. Gabriela, whose house was robbed last week, Alana, whose son overdosed outside of the church, and Natalia, who was dating a gang member, were just a few of the examples as to why they must leave, so said her mother.

Johanna had seen through her mother’s false words; she knew it was not about the stories but about the money. Their family had never been particularly wealthy, however, no amount of money in the world could buy what they did have: happiness. They had a large network of family surrounding their small, robin’s egg blue home. In times of need, they would band together, sharing food, water and whatever other necessities that were needed. Johanna attempted to convince her father he could find a new job or ask for help from the family. He spoke of the downward turning economy and of the rising rate of unemployment in their country. He mentioned her aunt and uncle in america, each with a job of their own. Johanna tried to object, but as with all things, her father’s word was final: they were going to America.

She spent the last morning with her family-sharing laughter, love, and tears-at her Aunt Lupe’s house. Even now, as she sped around a red Nissan, she could almost taste her abuela’s prized, Mallorca, topped with a hint of cinnamon. By midday, the family moved to the beach, where the cooking continued with a barbeque of roasted corn and pork. They ate and smiled merrily until the sun had just begun to set. Johanna was sprawled out in the sand, watching her last Puerto Rican sunset, when it all became very real to her: She was leaving. The encouraging grasp of her mother’s hand held her from falling to pieces.

Two hours later, she was seated and uncomfortably buckled on an Easter Airlines flight, bound straight for New York City: JFK. She had never been on a plane before and had been quite skeptical about its flying ability. Yet the people around her did not seem to fret, so she followed procedure. Within another thirty minutes, she was watching her home fade. She stared through the grimy window until the last lights were swallowed by darkness. Four hours later, she was staring in awe at a myriad of lights illuminating the massive cluster of buildings that made up New York City. Her mouth remained propped open as the plane made its final descent, before landing quite roughly, to Johanna’s chagrin. It had seemed so magical to her, at least from afar.

As she thought about those last days, Johanna quickly revved the throttle, leaving scattered tears in the wind. The roar of the engine sparked something within her: determination. That, coupled with the steady high she felt from the sheer thrill, sent her reeling in anticipation. She found something all people do at some point: something to free her from the existential bounds that tether her to her reality. For some people she knew, that “ something,” that reality inhibiting sedation, was sought through drugs. In many cases, the use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin became a far smaller cost than the emotional toll that accompanied many immigrants’ disillusioned dreams. Johanna knew her parents were vehemently opposed to such “reckless” activity. She had come to this country for a better life. They would not stand to see her waste it. For the most part, this opposition was instilled within her, besides her occasional joint or two. Yet, it wasn’t her parents’ rigid words that kept her from the free fall of addiction.

Rather, what kept her from the lure of drugs was the same part of her that once questioned the validity of the plane that brought her to America: skepticism. Upon witnessing her peers slowly drop to the promise of the escape and elation of drugs, which more often than she had expected, ended in a not so favorable run-in with the police, she decided to avoid them. This decision was primarily induced by the rather high value she placed on her own freedom, which she would never give up willingly.

It was that very love of freedom that led her to Deer Park Avenue at three in the morning, a ritual she performed habitually in the early morning hours of Saturday. She loved the way she felt, as she raced past darkened buildings, empty streets, and the few other drivers out at this hour. Her eyes rested on the horizon. The black asphalt road melted to meet the dark sky. A few street lamps’ dim rays of yellow light, blurred into lines as she accelerated by. Sitting high upon her two-stroke Honda motor bike, helmet strapped on tight, she looked for competition. She reveled in challenges, especially those she believed she had a good shot at winning.

Nothing could have prepared her for the challenge of immigrating to a new country. The dramatic shift in culture and language was very disheartening, if not downright maddening, upon her first arrival to the Bronx in 1987. Men roamed the streets in baggy jeans, carrying boom boxes on their shoulders, blasting Timebomb and Bon Jovi, dangling heavy chains from laden necks, and adorning their hands with four-finger rings. It had been quite a challenge to enter school without knowing a fraction of the language in which she was to be educated and tested.

Through her peripherals, she noticed a man clad in tight, black leather pull his seemingly brand new, electric blue Yamaha SRX 6 up to the stop line, on her right. Both he and Johanna stared at the red light-waiting. Behind them stretched the empty road. Johanna gave her bike a rev and nodded to the man on her right, issuing the challenge. He cranked his throttle in answer, and the two prepared themselves, eyes transfixed once again on the bright, red stop light. She counted down the moments with each exhale of her breath. “Three… two… one…,” the light turned green, and the two bikes shot out into the intersection.

Johanna’s parents didn’t approve of the motorcycle nearly as much as they disapproved of drugs. They were furious when they learned she bought one from her friend Malik. They believed it was too dangerous. Perhaps they simply couldn’t comprehend the rush and the freedom it brought her; perhaps they feared losing control over their semi-Americanized daughter. For Johanna, the danger was a key part of that equation.

Her eyes warily glanced at the speedometer, rising steadily past fifty miles per hour. At sixty, she let out a high pitched scream, reveling in the terror and thrill. In answer, she heard a cackling to her right, a few feet behind her. The man was still with her, neck and neck.

She closed her eyes, only for a few moments, so as to feel the speed of the bike, coupled with the wind whipping through her jean jacket. The chill was easily overpowered by the burning in her core. She could not help but have thought this was the reason for her existence-to experience joy, passion, excitement, and adventure. To Johanna, it was imperative she exercise her freedom to the fullest of its extent. She could ride like this forever, she thought, as the man accelerated ahead of her.

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