I like to think that I'm immune to romantic love. Oh, that doesn't mean I'm not excited by the joys of a long, wet kiss and God knows I crave the feeling of skin on skin beneath the sheets as much as I love the hum of thin tires on fast pavement.
But I always thought that I was the carrier of that particular bug, not the hapless victim left broken-hearted in some European train station as the object of desire (me) disappeared on the TGV line back to Paris.
Until I met Annie.
The first time I saw her was at breakfast in Avignon. I was staying in an achingly beautiful hotel that had once been monks' cloisters: thick walls of hand-cut Provencal limestone, panoramic windows open to a courtyard of autumnal golden oaks and a stone fountain overrun by a thick blanket of deep green moss. I wandered down to the breakfast room for café au lait and almost bumped into her as she filled her china cup with English breakfast tea.
Her auburn hair was expertly cut to collar length and her teeth were perfect. But there was no smile for me, just a quick quizzical look through huge green eyes and thick lashes, then she turned and walked back to her table.
But from that vantage I knew at once that she was a cyclist. Her tanned legs were muscled and the morning light streaming through the courtyard highlighted delicate reddish-golden hairs behind her knees. She carried herself well: good posture, and her gait was athletic with a hint of swagger.
But like most men and probably a good percentage of women, I filed the image away for possible later use in a poem or for when the ride got boring and I needed a pleasant spot to park my mind while my legs spun a million circles on the road home.
I was in France on newspaper business, but impulsively hooked up with a four-day biking tour of Provence when the weather and my appointment calendar cleared. I had been to the area often, but always as a passing journalist chasing the peloton and my next deadline.
As legions of poets and painters have discovered, Provence is a realm of the senses.
One year I stayed for a few nights in a honey domaine near Carpentras where bees and their hives were carted from lilac field to honeysuckle maze to clover meadow, the juicy fruit of their labors then captured and mixed into thick liquid gold. The setting was magnificent but the sweetness of the domaine's air was gagging. I sought refuge by riding a borrowed mountain bike to nearby Mont Ventoux's arid and chilly peak to escape the sugary swelter.
I reached the peak in the purple moments after sunset. Almost immediately the sweat on my jersey began to form ice crystals. I shivered and bitched all the way down the mountain. When I reached the tiny ville of St. Colombe, the air was again warm and heavy and I rolled silently onto a grassy berm, collapsed next to my bike and fell into a deep sleep filled with dreams of almond-eyed concubines with honey-dipped lips.
And there was that night after Bastille Day in Gap, when I slept in a tiny room above the noisy bar while my American friend drove off with the zaftig owner of the restaurant.
Or last year, slightly drunk and exhausted from writing, on a ridgeline above Vaison-la-Romaine with a full moon above and laughter-music rising from a festival in the town below. Couples strolled together, holding hands, a growing buzz in their loins. And I, as usual, was the lone traveler.
As you can readily surmise, romantic frustration had become my personal theme in Provence.
But when I saw gorgeous Annie pulling her suitcase toward the cycling tour van a few hours later, I knew my lonely days were about to end. I would at last have fulfillment, or at least a sweet night. My confidence was high when our eyes met (hers so green!) and she said in Italian-tinged English (the first words she would say to me!), "Oh, when I saw your Cannondale jacket, I thought you might be a rider."
A rider. Yes, that I am. World class. Master of the Alps (well, one or two particularly difficult Tour climbs). My name's painted on the Ventoux macadam, just up from Pantani. Allow me to pull you up the climbs, my dear.
I was not so brash as to actually say those words, but I allowed my demeanor and languid attitude to do the talking, yawning slightly as the van climbed toward the massif while the tour's neophyte riders were tense with the anticipation of pushing their wide-seated hybrids up these storied pitches.
We arrived at our first hotel, a collection of medieval buildings joined into a gourmet paradise. And my heart skipped madly when I realized that Annie and I would be staying in adjoining rooms, in a remote corner overlooking vineyards that rolled northward to the Ventoux.
She boldly asked to see my room, and walked past my country bed, her hand lightly stroking the quilt on her way to the window.
One didn't need a psychology degree to read these signs. The web was set and the fly was cleared for landing.
But this one was special. She was obviously a quality person, a professional writer in her native language and somewhat of an expert in subjects both Tuscan and culinary. To waste such romantic capital on a sordid one-night stand would be criminal. If I played things right, I could stretch this into a wonderful week of passion, capped by the usual teary drama and my emotional escape into the Paris rain.
We headed out for a quick warm-up ride, a 12-mile scoot through the hills to tweak the bikes and, in my case, provide a little appetizer of what's to come.
We quickly moved to the front of the ragged pack, a dozen or so wobbly tourists and a few real riders. Annie gave me a big-eyed look and said she was "a bit shaky on the downhills and could she just follow my line?" I couldn't have written it better myself.
We coasted down the hotel hill and chatted with a friendly woman from Maine who wore pro team kit and seemed to know what she was doing. My audience had doubled and the curtain was about to rise. No vulgarity intended.
The course map showed that this loop had a medium-sized hill in the middle and a short but steep return to the hotel. As I was deciding whether to spin up the climb while whistling arias from Le Boheme or do my famed Lance Dance, Annie rose out of her saddle and picked up the pace.
I smiled at this coy provocation. The girl has spunk.
I responded with a faster cadence, but the bike seemed sluggish. I put more power to the pedals, but my legs felt heavy and Annie climbed away, now 20 yards ahead.
The Maine woman pulled up next to me and began chatting away, oblivious to the growing ache in my quads. "Look at Annie," she chirped. "She's so strong."
The road wound around the hill, so there were moments when we lost sight of her, a situation that turned my anxiety into full-blown panic.
I kept up a brave front, trying to hold a conversation about the virtues of boiled potatoes while the fire in my legs was creeping into my lungs.
There were several false summits and each deception pushed me deeper and deeper into despair.
Potato woman and I reached the top and saw Annie coasting slowly down the other side. My God, she was waiting for us.
We finally caught up with her at a T-intersection where she had stopped (the shame!). Instead of pulling up, I powered around the corner and sprinted off, hoping against hope that she would think I was being kind to my new friend from Maine and this was the real man, big-ringing down the road.
But within seconds she swiftly pulled up behind me. As the hill to the hotel approached, she turned on the afterburners and climbed, climbed, climbed. My thighs were in tatters and in my confusion the Maine woman easily passed. "What a great view," I sputtered, but my ruse was weak.
Annie's torrid pace had brought us back to the hotel well before the rest of the riders, so the three of us rested on a low stone wall. Maine woman wandered soon off in search of water or spuds. I was alone with Annie and my self-disgust.
Instead of mocking me or even mentioning my lack of motor skills, Annie suggested we get some coffee at the hotel's quaint little shop. When we got there, the shop was closed, but Annie went to a side door, flashed her angelic smile and the owner quickly agreed to make us two café au lait.
We had a great talk about life and writing and food, then walked together to our rooms to prepare for the evening meal. Since we were both seasoned travelers and everyone else on the tour was part of a couple, we agreed to be together at dinner to continue the conversation.
I was barely out of the shower when she knocked at my door, a vision in a black miniskirt and turquoise top, her hair still wet from the shower. Be still my beating heart, this is a woman who can get ready for dinner in 15 minutes. I was smitten, dear reader, and didn't care.
Dinner passed in a haze of flavors and fragrances and seven wines and two desserts. There was a huge full moon in the dark sky. Annie was a bit silly from the wine and demanded in a pouty but persistent way that we should end the evening with a moonlit swim in the hotel pool.
She asked one of the guides if that was possible and he responded that he, as an experienced triathlete (what kind of cad refers to himself as a TRIathlete?) would get the hotel manager to allow us to use the pool after hours.
I, too, was a bit giddy and we ran up to our rooms and emerged quickly with towels, clad in cotton robes and yes, swimsuits. And the cad was there, bellowing in that slim young man sort of way, already posturing and posing.
Annie dropped her robe and dove into the bright green glow of the pool. The air was freezing but the water was only slightly warmer. The three of us (sigh) had mock races and some tipsy synchronized swimming routines for the video camera. My hopes for romance were shrinking in the chilly water.
The manager came down and told us that some of the guests had complained that our whoops were keeping them awake, so could we please return to our rooms. But Annie wasn't through. She swooped through the now-closed restaurant and cadged a glass of red wine. We tiptoed up the steep stairwell, where she announced that she would take a hot bath and sip her wine.
Exhausted from the ride and the rich food and the cold dunking, the player had been played out and all I wanted was to slink into my bed. As she turned her key and turned to go inside, she turned her head and gave me a quick kiss.
"Wake me up at 7:15, okay? A domani!"
I was wide-awake at six and planned my whole morning routine around knocking on her door at exactly 7:15. I prepared every item of my riding uniform to give the impression of casual elegance, an older but wiser rider who wasn't easily swayed by a pretty face and a little kiss that found its way into my dreams.
I rapped my knuckles on her door and half-expected her to pull me inside and lead me to her bed. But all I got back was a sleepy groan and a plea in Italian for more time.
Angered, I swore that I would ride away from her and never look back.
I don't have to detail the humiliation that followed. Suffice to say she out climbed me on the shoulder of Ventoux, was shopping for fabric when I rolled into the next big village and completely lost me on the way to L'Isle sur la Sorgue, our lunch rendezvous point. My mortification was multiplied when the smug Triathlete drove past in the tour van and informed me that I had missed the turn.
When I caught up with her in the town, she was posing for photographs by the famed river. She had caught the eye of a professional and he was captivated by her intimacy with the lens.
Like a lovesick puppy, I fetched her a coffee and sulked by the stream.
Oh, dear reader, she was not through with me. After a long afternoon ride to yet another ancient walled city, she goaded me into doing an additional 12-mile loop. Rain began to fall as we rolled out of town; our fellow travelers were checking into the hotel, where warm showers and plush mini-bars awaited. I sighed and accepted my fate.
The rain got heavier and heavier as we climbed. I was bonking on unrequited love and felt like I was riding in molasses. I had to stop to scarf down an energy bar, knowing that she was already far ahead, tapping her Italian leather bike shoes on the tarmac, full of nervous energy.
For the second humiliating time, she was waiting at a t-intersection. We climbed even more and she pulled away.
But then the road began a steep drop to the valley floor a wicked set of rain-swept switchbacks that required surgical precision. Descending was her weakness, and my only hope for redemption on that damp day was to release myself from her hold and soar downward, a fallen angel headed to Hell or the hotel.
I passed her on the second hairpin, she seemed a bit wobbly, fragile. But I was now full of fury and paid no heed, veering from the inside of the turn to the outside arc, dodging a fishtailing Citroen and gaining speed down, down, down.
I was waiting at the bridge when she arrived, a little too smug but I really didn't give a damn. Without a pause, she launched into the waiting climb, a steep straight ascent. But I wasn't ready when she stopped halfway, pulled over and beckoned to me.
"Isn't this great," she said, her cheeks flushed and large green eyes bright with excitement. Spread before us was the valley, golden in the fading afternoon light, castles and stone bridges visible in the distance.
We rode together back to the hotel and quietly went to our rooms. This time she was in another wing. Good, I thought. I needed distance, but longed for intimacy.
She sat next to me at dinner that night, but I shared my conversation with everyone at the table and saved nothing for her alone.
No goodnight kiss and no lingering looks. I slept fitfully, woke before dawn and was the first person in the breakfast room.
I went to the bike garage to get ready for the final leg to St. Remy, where the cycling portion of our journey would end. I no longer cared if I beat her, I just wanted to feel the power and speed on the bike that I had known for years but seemingly lost in Provence.
I fiddled with the bike and noticed that the front brake was set too tight. I usually do my own bike work, but because this was a guided tour and we were riding their bikes, I left the prep work to the guides.
And then I checked the tires. Only 90 pounds. I always ride with 115 to 120. Whenever I asked the guides to check the pressure, they assured me the tubes were at their limit. No wonder I was slow. Why didn't I see it? The Triathlete was sabotaging me. He wanted her. It was all so clear now.
I know what you're thinking. Only a knob would let someone else set up his bike. Only a paranoid ass would think he was being set up. Today we would discover the truth.
I rode strong all day, thanks in part to Brian, an L.A. hipster who had grown tired of keeping a slow pace with his fiancée and moved up to the A Group, which consisted of me and Annie.
Like pros on a breakaway, we formed a tight knot that zoomed up hills and swooped down valleys, taking turns at the front with clockwork precision. Annie was caught up in the formation; she couldn't break out of the paceline or she would fall back.
Brian and I stepped up the pace as we entered the mountains and lost Annie completely on a wonderful five-mile descent that had us wheel to wheel at 45 miles an hour. We screamed and yelled and rode like kings into the next village.
We waited for her and then we worried. I asked a passing rider if she had seen an American woman on the road.
"Qui," she said. "A'droit. She turned right."
We wouldn't find her again for another hour and when we did she was angry, accusing us of missing the turn and insisting that she lead the final leg to St. Remy. She and Brian exchanged bitter words and he rode off silently and swiftly.
Annie and I rode back together, and she wouldn't let up. She was driving me crazy, but now I was the one who couldn't break away.
The next morning I left Annie a wakeup call, but she mumbled and put the phone down, off the hook. I went for a ride with the friendly woman from Maine and a model-beautiful guy from Manhattan by way of Kenya. The spin was fun and the comradery delightful. As we pulled up to the hotel and put the bikes away for the final time, Annie rode up, out of breath. "Why didn't you wait for me?," she cried out, but not with anger.
She was animated and wanted to go to the local market before we took the bus to the train station.
She had planned to visit a friend in the Vaucluse who was trying to open a small restaurant and hotel in a remote village.
I told her she should come with me to Paris, a throwaway line that felt like cardboard in my mouth. To my surprise, she said she'd think about it.
She was restless away from the bikes and it made me nervous to see her carrying on an argument with herself about the virtues of going to Paris with me or staying in the Vaucluse.
She didn't make a decision until our bus was pulling up to the train station. "I'm coming to Paris! See you on the train."
I did see her on the train, but only long enough for her to borrow my cell phone and disappear.
She was antsy waiting in line for a taxi at the Gare in Paris and practically crawling out of her skin as we searched for a certain little bistro in the St. Germaine district that she insisted we visit.
She stayed that night in a hotel room the tour operators had kindly provided, but asked the next morning if she could stay in my room, as I had business in the city. I thought I was going to cry.
The day was cold with a hard rain. We grated against each other. I took her to meet a wonderful Parisian family that ran a famous bike shop near the Arc d'Triomphe, but her impatience was obvious and almost rude. I welcomed the respite when she left the room to look for a jewelry shop near L'Opera. I sat at my laptop and wrote, filing my story to New York in the late afternoon, then took a nap as the drizzle continued to fall.
It wasn't love, but something similar. An intimacy that was too close for friendship but not emotional enough for real passion. The end for me came that night when we were running through the darkened streets, rushing to find a taxi or the route to another café. Off the bike, she could not stop moving. She was obsessed with movement and I could not take it anymore.
I grabbed her arm and told her I was going back to the hotel. Paris had always been a romantic city to me, even though I was always alone there. I preferred to be alone than to have anger in my heart.
A few hours later she showed up at my room and I let her sleep in my bed. But I took the couch.
At dawn, I looked over at her, asleep and still. Whatever demons pulled at her in her waking hours had disappeared and she was at peace.
When she did rise, the energy flowed back with a rush. I told her I wanted to sleep late and she should go down for breakfast by herself. I got dressed and walked down the wet avenue to my favorite bakery. At a corner table I had a croissant and coffee and looked out at the lovers sharing umbrellas, the married pairs ducking into shops and the slickered children darting off to school.
When I got back, Annie was closing her suitcases and calling the bellman. She was heading to the Vaucluse and I was going back to America on the afternoon Air France flight.
When her taxi arrived, I walked her to the door and kissed her cheek. She sat in the back seat and looked away as the taxi disappeared in the rain.
A month later I received a letter from Annie.
"My dearest Nick," it began.
© 2002 Dirt Rag Magazine