Joanie lay on a hospital bed in the living room. I stood outside the kitchen and watched her napping heavy under the drugs.
She had seemed well—healthy and alert, if morose—up until a few weeks ago. At the start of the new year, my fianceé Elettra and I left our Brooklyn apartment and moved in with her mother Joanie and her stepfather, who lived in a quiet Massachusetts suburb. The plan was to stay till our new house was built, a project Joanie had worried we were rushing into.
Elettra and I had still only been dating when we bought the land, and though Joanie loved the overgrowth, the wildness of it, she had suggested wryly we might need to shop around for a backhoe. She also deemed it foolish, signing a mortgage with someone you were not married to. Dreams are oftentimes foolish. For as long as I could remember, I had wanted a place in the woods full of tattered books to be read for the hundredth time and soft, cuddly pets and without any schedules or demands. I didn’t want to see any uninvited soul for days. Elettra wanted the same. We bought our 5-acre hideaway, and I proposed to Elettra on a craggy ledge backed by a brush-covered mountain. At our engagement party, which Joanie had been well enough to plan and attend that December, I told everyone the house would be ready in about nine months. As Elettra’s family became my family, I figured we could wait out the construction together.
Then one day in January, after we moved in, Joanie climbed into the hospital bed we had installed in the living room, and another kind of waiting began.
I curled back around the corner into the kitchen, not wanting to stare, feeling like an outsider in Joanie’s home and within the family she would soon leave.
“Think so. Maybe dozing. Drink?” I asked Joanie’s youngest brother. He and several other siblings had come to visit Joanie when the prognosis of her cancer deteriorated from hopeful to terminal. They were now waiting around to say goodbye. My uncle-in-law had been surveying the dirty dishware in the kitchen sink. He helped with every fifth load.
“Courvoisier?” he asked.
“Right. She’s got it over here.”
We walked to the red liquor cabinet in the dining room, built by Joanie’s father, and I poured him a finger.
“Keep going,” he said.
I poured two more.
He raised the tumbler and caught my eye through the glass. He took a sip. Sober and without a liquid crutch, I had cooked meals and cleaned for the family for nearly a month, hoping to bind together a group that otherwise felt entropic. I was navigating a type of anticipated loss I knew nothing about while simultaneously asking such banal questions as, “How do you like it out there on the Cape?”
Having retreated into the roles of dishwasher, cook, cleaner, and jester, I was incredibly lonely. My wife was pulling away emotionally as I was struggling (and in my mind, failing) to take care of her and her family.
“Have you broken ground yet, over at the property?”
“Not yet. Just closed on the land last month. Working to get a building permit. Absolute nightmare.” Joanie liked our idea to use shipping containers to form the skeleton of our house, but I think she and everyone else were right in saying that building a house was never easy—even if it was a somewhat prefabricated one.
I insisted the project was sound. I can be unpleasantly, aggressively stubborn—I’ve cursed torque wrenches I felt were lying—and all I wanted was for Joanie and her siblings to see the home built, our dreams realized, to see that I was right and our project wasn’t some foolish gambit but something at which they’d one day marvel.
“Right, right. And you’re staying here until it’s finished?”
“Until then, yeah. Contractor says six months, so I guess around eight or nine really,” I said with the confidence of someone who believes their own BS.
We each grunted a laugh—I liked him, he was making time to get to know me—then stopped, deciding to move back to the kitchen and out of Joanie’s earshot.
The kitchen countertops were covered with a growing pile of meals, desserts, and samplings brought by nearby friends and family, though Joanie’s siblings said they preferred my fontina-stuffed chicken. We ate two slices of cake in silence, and I started on the dishes. It was the least I could do. The meals I often cooked were the hardest I ever had to make. I was in constant movement, but time felt stagnant even as it dismantled someone I, too, had come to love.
When everyone had first arrived, earlier that month, things were less somber during family dinners. They were upbeat, lively, siblings catching up with siblings and swapping gossip. The family came from Switzerland and Italy, Maine and Cape Cod. I sat quietly and listened, offering details about the house when one of Joanie’s sisters would ask, worrying that they, too, would think the project foolish, ill-conceived, reckless. Then I’d rise from my chair to collect plates or ask if anyone needed anything from the kitchen. I’d put my hand on Elettra’s shoulder as I passed. She’d let it slip away without feeling for it. I’d bring out dessert, and Joanie’s husband would announce, before even the first serving was finished, “Have another, you never know how long you've got.” But the last few minutes of each meal ended in pensive silence over which I could hear, through the louvered doors separating the kitchen and the living room, Joanie’s labored breath.
“I’m going upstairs,” Joanie’s brother now said, placing the dish into the sink and waving a thumb drive at me. “I’ve got Blazing Saddles.”
He disappeared and I pulled the clean plates out of the dishwasher and put them away. I put another round of dirty dishes in, turned on the machine, and as it came alive I hurried into the basement.
A single overhead light bulb dangled on a wire. I clinked it on. “This is where she’ll go,” I thought to myself. It was another scheme of mine, half-baked over the past several weeks as I cleaned and cooked and despaired: I was going to build a motorcycle in the basement, a weekend hobby, perhaps, or a way to get around, something with which to toil and distract myself until the house was finished. I’d lived in the city for the past several years, unable to rationalize the cost and upkeep of a motorcycle of my own, to say nothing of the space it would take. (In Brooklyn, off the L, we had a neighbor who would wake up and pull his bike, a Harley, out of a small garage, turn it on, rev it to its limit, watch it idle as he smoked a bent cigarette in his pajama pants and inhaled the exhaust fumes, then turn it off and walk back inside. I understood the necessity—keep the engine from seizing during winter—but at 7 am?) I would build my bike here, before we moved into the new house, then I’d keep it in the basement of our new place, which opened out to a carport. There I would tinker with it, modify it, break it down and build it up, a constant to which I could return and assemble, disassemble, reassemble in whatever configuration made sense for my life then.
I looked around the two workbenches in Joanie’s basement and imagined the boxes and bubble-wrapped parts. Over there, the chassis of a used CBR1000RR, a whip-fast and agile bike, same make and model and year as the one I had in my last years of college. Down on the ground, near the wheel rims and competition-grade shock absorber and front forks tuned specifically to my weight, maybe a dozen or so manila envelopes with sprockets and clutch cables, precision-milled velocity stacks made of Delrin, and a steering tree restrictor I would mill to Honda Racing Corporation specifications. The engine, used and torn from a wrecked bike like most of the parts, including the race-specific items I’d put on layaway in Europe, would soon be ordered and en route.
“Kenny?” Elettra leaned into the basement staircase.
“Yes?” It’s the first we’d spoken all day. “Are you coming to watch Blazing Saddles?” She’d been alone, mostly, though if I were honest I had lost track of what she’d been up to.
“Up in a sec,” I said. On the third floor, Joanie’s husband, two sisters, her two brothers, and a sister-in-law were queuing up the movie away from the hospice bed. I turned back to my workbenches, and Elettra's footsteps receded up the stairs.
The spiral toward death so keenly experienced was new to me. Over-my-head, over-budgeted projects were not. I knew motorcycles and used them to ground myself. I had first tinkered with a bike I bought off Craigslist when I was 17, delivered to my house in New Jersey. It was a raw-bodied Ninja 600. After crashing it dozens of times trying to learn how to wheelie, it stayed in my mother’s garage until I could bear to part with it.
A year later I bought another bike, a Honda CBR600RR, and rolled it into my father’s garage in Miami, where I was living for the summer. My father had begrudgingly allowed the bike, if only because, after years of foot-dragging, I’d finally applied and been accepted to a university where I’d start classes that fall. The moment I turned the bike off, not yet through the 600-mile break-in period, I tore it into pieces.
I was like that even as a kid: Everything mechanical and electrical must be made naked and understood. Plastic fairings and bodywork lay everywhere, bolts and nuts littered the concrete floor, the headlights dangled from their sockets like the wide-eyes of a dismembered alien. The compulsion to get inside consumed me. Logic worked like the printed circuit board inside a motorcycle’s electronic control unit, all leads connecting where they should, the world a mess of signals dictating our behavior. When I rebuilt the bike and pressed the ignition, the fuel pump wound, starter motor clicked, the engine cranked to life and told me I had gotten everything right.
Building and modifying, constant change and adaptation, meant every new part or tweak was the start of a top-down reimagining of the ride, never the end. I would test everything, riding for weeks alone on highways cast in darkness, vacant of cars, the sodium-vapor streetlamps guiding me like the optical landing system of an airport runway.
I met a group of older riders who took me to bike nights, taught me how to ride fast but safe. After I’d torn down my bike, I began modifying it for weekends spent at a racetrack, meticulously tying up each bolt with safety wire so it wouldn’t fall to the track were it to come loose, swapping out the ABS plastic fairings for fiberglass with an enclosed bottom, to catch any oil to keep the race tarmac free of slick spots. Those modifications, to make the bike safer at high speeds, were my introduction into practical risk aversion: Knowing where the line for error and disaster lies so that I might toe up to it. The men and women riders I met at the track were off-duty police officers, valet drivers, engineers, and with them, late one evening, I had a near-death experience on the MacArthur Causeway, a stretch of road bridging the mainland and Miami Beach.
It was August and the sand gnats were very bad, their bodies a percussive force against the windscreen and, behind that, my helmet, wind shield down in an angle of attack. My sternum hugged a pad of skateboard grip tape, enforcing the stability of my posture, translating my movements to the machine for what came next: the left-hand chicane into a sweeping right turn. I knew the road well, walked it on foot, drove it in cars, motorcycles, mopeds, rode as a passenger in taxis, always noting the apexes and the best race line, all habits from the racetrack. Forward I leaned into the headwind, a perfect airfoil, my lower back stretched to add weight and grip and stability to the rear tire displacing 110 horsepower. I saw the tachometer’s pin nearing the redline, 14,500 revolutions per minute, the bike screaming beneath me. Above the gauge cluster was a small vinyl sticker that read, “LOOK UP.”
I had put it there because of my days on the track, where I’d learned early on that, at speeds of nearly 195 miles per hour, even the quickest glance away could kill you. Drivers of “cages,” as we called cars and trucks, were reckless and needed to be avoided. The best way forward was to be mindful of them, looking ahead three or four or sometimes 10 cars toward the fastest route home.
Where working on a powerful machine is a monastic process, overpowering one is a thrill. If my fellow riders and I pushed hard enough on that night, heading east, we could put our worries in the rearview. Like a pendulum I swung into the first turn, articulating my body so that the bike followed, tracking the path of my sight line: always ahead and through the turn, focused on where I wanted to be and not where I was.
Then the 18-wheel tractor trailer, turning in front of me, broke my focus. I leaned further to avoid hitting the undercarriage. I saw the spare tire rack beneath the trailer coming closer, all but certain we would collide.
I hit the throttle, looked away from the tire rack, leaned harder into the turn, doubling down and committing to the steep lean angle of the bike. Slowing would have killed me, taken me off course and directed the bike into the very thing I wished to avoid. As much as I was afraid of everything going wrong, the most terrifying stance was what would see me through.
I nearly died, but I never told anyone. I was ashamed of being reckless, and it would have seemed like bragging, to say I had gambled and won.
A few days after movie night, the first piece of the project arrived at Joanie's house: the official Honda service manual. I thumbed through the four-pound book one morning over coffee and a cigarette before anyone else awakened. It was dark outside. I let Lola, a scruffy chocolate Labrador, out onto the grass. She sniffed around and came back. My study of the manual’s torque values, my visions of what color I would paint the bike and where I might accent it with carbon fiber parts became the basis of what few conversations Elettra and I did have: Gonna have to head to Home Depot for a different wrench, I’d tell Elettra over a hurried lunch eaten over the kitchen sink. Or, I think my best bet is going with that slipper clutch, after all. In the blue hue of that February morning, I pulled on a cigarette. I wanted to quit, the way I’d quit drinking, but now didn’t seem the time. Maybe when things with Elettra got better. Sometimes my uncle-in-law would join me outside for a smoke after dawn. Those cigarettes drew us closer.
Inside, Joanie’s condition deteriorated. It seemed like an endless, cruel thing, the waiting game of death. Then one night we were awakened by a loud thud. Joanie had slipped out of bed and fallen onto the living room floor. We rushed downstairs, a few steps behind Elettra’s stepfather, hurriedly turning on a few lights as we went. I reached Joanie and hovered over her. I didn’t know where to place my hands, what I was reaching for. Joanie seemed brittle. Elettra grabbed for the pillows to layer underneath her until we could place Joanie back onto the bed. She begged for her husband, even though he was already there. She asked him if he, as a doctor, could write her a prescription that would end all this.
I left on an assignment a few days later, not far behind the rest of Joanie’s siblings who had dispersed (return tickets prebooked, goodbyes having been said, a keen awareness that Joanie wouldn’t die until everyone was gone, the way people often leave us when we’re the farthest away) back to homes and families elsewhere. I didn’t want to leave Elettra, useless as I felt to her (despite all that catering to the guests), but soon I was more than 3,000 miles away in a plush hotel room, bleary-eyed, my face pleated with lines from the airplane window. I’d just started to fall asleep when my phone buzzed. Elettra was calling.
Silence. Slight breathing.
Then, “Mom died.”
“I’ll come right home.”
“No, don’t. You wanted this assignment.”
“Right, but what does it matter? I’ll get on the next flight.”
“No. Stay. We have to plan everything still.”
“I’m so tired,” she said.
I said nothing. She said nothing. I felt her breathing, slow and strained. It came to me through the phone a whisper and landed like thunder.
I ended my trip early and flew back to the home of sadness. Before I’d left, I had cleared the space in the basement for the bike build but had not ordered the parts. Now that I had returned, the idea seemed silly, standing in the foyer, the hospital bed and Joanie gone. Once sterilized, the sheets changed, the bed had gone elsewhere, rotating through other homes of sadness, Joanie no longer kept alive by drugs but embalmed in the memories of those who survived her, a remembrance tainted by those final weeks of suffering. Lola welcomed me home. For a moment there was warmth.
We settled into a routine, the only way we knew to fill the void that Joanie had left. Elettra, her stepfather, and I would eat out on weeknights, the way he and Joanie used to. We were revisiting their favorite spots, haunted by Joanie’s absence. Her husband was disintegrating emotionally, and I found more excuses to dart out for all types of errands, finding reasons to stay in our room to work on something rather than sit through another tense meal. I often told Elettra’s stepfather I was feeling sick throughout that spring and summer, a lie to excuse myself from those funereal meals.
“How are you?” I asked Elettra before bed one night, four months after her mother had died. “Fine, but your mother wants me to include your sister in the planning of the wedding, or the wedding itself, I don’t know, really. What should I say, that I’ve done everything? That I don’t need them?” It was true. She didn't really need anyone. She didn't need me.
Meanwhile, we just wanted the house done. But it was June and the contractor had not yet broken ground. He and the architect assured us we were on schedule, that all was going well and not to worry. Joanie’s husband asked us for frequent updates as I suspected he wanted us gone, to make room for his new life, one that did not include Joanie’s only child and her fiancé.
It seemed like all our dreams were being dismantled, the life we wanted to build going fallow, never to be occupied. I went online, wanting action, something to anticipate, and began ordering every motorcycle part I would need.
Parts for the bike began arriving every day, a set of handlebar grips in one box, a chain in another, and so on in this way as the packages piled up on the workbenches. I inventoried everything in a document on my computer, making excuses to run to Home Depot for solder or an impact wrench, each time going for one item and taking circuitous routes home. The assembling itself was anticipation, a respite from death: something in the future on which to place my focus.
Elettra said nothing about her mother. I caught glimpses of her life in snippets of wedding-related phone calls as she spoke with rabbis, invitation designers. I wanted her to crumble and wail, as I’d seen countless times in Technicolor. I wanted her to break down so that I might help heal her. That wasn’t to be. Over the ratcheting and cursing of late-night wrangling with piston clips (you’re gonna come off whether you like it or goddamn not), I once thought I heard her crying but instead found her in bed, turned away and unresponsive when I came up to check on her. She was pushing me away, or perhaps she had simply moved on, like Joanie. There was nothing she wanted to discuss, and the future became a lockbox of hopes for which I’d lost the key.
Her stepfather now skulked about the house while speaking on the phone with a woman he’d once dated. They were making plans to live with each other, their lives dovetailing in the wake of death. He was swapping his hurt for the comfort of making plans. I understood the impulse. Yet we were stuck.
The contractor told us the house would be ready in September, then November, then December. Each delay increased our costs. Joanie’s husband asked when we were planning on vacating, said that he’d like his new girlfriend to move in and that she’d prefer it if we weren’t here. We reiterated what the contractor told us, hoping we weren’t being had.
We carried on with the things we actually could control. While Elettra’s projects were the wedding and the house—picking out fixtures and design elements—mine was the bike. One day, as a FedEx driver named Mike hauled in another round of boxes, I ran outside to greet him. “Really appreciate all the heavy lifting,” I said. “I’m attempting to build a 1000-cc race bike in the basement, so looks like I’ll be seeing you more often.” And in this way I found connection through the pragmatic, transient relationships with all of the delivery drivers, knowing that if I were to click “SUBMIT ORDER” I could summon something resembling companionship.
Over many weeks I tore the engine apart for no reason, then with my fingers traced the boring, knowing I intended to do nothing more there, merely keeping my attention and hands busy, fixed on something mechanical and imperishable, that itself was coming alive. Elettra was often upstairs. We’d cross paths sometimes, but it wasn’t uncommon for us to not see each other until bed, and only then. We had never seen so little of each other.
“How was your day?” I might ask.
“Good,” she’d say. “Busy.”
Our conversations, when we did have them, were about emergency exit strategies. September approached and the house still lacked a roof. Our path, once a glorious straightaway, had become a series of hairpin turns we were navigating together but apart. I handled the finances, the banks and checkbooks, she handled the communication with the builders and her stepfather, who had given a timeline for us to leave. That ultimatum came as a shock: Elettra had viewed this home in which she was raised by Joanie as her true bedrock. One home barely had its foundation and another was being pulled out from under her.
In the basement the bike was now a rolling frame that, soon enough, I pushed out to the garage where I’d placed the engine. I continued to build and rebuild the machine, in part an obsession (did I leave a wrench in there?) and part escapism (guess I’ll have to skip dinner while I get this right). Rest never came easy. Unable to sleep one night, I went into the garage and assembled the quarter-turn throttle. Once I had it on the handlebar, I turned the throttle fast, reliving those days of riding in Florida, my years spent on the track alternating between hard acceleration and hard braking, unable to dwell on anything other than what was 100 feet ahead.
Joanie had been right, of course. The home building project, we’d come to learn, was ill-conceived and executed poorly, by its end a financial and emotional drain. The house was a money pit, and I would have to sell the bike.
Just a week after I first cranked the motorcycle’s engine, I started looking for a buyer and sold it a few weeks later. I had mounted the cold frame once or twice, and I could have ridden it anywhere, but I hadn’t ever let it warm up enough. I had just sold a book, Elettra’s stepfather told us he wanted us out of his house, and life presented us with new affronts and projects to tackle. The wedding was fine, despite the absence of Joanie. We found a new place to live as the home build slogged on. I missed the bike and the tools—the oil filter strap, the chain breaker, the impact driver, the two-in-one black steel socket and crescent wrench. I had packed them into a cardboard moving box from Home Depot, and whenever I later saw the oil- and grease-stained box (at a storage unit or in the basement of another family member’s home), it reminded me of a time when I still felt I had some control over anything.
Another family member in a different state took us in, then, after four months, encouraged us to leave. I got some foreign assignments and started travelling a lot. Elettra was shuttling between rental units and Airbnbs. Our home build was then impossibly over budget, nowhere near completion.
Between those departures and arrivals, seeing me off at the airport and connecting over WhatsApp video calls, the physical distance helped us find our way back to each other, softening the angle of the wedge that had grown between us back in Massachusetts. In that negative space of time apart we found a type of concrete reprieve from our vague future, focusing instead on Elettra’s housing logistics and my travel plans—a specificity we had lost during the sadness and chaos of death and construction.
Nearly two years after Joanie’s death, her grandson arrived on an autumn evening to two very confused, hopelessly financially indebted parents. The boy had his grandmother’s smile, a perched grin with flushed cheeks astride. He would know only one home, and that was with his parents.
A circuitous journey often begins with a proximate plan of action. Then one day, after all the twists and turns, you look up and realize you’ve arrived at the place that had once seemed so distant. First we had the baby and then, miraculously, the home was almost done.
By the time he was six months old we were able to move our stuff into the newly built, if still-leaking, home: four 40-foot shipping containers suspended over that ledge where I had proposed to Elettra. We quickly learned that the house we'd designed when we bought the land—a design that would have worked for the people we were at the time—no longer worked for who we'd become: soon to be a family of four amid a growing recession and intermittent employment.
We set about cleaning and arranging furniture. We were busy with a list of projects, things we needed to fix or repair or make nicer. The house was inhabitable. But it needed work. Between assembling furniture and building a small porch, feeling exhausted and hateful toward the contractor and wanting to give up and sell the house, I stood outside on the back deck. I could almost touch the nearest mountain.
The plan had always been to stand there with Elettra. Then we’d let anything come our way, secured by the foundation we’d built together. I wanted to settle down, kick back, focus on nothing and let my hands fall where they might. Instead I stood there thinking: Maybe I'll build a new bike.
I opened up my phone and began searching for café racer parts, seeing the months and days ahead not with a feeling of aimlessness but with purpose. I could teach my son to ride. Maybe he’ll become a MotoGP racer. And in a flash I was off, thinking of my son at age 3 astride a 50-cc pit bike. He was my next project, and that notion grounded me.
An off-kilter handrail on the deck caught my eye. I leaned over and ripped it off. I turned it in my hand, noting the contractor had installed only one of the six mounting screws. Everything was perpetually skewed. I was lost in the details, kicking at stray pebbles, clocking the dust accumulating along the planks, cursing at exposed flashing tape, loose trash stuck in the low grass.
Then I’d hear the pitch of a motorcycle engine calling from the valley.
It reminded me to look up.