Ten minutes late, The Incredible Cycling Man stomps down the stairs to the basement. On the way down, the air starts to change; he feels it sloughing off heat, taking on dust, and sprouting a spiny edge. At the bottom of the stairs, he turns on the light and looks to the center of the unfinished basement. Standing there is an old, yellowing exercise bike and a small Formica table. A Norwegian word he cannot pronounce is stamped across the side of the bike.
The Incredible Cycling Man walks over to the bike. Clinging to the plastic frame, his dried sweat reeks like aged cheese. Now he turns on his phone. As per his agreement with his wife, he’s not allowed to be late without a valid excuse, so he scrolls down to Kelly’s contact and calls her up.
She picks up just after the third ring. In the background, he hears a radio announcer speed-reading the traffic and weather for the tri-county area. Speaking over this voice, he apologizes for his lateness and tells her about the storm and the blackout and how he forgot to reset his alarm last night after the power came back on. For a thrilling, electric instant, he has no idea what’s going to happen next.
“Be quiet and start pedaling,” she snaps. Due to the poor reception in the basement, her voice sounds distant and watery, as if she’s speaking from a submarine at depth instead of her silver Toyota speeding down the Thruway. “90 RPM. No talking until I tell you to talk.”
The electric charge dissipates as he understands that things will take their normal course after all. From here, he sets his phone to speaker and gently rests it on the table. Drawing in a deep breath, he climbs on the bike and starts pedaling.
With each cold pump of his legs, the old bike huffs a heavy, clattering wheeze. For a time there is no sound in the basement but the creaking hiss of the bike and the sharp stabs of his breath. Fat globules of sweat slide down his cheeks and dangle from the point of his chin. After ten minutes of pedaling, his legs feel like blackened logs burning in a campfire.
Now, Kelly asks her first question of the session.
“Do you remember when you called out from work last year and cooked all that stuff for our anniversary? The filet mignon and chocolate cake or whatever,” she says, her voice drenched in static. “How soon after that did you start fucking her?”
He doesn’t hesitate in answering.
“It was,” he says, slurping some air, “a few days after.”
“Unbelievable.” She lets this word hang in the air until it’s cut apart by the slice and rattle of the bike.
“It was just before I started working from home.”
“That is so goddamn—okay. What I don’t understand is why,” she says, her voice sharpening. “Why the hell would you do so much work to make me happy when you knew you were just going to turn around and fuck a nineteen-year-old?”
In an instant, the answer pops into his head.
Because that’s exactly what we both expected me to do.
But he doesn’t say this. Instead, he stares down at the RPM needle and watches it quiver just above 90. In his head, he sees Jill’s one-room apartment, her smooth skin stretched beneath him, her girlfriend watching from the couch and casually joking with them throughout. Remembering all this, he still can’t imagine what either of them could’ve been thinking in that moment.
But he can’t tell Kelly about this, either. So he calls upon the phrase he’s been using ever since she kicked him out of the house last month and forced him to move back into his dead parents’ rotting Colonial.
“It was,” he says, huffing hard, “a weakness—”
“—of the body.”
“I swear to God, Mark, I’m so sick of hearing that. It doesn’t mean anything.” Her voice distorts for an instant, and then a sharp clatter comes through the phone. “Wishy-washy bullcrap isn’t going to get you back into the house. What’s the point of even doing this if you’re just going to keep lying?”
“It’s to prove how much I—”
“My God, you really need to shut up with that. Just keep pedaling and shut up for a while.”
Before he shuts up, he says what he always says.
“But I do love you,” he wheezes. “I do.”
She sighs. Hearing this, his legs go weak with the old, draining depression of knowing exactly what she is going to do next.
“You know what? I can’t even do this right now. I’ve got about eight hundred other things on my mind today, so,” she says, her voice softening to an exhausted rasp, “I guess I’ll talk to you later.”
She hangs up without waiting for a response.
Even though she has no way of knowing, he keeps pedaling for another fifteen minutes, until the normal time is up. This feels like the right thing to do. It seems to prove that he really does love her as much as he says he does.
A few minutes later, The Incredible Cycling Man trudges into the kitchen for a drink. Here, he finds Jill sitting at the head of the kitchen table, her long legs stretched across the place where he eats his dinner. Her hair is now the color of Pepto Bismol, replacing yesterday’s snow cone blue.
“Look what we have here,” she says, her eyes scanning down his dripping body. “It’s The Incredible Cycling Man.”
He scoffs at this, her newest nickname for him, but he can’t stop himself from grinning. His heart smashes in his ears.
“All the doors were locked. How do you keep getting in here?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Actually,” he says, “I don’t.”