In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of that well. (Raymond Carver)
And then the sky filled with hot-air balloons. He was in the library, gazing out the window, as one of them started plummeting. He followed it with his eyes until it crash-landed in the parks next to the Biological Chemistry Research building. Behind the trees he could make out the deflated balloon on its side, its colors matching the succession of those in a rainbow. His palms got sweaty at the thought of finding himself in such a thing (however improbable), and wondered whether there was a gene to blame passed on from his parents’ parents. On that thought he left the library to return to the lab, while everyone else was rushing outside to see the befallen angel up close. It was a few days before Christmas and he couldn’t help thinking this wasn’t a good sign.
He returned to his flat later that evening, unlocked the door and pushed himself past the enormous cardboard box. It had been sitting there collecting dust, amongst plastic bags with old clothes, a deflated basketball, empty shoe boxes, a collection of records he had no way to listen to. It contained his bike, the very bike he used to ride in endless concentric circles as a teenager. He hadn’t even thought of opening it all this while—almost a year now. For some reason its presence made him uneasy. He was simply so different from his teenage self.
“Probably more of a coward,” he said thinking out loud.
On Boxing day, he woke up at sunrise and—still in his pajamas—got a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer. He started cutting the plastic tape that held the packaging together, proceeding clockwise from the bottom left. Once done he rolled all the pieces of tape together in a big ball and returned the scissors to the kitchen. Back in the living room he tore the cardboard to evenly-sized pieces (in no particular order) to reveal the bike, the scars of time all over it: rusty frame, worn saddle and tires, wiggly handlebar. He sat down on the floor and brought it closer. He put the pedals back on using a spanner that was in the box. He sat up, held it next to him and adjusted the height of the saddle; climbed on and thought it had to be raised a bit more. Did that, climbed off, took the pump and started inflating the tires. He kept a steady pace, breathing contra tempo, thinking of that hot air balloon inflating again and taking off. He climbed on again, cycled the three feet to the window and sat there—on the bike, still in his pajamas—watching the morning mist wrap itself around people’s heads.
He didn’t ride the bike until after New Year’s, as if holding out for a fresh start. On the first Monday of January, under heavy rain, he wrapped himself in a piece of nylon that his sofa-bed had been delivered in, put plastic bags around his shoes, gloves and set out. He stopped at every red traffic light—as did everyone else. He signaled with his right or left hand before turning—as did everyone else. In the bike shed he left his bike unlocked—much unlike everyone else—, and swiped himself into the building.
That afternoon he waited for the clouds to clear away and the roads to dry out before deciding to head back. During lunch he had given everyone in his lab a detailed description of his brave new cyclist self. He swiped himself out of the building and walked to the bike shed, the nylon wrap and Sainsbury’s bags in his backpack. He looked around; the bike had gone. He stood for a minute or two trying to find a word to describe what he was feeling; couldn’t. He binned the nylon wrap and plastic bags, put on his headphones, shoved his hands in his jacket pockets and started walking in the direction of his house. At the crossing he didn’t use his right or left hand to signal his sudden turn. A cyclist was coming from behind. He didn’t hear the bell and found himself flat on his face. His trousers now had a black tire-mark; his nose, lower lip and left eyebrow were smeared with blood. He made a gesture which meant my fault, stood up smiling and—with that same smile on his face and earphones in—walked the three miles to his house trying to name all the proteins working to make his blood coagulate in his wounds. His lower lip and left eyebrow stung a bit from the blows of cold air; the umbilical cord to his teenage self cut for good.
Today he’s sitting in front of three young men with bronze nametags, the acronym M.D. on each. The room smells of ethanol; it reminds him of the Biological Chemistry Research building.
“What do you like to do in your free time?” The question is asked in a clinical tone by the one with the blindingly white teeth.
“I play the guitar.”
“Ah, you're a musician.”
“No. I play the guitar.”
“No, I cycle; sometimes I take pictures.”
“I take pictures.”
At the age of thirty three, he is diagnosed with “adjustment fatigue to adulthood”. He has that in writing as well, laminated, put up on the kitchen wall (something his tenancy agreement strictly prohibits). Exiting the room he looks both ways before stepping out into the corridor.