Just Stay Inside (creative non-fiction)

by Laura Jin Mazzaro

When I was five years old, I got a pink bicycle, a hand-me-down from one of my sisters. I wanted to become a professional cyclist. One day, I took my bike out to our building’s parking lot. It was early, but the tropical air was already thick and salty. I hopped on my bike and began riding. I zigzagged along every row of parked cars, launched down a small ramp that ended with a sharp right turn, zigzagged some more, and rode up the ramp to start all over again. I tried to lean my bike to the side as cyclists did on TV. The temperature was rising. In the afternoon, my mom yelled from the fifth-floor apartment window, calling at me to eat something. After two bites of a sandwich and a sip of water, I ran back to work.

The next thing I knew, my hand was laying on something wet. I opened my eyes and saw my speed ramp, sideways. I was laying on a puddle of car oil, in an empty parking spot. My bike was on the ground. My knee was covered in blood and oil. I screamed. My older sister brought me upstairs. “I fell asleep on the ramp,” I said. “I told you to eat more,” my mom reprimanded me as she scrubbed the car oil from my scratches.

*

I always wanted to explore nature. As a child, I’d spend recess alone, in the bushes, pretending that my metal ruler was a machete. A child therapist asked, “If you could do anything, what would it be?” I answered, “I’d ride my bike in nature.” That was called bicicleta de montaña, she explained. Later on, as a teen, I’d explore small pieces of forest between buildings in my hometown, imagining that I wasn’t in the middle of a city.

*

After work, I change into my biking clothes and shimmy my bike out of the trunk of my Honda Civic. Several men walk by, each one asking if I need help. “No, thanks,” “No, thanks,” “No, thanks.” I ride to the narrow dirt trail behind a café. My front tire wiggles back and forth as small rocks try to throw me off balance. I start softly singing one of the made-up songs that have been stuck in my head for a few years now: “At first I was afraid, I was petrified. I kept thinking I could never ride without you by my side.” I try to ride up a rocky step, but my cheap suspension bounces me back and I fall onto a sharp cushion of locust shrubs. I grunt, shake the twigs off, and give myself a pep talk while getting back up: “It’s OK. It was soft. We can do it! At first I was afraid, I was petrified…”

I am breathing hard and pushing myself. Sometimes I fall harder and cry; I get back on the bike, or I walk next to it, tears streaming down: “Pobrecita. That hurt! We can walk, it’s ok. That was scary.” In the end, I go back to the car, which is too hot to enter. My entire body tingles. Tomorrow I’ll make it up that step.

*

My partner walks into a movie theater and looks around the crowded lobby. He lingers on a face, loses interest in the rest of his surroundings. He’s watching a confident man in his late twenties, light skin and eyes, wearing expensive adventure clothes. “Do you know him?” I ask. “No,” he responds, still watching the man.

I go order some snacks as my partner finds his way to the mystery man. Coincidentally, an acquaintance knows him and introduces them. His name is Peter. My partner asks where he’s from. The response is usually a well-known outdoorsy town: Anchorage, Bend, Burlington, Aspen, Seattle. Then they start naming people that they know in each other’s towns. “Do you know Kelsey? She’s a ski patroller in Aspen,” or “Have you met Phil? He is an environmental scientist in Anchorage.” They don’t stop until they find that person that they both know. They always do. In this case, Peter from Seattle once dated my partner’s old housemate’s sister.

I walk over. “Where are you from?” Peter asks me.

“I’m from Venezuela.” I ask what brought him to Santa Fe. He is quick and disinterested. Our friend, Jess, walks over. “Where are you from?” again. “Maine.” Peter smiles and asks, “Have you been to the Common Ground County Fair?” To which Jess exclaims: “Yes! I volunteer there all the time!” They bounce around names of people they know in Maine. I go find a place to sit while waiting for the movie to start.

*

At 6 a.m., I start getting dressed: a thin Costco thermal top and bottom, ski socks, leggings, a long-sleeve cotton shirt, a thin merino wool sweater that I also wear for important meetings at work, two itchy wool sweaters, an old rain jacket, and thick ski pants that were almost free but are three sizes too large. By the time the two-hour drive is done, I am sweaty beneath all the layers.

My ski boots, which I left in the car from the previous ski day, are frozen. My left foot won’t go in the boot. I push hard, holding my breath to numb the pain, and finally my foot slides in. On the chairlift, I begin to shiver. I try to focus on the playlist that I keep on repeat, mostly reggaeton, which feels warm and happy. All day I go up and down, learning how to stop, turn, and slow down. Every time I’m back on the lift, I take a bite of a sandwich that I keep in my pocket. If I stop to eat I will get cold, and then I can’t warm up again. At four, the ski area is closing, and I catch the last chair up. Once at the top, I am alone. Most people are back in their cars, or at the resort bar, having twenty-dollar nachos and twelve-dollar beers. I calculated it: if I do this three times a week, which I can with my student schedule, I will spend less money this winter than if I went out for food or drinks with friends twice a week. I remind myself that I can afford it.

Until ten years ago, mountains like these were like dragons and unicorns for me. Now, I am alone on a peak, in the middle of the Rockies. I look around at snowy peaks as far as the eye can see. I remember that I get to bring myself here as often as I want, and I get goosebumps. I take my time skiing down. A ski patroller skis down past me and waves. As I walk by the bar, on my way back to the car, I see the groups of people drinking and eating. Clearly, I found a loophole and snuck in somewhere I shouldn’t be.

*

A classmate says he is going skiing, and asks if we want to carpool. He wants to save the planet. During the drive, he tells me, “Women always want me to teach them how to become better skiers. I don’t have time for that.” I struggle to get into my boots and he informs me, “You can’t leave your boots in the car overnight. They are softer when warm.” At the top of the mountain, he turns to me and says: “This is the only thing I’ll teach you.” He puts his hand through his ski-pole strap, and grabs the handle, reciting: “The bunny goes through the hole and grabs the carrot.” Then he skis off.

He wears only three thin layers of clothing. I watch him add and remove layers all day. I can’t figure out why he does this, but I know that I cannot ask. It takes another three years for a romantic partner to share that the key to staying warm is to avoid getting sweaty.

*

I ask my partner why outdoorsy people never seem to want to talk to me, or learn about me in the way that they try to learn about others. He responds: “They like you! They are just afraid that they may say something offensive if they ask you questions.”

*

After skiing, we drive to a house where around fifteen people are spending the night, mainly employees from a prestigious outdoor company. A coworker introduces me to someone that I have met at least three times before. “Nice to meet you,” she says. “Good to see you again,” I respond. She is already walking away, but I see her confused frown. I sit on the couch and try to get to know the person next to me. I keep getting one-word answers. In the middle of our chat, she turns her back to me and sits quietly. One person is loudly talking about how bad they are at skiing, and how unworthy they feel because of this. Others pitifully agree. I ask how long he’s been skiing, and he admits: “Ever since I can remember.”

After a bit, I discreetly tell my coworker that I’m going to head home. Everyone turns to me. “No! Don’t leave! Please! Stay!” I am confused, but I sit back down. I try to talk to someone again, and they walk away while I am asking them a question. I attempt to leave again, and again they want me to stay. After a few more times, I finally leave. “Let her leave if she wants to,” one person says to another, bitterly. I was going to ski tomorrow, but I decided that I don’t want to.

*

Three of us visit a glacier in Denali National Park. We find a massive crack in the glacier and walk into a room with shiny ice walls. Up close, I can see tiny bubbles and small blobs of mud that, I imagine, have been trapped for thousands of years. Behind the bubbles, the ice goes on until it fades into darkness. The light shining from the outside gives everything a bright blue glow. Immediately, I think of movies like Ice Age, which depict similar caves in what I had assumed was an exaggerated style, meant to capture children’s attention. Now I realize that the style isn’t exaggerated at all. “Wow! It’s just like TV,” I blurt out. Immediately, both other people respond in an upset tone. “What? Absolutely not!” one of them argues. “Are you kidding? It’s exactly the opposite,” the other one disdainfully agrees. I hear their message loud and clear: This magic belongs only to those that can see it in person. For the rest of the hike, I walk in silence.

*

We pass a tub of Talenti back and forth while watching an episode of Jane the Virgin. My cat rolls on the ground, trying to get our attention. My partner tells me that a group of his friends are going on a bike ride that weekend, to a place where I’ve been meaning to ride for a while. “Should we join them?” he asks. I want to say yes, but the excitement that I felt about going to this new place has been replaced by a wave of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. His question triggers the urge to spend the weekend at home, curtains closed. I remind myself that being outside is what I wanted before knowing how to do it right. These adventures began in my head. They weren’t what people around me were doing, so I did it alone, on my little pink bike, or with my ruler machete. I realize that I still don’t match those people around me, so my options are alone, or not at all. For now, and until it gets too lonely, I will keep going alone.

I tell him that I will go for a solo ride to a different place. “But, have fun!” I reply.