Fear and Falling in Los Angeles
Words & Photos by Chris Hadgis
There’s a reason it’s called falling in love, or falling for someone; falling is flying, at first. The beginning of falling is simply letting go and feeling free. But feeling free has consequences
We meet in a high-end cycling pop-up shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard where I’m helping with an archive sale event. He comes in from a group ride. I notice him. Tallish, slender, all black cycling kit, short blond spiky hair, and a burnt sienna colored constellation birthmark around his left eye. There’s something about this little imperfection on his face that makes him even more attractive. His black and yellow helmet is tucked under his surprisingly muscular arm. His upper body looks more like a swimmer’s, and less like the typical road cyclist physique: twig-like arms and soccer player strong legs.
I don’t remember if he spoke to me first, or vice versa. As we talk, the rest of the world fades away. For me, anyway. I could listen to his deep, rich, Welsh-accented voice forever. We talk about our “other” activities. He surfs. And as a result (I later found) has He-Man strength in his svelte build (he lifts me up like I’m a featherweight down pillow outside his apartment. I’m a solid 131 pounds). We talk cycling, and the type of riding we like to do. We both love long climbs. He asks if I’d like to go for a ride sometime. I say, “Yes” and give him my number.
The first time we hang out isn’t to ride however, it’s for my birthday dinner at Tacos Por Favor in Venice: a casual, local, corner taco joint with an outdoor patio, a few close friends, and Dr. D. The more he talks, the more intrigued I become. He’s smart, really smart. He discusses his field of sports physiology, getting his PhD., and the type of testing and coaching he does with professional athletes.
My B’Day revelers and I walk five blocks up to Main Street in Santa Monica for ice cream at Three Twins. Dr. D. treats mine. Sweet. We keep chatting, “are you a dog or a cat person?” Both dog lovers. “Which breed?” Him: “Golden retrievers. They always look like they’re smiling.”
Though joined by four other friends in this tiny 200 square foot ice cream shop, I feel like I’m on a first date. A really good one.
Friday night, 6:45pm, six months later, my childhood friend, Ben and I are climbing parking lot stairs to Ben’s truck after an early dinner at Pono Burger in Santa Monica, and a movie (Moonlight). I get a text from Dr. D., who I hadn’t heard from in month. More on that later. “Group ride, tomorrow. Helen’s Cycles, Santa Monica, 7:45am. In?”
Being invited to a group ride by a guy I have a massive crush on is about as appealing as pouring lemon juice on a paper cut. He'll flirt. With me? Possibly. But with other women too. “I’m gonna pass, thanks.” I exhale, drop my shoulders (they inch up to my ears when I’m tense), and send the text.
And so, the next morning, Saturday, February 4th, I sleep in, make coffee while listening to Bastille’s Oblivion (a favorite tune) and at 9am, I set out, solo. My mission: a hilly, four hour ride to quiet my mind, enjoy the views of the ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. And to forget about Dr. D. Or at least try.
I crest Latigo Canyon Road; a curvy, continuous ten mile ascent overlooking Malibu, and reach “The Snake” - the iconic spot on Mulholland Drive where motorcycles race. It had rained heavily all week. But this morning’s sun dried things up. Or so I thought.
There’s a roadside photographer perched on the first big swooping curve on the way down. He sells his photos of motorcyclists and cyclists at Rockstore Photos. He yells something to me, but the wind carries his words away. I interpret his holler as some form of encouragement. I realize later that he was warning me.
I’d mentioned to the friends at my little Birthday gathering that I’d finish the beer and burrito evening by jumping into the ocean so, “bring towels and swimsuits!” Dr. D. brought his swim trunks and towel. Bonus points. Everyone else decides to forgo the ocean dunk and head home. So, at the end of the night it’s just D. and I, sitting on his towel on Venice Beach, getting to know each other under the stars.
With some star visibility despite the ambient light from the boardwalk behind us, our conversation ebbs and flows as easily as the waves in front of us.
I ought to play it cooler since we just met, but I feel like I know him. I haven’t felt this deep an attraction or connection in ages. Over a decade. I usually know within a date or two if I want to spend more time with a guy, or not. I knew within minutes of meeting Dr. D. It’s not just that he’s handsome and endearing; I admire him. I’m drawn to his energy, his determination, and his views on life. Unlike some guys I’ve gone on dates with in Los Angeles, he’s refreshingly not full of himself (though he has every reason to be). He’s pursuing his passions and fulfilling his dreams. He asks questions, seems interested in me, and listens, really listens.
Rowdy teenagers are hanging out at a lifeguard tower nearby. D. worries about leaving our stuff on the beach to run into the ocean. I look out at the huge white capped waves. We hold hands, walk in. We’re only in it up to our ankles. The water is FREEZING. “Are we really gonna do this?” D asks. We do a cold water jig for a several minutes as if thinking about it will heat up the frigid water. I couldn’t bear to walk in any further. Without warning, I let go of his hand and jump straight up and straight down submerging myself in merely a foot of water. D. cracks up, “Ahaha awesome! You just went for it!” Emboldened, he runs in and does a much more graceful swan dive into the waves. A ten compared to my clumsy two-point plunge.
He holds the towel up to create a mini dressing room around me. He doesn’t look as I take off my bikini and go commando under my t-shirt, board shorts, and hoody. I wonder what he’s feeling, what he’s thinking. “Does he want to kiss me?” I think to myself. The chilly ocean breeze blows.
Stars above, cool, damp sand below. There’s something so warm, kind and inviting in his sage green eyes. Maybe he senses how smitten I am because he splashes me with a new reality: “I’m not looking for a relationship or anything.”
“Oh...right. Yeah...no. That’s, um…okay.”
“Yeah, I just broke up with my girlfriend.” “When?” “Two weeks ago.” He literally just got out of a serious six-year relationship (they’d been living together) and he wasn't in the right "head space" to begin another relationship. My stomach sinks. The tingly giddiness subsides. He’s so wonderful, so seemingly perfect for me, yet so unavailable. I force a smile. I’m quiet.
He walks me home. We embrace at my door. I like how he hugs. Like he means it. He lingers and looks into my eyes like he wants to come up. We hug again - no kiss - and say goodbye. He walks to Main St. to call an Uber.
He texts on his way home: “You’re awesome. Want to hang out again this weekend? Dinner, movies, wine?” Knowing that he doesn’t want what I want, I should put the kibosh on things right away. But I really want to see him again. It’s Wednesday. We make plans to grab dinner and watch movies at his place on Friday. My best friend, Jen warns, “Get together with him again if you want to, Chris, but don’t expect anything. He’s only looking for fun.”
I pick up speed as I start descending the downhill neck of “The Snake”. An oblivious driver in a loud white car in front of me abruptly swerves right over the white line, no blinker, no warning, and blocks the shoulder of the road, which forces me to quickly veer left toward the center double yellow line to avoid slamming into him. A few four letter words slip out. “Positive energy, Chris. He probably didn’t see you.”
Fuming and flying downhill, the February sun shines high. The morning is crisp. The road is bright. I’m wearing my white Kask helmet, my old team KruisCX Champion Systems black and pink fleece lined arm warmers, short bibs, and a light wind vest. Black Giro gloves in my back pocket. I hum Bastille’s Oblivion to myself,
"When you fall asleep
with your head upon my shoulder
When you're in my arms
but you've gone somewhere deeper..."
Down the winding switchbacks: The belly of The Snake. Hands in my drops, leaning slightly into the curves, counter pressing down with pressure in my opposite foot to maintain traction and balance. I imagine I’m a Giant Slalom skier in the Olympics. Whoosh. Turn. Whoosh. Turn. Alternating which leg is down and which leg is bent. Chest down, eyes up, looking ahead, picking my line. I belong here, descending amongst the mountains and canyons. Sandy colored rocks hug the curving road ahead, like big light brown pillows buffering a dark gray, yellow and white striped snake. I hear the clicking of the wheels. I feel the wind against my skin. Deep breaths. My mind clears. Peace.
I spend the night at D's place, but nothing serious happens. I’m tempted, very tempted, but I know if I do, I’ll fall harder for him. We have similar senses of humor, taste in music, movies, podcasts, similar outlooks on life, a love of cycling and sports, books, and lifelong learning.
I find myself smiling when I think about him. He’s emotionally mature, open, attentive, affectionate, playful and spontaneous. He says “yes!” to late night stargazing without hesitation. He’s honest and up for anything. I’m falling hard and fast for this unique guy who clearly and specifically told me he didn’t want to be in a relationship.
We make breakfast together. He makes pancakes out of just whipped banana and eggs. “Where do we go from here?” he asks while embracing me in his living room. “I don’t know,” I reply. I can’t help but hope he’ll change his mind. Deep down, I know he won’t. My heart is open to the possibility of us, his isn’t. I’m bound to get hurt. So, I leave.
30.5 miles, and two and a half hours into my ride.
It happens fast. One moment, I’m in complete control leaning left with the curve. The next, my bike slips out from under me. And the road takes it.
I read somewhere that your brain works twice as fast when falling. A vignette of thoughts play through my mind: “I’m going down.” “I won’t get hurt too badly.” “My parents are gonna be pissed.” “The road rash is going to suck.” “Showering is going to hurt.”
Midair. Light. Airborne.
It’s the feeling where you lean back in a chair and lean back a little too far, start to fall, and feel a rush of fear and adrenaline, but catch yourself at the very last moment. Except I have nothing to grab. Nothing to hold onto. No way to catch myself.
I feel completely weightless. Then, I hit the ground. HARD. And I slide. My left hip takes the brunt of it. I hit the left side of my head. I hear my helmet scrape against the ground. I feel my left cycling shoe dislodge from the pedal, scrape, and unlatch.
The recent heavy rains had brought layers of oil up to the surface of the roads and created a slick film, especially covering the curves of The Snake. The sun had dried up most parts of the road, but not all. This corner in particular never gets sun because it’s always in the shadows of a thick canopy of trees.
Shock. Adrenaline. “NO, no, no, no, no,” I blurt out to no one; as if this isn’t happening to me. Daze, delirium; “I’m ok. It’s ok. I’m ok. I’m ok,” “Get out of the road,” I think. Somehow I get myself and my bike up and over to the safety of the shoulder. I sit on a rock. I’m shaking. The left side of my bib shorts are ripped open from the thigh gripper to my waist.
A minute later, a young, professional-looking cyclist in a skin-tight red and white kit glides down the descent. He stops at the sight of me.
“Hey, there.” Canadian. “Can I call an ambulance for you?” He doesn’t ask if I’m ok. He can see that I’m not. We look me over.
My right thumb doesn’t look normal at all. It looks pregnant with twins and facing the wrong direction. Bright red blood streaks out from under patches of gravel embedded in layers of my missing skin down my lower left arm, hip, and leg. Folded into myself, my right arm wrapped around my torso, I gingerly pass my phone from my jersey back pocket to this kind stranger, Kyle, with my left hand. “Would you mind calling my friend?” “We should call an ambulance,” he replies. “No, I can’t afford an ambulance. I’m not sure if my insurance covers it,” I choke up, bite my lip, try not to cry. He looks at me with disbelief. Canadian. They don’t have to think twice about calling an ambulance. My thoughts begin to slow. I’m cold.
After months of trying to not think about Dr. D, I’m convinced by two girlfriends and a few well-written articles to look into online dating.
My research leads me to The League. Their motto and point of pride is: Date Intelligently. I notice one too many ‘s’s in the word ‘messsaging’ on their homepage. I reload the page and look again. I email their customer support to tell them about the typo, but I never receive a reply. I check the next day, and they corrected the typo. But, no reply. If the guys on the site are anything like the people who run it, I don’t want to be on it.
I end up giving Bumble a try. An online dating newbie, I mess up and swipe the wrong direction on a few people. In about 85% of the guys’ photos on the app, they’re posing shirtless.
I offer one guy with whom I “match” my phone number to make plans to meet up. He never uses it and just keeps messaging me through the app. Another guy writes a reply message using three lines of emoji and no words.
After two weeks, I delete the dating app off my phone. Too much energy was going to it. Even when I didn’t have my phone on me, my mind was on potential matches and possible dates, not on what was transpiring right in front of me.
I learned things about myself in the process: I learned that words, grammar and manners matter a lot more to me than I realized. I know that I’m not interested in looking at pictures of strangers posing with their shirts off, or holding babies who aren't theirs. And has every guy in LA hiked Machu Picchu?
When I fall, Alex is the first friend I think of. He doesn’t live too far away, is off from work today, and has a car. Adrenaline wears off. Pain sets in. A lot of pain. My thumb and wrist pulsate. The road rash on my hip, lower leg and left arm throb.
Alex flies up the hill in his shiny black Jeep Wrangler and rushes me to the West Hills hospital. Alex knows the hospital well from his own unlucky battle wounds with the road. He gingerly helps me from the front seat of his Jeep and into a wheelchair that the hospital provides. The Emergency Room admitting area is clean and surprisingly quiet. Staff are polite, concerned and candid. “This is why I don’t ride a bike,” an ER admitting nurse states as she takes my pulse and vital signs. “Ummm, hmmm, we see wayyy too many cycling and motorcycle accidents. My boyfriend wants me to ride with him, but NO. Bikes are not for me.” Not really what I want to hear right now.
They wheel me in through the check-ins, promptly X-ray most of my body, and start me on a round of narcotic pain pills. Knowing this may take a while, Alex leaves to take my bike to the Pedaler’s Fork Bike shop in Calabasas where he works part-time as a mechanic. It’s almost as badly banged up as I am. He comes back bearing gifts of food: a fresh salad, and blueberry muffin from the weekend farmer’s market in Calabasas.
There’s always a nurse or nurses in the room with me. I’m alert and aware. A nurse cleans out my road rash with saline and gauze. I wince. Every touch is excruciating. On a 1 to 10 pain scale, I’m at an 11. I clench my teeth to muffle any sounds of pain. Tears escape. I’m almost done,” the nurse assures me. But she’s not. First, my left hip and lower leg, then my left arm, and then, the worst, the abrasions over my mangled right wrist and hand.
In a way I’m glad Dr. D isn’t here to see me so banged up and teary. He’s exactly the kind of person I’d want around in a crisis, but I was alone in my crush. My affections were in my heart, in my head. The one that connected with the asphalt on The Snake at 30 miles per hour. No more daydreaming. I need to be present. I need to take care of myself. I’m going to have to fix this on my own. Well - me, California Medi-Cal, and seven trips to the orthopedist.
The X-rays reveal that my right thumb bone, which now looks a lot more like a plum colored water balloon than a finger, is broken in half and displaced over 50 degrees from where it should be. There’s also a non-displaced fracture in the right radius bone. I have no idea how my right hand and arm got involved. I’d fallen on my left side. But it doesn’t matter now.
At an urgent ortho exam, forty eight hours later, the orthopedist puts me on the spot: “The top part of your thumb bone is broken off horizontally and turned, basically displaced from the bottom half of the thumb bone. You need to decide right now. We need to attempt to reconnect the bone with surgery, with pins.”
It seems like a huge decision to make on my own. “Is there anything else we can do?” I ask. “We can give a shot and try a manual reset.”
So, right then and there in his office, with nothing but one Lidocaine injection, the orthopedist pulls, pushes, and turns my displaced broken thumb bone back into place.
My younger brother jokes on the phone, “You know they have these things called stationary bikes, right?” My mom: “Is it time to put the bike in storage? How many bones have you broken riding now?” My older brother texts, “you handle pain better than anyone.”
Three months of not riding outside at all, occasional indoor cycling classes, long trips to the Ortho, waiting rooms, waiting and waiting, multiple X-rays, and then another month of testing things out and feeling too much pain. Walking, just walking. A hard cast, then a soft cast, then a splint. Physical therapy. Walking, everywhere.
I hear, "just let the bike go. Trust it." But now, on every decent, I think about The Snake. I want to be the smooth, speedy giant-slalom racing descender that I was, but I'm not. Yet. The confidence and connection with my bike are gone for now. Fear of falling is potent. It's a lot easier to say, "Just be confident," than to do it, especially post-crash.
Physically, it hurts my thumb and wrist to ride in the drops. And though I'm slowly regaining range of motion, strength and dexterity, it’s still sore, awkward, and doesn’t feel like it’s my thumb.
Letting my guard down and falling for someone scares me more than flying down a hill at 35 miles per hour on two inches of rubber. I’d like someone stable, consistent, and unwavering to fall into. I wish I could skip dating strangers and the risk they might not like me back, and just leap into a relationship with someone imperfect like me, but perfect for me. But falling doesn’t work that way.
Perhaps fear and pain never completely go away. Maybe we just get better at dealing with it. Fear better. Fall better?
I know how I’m supposed to descend: softly flutter the brakes, shave speed before the curve, not in the middle. Drop the heel, put pressure in the opposing foot. Look up. Eyes ahead.