Ever since I watched "The Lizzie Maguire Movie" with my daughters more than a decade ago, I dreamed of riding a Vespa. Like Lizzie, I longed to zoom on the back of a fast bike, long hair flowing, with my very own Paolo.
A few years ago, I got something even better—a whirlwind spin on the king of bikes, a shiny black Harley, with a strapping middle-aged man from Alabama at the helm.
"I always smile when I see the picture of you on that motorcycle," a new friend said, referring to the photo I posted on Facebook astride the Harley. "It doesn't fit the sophisticate I know."
Oh but it does. I'm both girls. The small-town girl who can expertly crack open a Maryland crab and the one who put herself through law school, then pulled up stakes and moved to New York City. The one who rocked a corporate suit by day and disco danced by night.
"The true Willett comes out!" my college roommate said when she saw my motorcycle photo.
Somewhere along the road to middle-age, though, I veered off from the young woman I used to be, or so it seemed. I became lax about the spiritual life that once sustained me, the playfulness that had been my hallmark, and the courage that led me to take chances. While I can't pinpoint all the culprits, my father's untimely death certainly factored into my fear. Twice after law school I became a mother, too, and acutely aware of my responsibility for two additional lives. My ex-husband's leaving, however, shook me more thoroughly than anything else.
In some ways though perhaps my life needed shaking up. And building a new life seemed to require changing lanes and with it, once again embracing the girl I was and am—all of her.
By the time I straddled the Harley, my oldest daughter was in college and the other was in high school. I was attending a spiritual retreat in Kentucky, and during a break had gone outside to the parking lot, about to head into town on an errand when I spotted the Harley parked next to my rented Honda.
"Want a ride?" the bike's owner asked as he caught me admiring his machinery. Not only was his bike the biggest hog I'd ever seen, but every inch of metal gleamed with polished perfection. And the black leather studded seat and matching vintage saddlebags were a perfect match for the shit-kickers I had back home.
"So you want a ride?" the man asked again. I'd been so overtaken by the bike that I'd ignored him.
"Sorry," I said, looking up at the beautifully tanned fiftysomething face sitting atop a toned physique smiling back at me.
"Yes," I said, accepting his offer. "But do you have a helmet?" Being a rebel didn't mean I was reckless. I was, after all, two girls inside.
"Don't need a helmet in Alabama," the man said. "But I've got this if you want to use it," he said, handing me the bicycle helmet he pulled from his rear bag. "I strap that on so I don't get a ticket when I ride through states where you gotta wear a helmet."
I donned the helmet and slung my leg over the saddle.
"How do I keep my balance?" I asked before we left the parking lot.
"Just grab my waist and lean when I lean," he said, right before we sped off. And so I did. And soon our bodies were one with each other and the bike, flying through the air, yet curiously also grounded as gravity helped us hug the road.
I've always loved riding in convertibles with the top down. And for years had been riding my bicycle regularly on the streets of Brooklyn. But this was a feeling I'd never experienced before: pure and total exposure amplified by speed.
Instead of the highway, the biker took the backroads, a 45-minute series of sharp twists and turns. If I'd known about this circuitous route beforehand, my overactive imagination might have stopped me, certain I'd wind up as roadkill. As it was, I felt utterly safe, having too much fun for my worry gene to even kick in.
In town, we stopped at a local bookstore and then at a biker bar for a beer. We talked philosophy for hours so I figured he was a professor somewhere. When I asked, he hung his head, embarrassed to admit he was a factory worker with only a high school diploma. But he was also a faithful husband and father, and I told him I admired that too. So he didn't turn out to be my Paolo and that was OK.
It was twilight before we made our way back to the church. In the dead of July, the air was cold as we whipped through it, my red hair flapping and my open-toed sandals securely planted on the floorboards.
After we parked, I asked the biker to snap a photo of me on his Harley—proof that that other girl was back.