A few years ago, on a visit home in April, I decided to give the climb a try. At the time, I was living in Colorado, and I wanted to test my elevation-acclimated lungs and legs on the winding stretch of pavement that had so intimidated me.
I set out from home early that Sunday morning on my sister’s road bike. Familiar landmarks and the smell of wet, mossy dirt and eucalyptus trees jogged memories from my youth. Pedaling softly up the first mellow section of the climb, I thought about how I’d never been able to drive up this road without remembering what happened to me here a long time ago.
I was an early bloomer, and by age 14 already had B cups. For a young girl who had never been very sure of herself, my soft, newly curving body spelled trouble. The fall of my freshman year of high school, my friend Diana’s older brother introduced me to a guy named Jake, who went to the local community college. He was good-looking, with tanned features and a tattoo of a dragon on his lean, well-defined right bicep. He was also 19 years old.
Jake made it clear immediately that he was interested in me, and that he thought I was sexy, which blew my adolescent mind. I had a frizzy perm and still wore braces, but an older boy with a car liked me! And he wanted me to be his girlfriend!
One afternoon, I told my parents I was studying late at the library, and Jake picked me up from school in his white Toyota pick-up, with its flaking paint and cracked leather seats. We drove past my house, all the way up Highway 9 to Skyline Road at the top. He pulled over in a secluded spot and we lay down in the bed of the truck. I remember how bright it was, a typical sunny, Bay Area afternoon.
It was the same California sunshine that now warmed my back as I started to grind up the steeper part of the climb. I shifted into a lower gear, watching the muscles on top of my thighs bulge under my shorts. My legs started to burn, but I held the effort, imagining, as I often do, that I was absorbing the pain into my bones.
I’ve always struggled to find a word for what happened—what he did—in the bed of that pickup truck. I just had to blow him, so that’s not rape, right? But what if you’re only 14 years old, and you’re still wearing braces and a training bra, and you’ve never even seen a man down there, let alone put him in your mouth? What if you go with it because when you initially resist, he keeps pushing, at first sweetly, then more insistently, then finally in anger—and you’re a little bit afraid of what this tall, older guy will do if you make him really angry?
What do you call it when he does it again, at his friend’s house, after he leads you down into the basement, takes his pants off and makes you kneel down in front of him, even though you say you don’t want to because the older boys from school are upstairs playing video games?
What do you call that? I wonder for the hundredth time in the past 15 years, as the sweat beads on my upper lip and my breathing gets deeper and more ragged. I reach down to take a long, thirst-quenching gulp of water from my bottle.
My parents found out about Jake and pretty much put me on house arrest to keep us apart. By then I was secretly glad, because he was starting to scare me. He told me repeatedly that he had a gun and that if I tried to break up with him, he would kill himself, kill me, or both.
What happened after that bordered on the bizarre and incomprehensible. For some reason, Jake had decided what he’d taken from me wasn’t enough. He wanted to destroy me. He grabbed a school directory and called my classmates, telling them I was a whore. A friend of his, a senior at my high school, came up to me one day during lunch. He had something he wanted to tell me. “Jake said your braces tickled when you sucked his dick,” he said with a smirk, then walked away. A 21-year-old girl who identified herself as Elaine, Jake’s live-in girlfriend, started calling me late at night and telling me she was going to stab me in front of my mom in the parking lot at school. I could hear him laughing in the background while she screamed at me.
I shook my head as I shifted again, this time into a harder gear. Fifteen years later, as a grown woman, I’m still confounded by how they could be so cruel.
At the time, no one defended me. My freshman-year girlfriends were vapid, hard-partying chicks with long hair and dangly earrings who also hung out with older guys and conveniently disappeared whenever Elaine would threaten to show up at school and beat me to a pulp.
But I didn’t need anyone to defend me anymore. I gritted my teeth and cranked up the next pitch while a car revved its engine to pass me. The road kicked up and I stood to meet it, pushing as much force into the pedals as I could, picking up the pace. I leaned over the handlebar, legs hard and muscled, lungs practically drunk on oxygen in this soupy, sea-level air. I doubted 14-year-old me would have recognized this version of herself.
RELATED: The Time I Went Full Enduro
I didn’t find cycling until my 20s, but when I did, I loved it immediately and for many reasons, but in no small part because it was a way to feel strong. Braving thunderstorms and freezing descents, grinding stubbornly up washed-out fire roads in the high mountains, pushing my bike when I could no longer pedal—I discovered a power I had never known I’d had, an antidote to the times in my life when I had felt powerless.
It didn’t erase what he did to me. But it did change me.
Where is he now? I wonder. Is he in jail? Working some dead-end job? Is he a better person now?
Does it even matter?
The road mellowed out a bit and I shifted into an easier gear, letting myself catch my breath and take the load off my legs. I’d ridden into a thick cloud, and I was almost at the top.
I’ve always wished life were as straightforward as climbing a mountain. If you just kept pedaling, you would get to the top, even if it took you all day. You got out of it what you put into it, your sweat and hard effort. It was a pure, honest endeavor.
Through the mist, I discerned the shapes of my own moving emotions. Hate, sadness, pride, or even compassion. But I felt it all as if from a distance. It was so small compared to the magnitude of everything else in my life, all the love and self-worth I had found since him, all the lessons I had learned. In womanhood I had grown up strong, a force to be reckoned with. No one could ever hurt me like that again.
I rounded one last switchback turn and I saw two stacked road signs up ahead. One sign pointed north to San Francisco. One pointed south to the redwood forests of Santa Cruz. All in all, the climb had taken me under an hour. I had done so many bigger rides in Colorado. This had felt almost…easy.
I rolled into the parking lot at the top of the hill and took a photo before I headed down. This road had imposed over my consciousness for years, and at the bottom of the hill I’d wondered if I could outride all the things that had happened to me here. But when I got to the top I learned that I had done so a long way back, without even realizing it.
Names have been changed.
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