The Day My Estranged Father Taught Me To Ride A Motorcycle

My life and career have been defined by my father’s absence. Now in my mid-thirties, I went to complete a bit of unfinished business and ended up confronting not him but myself.

The story, as I like to tell it, is that I owe my existence to a motorcycle.

It begins in 1976. Bob Amsden, the man who will become my father, is 21 and working at a gas station in northern Maine. One day he gets a call from Joe, the oldest of his eight siblings, who has opened an ice cream parlor in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. “Get your scrawny ass down here,” Joe says, “and work for me.” At which point (in my admittedly romantic streamlining of events) the corners of my father’s thin lips flare up into a wily grin. He is eyeing the 1970 Harley-Davidson Sportster sitting outside, a bike he has just fixed up, and it is thoughts of open highways, not of restocking sugar cones, that make his brother’s offer irresistible. “See ya when I see ya,” he says, packing his life into the Harley’s saddlebags the next day and setting off on a 900-mile trek. He waits out rainstorms under highway overpasses. Zips by signs welcoming him to states he’d known only from grade school maps. Discovers that black people exist outside of newspapers. And finally pulls up in front of the strip mall ice cream shop where, a few months later, a striking young woman wanders in and orders a single scoop of mint chip. Dark hair, dark eyes, and high, rounded cheekbones, she emits an air of European sophistication that my father, a man raised on a remote potato farm, has never encountered. She, it turns out, is having a similar reaction to him: his redneck sense of humor and the twitchy muscles in his pale arms combining to project a blue-collar masculinity foreign to her white-collar upbringing. They smile. They chat. Soon they are a couple.

Three years later, on Oct. 2, 1979, they welcome me, their only child, into the world.

“So the way I see it,” I tell my father, “is that I owe my existence to a motorcycle.”

“That’s a good story,” my father says. “And there’s probably some truth to it. Though you could just as easily say you owe your existence to ice cream, couldn’t you?”

“I could,” I reply. “But that kind of kills the whole point of me coming to see you.”

We are having this conversation while standing in the long, woodsy driveway of the home he shares in Central New Jersey with his wife of 20 years, a relationship I know little about other than that it has lasted more than twice as long as his with my mother. I have traveled here from New Orleans, where I recently moved from New York, because I want to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and for reasons a therapist would have a field day unpacking but which I’ve chosen not to think about too closely, I want my father, a man I’ve been estranged from my entire adult life, to be the person to teach me how.

When I mentioned all this to him over the phone a few weeks earlier — adding that it would be for a piece of writing, complete with a photographer present — there was nothing in his voice to indicate that he found my proposal peculiar. Maybe he liked the idea, as I did, that he could get a belated window into what it is I do for a living. Or maybe he clings to the same faded memories that I do: back when I was a small child and he worked nights managing a pizza parlor and, since my mother worked days, he was the one who picked me up from preschool and kindergarten. Those few hours we had to ourselves were always spent with me riding on the back of one his bikes: excursions that took us into the woods, on his lime-green Kawasaki 175, and over paved suburban streets, on the matte-black Triumph 650 Tiger that had replaced his Harley. “Don’t tell your mom,” he’d say, placing the musky helmet over my head, always promising that he’d teach me to ride once I was old enough. That these happen to be some of the only memories I have of my father, memories now three decades old and buried under the silt of thornier ones — well, these are the sort of facts he is skilled at skirting over, my father being a man who looks at his past the way the rest of us look at the sun. “Come on by,” he said over the phone. “We’ll get you up and riding in no time.”

Now, as we stand facing each other at the start of the lesson, he says, “It’s always good to see you, feller.”

“You too.”

“You look good.”

“As do you.”

“Life treating you well?”

“No complaints.”

We are both lying. Or if not lying then using the conventions of small talk in favor of a less pleasant exchange that would go like this:

Him: “It always hurts to see you, feller.”

Me: “It hurts me too.”

Him: “When did you get so old?”

Me: “When did you get so old?”

Him: “I’m sorry.”

Me: “It’s OK.”

Photograph by Randy Harris

My mother divorced my father when I was 5. I can, and have, played up the reasons for drama and sympathy, and our motorcycle lesson is hardly the first instance of me tapping the man for professional gain: My writing career began with the publication of a novel inspired by his drinking, his brief but devastating romance with cocaine, and his chronic immunity to responsibility. But the reality is that this was more an appropriation of my mother’s story than my own, given that she made a point of allowing me to get to know my father on my own terms, which was as the handsome goofball she once loved as opposed to the unreliable and self-destructive one who broke her heart. After the divorce he worked a string of jobs in fast food, and his access to free french fries was all the confirmation I needed to know that I was being raised by a man with an intrinsic grasp of life’s most important priorities. That he never had more than a few dollars in his pocket or a home of his own — living either with his brother Joe or with whatever woman had fallen for his considerable charms — seemed to me minor blemishes on an otherwise model résumé.

We saw each other a few days a week, and though his motorcycle and dirt bike were now gone — sold for pennies during the divorce — the assurance that we would one day ride together stayed afloat. Aside from the pungent odor of manure, which triggered in my father sentimental reflections of Proustian elegance about his childhood on the farm, nothing brought the man a joy more pure and contagious than the rattle and whine of a motorcycle revving past. He could determine the make of the machine by sound alone, isolating the aural nuances hidden in the roar the way a composer can the various instruments responsible for a symphony. We spent a lot of time at dealerships, staring at a new model he was lusting after, and in mechanic’s garages, checking out a used bike he was fantasizing about buying. “A good starter bike for you,” he’d always say, “once you get a little older.”

When I was 13, however, my father met the woman who is now his wife, moving from Maryland to New Jersey to live with her. By my senior year of high school, he had come to take the place in my life he has occupied ever since: less as a parent than a benevolent stranger who happened to be half responsible for my existence. If as a boy I regarded him as the prototype of the man I’d like to become, on the cusp of manhood I considered him a faulty model awaiting factory recall, and as I got older I began carving out a version of myself — urban, interested in playing with words as opposed to tools — that stood in opposition to everything he represented. After high school I moved to New York, and in the 17 years between then and now we have hardly spoken, and have seen each other maybe 10 times.

As for motorcycles? I stopped thinking of them. To contemplate the relationship between throttle and clutch was to contemplate the relationship between my father and me, a far more complex one that I chose to deal with the way many men deal with complex matters: I ignored it. For as long as I could.

But then a stranger would cruise by me on a bike, and the sound of the engine would give way to a silent, but equally disruptive, ripple of envy coursing up my spine. At first I thought this was just the sort of superficial jealousy living in New York fosters, where to walk around a block is to be reminded that there will always be people in the world far cooler than you. But in time I realized something more complicated was taking place. I was supposed to be that guy, I had been bred to be that guy, and soon enough it felt like every scruffy young man on a BMW café racer was flaunting the fact that he had hijacked some critical ingredient missing from the recipe of my selfhood. Needless to say, this all coincided with me turning 30, the age where you can no longer take illusory comfort in thinking of yourself as a work in progress: Your skills, your deficiencies, and your habits have coalesced into a form defined enough to take stock of, and the new, hard light illuminating the man you are amplifies the man you are not. That I was a man who could not carve a turkey and would never catch the game-winning touchdown in a Super Bowl — all this I accepted. But that I had no idea how to operate a motorcycle did not sit well. And over the past year, as I discovered that the woman I loved no longer loved me, and that I no longer loved the city I lived in, I found myself asking a lot of questions about the man I was and was not, and my yearning to ride morphed from an ephemeral wish into an essential need.

That’s when I scrolled through my phone to see if I still had my father’s number.

Photograph by Randy Harris

“Just straddle her for a minute,” my father says. “Get used to the feel, the weight.”

The “her” he is referring to is his current bike, a 1973 Honda 350. Crimson and white gas tank, perforated chrome tailpipes — it is the sort of object actors are photographed alongside in fashion spreads to convey grit and spontaneity. Still, that Triumph he had when I was a kid, sitting in the garage as a monument to the freedoms of adulthood in general and manhood in specific: That is the bike I want to learn on, and though that bike is no more, I pulled the writer card with the manager at a nearby Triumph dealership who was kind enough to entertain my nostalgia quest by loaning me a new Bonneville T100, as black and beautiful as the one of my youth. But my father is concerned that it’s too much for a novice, and my impatience is augmented by the realization that the man is looking out for me, and that it has been almost 20 years since I’ve known what that felt like. I straddle the Honda.

“How’s she feel?” he asks.

“She feels good,” I say.

“Ready to start her up?”

I tap the gear shift with my left foot, as I’ve been taught, waiting to see the ochre light flip on letting me know the bike is in neutral before pressing the ignition button. She really does feel good. My greatest fear up to this moment has not been that I might crash, but that in attempting to learn how to operate a motorcycle I would instead learn that I no longer had the constitution required to do so.

You are, after all, straddling the most defining invention of the 20th century, an internal combustion engine, stripped down to the most core elements required for human propulsion: two wheels, a seat, handlebars. Like cigarettes, there is no justification for motorcycles to be legal except for the fact that they are, and, also like cigarettes, motorcycles have always been embraced by a personality type requiring proximity to death to appreciate life. The fearlessness required for riding came naturally to me as a boy, but as a 35-year-old increasingly in tune with his mortality, I have become a more cautious creature. I practice yoga. I eat a lot of kale. Then again, I am a smoker, and, when faced with an existential crisis, moved to New Orleans, a city with a proud history of celebrating and nurturing self-destructive tendencies.

“Ready to do this?” my father asks.

“Tell me one more time how this thing works.”

Having grown up driving stick, I am at an advantage here, or so my father patiently explains for the 20th time in the past half hour. I understand the function and sensitivity of clutch, gas, and gears. Now it is “just” a matter of transferring this knowledge to, respectfully, my left hand, my right hand, and my left foot, and remaining calm while applying it to a machine that does not stand upright on its own and is, in essence, a death rocket.

“You’re gonna let off the clutch with your left hand,” my father says over the engine’s feral purr. “Nice and easy, right? And you’ll feel her start to give, and right there you’re gonna give her some throttle with the right, just a touch…”

I’m not listening. He has already explained this enough times that I could write an instruction manual. But being told how to do something is not the same as being able to do it, and as my father’s voice fades I stare down the length of his driveway, feeling the tingle of adrenaline in my cheeks and fingertips. I grip the clutch and kick the bike into first gear, savoring the satisfying jolt of a machine ready to go, and then I begin to release the clutch and proceed to—

“Easy!” my father shouts. “EASY!”

I have moved six inches and stalled out, the bike jerking under me like a rodeo bull. I try again and stall out. And again and again, my heart now a chisel scraping at the inside of my sternum.

“You wanna take a break?”

“No.”

My frustration is all the more consuming because it has very little to do with my inability to operate the machine. Much as I’ve told myself I am here in order to acquire this skill under the somewhat absurd pretext of fully realizing myself as a man and documenting it in a piece of writing, I’m beginning to understand that the purpose behind the trip is even more primal: What I want on the most elemental of levels is to impress my father, to feel him being impressed by me. He missed out on my most significant accomplishments, and our estrangement means that any success of mine — every word I’ve published, every paycheck I’ve cashed, every home I’ve created, every woman I’ve loved — exists as a reminder of his failures.

For a long time, I wanted it to be this way. I would imagine him in the doctor’s office, flipping through a magazine and coming across my byline and suffocating with shame to the point that urgent care was needed. But maintaining this level of anger is exhausting, and I am here in large part because I have grown less interested in rubbing his nose in who I am than in finding some way, no matter how fleeting or artificial, to share it with him.

“You’re letting the clutch go too quick, then trying to make up for it with the throttle,” my father says. “Try to think of it as one motion, not two.”

Good advice, this. Instead of wrenching, the bike begins to move forward at a slow, even pace, and it takes me a few seconds to realize what is happening. That I am riding a motorcycle. Far more than the power you are harnessing, it turns out that the calm is what is so invigorating. I stop at the end of the driveway, craning my neck around to see my father. I take off the helmet so he can see that on my face is a facsimile of the beaming expression on his.

“OK,” I say, after spending an hour getting a feel for the basics. “I want to ride the Triumph.”

My father looks skeptical. He is not sure I’m ready. Fortunately, no amount of distance causes a child to forget how to guilt a parent.

“I want to ride with you,” I add.

Photograph by Randy Harris

We take a break for lunch. In the Lifetime version of my life, this is the part where we confront all the uncomfortable truths that have come to define our relationship, the negative space that is our only space, apologies giving way to forgiveness giving way to understanding giving way to filling each other in on the past two decades. In the life version of my life, however, I have a beer and he has a martini and my burger is overcooked and I pretend not to care that it seems he has more in common with the photographer, a motorcycle enthusiast, than with me. As they have a long discussion about rebuilding the Honda’s carburetor, I sit there quietly, nodding every few minutes like a child pretending to understand the mysterious world of adults.

When we head back outside for the next stage of the lesson, we encounter a lanky, half-Asian teenage boy standing in the driveway, holding a lacrosse stick.

“Hey dad,” he says.

It takes me a moment to realize that he is talking to my father. When people ask me if I have any siblings, I say, “No.” And then, after a pause, I add, “Well, my dad has a kid, so I guess I have a half brother?”

In private, I think about Raymond, this boy, from time to time, resenting and envying him for the obvious reasons, and also wondering who he is and how he’s doing and whether such thoughts constitute a bit of what it feels like to experience the genetic love that exists between siblings. A few years ago, he sent me a Facebook friend request. “Hey bro,” he wrote, and I was startled by the effect those two words had. He knew I existed? What had my father — our father — told him? What was my father like as a father? “Hey bro,” I wrote back, but since he was only 12 I kept my questions to myself, and in the years since have relied primarily on Raymond’s Facebook page to learn what little I know about my father’s life. I know he’s been to California, where his stepdaughter lives, and to the Philippines, where his wife is from, and that his hair is now completely gray and that he has gone a bit slack around the middle, but that the charismatic sly-dog grin I remember from my childhood has remained intact.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly sentimental, I imagine Raymond and me getting together over beers and explaining our father to the other, as if completing a jigsaw puzzle: From him I could learn who my father is, and from me he could learn who he was. But that is for another day. He is 15 and is just out here to let his dad know that he is going out to play lacrosse but will be home for dinner.

“Hey,” I say as he scampers off. “You ever ride one of these?”

“Only on the back,” he says. “But dad says he’s gonna teach me.”

“Once you’re old enough?”

“Yeah.”

Moments later I am straddling the Triumph, and even before I start it up, the power of its 850cc engine is evident in its density. I drop the visor on my helmet less to block out the autumn sun than to make sure my father can’t see the fear in my eyes. This girl’s got might, and I’m so afraid of stalling and looking like the amateur I am that I compensate by giving the Triumph far more throttle than needed without realizing my right foot is still compressing the rear brake. The wheels smoke and squeal beneath me, and suddenly I’m jerking forward at 40 miles an hour, my father’s form vanishing in the side mirror. For two seconds about as horrifying as any I’ve experienced, I fear the worst. But it seems my father’s lessons from earlier have stuck. “Just squeeze the clutch,” he has continually advised, “if you get scared.” This puts the bike back in neutral, and I let the engine rev down, the machine submitting once more to my control.

I now shift into second, then third, cruising to the end of the cul-de-sac, basking in the intoxication, so rare in this multitasking age, that comes when every cell of the mind and body is focused on one thing and one thing only, the world around you both falling away and taking on a sharper quality all at once. The basic truth that makes learning to ride a motorcycle so singular is that no one, it turns out, can teach you how: They can tell you, but to ride it’s just you and the machine, a test of your survival instincts and a reminder of your individuality and, with elegant symmetry, an extension of the same lesson my father has been teaching me my entire adult life.

“Motherfucker!” I shout when I return. “Is there anything better than this?”

To answer in the affirmative, my father grins, places his helmet over his head, straddles the Honda, starts her up. We ride around the neighborhood for a few hours. I follow him and he follows me and we ride side by side and with each turn and figure eight so much becomes meaningless: the clicking of the photographer’s camera, the whole silly construct of this afternoon, the 17 years that have passed since we’ve known each other. I could do this for hours, for days. But the reality is that he has a family to take care of and I have a train to catch to return to the life in which he is as much a fictional character as anything close to what most people think of as a father.

Photograph by Randy Harris

Not long after I return to New Orleans, I get a text from my father. He is just saying hello, seeing how I am. He also wants my address, to send me a book about motorcycles he thinks I will enjoy. How do I respond to this gesture? With silence. I can’t say why, exactly. Perhaps the writer in me, always overeager to find the next “story,” has gotten the desired grist from an always reliable mill. Or maybe it’s just the laziness inherent in men and our natural predisposition, so frustrating to women, to avoid conflict and genuine emotion. But the truth is I don’t know. I just don’t, and when it comes to my father I guess there are still more questions I prefer not to ask than to answer.

A few weeks later, he gets my address from my mother and mails me the book, sending me another text to let me know it’s on the way. Still I don’t respond. A month later, on my birthday, he sends me a note, something he has not done in 15 years: “Hope ur bday is good. Did u get the MC book yet? Honda is running well. Nice fall weather here.” I don’t respond. A week later: “Did u get ur MC book?” I don’t respond. A day later: “Hope all is well. Hav’nt herd bak frm u.” A few months later, he wishes me a merry Christmas, and then a happy New Year. I don’t respond. In mid-January he writes: “Went for a ride on the Honda just a week or so back. Crossed the country in about 15 min. In my mind.” I don’t respond. A few weeks later: “Took the Honda out today fr a minute. Froze my butt off. Couldn’t find it. How is life with u?”

That last message, his desire to know how I am and his attempt to express it in the semi-illiterate way he thinks my generation most understands, is the one that does it. In the privacy of my home — a home that my father will in all likelihood never see, a home that reminds me every day that I am a functional adult even when I feel like anything but — I weep. I suppose I have always known that, for all his shortcomings, my father is a good man whose love for me has the general contours of the love all parents feel for their children. Yet this knowledge has been abstract for so long that to actually feel it is so profound my impulse has been to reject it: to teach him, maybe, some of the harsher lessons he has taught me. But what’s the point? He has already learned them, surely. In his own way.

As I regain my composure, I pick up the phone and call him. We chat for an hour, mainly about motorcycles, which is to say we chat about each other, at least in the obtuse way that men express emotional depth without ever leaving the surface. Before hanging up, we make a plan to ride together again sometime, and I don’t much care about which one of us may end up breaking the promise.

Photograph by Randy Harris

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