Every time I see a Honda Rebel 250 street bike, I think of cleavage. More specifically, my first intimate experience with cleavage. I was fresh out of high school, disheartened by the closeted state of my sexuality and the state –Indiana –in which I lived, surrounded by corn, mud flaps, and Baptists. I was 19 years old at the time; the cleavage was 43.
The cleavage, of course, belonged to a woman, Shaileen, who frequented the motorcycle shop where I worked. Once or twice a month she and her husband, Leland, would roll into the parking lot on their gargantuan Honda Goldwing, its radio blaring, its chrome glinting in the sunlight like the shades of an insensitive celebrity. They were from New Paris, Ohio, a town just east of the Indiana state line, famous for being the birthplace of the Christmas carol “Up on the Rooftop.”
Shaileen was a middle-aged beauty, tall with long, spiraling brown and gray hair that, like the rest of her personal decor, hinted at bygone wilder days. Her black leather jacket had fringe at the waist and cuffs; she had a tiny metallic rose pinned on her left breast; on the right, a cockeyed patch of an eagle clutching an American flag in its talons. The smell of Aqua Net emanated from her hair like heavy metal music from loud speakers – brash and, in close proximity, disorienting. Leland would venture to the back of the shop to chat with my boss and the mechanics, leaving Shaileen and me alone in the front of the store.
She would walk off to sit sideways on one of the floor bikes, crossing her denim-strangled legs and picking her nails. She’d light a cigarette and jut her bottom lip and chin out to direct the smoke upward. She looked like a fountain statue when she did this.
“What are you looking at?” Shaileen asked one morning. I blinked. Was she talking to me? Had I been staring too hard at the way she was picking off orange and black flecks of dried nail polish from her fingertips? Mortified, I grabbed a bottle of glass cleaner, sprayed the counter down, and apologized: “I’m sorry. I just like your jacket.”
Shaileen ignored my compliment. “Do you ride?” she asked
As casually as possible, I said, “I got to get my permit, but I don’t even own a bike.” The manner with which I polished the glass countertop, however – in vigorous, squeaking circles – betrayed my feigned composure.
Shaileen crushed her cigarette out in a nearby ashtray. “I bet people give you a hard time about your size,” she said, getting up from the bike.
I nodded. “I’ve heard all the nicknames: Oompa Loompa, People McNugget, Munchkin, Rhea Perlman.”I sat the glass cleaner on a shelf and stared down at the one immaculately clean circle I’d made on the otherwise gritty countertop. “What’s worse is that the smallest bike Honda makes, that Rebel 250 over there, is still too big for me.”
Shaileen stood on the other side of the counter, eyeing me up and down. “Bullshit,”she said. “Come here.”
As though under a hypnotic trance, I shuffled out from behind the counter. Together, we walked to the black-and-gray-toned Rebel 250 across the room. With Shaileen by my side, I didn’t find the bike –with its kickstand cocked, its handlebars askew –as intimidating as I usually did. I found it enticing. Beckoning, even. We stood there quietly for a moment, taking in the little Rebel’s charm. When I turned to Shaileen, smiling, I found myself eye-level with the fierce eagle patch on her jacket. Breast-level.
“Straddle it,” she said.
At first, her demand didn’t register; I was more startled by how powerful her voice was. But my right leg threw itself over the Rebel’s seat. Behind me, Shaileen followed suit, pressing her body against my back, until we both were straddling the Rebel.
“You’re going to lift and balance it,” she said, a little quieter now. “It’s not as big as it looks.”
I nodded. Like the fierce eagle patch on the breast of Shaileen’s jacket, I grabbed ahold of the handlebars with my talons. Then I lifted. The Rebel stood upright with ease, almost weightlessly, between my legs, our legs.
Now we’re both going to sit on it,” she announced. But carefully. You’ll pretty much be on my lap.”
The strangeness of the entire situation was lost in the immediacy of its excitement. We both sat on the Rebel – Shaileen upon the seat, I upon Shaileen. Then she rested her head on my shoulder and her breasts on my back. I was careful not to move a muscle. Even with the thick scent of Aqua Net wafting around my head, burning my eyes and nose, I sat completely still.
Abby Higgs received an MFA from The University of Baltimore’s Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program. More of her words can be found here: www.slowclapabby.com.