Rough Outline for Essay about Bikes

Rough Outline for Essay about Bikes by Elizabeth O’Brien


1. Arriel, Character Sketch

A. Some of the names she gave her bikes:

1. G.I. Jane

2. Saint Christopher

3. Man’s Ruin.

2. Subversive Choppers Urban Legion, In Medias Res

In SCUL, you’re not allowed to use anyone’s real name.

When you join, you pick a gang name, something that fits the sentence, “Don’t mess with (blank).” This, Skunk says, is so you have a secret identity in SCUL. You can be someone else when you ride. “Be the superhero you always knew you could be” is how Captain Underpants puts it.

Because of the whole secret identity thing, most of the getting-to-know-you questions asked of new members tend to refer back to SCUL.

“What’s your gang name?”

“Who brought you?”

SCUL is invite-only, so somebody has to have brought you, and when people asked me, I always said, “Pigpen did.”

Outside of SCUL, Pigpen was Arriel, and she was my best friend. She had dragged me to SCUL’s Bad Movie Night because she was tired of finding me home alone, moping with the lights off. I had just moved back to Boston from California, and although I was relieved to return to the only place that felt like home, everything else felt wrong. I hated my job, my apartment had roaches, and in my stomach was a constant, sickening certainty that I’d failed myself by not falling in love with San Francisco like I’d believed I was supposed to.

I came home after work and sat on the mattress in my bedroom, listening to John Cale’s Fragments of a Rainy Season over and over. Weekends, I woke up early and built houses with Habitat for Humanity, not because I was particularly inspired to do good in the world, but because when I spent the day on a construction site, I came home too tired to think and fell asleep easily.

I started riding with SCUL because Arriel made me. “It’s not like you have anything better to do,” she reasoned, hands on her hips, ready to drag me out by the hair if need be. I felt pliable, spent. Arriel could open beer bottles with her teeth. She could drink her boyfriend under the table and then push him up the steep hill home in a stolen shopping cart: she was a force to reckon with. Anyway, it was true—I had nothing better to do.


  1. Alternate Beginning

Arriel liked flawed things: scarred skin, patched clothing, cats with missing ears. When we first met in Harvard Square, seven years before she died, we disliked each other immediately.

She was sitting on the sidewalk outside the Cambridge Savings Bank, panhandling to pay a lawyer—a long story—with her hair glued up in ammonia blue spikes, a cigarette hanging from her mouth.

I had just left home; nights, I was sleeping in a friend’s car. I was eighteen years old, new to Boston, new to independence, and full of poetic on-the-road ideas. I was having no trouble charming everyone I met, until Arriel. I vividly remember her first words to me: “You don’t look like someone who should be homeless.” Then she took a drag of her cigarette and measured me with her eyes. “Maybe you should get an apartment or something,” she added.

On the surface, maybe this seems like kindly advice, but from one street kid to another, her meaning was, “You aren’t tough like me.” I was stung, not least of all because, bravado aside, I worried she might be right.


  1. Character Development

After the fact, it’s difficult to explain why either of us had been “homeless” at all. We each had two parents who loved us demonstrably. But at the time we both would have insisted, we both did insist, that we couldn’t go home. That we didn’t have homes.

In any case, it didn’t last long. A software engineer friend bought a house and told each of us we could move in, along with his other friends and soon, Arriel and I were housemates in a big house a mile outside of Harvard Square. My room was on the third floor, “the garret,” I called it. Arriel preferred to live in the basement, in her dungeon.

She’d just kicked dope—heroin—and as far as I knew, she spent most of her time panhandling for cash and drinking forties in the park. She’d disappeared overnight and was gone for weeks at a time, leaving vague itineraries scrawled on paper scraps in lieu of goodbyes. Maine, Ohio, Maryland: She went to punk shows and puppet festivals and worked a stint as a carnie and visited her long distance boyfriend, Dmitri. When she came home she brought things with her—bottles of booze, trash-picked furniture, gutter punks who spent the night and vanished in the morning.

I got a job at a copy shop and spent my disposable income on clothes. On my days off I sat up in my room surrounded by sequins and bits of lace and marabou, cutting and re-sewing and gluing. I shaved off my eyebrows and applied rows of tiny rhinestones where they had been with a safety pin dipped in wood glue. At night I stomped downstairs looking like Ziggy Stardust with breasts, ready for the Goth club, Manray. When Arriel and I crossed paths, we kept our mutual disdain in check.

But over time, proximity overcame us: our frosty silence gave way to occasional gossip, which gave way to talk about our boyfriends, our interests, our parents. She told me who she’d slept with, about hitchhiking misadventures, about being taken in by drag queens on the streets of San Francisco. I told her about parties I went to and showed her clothing projects in progress. We dissected movies in front of the TV, Six String Samurai, Suburbia, and Transylvania 6500. We critiqued each other’s fashion statements, one connoisseur to another: “It’s too Dee Snider,” she said, frowning, when I drew black slashes from my temples to my jaw and colored them with silver lipstick.

“I liked the blue better,” I told her when she dyed her hair jade green. When we ran into each other in Harvard Square we hugged. When she left to go on the road, she stopped by my bedroom to say goodbye, and I begged her to come home soon and wished I was going with her.


  1. Omniscient First Person Point of View

Often it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how people become important. There’s rarely a single cinematic moment of realization, a flash of light across a dark sky or a chorus of heavenly arias from above or a circle of fluttering birds. But somehow we come to know.


  1. Compression and Rearranging of Narrative Time

A. Arriel and I move out of the house, but stay friends. She becomes a bike courier and takes art classes. I get an office job. There are weeks I see her every day and months I don’t see her at all.

B. We protest the US invasion of Iraq, plastering Boston with homemade stickers that say MAKE FACES NOT WAR. At demonstrations, she starts arguments with war supporters, and her opinions are always more informed than theirs. It’s my job to intervene before she really gets mad and starts a fistfight.

C. Arriel moves to Ohio for good. But it doesn’t work out, and she returns to Boston.

D. She starts dabbling with dope again. We both pretend I don’t know, because we both know there’s nothing I can do about it.

E. I move to San Francisco for good, but it doesn’t work out. I return, moving into an apartment which has no overhead light fixtures. I get some lamps soon after moving in, but the apartment will forever be colored in my memory by the first few nights when I come home at night and undress for bed in darkness.

F. Arriel meets David, who doesn’t drink or use. When she rides her bike, he follows on his skateboard.

G. Arriel joins a program to kick heroin and counts months in NarcAnon tokens. We stay up all night talking about sex, what’s happening in Iraq, how messy our lives are. She’s depressed and I worry she’ll try and kill herself. When she isn’t staying over, I call her in the morning to convince her to get out of bed and go to her meeting. I crack jokes and chatter until I hear her brewing coffee. I wish I could stay all day on the phone with her, to be sure she’s okay.

She says I make her feel like a lesbian.

She says she doesn’t want to kiss me, but she’s in love with me.

I think, yes, exactly.

H. We’re in our early twenties: time is elastic.


  1. Alternate Beginning

Arriel showed up at my door. “Get your bike, we’re going to Bad Movie Night,” she said.

“With your weird bike people?” I asked. “No thanks.”

“You’re coming,” she said. “Seriously, get your shit, and let’s go.”

Outside my building, at the end of the street, was a weeping willow. It was a lovely, majestic tree, pushed in the corner of somebody’s yard like an unwelcome guest. When I passed it on my way to and from work, my eyes were drawn to it, and as Arriel and I blew by on our bikes, I pointed it out to her. I said, “That’s my tree.”

We hadn’t gone far when Arriel stopped at a small house, the front of which was obscured by bushes. There were bikes in the yard and on the porch. There were bikes locked to every nearby street sign.

Arriel didn’t knock; she walked right in the front door and up a stairway scuffed by bike tires. She flung open a door at the top of the stairs and I followed her into the cozy apartment that was, I learned, SCUL headquarters, Fort Summer.

Fort Summer was brightly painted, with fixtures made of bike parts: spokes, chains and cogs that had been made into hooks, racks, and even a holder for the toilet paper. In the living room, at least ten people crowded around a small TV. They sprawled on the couches and floor, eating chips and drinking beer. The movie had just started, and everyone was talking back to it, cracking jokes.

“This is Liz,” Arriel announced. Somebody made room for us, and we settled in. The movie was about killer slugs from outer space.

“Who’s your cute friend?” someone named Jonathan asked Arriel in the kitchen, later.

“Liz? I’m setting her up with someone else,” Arriel replied.

This was true; she had recently begun a campaign to persuade me to date a friend of her boyfriend’s. The friend, Alfred, was smart and adorable, but he was also, I thought, too young for me.

Arriel mentioned Jonathan later. “But he’s not your type,” she said.

“Was he the one in the funny jumpsuit?” I asked.

“No, Jonathan looks like a bike courier,” she said. “He’s sorta normal looking, with tattoos on his shins and plugs in his ears.”


I couldn’t picture him.

“Anyway,” she said, “Don’t bother with him. Have you called Alfred yet?”


  1. Metaphor

We’re falling out of the sky, clutching each other, both hoping the other is a parachute.


  1. SCUL, Character Sketch

SCUL is a chopper gang. Not a motorcycle gang—a bicycle gang. Every bike ridden by every member has a chopped fork, one that has been cut and extended with extra steel tubing. And if you don’t have a chopper, you can borrow one, free of charge.

SCUL rides on Saturday nights, in a pulse of bike lights and cacophonous funk music that blares from homemade handlebar-mounted radioboxes. People freak out on the street when the tornado of funny bikes goes by—some of the bikes are eight feet tall, and many are garishly painted and ready to fall to pieces.

When I joined, SCUL was full of nerds. There was Bushido, who wore yellow and said hilarious things. There was Maddog, who invited me over for pancakes and whose name, I guessed, was ironic. There was GluteusMaximus, a Russian girl with round glasses and an infectious giggle, who we called Gloot for short. And there was Skunk, the gang leader, who made many of the bikes and most of the rules.

“I’m Fleet Admiral,” he said when Arriel introduced me. He wore homemade insignia strung on a chain around his neck, and a brightly colored Afro wig. I didn’t know what to think.

Nonetheless, I rode—as Arriel pointed out, I had nothing better to do.

Every SCUL ride was different, but from week to week, rides had a certain syncopation. After dark, everyone trickled into a pre-determined parking lot on wild bikes and rode around in circles. People cracked open beers and hollered at each other, skidding and elbowing and egging each other on, and if someone showed up with a newly chopped bike, everybody gathered around to ooh and ahh over it.

Skunk liked making an entrance, so he rode in last, blaring music on his radiobox with as many lights as possible attached to his body and to Catastrophe, his chopper. He announced the night’s mission—a party in Jamaica Plain, or skinny dipping, or chopper soccer, maybe.

Everyone gathered in a loose herd as Skunk primed the launch song: a marching band version of the Superfriends theme that made me feel like the dorkiest superhero in the universe from the first swell of trumpets.

The first night I rode, everyone whooped and hollered, riding onto sidewalks and yelling, “High Five! Gimme a high five!” at people on the street, who stopped and gaped. As we went through the tunnel outside Harvard Square everyone screamed and rang their bells, and the tunnel echoed with ear-splitting noise. I hollered along with everyone else, a strange thrill shooting through my body.

You earn honors in SCUL for doing just about anything a ten-year-old will do on a bike if egged on by friends: five points for crushing a cup under your wheel, five points for high-fiving a stranger, a hundred points for taking off your clothes and riding around naked. There were medals of valor for wrecking a bike or falling and hurting yourself. In my first three months I earned a medal of injury and enough points to be promoted to “Commodore,” fifteen ranks above the recruit level, “Maggot.”


  1. Email, Loosely Approximated From Memory

Arriel—Are you going to SCUL this week? I’m sick of you blowing me off all the time—call me tonight, okay?


  1. Alternate Beginning

At Fort Summer, a guy approached me and said, “Hey, I heard you’re apartment hunting.”

“Sort of,” I said. I hadn’t made any effort to actually look for a new apartment yet, but I’d been saying I would for weeks.

“There’s a vacancy in my building,” he said. He told me his name was Jonathan.

It turned out I wasn’t interested in the apartment, but we exchanged numbers anyway. As he walked away, I noticed he dressed like a bike courier. He had plugs in his ears and tattoos on his shins.

Soon, Jonathan started appearing nearby at parties, and sitting by me in parking lots, when SCUL stopped for a disco dancing interlude. I didn’t mind—it was nice to have someone to chat with on rides, and Arriel had been riding less and less. Lately it seemed like she was always hanging out with her new boyfriend instead.

Late one September night, we all pulled over while someone changed a flat tire. We were coming home from Jamaica Plain by way of the Harbor, by way of somewhere else, and we were all exhausted.

Jonathan came over and asked, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“I think I’m busy in the morning,” I lied—I had nothing going on—“but otherwise I’m free.”

“We should hang out,” he said. “Want to have dinner with me?”


“Okay. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I was sure I wasn’t really interested, but when he called the next day, I agreed to meet him for sushi. That night we stuffed ourselves on tuna and eel, and Jonathan told me about his job. He made high-end bikes for a company called Seven Cycles—had I heard of it?

I hadn’t. I thought, we have nothing in common.

After dinner, we went for a bike ride. Jonathan showed me an abandoned factory with broken windows and weeds growing against the brick. We rode through brambles and over broken glass around the perimeter of the building, so close I could reach over and touch the brick with my hand. Then he showed me a bridge that was completely closed to cars, and we explored that next, riding back and forth. I wondered how many other cool places there were in my neighborhood, unbeknownst to me.

Still, when I got home, I didn’t think I’d go out with him again. He was nice, but Arriel had been right, as usual—he wasn’t my type.

On the next SCUL ride, I kept noticing Jonathan at the periphery of my vision, riding behind me or a few choppers over. When we stopped he fiddled with my bike, tightening the chain and adjusting the brakes, offering me his jacket if I was cold. When I got home I thought maybe I liked him, sort of. A little. He wasn’t my type, but he was sweet, and he was kind of cute.

A few days later he called and asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” I didn’t have plans, except for SCUL, and I agreed to go out with him again.

We were at a crosswalk on our way to dinner, waiting for the light to change, when he said, “Skunk says you know it’s a good restaurant when you get food in your hair.” I laughed, and a wondrous smile crossed Jonathan’s face. My stomach fluttered as I realized, I really like him.


  1. Possible Climax

Sometimes we argued about whether she was or wasn’t going to ride on a give night: I always wanted to ride, and I wanted her to ride, too, but she often had other plans. And then we argued about whether she was mad at me or whether I was mad at her.

We’d been sniping back and forth via email for weeks when, on Thanksgiving, Arriel posted a nasty letter to me on her blog—a complete public catalog of everything she had decided was wrong with me. I was insecure, shallow, a slut. SCUL, she said, belonged to her, and everyone I considered my friend had been hers first, was hers. Was not mine. And she hated me.

I read it over and over, heartsick, haunted by the memory of how we met—you don’t look like you should be homeless—and knew I should have seen this coming. A pendulum that swings away from its starting point always doubles back.


  1. Metaphor

When Jonathan’s lease ended, he moved in with me. All of his things fit into one van, but once they were in my apartment, it took us weeks to negotiate how his stuff and mine would mesh together. For months, I noticed little things he’d changed. He reorganized my “first aid kit,” removing the squirt gun, the chain of safety pins, and the single latex glove that had been its sole contents, and put in band-aids, bandages, aspirin, and antiseptic. Later, when I cut myself and rummaged through the bathroom for something to put on it, I knocked over the first aid kit and the band-aids fell out: right where they should be, where I’d never have put them myself.


  1. First Person Limited Point of View

In March, SCUL rented a booth at the Boston Bike Show, and Arriel and I accidentally volunteered to man the booth for the same shift.

“I don’t know if I should do this,” I fretted when I found out.

“Go,” Jonathan said. “The bike show’s fun—you’ll have a good time.”

So I did, and Arriel and I sat side by side for four hours, drinking sodas and talking in the polite way of acquaintances.

“I hear you’re with Jonathan,” she said.


“That’s nice.”

“How’s David?” I asked.

“He’s fine.”

“That’s nice.”

Afterwards, I thought, that was easy.

A few weeks later, she approached me outside Fort Summer as I was locking my bike. “Here,” she said. She handed me a lump of black cloth. I unfolded it as she walked away, and found that it was a black shirt with the sleeves cut off, and a SCUL logo—the winged skull—quilted on the front.

Had she made it for me? I wasn’t sure, though it fit me perfectly.

I asked around—had Arriel mentioned making shirts? Did she give anyone else one? But nobody knew anything about it.

  1. Second Possible Climax

It was a hot summer day when I found out Arriel had passed away.

Gloot and I had arranged to meet for a bike ride to Walden Pond, and we were cruising down the bike path. Gloot knew all about Arriel and me, and we’d barely gone a mile when she signaled me to pull over.

“I have something to tell you,” she said. “I want to say it now, in case you change your mind about Walden Pond.”

Arriel died yesterday, she said, and it looked like a heroin overdose. An unidentified “friend” had dropped her at the ER in the pre-dawn hours of morning and her dad, rushing to the hospital when they phoned, didn’t get to say goodbye. Gloot was teary-eyed. She hugged me and asked if I was okay.

I considered the question in my mind: Was I okay?

It was sad, I said, a real tragedy. Her poor family, my heart goes out to them. But I’m okay. I’m fine.


  1. Amalgamated Dialogue

“How was Walden Pond?” He asked.

“Arriel passed away.”


“She’s dead,” I said.

“My God, are you okay?” That question again.


  1. Arriel, Character Sketch

I went to Arriel’s father’s house, because it felt like the thing to do. I brought zucchini bread and pasta salad, and her father thanked me distractedly and went back to pacing the living room. Her mother was there, and her brothers. They all hugged me. They said Arriel loved me very much. I said how sorry I was, that it was such an awful thing. I felt like a fraud, because I didn’t feel anything at all.

The next morning, the very first thing that popped into my head when I woke up was Arriel’s hateful letter. I felt stung anew, and I clenched my jaw until it hurt.

In the weeks that followed, everyone who had known Arriel mourned. They all said how strange, how awful it was that she’d taken dope after she’d been clean for so long. You didn’t know her. Not like I knew her, I wanted to say. I was furious, white-knuckled from clenching my fists, unable to put into words what a terrible person she was, unable to do anything but wish I could see her once more and scream at her.

Arriel’s ex, Dmitri, came from Ohio to give his condolences to her family. He called and invited me out, and I agreed to meet him for a beer, though I couldn’t imagine what we’d possibly have to say to each other.

Over pints of Guinness we made small talk about mutual friends. Then, unable to stop myself, I launched into a story about how Arriel had once gotten mad at someone and several days later, had caught that person unawares, and kicked them. She kicked them squarely in the face and then walked away, without even saying a word.

As I finished, I suddenly realized what I was saying, how tasteless I was being. But before I could stammer out an apology, an incredible thing happened—Dmitri laughed. “Sometimes she could be a real bitch,” he said. And instantly I felt lighter, better. We ordered another round and I ranted on about Arriel’s violence, her hypocrisy. She was petty, irrational, mean. It felt so good to say so.

Then I recalled that late at night when all the beer was gone, she’d sing songs in her husky sweet little girl voice. She’d send love letters home to me when she went traveling. She’d tell me everything she felt and thought, and I felt special for knowing it.


  1. Third Possible Climax

I start crying.


  1. Exegesis

I find myself tracing time back through what has happened to me so far, in search of points where my life changed irreparably, the happenstance moments when something tiny impacted everything else that came after. When one DNA molecule coded left instead of right, and the first plant cell was born, and tawny green shoots spidered in every direction ever after.

If Arriel hadn’t made me come watch movies at a stranger’s house, I wouldn’t have had so many wonderful nights riding choppers, or met Jonathan. If I hadn’t gone to California, I wouldn’t have come home and allowed Arriel take me to SCUL. If I hadn’t left home for Boston, I wouldn’t have met Arriel.

In hindsight, so much seems to have begun with a whim, with a word, nothing.


  1. Fourth Possible Climax

Does it exceed the limits of narrative plausibility to say that I proposed because when I woke up on New Year’s Day we were out of coffee? It was a whim, proposing, except that I was already gut-certain Jonathan was who I’d spend my life with, and that we felt the same way.

I woke up cranky and hungover, and there was no coffee in the house. So I got dressed, and I put on my coat and left Jonathan asleep in bed. I was halfway to the coffee shop when I thought, suddenly, it’s a new year. We should get engaged.

The idea was thrilling; it distracted me so much that I only bought one coffee—I forgot to get one for Jonathan. We’ll get engaged. By the time I returned home, I had decided.

I opened the door and found Jonathan groggily awake, reading the news online.

“Hey, will you marry me?” I asked. It was a whim.

Or it wasn’t.

He wiped the sleep from his eyes and turned to look at me.


“I said, will you marry me?”

He paused.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”


  1. Flashback

The last time I saw Arriel, she was standing in a parking lot in her underwear. I rode up as SCUL was getting ready to ride, and she was there among everyone else.

The sun was going down but still bright, and it was still hot out, and humid. People drank cans of beer, stood around with their bikes. Someone—Alfred? David?—wore a hat with a stuffed fish sewn on the front.

Arriel had recently been very sick—hospitalized, even, due to liver problems. She wasn’t strong enough to ride a bike, so someone was going to tote her on the back of Starhustler, SCUL’s tandem. She was so thrilled to be out with friends, she’d stripped off her clothes and was dancing around in just her studded belt and sagging underwear.

When I saw her, I wanted to hug her.

I walked over to her, wanting to say, “I miss you, and I’m sorry about everything.” I almost said it.

But instead, I said nervously, “Hey.” We looked at each other, while our friends chatted and fussed with their bikes around us.

I tried to make some awkward joke, and she sort of laughed.

And I walked away.

Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many literary journals, including New England Review, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Whiskey Island, decomP, PANK, CutBank, Ampersand Review, Swink, and Versal.