The air is humming as I cut through it on my matte black Bianchi Oltre. Not the newest model, much like myself, but I’ve taken good care of it over the years; regular rides, regular maintenance. My body and the bike know where we are, and the rest of the route ahead. What they might not have realized is I’m off this week. No work and more time. I’ve been thinking about riding out to the city, to the mountains, wherever I can get to between sunup and sundown.
No cars, no overcast, and even the birds are having a quiet moment to themselves. The breeze combs through my beard; 55 and already mostly white. Underneath and the corners of my mustache are more of a dark grey. Maybe for my birthday I’ll have the Bianchi painted silver. The road is windy, especially up ahead. Four – six percent grade, nearly blind and sharp enough that the road almost runs parallel to itself. That’s up ahead. For a moment I close my eyes thinking of the last time I was in France – the roads, the history, the architecture. Most of all the riding. The invigorating fragrance of pine takes over. Not quite the same as the Scots, Corsican, or Calabrian, but it’s pine.
I’m lost in the memory. The speed, the momentum, the challenge. I’m flying, cutting through the wind, the mountains. “Shit,” I mutter. My eyes snap open as my body begins preparing for a turn. A young woman is fumbling down the hill.
I lift my head slowly. No blood and nothing feelings broken. The woman is laying flat out in front of me. Laughter fills the air. It floats like bubbles through the breeze, spilling like water from The Fontaine Latone.
She begins sitting up. Debris falls from her shoulder length auburn hair as she shakes her head. She is brushing gravel and dirt from her hands still laughing to herself. Her smile is slightly crooked and perfect, to the left of it is a dimple. Her laughter stops and it’s like she’s somehow paused the air. I set the Bianchi down.
“Are you alright?”
I squat down in front of her, holding my hands out on each side in case she sways or falls. A burst of giggles erupts as she looks up at me, like she just realized I’m in front of her. Her eyes are blue, radiant like a gemstone.
“Have you ever been to New Mexico?”
“Oh Christ,” I say, taking a hold of her arms. “Do you know if you hit your head?”
The giggles stop.
“I’m sorry,” she says, sliding back, “I was trying to send an email to a client about New Mexico. At least I was before we ended up here.” She looks around and is beautiful from every angle.
“I’m sorry about that,” I tell her. “Are you alright?”
“I am. I think having such a puffy coat helped,” she smiles as she puts her socks back on.
Two socks for one foot. I feel the corners of my mouth begin to lift.
“Have you seen my missing boot?”
Standing up, I look around. Straightening out, I feel my body relax into the stretch. Might be a little sore tomorrow, seems my ego has taken most of the beating. I hear the Bianchi whisper to me. I walk back over to it and pick her boot up from next to the spinning wheel.
“Here,” I say holding out her boot. There are multiple tears in the fabric, and clearly a few holes. At least she loves old things.
“Thanks,” she smiles again.
“It’s the least I can do Miss…” I extend my hand, lifting my eyebrows in anticipation.
“Bruised, I think,” she says. She takes my hand and I gently pull her up. She begins brushing the dirt off her backside. There is a scuff of dirt near her temple. I want to brush it off for her. Instead, I look at the Bianchi on the ground as if I’m assessing the damage. “Thanks. I’m Lucy by the way. Is your bike okay?”
“Seems to be,” I say looking at her. I begin to move toward my bike, but my eyes stay locked on hers. “Haven’t really checked it out yet.”
The birds have begun stirring. Chirps from the trees sound like newscasters broadcasting a live event. I look up and see them tree hopping. The sun is reaching above the leaves, but it’s still cold.
“I don’t know much about cycling, but I know those bikes cost a pretty penny. I still have to find my phone if you want to check for damage while I look?”
I smile and walk over to the Bianchi. Lifting it off the gravel, I set it back on both wheels and lean in for a closer look. All I can see is her sitting on the ground with her head tilted back, laughing. Until something catches my eye.
“It seems to be a very bad bike,” I say turning back toward her.
“Is it broken?” Worries scurries across her face.
“Worse, it’s a thief.”
Again, she is laughing. The air around us warms and the sunlight seems brighter. Then I hear it, the sound of pig farmer’s dreams.
“Did you just snort?”
Something inside me stirs, and I feel myself smile.
“It’s only 8:30 and I’ve told my funniest joke of the day.” I let out a small laugh as I return her phone. The corner of the screen protector is shattered, but she is still smiling and so am I, enough that my gums are getting cold.
“It’s an honor to contribute to such a record.” She takes her phone.
For a moment we stand there on the roadside. The sun and the birds stirring above. The newspaper is the only traffic. I can still see my shadowed reflection in her eyes, the color of early night skies in France.
“Shit on rye,” she says as she tries to unlock her phone. “I’m sorry. I have to get this email out.”
I drop my eyes to the ground; the moment has passed. Suddenly she blurts out, “I’m not letting you leave until you make sure your bike is okay.”
My eyebrows knit as I nod and head toward the Bianchi.
Her mouth is moving, occasionally her voice slips out into the air like silk sliding off skin. Her forehead scrunches as she sounds out words. When she makes a typo, she rolls her eyes. The email leaves with a swoosh. She’s looking at me again.
“New Mexico, huh?”
Her face freezes.
“I don’t know what Cinnamon Cayenne-
“Cimarron Canyon State Park.”
“Cimarron Canyon State Park is, but it sounds fascinating. Especially for less than $1500.”
Her mouth opens slightly.
“You didn’t know that you narrate your email, huh?”
“Oh,” she laughs again, her blue eyes roll, “it’s a superpower.”
“What does it do?”
“Makes dreams come true and sends people on trips of a lifetime.”
“Don’t tell anyone, or you’ll blow my cover as a travel agent.”
“I see,” I say. My grip tightens on the handlebars of my bicycle. The front wheel is angled perpendicular to the road.
“Are you headed back this way?” She gestures toward the way I came. “Is your bicycle ruined?”
“No,” I clear my throat, “but I would hate to ruin this moment.” I can’t believe I said that. “Given that I actually said that I probably just did.”
She won’t stop looking into my eyes, and I can’t stop looking at hers. They’re distracting and captivating. Another moment passes.
“Actually, I’m headed to the country store, if you’d like to keep me company,” she suggests as she turns on her heel.
We begin walking. The spokes of my bicycle whispering into the wind.
“Probably for the best. Not sure I was up for such a grade right now.”
“I didn’t know the hill had to take a test.” She turns and looks at me, holding her face completely deadpan. I laugh from the barrel of my stomach, years of careless smoking fight against the jovial sound.
“I thought you said you don’t bike?”
“Cyclists aren’t the only ones who know about slope, gradient, or inclines. They’re just the only ones to do it in skintight clothing.”
My laugh scares away the birds. For a second I am aware of how tight my heavy tights are and that leg warmers went out in the 80s.
“Intelligent and magical? Are you sure your boot wasn’t some kind of mystical lamp in disguise?”
We laugh and talk the rest of the way to the country store. She’s asked me a million questions about cycling. Why did I start? Health reasons, in my early forties. The only exercise I can stand. I feel in love with the wind. My favorite place I’ve ridden? All of France. How short are my shortest shorts? Pass. She asked me about my work – a principal software engineer, and my travel bucket list outside of cycling – Antarctica.
She choked softly as I said the word, Antarctica. Immediately she turns to face me, her arms waving excitedly as she speaks, “I’ll give you my card. I’ve had that trip planned for years. Just haven’t gotten around to going myself yet.”
“If you’re not excusing me from your Saturday morning, I would love to hear all about it. You can bill me for your intel. Would breakfast be enough, or am I insulting you?”
“That sounds lovely, except I can’t.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t -”
“I can’t have breakfast with someone who hasn’t told me their name.”
“George,” I say, again extending my hand to her. We shake, her hands are the softest I’ve ever felt, but strong. I open the door.
Around a quarter to one Maggie, Lucy’s usual waitress, stands over our booth with two menus tucked under her elbow and a ticket in her hand. “Are you staying for lunch or cashing out?”
We stay for lunch.
At 3:30 Maggie kicks us out. “I didn’t realize you guys closed at 3:30,” Lucy says to her.
“That’s because you’re usually on your way to the library by 9:30,” she laughs.
“For you” I say, handing Maggie the ticket and my deeply wrinkled cash.
A twenty curls up and falls to the floor.
“I’m sorry it won’t sit flat.”
Maggie picks it up and goes to hand it back to me. “It’s too much.”
I shake my head and hold up my hands. “Two meals, two excellent services, and more coffee refills than I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Usually, I cut her off at three,” Maggie says as she casts a sideways look at Lucy, “but she’s in your hands now.”
The sun is almost where we left it, except now it’s on its way to sleep. Lucy looks at the trees, the wind picking up pace. Her shoulders shiver. Winter is hanging on to the bitter end.
“I hate to be forward,” I tell her, thinking as I speak, “well any more forward than I already have been, but I live a block down from the library. I’m not sure how far your walk home is or if you were planning on going to the library, but if you’d like a ride home…”
“That would be lovely. There are a few books I wanted to check out. I can either meet you at your house after or if you want to come to the library?”
“Do you have any recommendations? I’m off this week and it never hurts to have a good book around.”
Cars pass by either slowly chugging up the hill or racing down it. I check left, right, left, before crossing the street. My hand carefully hovering above the small of her back. By the time we get to the library she’s recommended a handful of books and two series. I’ve told her about a few books on cyclists that she might enjoy; The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography by Matt Rendell and What Goes Around: A London Cycle Courier’s Story by Emily Chappell. Along with a few other books I’ve kept with me over the years. We enter the heavily wooded building and go our separate ways, each heading to find the books we want to read.
I have two of the books Lucy mentioned to me on the walk over and my eyes are scanning the shelves for a third one. She didn’t recommend it, but the way she spoke about it, the way her face lit up, I had to check it out. I hear her approaching, the way her coat ruffles as she walks. As I pull “Rebecca” off the shelf, her smile lightens the aisle.
She looks at my stack as the librarian takes her six books and her library card. I shake my head and dig my own card from my vest pocket, among it my cash, the key to my house, my cycle shop rewards card, and the bonus card for the food store.
Lucy gets out of my car, giving me her cell phone number and personal email before she closes the door. I wait until she is in her house with the door closed before driving away. For the next week we email each other articles about travel; I text her pictures of wherever I’ve ridden to that day – the city, the mountains, the beach and she texts me pictures of her lunch; we talk on the phone about the books we’re each reading; and we have dinner twice. She is contemplating taking up cycling, not the same way I do, but she’s always wanted to learn how to ride a bike.
On Saturday I ride the Bianchi to her house and leave it in the garage. We walk to the country store and return the books she’s already finished to the library before walking back to my house. I make her lunch. Nothing crazy, something I learned a lifetime ago, but it’s one of my favorites: a filet mignon Caesar salad with homemade dressing topped with homemade croutons.
At nine o’clock on Sunday evening I get a text message from Lucy, “Haven’t had a chance to pick up the memoirs yet, but I just finished ‘The Gunslinger’ – I started it this morning and couldn’t put it down. I’m on a serious book high! Wanted to wish you a fantastic day back tomorrow. If you’re not too inundated perhaps we can go book shopping one night this week? Let me know. Good night, George!” I smile and head into my home office. I wait as my computer wakes up. Logging on, I order the Pantani and Chappell books as “buy online and pick up in store” to make sure they have them when we go. I want to see that smile, her smile that lights up the world brighter than the Eiffel Tower or any headlamp I’ve ever seen.