Traces

Posted in Prose on August 17, 2017 by 1writegirl

 

While my friend and her family are on holiday I walk their dog (a Working Cocker Spaniel) twice a day through fields surrounding their house, a public footpath or bridleway always close by. (I have read that there are approximately 140,000 miles of these kinds of paths across the country.) It’s a rainy August here, though my friend writes to say temps have reached 45°C in Italy and wildfires blaze. Most days I grab a slicker from one of many on pegs beside the back door and slide my feet into the smallest pair of giant wellies I can find – these people all tower over me. I shuffle along, two pair of socks not enough to keep my feet from skidding front to back, not minding the rain after the first few minutes. Lottie races around in circles, tearing after hares and rabbits, real or imagined. She springs high into the air on all fours, a small silky pronghorn, then gallops up behind me like a horse, hooves thundering. She’s filled with the exuberance of being alive, of moving her body and engaging all her senses at full throttle. We walk until she begins to slow down, my cue to head back to the house where, after gulping water and eating her kibble, she will throw herself down in her bed or onto one of the armchairs where she’s allowed. Had I not had a dog so agreeable and low maintenance myself, I would say Lottie is the best dog ever. For the past two weeks I’ve marveled at how much comfort is to be had from curling up beside her, her head seeking out the curvature of my neck every so often, the gaze of her gentle brown eyes into mine. Beyond taking her out to walk and giving her food and water, she seeks nothing but affection, something I haven’t been called upon to provide regularly for over three years. She reminds me how much I miss loving and being loved.

I hear from Johnny England occasionally, by text or email mostly, and though we plan to ride together again at the end of this month when I leave here, he feels far away from me now in more ways than one. We were quickly growing close as we traveled through the Pyrenees in July, in the way that only prison, war and sudden continuous travel can accomplish between two people. When strangers are thrown together 24/7 they become intimate in a fraction of the time they would do so under ordinary circumstances. In fast motion they share stories, secrets and confidences, disposing of pretense and best-foot-forward mentality, they almost can’t help but care, trust and give.

He’s performing on Friday with some of the musicians I met last month and asks me if I want to come and see them. I say yes immediately, as if I didn’t realize until that moment that I missed him, that I’m anxiously awaiting the day when we’ll pick up riding together. It’s at a place called Iford Hall, he tells me, in a tiny village near Brighton, almost 200 miles from here, which means I’ll need to make arrangements for Lottie to spend the night with a neighbor and book a rental car. I’m eager to hear him play, to see him onstage in a live performance, and without knowing what to expect I envision a large space with tables and chairs, maybe gardens lit with fairy lights and roses in bloom, like a really big country pub. His 16 year old daughter and a friend will be coming also he tells me, and after we’ll go back to Max’s place. They’ll sleep in a small caravan on the property and he and I will sleep in the new tent he just bought. Thursday night I pack a small bag, and because I do miss him, but mostly because I want to feel hopeful again, I dig around in my backpack before my shower to renew what has lately been merely a passing acquaintance with my razor.

It takes me almost five hours to drive there on Friday because I mistakenly assume it will be less stressful if I take the back roads and avoid the highways. I’m anxious about driving on the other side of the road, but what really gets to me as it happens is shifting gears with my left hand. I’m not ambidextrous, and it takes effort and concentration again and again as I drive through small towns, windy roads and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts. I stop only once for gas and a cup of coffee I can’t even drink because my left hand is too busy grinding the gears in and out of place. It’s almost 7:30 when I arrive exhausted and nerve-wracked at Iford Hall. I park in the gravel lot outside the big stone building, step out of the car on wobbly legs, stretch my arms and inhale deeply. A putrid, acrid smell greets me. I walk toward the hall where I can hear music, growing louder and louder as I approach – they must be rehearsing. It’s dark inside so I take a moment and let my eyes adjust. It’s a small room, it turns out. There are no tables with chairs, no bar, no seating area, just a few chairs lined up in a row against the opposite wall, a long table in the back where a couple of men are setting up audio-visual equipment, and the naked floor in front of the stage upon which the band is now playing so loudly that I wonder if I’ll suffer permanent hearing loss if I go in; momentarily I linger in the doorway, considering my options. Then Carlos and Jerry, the bass player and one of the singers, see me and wave, and I notice two young girls sitting in the chairs closest to the stage looking at me. I can hardly back out now, so I walk across the floor to a chair close to the table in the back and sit down. I can’t see John, who’s at the back of the stage, but I can see his drums. I know this song, it’s one he has played for me in his car and sent me a recording of in an MP3 link. I’m amazed how different it sounds live – less smooth but more vibrant – how many more nuances the physical presence of the charismatic female singer lends it.

This is the end of the rehearsal it turns out, and once they finish the song John emerges from the back of the stage. He jumps down, stops to speak to his daughter, then sees me. I stand up as he nears me, and we hug. “You guys sound great,” I say. We chat for a moment (how was the drive? Fine, no problem) then he introduces me to his daughter and her friend, and together we walk outside and around to the back of the parking lot to a low building housing a row of offices slung together. “What’s that smell?” I ask on the way. “It’s revolting, isn’t it?” He says. “They sprayed the fields a few days ago, some kind of cow manure, fertilizer mix. You should have smelled it then. I mean, if you think it’s bad now, you would have been retching, I mean it, you really would!” His Scottish accent dances through my ears.

We enter one of the offices and find food and drink laid out in a small kitchen area off to the side. Gratefully, breakfast hours ago, I eat – salad, hummus, cheese, olives and bread. I take a small bottle of beer too, cold from the fridge. Soon the sound of cars entering the gravel lot becomes more frequent; people have begun arriving for the performance. John excuses himself to get ready, and his daughter and her friend leave with him. I wander outside, walking down the narrow road, not yet ready to go back in the hall where a DJ is playing records.

When I return to the hall intending to sit in one of the chairs along the wall as I’d done before, I can do no more than peek inside without a struggle, there are so many people, and I quickly ascertain it’s standing room only, the front of the stage already filled with people dancing. I know immediately I won’t go inside, and with that knowledge comes a wash of guilt: am I being disloyal? After the show when he asks me what I thought, if it was too loud, if I enjoyed it, will I be able to answer it was amazing, no, immensely, without feeling like a fraud? I’ve driven all this way to see him perform but when it comes down to it – the crush of bodies, hot lights, drunken strangers swaying, pumping, gyrating and bouncing – I just can’t do it.

I retreat to the fenced field right outside the hall and walk to the far corner. From here I can hear the music perfectly well, better even, without the distortion of close quarters, reverberations and microphones; suddenly I feel relieved, secure in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter what I don’t see. I’m here to listen, and I can honestly tell him when it’s over how wonderful they sounded. I lean against the dark wooden rails, invisible. In between songs I hear people hanging around outside yelling and laughing; I can see their shadows, black monsters looming into blur, receding into definition, taller than the trees in the next field over upon which they’re projected by a single green spotlight housed in a towering oak behind me. When the band plays I listen for the drums, for John, and think selfishly how nice it would be if these people were all gone and it was only the music I could hear, and in between sets silence, or maybe crickets or frogs. Then the breeze kicks up and I think I’d settle for the absence of this god-awful smell. The price we pay – those of us who can’t do crowds, groups, parties, events, socializing, without squirming and wrestling with our silent, suffering selves, furtively looking for exits and excuses to leave. The personality traits – shy, introverted, reflective, quiet, non-confrontational – responsible for these feelings are the same ones that make it so incredibly difficult to talk about my grief, though I can write about it, and the same ones exaggerated by my grief. I was these things to begin with, but I am infinitely more them now.

It begins to rain, softly, then hard enough that I trade my dark wet seclusion for shelter under the hall’s awning, where a few smokers linger in groups of two and three. Soon the live music stops and the DJ takes over. I wait for the people to start pouring out. Instead they trickle, and only one member of the band I recognize is among them. I think about going inside and looking for John, telling him how great they sounded, but clusters of people still stick to the doorways and I don’t feel up to scraping through them. Instead I walk out to the parking lot and try to identify which car is John’s. Twenty minutes later I haven’t found it and the rain is pounding down; I duck inside the office where we went earlier. Carlos is there rolling himself a joint, half eaten containers of food still scattered across the table. One bottle of red wine has been opened and half drunk, another full one sits nearby. I’ve just poured myself a glass when John walks in. “I’ve been looking for you,” he says, and I can see he’s all wound up with the tension that comes from being “on.” He picks up the bottle and tips it into an empty juice glass. “Cheers.” We touch glasses and drink. “What did you think?” he asks. “I loved it,” I say. “It was too loud, wasn’t it?” he counters, and before I can tell him that I had a great vantage point outside, before I can explain that crowds and small spaces and the singular sensation of glaring aloneness while enveloped by a hoard of people is simply more than I can manage these days, the door opens and his daughter and her friend walk in. They say it was fantastic, and John and Carlos both say they couldn’t hear themselves play, they had to feel it, and they bemoan the fact that one of the singers missed some cues. John asks Carlos if he saw the half-naked blonde dancing wildly at the front for the entire performance; they both laugh knowingly, in a between-us-guys way, couldn’t miss her. At this I feel a pang, something resembling envy but wiser, and less ambitious. More people come in, the saxophonist and the sound mixer and his wife, and small conversations break out. I ask John’s daughter about her recent trip to Africa, then she and her friend get up to go back to the hall where music is still playing and people continue to dance.

Soon John excuses himself to go talk to someone he’d seen earlier saying he’ll soon be back, but he doesn’t return, and it’s after 1am when I find myself alone in the office cleaning up the food mess. I turn off the lights, lock the door with the key Max left behind, and walk back over to the hall. I find John in the kitchen at the back with the girls and a couple of women who are organizing glassware and cleaning up. He moves back out to the stage where he had placed two video cameras to record the performance and examines them, then goes to talk to Max and the guys who set up the sound system, in the process of breaking down the set. I stand at the bottom of the stage, lurking in the shadows, not knowing where to put myself, if there’s something I could be doing to help, feeling awkward; an outsider and superfluous. After awhile John approaches me and I think good, we’re going to go now, it’s time; but it isn’t and he suggests I go back to Max’s place by myself, gives me directions with instructions to call if I get lost – “I’ll keep my phone on” – saying he’ll be along shortly.

I drive back to Max’s caravan, getting lost briefly but righting myself. I make a cup of tea and wait, thinking that I’ve hardly seen John this evening, that after our initial hug he didn’t touch me at all, even when we were alone – we touched often, small, inconsequential gestures when we were riding – wondering if it means anything, and wishing he seemed more pleased to see me. The sound mixer is outside in a small camper van, his wife taking a shower in Max’s bathroom. She emerges while I’m drinking my tea, wearing a long robe, her thick black hair wound up in a towel around her head. She asks me about my travels with John, previous and upcoming, and says she wishes me well. “You’re gorgeous, you know,” she adds, an afterthought to goodbye. “Just gorgeous.” She smiles at me, embracing me with this secret, then steps down out of the caravan leaving me to wish, firstly, that I could get my hands on whatever it is she’s been smoking, and secondly, that it wasn’t a fifty-ish married woman who thought that but a 59 year old single man. Soon I hear a car and think it must be John, but it’s Max and his girlfriend. Eventually John shows up with the two girls who retreat almost immediately to the small caravan where they’ll be sleeping. Because it’s wet outside and more rain is forecast tonight, we ditch the tent plan. John brings our air mattresses and sleeping bags into Max’s caravan; I set up a space for us on the floor in front of the couch and spread them out. He says he’s going out to the car to see if he can find pillows. I use the bathroom, brush my teeth. Long minutes pass but he doesn’t return. Finally I step out into the night and walk towards his car. I can hear his voice from inside as I get close. He says “hold on”, then opens the door and hands me a rolled up towel. “I couldn’t find a pillow,” he says, “but try this.”

“Are you on the phone?” I ask, unable to hide my incredulity: it’s after 2am. He mumbles, “Yeah, someone called me.” I leave him to it and return to the caravan, wondering who “someone” is and why he wouldn’t say. I expect it’s Linda and I feel my heart constrict at the same moment as I wonder if he knew this would be my reaction. Of course it might be someone else but that thought makes me equally uncomfortable, as it dawns on me that he may have started looking for an alternative travel companion. Maybe he’s engaged in “getting to know you” phone calls with my soon-to-be replacement.

When he comes back into the caravan much later and crawls into his sleeping bag, I roll onto my side facing the couch, the exact opposite of what I want to do, because I’m afraid of what will happen if he sees I’m awake and we start talking. He moves close to me and never mind my hopefulness in the shower last night, what I want more than anything right now is just to push back, to insinuate myself into his body so that he will wrap his arms around me, like I did so many times late at night in the tent last month. Instead I lie still and quiet, and when eventually he whispers, “Are you asleep?” I don’t pretend to be, but when he asks if something is wrong, I tell him I’m just tired. I want to ask who were you talking to, but I don’t want to sound like a jealous lover, nor do I want him to hear the hurt in my voice that I can’t disguise because even if it’s petty I can’t shake the fact that I drove five hours today to hear him play and will drive back early tomorrow morning, a mere four hours from now; that whomever he was talking with on the phone for so long, it was in lieu of talking with me in person.

When my alarm tings I get up quietly and gather up my few belongings. I look down at John’s sleeping face and feel a twinge of some murky, undefinable emotion, hovering between tenderness, desire and fuck-you. I wonder if he would forgive me if he knew this; if he would understand. I slip outside. The grass is wet from the rain and except for a few birds exalting the glory of daybreak it’s completely silent. I start up the car, plug in the sat-nav, and leave.

On the drive back, this time taking the fastest roads I can find, I’m overcome with a plethora of emotions ranging from fear to disappointment, sorrow to indignation, and I begin to cry. I’m struck by what seems like an obvious discrepancy between what I want to feel (aloof) and what I do feel (attached); by what I want John to feel for me (attached) and what he seems to feel (aloof). I realize that I don’t know anymore at what point two people are in a relationship. Can you be in a relationship if you haven’t had sex? If you have had sex, how many times does it take before it counts? Four? A dozen? A hundred? I think back to my previous travel companion whom I had sex with twice a day in the beginning, then less often but still regularly for the next 7-8 months, and with whom, according to him, I was never in a relationship. When is sex just casual, destined to remain so, and when is it the precursor to love, commitment, union?

I think back to late nights in the tent last month, taking comfort in John’s sleeping body next to me, from a wam beating heart in close proximity even if it wasn’t connected to mine in the way I long for. I wonder if “the right man” came along (surely there must be many such possibles out there for all of us, right, given the human population is pushing 8 million worldwide?), would I recognize him? I fantasize that he’d say things like:
— “You wrote a novel and it’s been published? I can’t wait to read it!”
— “Facebook? Nah, that’s just a huge time waster.”
— “I’d be happy to teach you to ride a motorcycle if you’d like.”
— “I wish I’d known Jackson. What can I do to help you learn to live without him?”
— “I’ve spent years engaged in wildlife research all over the world. I could really use someone with your intelligence and passion if you’d be interested in getting involved.”
— “Personally I think a woman looks better with hairy legs and a few extra pounds.”
And of course the clincher: “I’m madly, crazy in love with you.”

I have problems returning the rental car and it’s already 3pm by the time I collect Lottie and take her home. I close the front door and, exhausted, lean back against it, wanting just to sleep for a few hours. But I know if I do I might not wake up in time to take her for her evening walk. I text John, I’m back, etc, telling of my mishap with Enterprise. He writes back thank you for making such an effort to come. He appreciates it, he says. He signs it with an x. I never know if that means hug or kiss. I tell myself kiss. I call him later, before I go to bed, and ask him if he’s got an itinerary yet, any firm plans with regard to riding again, holding my breath while I wait for him to say look, I’m sorry, but I’ve found someone else I’d rather ride with, or I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to stay here and try to make it work with Linda. After all, we agreed before we ever started riding that either of us could bail at any time. But he doesn’t say any of those things; he doesn’t bail. He says merely that it will depend on his daughter’s schedule, and as soon as he knows where he’ll be on the 24th he’ll let me know so I can buy a bus, train or plane ticket to get from here to there.

After we hang up I turn off the light and lay down on top of the bed. I realize that I’m not ready yet to feel hopeful again, that I need to expect less of other people, less of myself. I can’t bear more loss yet, which means as unceasingly, supremely conscious as I am of the brevity of life, any investment I make in anyone has to be painstakingly, arduously slow. This is a sad, forlorn place to be, as far from a mother’s heart as it’s possible to travel. Three years out, and I’m still scrabbling, my fingertips torn, bleeding, barely hanging on. Words to a song by Cowboy Junkies come to me, and into the empty darkness, with no one to hear me except perhaps a six year old working cocker spaniel two floors down, I softly sing: Escape is so simple, in a world where sunsets can be raced. But distance only looses the knife; the pattern of its scar can always be traced.

If you’re looking for a good book to read, I highly recommend This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Did you know there are (a few, Asian) lions in India, and the gibbon is the only ape that sings?

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Lovely Lottie, competing for the title of Best Dog Ever

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The Pyrenees

Posted in Prose on August 2, 2017 by 1writegirl

It’s mid-July when we find ourselves in northeastern Spain, first in the tiny coastal village of Portlligat, adjacent to the slightly less tiny town of Cadaques, due to John’s early and continued interest in Salvador Dali who spent most of his life here. I don’t know much about Dali so John fills me in, and the bit of biography I keep is the part about how his wife and lifelong muse Gala required him to obtain her written permission before visiting her in the summer home (a castle in Girona) that he bought for her. (Also, his legendary fear of female genitalia and the possibility that the sole sexual consummation he ever experienced was with himself.) We walk around the hilly streets surrounding the museum that was his home, though we don’t pay to go inside – advance reservations are required, so even if we’d been willing to fork over the 11 euro entrance fee (per person) we couldn’t have. We spend the night in the only campground we can find, large and industrial-feeling, its small crowded sites composed entirely of sand, which John thereafter refers to as “the anthill” due to the abundance of the little black creatures in and on everything we left outside the tent overnight.

The next day we make our way down the coast just far enough to find a nice beach to visit so we can swim in the Mediterranean Sea before heading inland toward the Pyrenees. The coast is hot and crowded, so I’m glad when we point the bike north and begin to climb.

We spend the bulk of the next two weeks in the Pyrenees, going back and forth between Spain and France with one afternoon in the small country of Andorra. The campgrounds in Spain are more expensive than those in France and as a result, we wild camp on several occasions. Never having done this before I’m a bit nervous on the first night, fearing we’ll be discovered and told to leave. We’re in the tent and it’s close to midnight when I hear a dog barking. “What if he comes over here and finds us?” I ask John (we’re in the mountains on the edge of a farmer’s field). “What if he barks and barks until the farmer wakes up, what if he leads the farmer to us, who demands that we get off his land immediately? What if he doesn’t give us time to pack up our stuff, what if he has a shotgun and threatens us?” At which point John sighs, shushes me and tells me to stop worrying. “You Americans,” he admonishes me. “You think everyone’s got a gun.” The dog, as it turns out, either doesn’t know we’re there or doesn’t care, and neither does the farmer, because the night passes without event, and following the leave-no-trace practice, we depart the next morning without anyone, to our knowledge, ever knowing we’d been there. After that I’m more relaxed about the idea of wild camping, and it isn’t long before I prefer it when we can find a place.

I’ve been in the Alps, though it’s been a long time, and I’ve been in many of the great parks of the US and Canada with dramatic mountain peaks and sweeping vistas, so I’m not expecting to be awed by the Pyrenees, yet I am. I am awed to the point of tears, overcome by the beauty and size of what I see, by the longevity and the variety. Places like this, no matter how often I see them and especially in the last three years, give me what I can only imagine faith gives to the religious – a sense of peace, of purpose, of security – the notion that I don’t need to look to others for my well being or for validation, and that the answers to all the important questions in life are to be found right here: in the rocks, in the layers of sediment, in the bark, the water, the flowers and the sunlight; the cry of the hawk and the chirp of the frog, the smell of wet leaves, the zigzag flutter of the moth. The closer I get, the fuller I feel, the smaller I become, the roiling, churning chaos inside of me less consuming.

For a few days we rent an Airbnb room in an old farmhouse and make day trips from there. We meet a lovely young French woman named Anne Cecille who lives in the house while getting her Masters degree in Geology and working part time. She invites us to dinner one evening when she has friends down from Normandy and we all share in the cooking, then talk about climate change, politics and immigration over salad, pasta and red wine until well after midnight. At the beginning of this trip, when I shared with John my resistance to engaging in social situations for fear of seemingly innocuous but loaded questions like “What do you do?” and “Do you have children?” he suggested that we let people assume we’re married, and say “We don’t have any children,” which, as he explains it, isn’t a lie. He and I do not have children together. A technicality perhaps, but an important one when the alternatives are to remain aloof and estranged from social interactions, to reveal painful truths to strangers again and again, or to deny Jackson’s existence, the worst proposition of all, by saying I never had a child. We do this for the first time with Anne Cecille, and it proves to be successful. I’m flooded with relief as well as gratitude to John for this idea.

We hike when we can, ride out onto dirt tracks when it seems promising, and get lost in the desert. John swims in a river one day when he can’t stand the heat any longer but I can only bring myself to dip my feet in, it’s so cold. I can bear being hot more than I can being cold.
We eat dinners at dusk on rocks beside rivers or overlooking valleys, and while we eat we talk. This is a refreshing change for me, having spent so much time either alone recently or in the company of my previous travel companion who spent every tea break, pit stop or meal engaged with his smart phone, usually commenting on or responding to comments on Facebook, chatting with Facebook “friends” and reading the latest news headlines. It isn’t until John is telling me a story about some experience he had or we’re laughing about something we saw or did earlier that day that I realize how lonely I was when I realized I’d grown to love someone who seemed to have decided in the space of our first few weeks together that he knew all there was worth knowing about me. I still love him, but I wonder now how I ever let myself believe he was on his way to loving me. Why I let myself believe it is no mystery; it’s what I needed, what I still need – someone to love me through this. But the how… that’s harder to answer, in spite of my education and life experience, but I picture a horse with blinders on when I close my eyes. We so often let what we want to be true supersede what is true..

We get gas (petrol) and pay after we fill up. We have to ask at restaurants for the check. Night after night we check in to a campground (or even a hotel) to be told the fee, then sometimes given a piece of paper to fill out, sometimes asked for a passport, then informed we can pick our own site and waved away when we pull out a wallet. “Pay tomorrow, when you’re ready to leave,” we hear again and again, though in most cases, especially in the larger campgrounds, it would be very easy to drive away in the morning without returning to the office. This trust moves me deeply, so unused to it as I am, and it guarantees I wouldn’t leave without paying. When you are given the gift of trust you want to live up to its expectations, and I wonder when this practice of believing that other people, albeit strangers, are worthy of our trust eroded in my country, where it would be unheard of to be told “pay when you leave.” It’s beyond refreshing to be treated not as suspect, not as a risk, but as responsible, mature, and accountable. These sorts of experiences help to reinstill in me the belief that most people are mostly good.

By the end of July we’re heading back up to England. I’m going to dog/house sit for my friends in Herefordshire for 3 weeks while they go on holiday, and John has personal business to attend to in Brighton, including performing in a gig with the musicians I met before we left. I’m looking forward to this short break from the road, to long walks and naps with a loving dog, to reading and writing more, to cooking again, and to the chance I’m going to get in the presence of consistent, free wifi to finally skype with the woman who is to be my grief mentor, located for me by the MISS Foundation. We board the ferry to Dover alongside 2 small motorcycles, one a Honda 125, the other a 90cc of indeterminate make, both loaded down with homemade panniers made of crates and sacs, water bottles plunged into sandals strapped onto the side. John shakes his head and says he can’t imagine riding something like that, and wonders how they manage to cover any ground at all. But I get it. I get it without any imagination at all.

 

 

Ooh la la La France

Posted in Prose on July 19, 2017 by 1writegirl

“Johnny England” and I are in France after a night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We arrive at 5am, losing an hour, after about three hours of what can, at best, be called rest on the hard floor in an empty corner of one of many lounges.

We ride south under a cloudy sky spitting rain, stopping first in Rouen, where we park the bike and walk toward a cathedral that John wants me to see. I remind him of my vast exposure to cathedrals on the Camino and my lack of interest therein, but he assures me I’ll be impressed. Skeptical, I acquiesce. He’s right – this structure is magnificent in its size, complexity and detail – a composite of statues, engravings, stained glass, gargoyles, filigree and spires, so high it hurts my neck to look up and see the top of it. A picture would not do it justice; I can only say if you are in Rouen, check it out. Walking back to the bike, we pass a store with a poster in the window and we do a double take, then we both start to laugh and agree that she might have the right idea. IMG_0028

This part of France, north central, is mostly flat and farmland, with the predominant crop grown, from what I can see, being sunflowers – we pass field after field, giant golden faced soldiers all standing at attention in the same direction. IMG_0031 We drive through one charming village after another, the old stone houses adorned with shutters in some cases, Juliette balconies in others, and the small shop dedicated to one particular food group (patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, etc), is alive and well in the French countryside. In the bigger towns this is glaringly (and sadly to my mind) not the case – enormous warehouse-sized grocery stores meld with department stores, crowding out the local small guy, calling themselves “super” this, “mega,” “ultra,” or “hyper” that. The Walmarts and Costcos of France, they are so vast I am overwhelmed immediately by all the choices on display. John counts an entire grocery aisle 5 rows deep of rose wine, and there is twice that much space devoted to cheese. This is France so emphasis on wine and cheese is to be expected, however the entire store is this way, and I wonder…how many varieties of canned sardines, yogurt or bottled water does anyone really need? It’s a question I have asked myself in the U.S. for years. In the checkout line we spot a magazine for sale that reminds me of the English usage on store fronts and billboards I witnessed in Asia last fall, and how I used to smile at those clumsy yet endearing efforts – the editor in me wanted to correct the mistakes while the traveler in me wanted them never to change. IMG_0029

We stop for a cup of coffee for me, tea for John, but he is disappointed when they bring him something that he describes as smelling like cow’s pee. This is to be a recurrent problem for John – the French do not seem able to make a “proper cup of tea.”

Our destination, though we’re taking our time to get there, is the Pyrenees. We intend to ride from east to west, crossing back and forth between France and Spain. There are rarely border checks these days between EU countries, so it is easy to pass from one to the other without hassle or wait. We camp our first night, after riding close to four hundred miles, in the Auvergne region, just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It’s late by the time we set up the tent and we’re hungry so ride back into town to find something to eat – amazingly the restaurants, while still open, are all done serving for the night. Isn’t France one of those countries, like Italy, where restaurants seat customers well into the night? It used to be when I lived in Montpellier 30-odd years ago. I can’t speak for the big towns and cities but in the small ones this is no longer the case. We encounter this situation again and again as we ride and only after about a week do we wise up and make a point of looking for restaurants (when we aren’t eating grocery store meals) before 7:30 or so. On this night the only place we can find still open is a pizza place, where we share a sandwich and a pizza topped with tuna fish and olives. Surprisingly tasty.

We camp each night for the next week but one, when we get into town later than expected and can’t find a campground (on which occasion we find a room sans bath over a restaurant for 32 euros). The tiny town of Sainte Enimie in the Gorge de Tarn is my favorite camping spot, at a small campground alongside the river. Our tent is crap, too small and thin; John bought it the day we left England and the only store he could find open was a general merchandise rather than outdoor store, so selection was very limited. In any event, it does the job, at least so far in the dry, warm weather we’re having, and the setting here is glorious. The moon is full and we ride the short distance into town for dinner shortly after dusk then walk around the cobblestone streets and across a high stone bridge where we can see the crumbling remains of ancient walls built into the sides of the mountain, lit up from below.

Soon it’s Bastille Day, French Independence Day. We see heightened security in places, road blocks and emergency vehicles lining the sides of the roads, and it could be on account of the Nice shooting last year on this day, or more likely because Donald Trump has chosen to visit France today. In other places the spirit of the day runs wild and free, and as we witness one celebration after another throughout the day, because today also happens to be my 53rd birthday I secretly pretend the fireworks and festivities are all for me. John, good guy that he is, won’t let me pay for anything today, though we’ve been splitting the expenses otherwise except for gas. (“I would be paying for it even if I were on my own,” he says.) We are now riding through more mountainous terrain, nearing the Pyrenees, as well as passing small villages that seem almost carved into the land and water, reminding me how much I love this country, and reminding me also how fortunate I am to be here, doing this. IMG_0027

We are driving south toward the Spanish border when we see smoke on the horizon from a forest fire – as we approach, the cloud billows wider and darker, until it resembles the picture of a mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb explosion we used to see as children in history class. IMG_0030 I look back from the edge of Spain as night begins to fall to see a lovely sunset, made even more brilliant by the smoke.

 

 

Johnny England

Posted in Prose on July 6, 2017 by 1writegirl

I have always loved England. It feels familiar but is different enough to also feel like a learning experience every time I come here. The people, the food, the sounds are ever changing, while the customs, architecture and history are pervasively constant. Last summer I went to Scotland for the first time, specifically to Edinburgh (inspired by my love of the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith) where I rented a flat for a month and afterward traveled around the countryside when I met someone with a motorcycle. Those first few days with him, riding along the foggy windswept west coast of Scotland, past rocky outcroppings and green hills covered in heather and scotch broom, sturdy sheep and long-haired cattle, supplied my first living breath in over two years. Sharp little droplets of rain pummeled us in between short intervals of sunshine as we skimmed along empty curving roads and I felt like I’d never seen grass so green, smelled air so fresh. I felt free and light for long moments at a time, for the first time since Jackson died, and the possibility that I might continue to live flashed across my mind; that this wasn’t just a last hurrah before my inevitable impending demise, by my own hand or, more likely, as a direct, cumulative result of grief, what some people would call a broken heart.

A couple of weeks ago, after leaving my friends near Hereford, I took a train to Devon to meet up with Mark, one of the kind souls who responded to my travel post. We met at the 3-day HU event and got to know each other well enough that he invited me to ride around southwest England on one of his two older (80’s) BMWs, and I accepted. An intelligent, thoughtful guy, he’s good-natured and widely traveled, with plans to ride a bicycle around Nepal in October then head into India where he has been numerous times. A friend in Mumbai stores his Royal Enfield for him there in exchange for being able to ride it when he needs to. He told me he intends to be there by early November, and added “You’re welcome to join me if you like.”

We spent a couple of days in his quintessentially English village (it only takes a church and a pub to make a village, I’m told; this one has a church and two pubs), then rode through the beautifully wild and lonesome moors of Dartmoor National Park to Cornwall where we spent a few days with Tiffany, his friend and one of my roommates from the travel weekend. She lives in a small town called Porthcurno a few miles from Lands End, the southernmost point in the U.K. We hiked along the coastal path between the two towns our second day there, and on our third and final evening we saw a play at Porthcurno’s open air Minack Theatre, carved into the side of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean meets the Celtic Sea meets the English Channel. A lone seal swam and dived below us. The play itself was okay, the setting spectacular.

We returned to Devon for a couple of mostly rainy days, then I bid Mark farewell and caught a train to Eastbourne to meet John. Another respondent to my travel post, John has been a fairly regular email correspondent for over a month. His plan, he wrote, is to ride through various countries, starting in Europe, for the next four months, beginning with France and winding up in Turkey, a country he tells me he has grown to love after multiple trips there. He’d prefer to have a companion than to ride alone, so “You are welcome to join me for any or all of it,” he wrote. We agreed that I’d ride with him in July, after which I’ll be returning to England to house/dog sit for my friends while they go on holiday in August.

I arrive in Eastbourne late on Saturday night. My train was delayed so by the time John finds me and we drive back to his apartment it’s after midnight. Except for the emails and one brief phone call, I’m flying blind here. I think we’ll be compatible, I think we’ll travel well together, but at this point I’m only guessing, hoping really. And we’re talking about a month together, not just a few days like it was with Mark. I reserve the right to bail, I tell him in my last email before I catch the train. Of course, he says. No questions asked. You have that right too, I assure him. No problem. If we’re on the road, just drop me at the closest bus station, that’s all I ask.

He puts me in his bedroom in spite of my protests that he shouldn’t, and he sleeps on the floor of his living room. It’s a tiny apartment that he has just sold, and he has already cleared out most of his belongings before I arrive. The check should be in the bank on Thursday, he explains; that’s the day he turns in his keys, the day he’ll have the funds to purchase the bike he has had his eye on, the day we can start moving. Until then it’s a waiting game. He shows me around Eastbourne. He takes me on walks along the waterfront and into the surrounding hills and farmlands. He gradually clears his apartment of the remainder of its contents. We take turns making dinner. We get to know each other.

He talks a lot. Rambles I might say, except it doesn’t feel aimless, it feels pent up, like he has had no one to talk to in a long time and is trying to get everything out before he finds himself alone again. I understand the sentiment but I hold back, rusty when it comes to revelations, until he says something, an accidental trigger (how can he know, when I don’t know them all myself?) and I am in tears. He has a daughter who is the same age as Jackson, and when he talks about her he has the warmth of tone and wide wet eyes that speak my language. When I look up I see that he is crying too, slow silent tears to my messy puddle, and I am reminded yet again of how many of me there are out there, waiting to happen, praying for anything but. Please god, take this, take that, take me. Take anything but my child (husband, wife, mother, brother). He knows this kind of love, and he knows lost love too.

The ice is broken, and I begin to relax. Over the next four days he tells me about the circumstances that have brought him to this point in time, where he’s selling an apartment in a place he didn’t like to begin with and preparing to set off for several months, maybe longer, on a new motorcycle with an almost complete stranger: the failed relationships; playing drums professionally first in bands then in shows; the transition to this job and that job and finally no job when it all felt wrong; the child he had, and the child he almost had. He tells me things about growing up in the slums of Glasgow in the 60’s that wring me dry; the kinds of things that a generation ago nobody talked about, that evoked words like dirty laundry, and feelings like shame even in the hearts of their young, innocent victims. I am reminded that the power of secrets is lost when they are let loose in the public domain.

I tell him about my travels of the past year, about how I fell in love with my traveling companion against my better judgement – given my state of mind, given that he told me from the beginning he didn’t want a “relationship” – and how it all fell apart when, after close to eight months of traveling together around Europe and Asia, I realized he was probably never going to see me as anything more than just another lover in a long string of lovers. John and I have both been very clear and honest from our first email exchange to say that we don’t want anything but a companion on this ride, and I am committed this time to keeping my boundaries intact. “It isn’t that I regret my time spent with him,” I tell John. “Just that if I’d resisted the temptation to sleep with him, I’d have saved myself unnecessary heartache that I could ill afford.” He nods his head. “I know what you mean,” he says. “But you can’t blame yourself for wanting it, or for trying.” In the silence that follows I remember what someone said to me last summer while discussing men, women and relationships. She said, “We have a string that goes directly from our vagina to our heart.” It sounds crude perhaps, and overly simplistic, but in my case it seems to be true.

Tonight we are out in the country, a few miles beyond Brighton, on a piece of land where some musicians are getting together to practice one more time before John leaves the country tomorrow. I sit on an old rusted iron chair outside the mobile home inside which a keyboard, guitar, bass, drums and vocalist are all packed together amidst cords, microphones, amplifiers and miscellaneous musical paraphernalia. A gorgeous ginger and white cat called Zeus comes calling, wrapping himself around my legs. He belongs to Max, the owner of the mobile home and the keyboard player. This cat, I’m told, is from Cairo. A street cat, he was picked up by an animal rescue and taken to a shelter, where someone came along and chose him as their pet. They set sail from Egypt, taking the cat with them, for several months. Eventually they got to England where at some point and for reasons unknown they couldn’t keep him any longer. They relinquished him to yet again another shelter, which is where Max found and adopted him. “I figure that’s at least three or four of his nine lives, don’t you think?”

On the drive home John tells me an amusing story about a trip to the US during which he rented a hang glider (he is experienced in the sport and taught lessons for years) in Orlando and a couple of hours later realized he was not headed south as he’d intended. He found a field to land in, in front of a parking lot of a big grey building, which turned out to be a bowling alley. He walked up to three men sitting on the front steps, pulled out his map of Florida, and asked them if they could show him where he had landed. Quickly picking up on his accent they narrowed their eyes and asked, in a pronounced southern drawl, “You’re not from around here, are you?” “No, I’m from England,” he told them. “Well, actually I’m from Scotland, but I live in England,” at which they took one look at his hang glider and concluded that he’d glided all the way from England and crash-landed there in inland Florida. He tried to explain that he had rented the unit in Florida, that he’d flown by plane to Florida from London, but they only heard flown and England and were so stuck on the false notion that he eventually stopped trying to explain. In the end a cell phone rang and one of the men answered it to be given an earful from his mother, so loudly that he had to hold the phone away from his head so that everyone present could hear her shouting, berating him for not being in church. Eventually when she paused for breath he took his chance. “Mama!” he said. “Listen to me. We got a situation here. We got Johnny England here, just crashed his hang glider in a field.” Eventually the man was able to persuade his mother – still enraged that her grown son was at a bowling alley rather than in church on an afternoon in the middle of the week – to send someone with a truck to collect John and his hang glider and transport him the 40 miles back to Orlando.

I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh.

June 18, 2017

Posted in Prose on June 18, 2017 by 1writegirl

 

It is hot and sunny today, not unexpected in most places in the Northern Hemisphere in June. In England, where I am this afternoon, and especially Wales, where I came from this morning, it is unusual. According to the hosts of the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Hay on Wye where I spent the weekend, it “pissed down cold rain” at last year’s 4-day event.

After I arrived on Thursday afternoon and checked in I glanced around the lobby. My eyes fell on a man sitting by himself on a bench. I recognized him at once from a photo he’d sent me in an email a few weeks ago; he was one of the people who had responded to my forum thread about riding pillion, and suggested a trip around England in June. He’d seemed so empathic when he first learned of Jackson’s death, opening up about his own sorrows and tribulations, but when he read my Mother’s Day poem a week or so later in which I allude to the ever tempting, never vanquished thoughts of suicide, he sent me an email begging me to “cheer up” and suggesting, among other things, I just think happy thoughts instead. I responded initially with my own suggestion that he educate himself about the phenomenon of grief, in particular as it pertains to parents of children; to single mothers of only children; to children who die a sudden, violent death. He replied with yet more naive and, albeit unintentional, offensive and thoughtless drivel, and in a fit of impatience I told him so. He stopped writing and so did I, realizing I couldn’t ride with him, that I would constantly feel compelled to hide my grief, and knowing what a strain this would be, how stressful I would find it. When I saw him sitting on the bench on Thursday I greeted him. I didn’t want to ignore him, or pretend I didn’t recognize him. I wanted him to see that my anger hadn’t lingered, and I bore him no hard feelings. For awhile anyway he’d been very kind to me and I had appreciated it. When I spoke his name he stood up, leaned in, and kissed me on one cheek then the other. I said it was nice to meet him. He replied, “You don’t look very depressed.” His tone was biting, sarcastic, as if he suspected I’d made the whole thing up. Or was he merely disappointed? I don’t know, but in that moment I knew I’d made the right decision in choosing not to ride with him.

Fortunately, 513 people showed up for the event and I soon found myself attending and taking copious notes in one presentation after another. I have long held the opinion that if you want to talk to interesting people, find people who travel. They are rarely without a story to share, and they provide continuous challenges to commonly held perceptions of non travelers about the places they (the travelers) have visited and they (the non travelers) have not. Of the many people I’ve spoken to who have been to Iran, for instance, not one has had anything bad to say about the people they encountered. On the contrary, there is a consensus that the Iranian people are some of the most friendly, hospitable, generous and gracious people anywhere in the world. Travelers – Westerners and non Muslims, on motorcycles, bicycles, on foot – repeat these words, heard again and again from complete strangers who stopped to give them advice or directions and after the briefest of exchanges, invited them back to their home for a meal or even one or several nights sleep: “Please, you are a guest in my country.” This reminder that the governing body of a political regime do not necessarily reflect all or even the majority of the people living within and under its umbrella is important and timely, it seems to me. And only by traveling will you see with your own eyes that this is the case. The experiences these individuals have had do not lessen the need to understand intellectually (as well as work to change) the inherent contradictions that exist within rigid and outdated ideologies like Islam to some of the values that we in the Western world hold dear, like civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press and religion, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental protection to name a few, values that make life not only better, safer, and more just, but also rife with possibility for everyone, not just a select few. But they do illustrate how complicated and messy and unpredictable people are, and how critical it is that we continue to treat the people we meet, wherever we meet them, as individuals whenever possible, and not as stereotypes inextricably linked to identities which they may not internalize or even choose.

I listened to advice, anecdotes and instruction from numerous couples and individuals whose travel histories vastly exceed mine, and found myself especially drawn to the presentations about Africa, a destination I’ve longed to visit for most of my life. I also gravitated to the several women present who have traveled alone and extensively; two such women, Zoe and Tiffany, happened to be my roommates in the dorm I was assigned to. These women inspire me; they are independent, brave, and intrepid. They feel fear like we all do from time to time, but their attitude is that they will not let their fear prevent them from doing what matters to them. Every time they encounter an obstacle and have to find a way around it on their own, they become a little bit stronger; each time a situation gets the better of them, they become a little bit wiser. They are risk takers, not wild and indiscriminate and self-destructive risk takers, but calculated, life-is-short, quality trumps quantity risk takers. I admire them, and take hope from their open hearts and curious minds.

Today is June 18, 2017:

-The birthday of my almost step daughter from a life I can barely remember, almost 30 years ago, yet sweet detailed moments like snapshots of the time I spent with her and her sister will parade across my mind when I least expect them
-The day Mike, one of my dearest friends, leaves Los Angeles for his own adventure in Brazil for the next three months
– Father’s Day
-The third anniversary of my son’s death

Last year at this time I wrote an essay that was published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in their quarterly newsletter. The same day it was picked up and reprinted on Hemant Mehta’s blog, The Friendly Atheist. For those of you interested in reading it, here is the link. My article is on Page 3: https://ffrf.org/images/uploads/fttoday/2016/FT_September_2016.pdf

 

Soldiering On

Posted in Prose on June 11, 2017 by 1writegirl

When I realized I couldn’t afford to visit Portugal in May as originally intended, I looked online for information about places in Eastern Europe (since I was in Croatia), that would be havens of natural beauty without the blighted accompaniment of heavy tourism to drive prices up and quality of life down. This search led me first to the small and ancient city of Ohrid on the lake of the same name in Macedonia, then to Kotor Montenegro. While Ohrid lived up to my expectations, Kotor didn’t.

I ended up staying in Kotor for ten days, longer than any place so far this time in Europe. I had hopes of using this small town in this small country as a base for day trips to the beautiful national parks scattered across the land, but in the end it felt like too much work to find and organize the bus trips in either direction. Once it became clear I wasn’t going there on the back of a motorcycle I thought I’d find the motivation to make other arrangements, but in the end it was just the opposite.

Since coming to Europe in April I’ve been waiting to feel a sense of relief. With the sentencing hearing behind me, I thought I’d begin to look forward, that my steps would be lighter now that’s no longer hanging over me. But this hasn’t proven to be the case. I’ve cried more readily and more often in the three months since the hearing than I did in the nine months prior to it. I’ve felt more hopeless, more desperate, and less resilient. The man who killed my child has gone off to prison for three years; meanwhile, my child is still dead, and it would appear he’s going to stay that way. I can find no comfort in this pathetic construct we call justice, and why I thought it would feel any less like hell in receding than it did in anticipation I’m not sure. It was meant to be an ending I guess, but the only thing that has ended is the waiting.

I feel weaker too since the hearing, perhaps to do with the fact that I had a travel companion before – something I wasn’t looking for and didn’t think I wanted but came to appreciate and enjoy – and this time I’m alone. Alone now feels different, it feels less like a choice and more like punishment than it felt before he came along, and the contrast between the two is sharp and bitter. I miss him, and I miss the buffer that he was for me, the way his company and presence softened and eased my interactions with the rest of the world. I felt protected in his care, though I know that was an illusion; I felt like I was under an umbrella of time and love that would see me healed if I were patient enough to let it. Now I feel like healing is way too much to hope for, and I can accept that, but I’d like to think there’s a place between broken and fixed, between half and whole or new and used that’s tolerable if not necessarily comfortable. I like to think I might get there, though I have no real reason to believe I will.

I did little in Kotor in the way of exploration, but these are my impressions of the town based on walking in and around it:
-The lake itself is lovely, though the shore close to the town is littered with detritus. Plastic bottles, wrappers, food, aluminum cans float among light green slimy strands of algae.
-Huge white monstrosities, longer than the town itself and thus taking its place in the view from across the lake, arrive in the bay every morning about 10:00 and discharge thousands of people at once into the old town to take pictures (mostly of themselves), eat at the restaurants, and buy souvenirs.
-There is a stone trail, hundreds of years old, that begins on the edge of the walled city and climbs up the mountain behind it to the remains of an old fortress and churches. It takes about an hour to get to the top. Between 8am and 8 pm there is a charge of 3 euros to walk it. I went up at 7:30 am so paid nothing, and was rewarded with a spectacular (monstrosity-free) view of the lake. At night the fortress is lit up, and the sight is rather enchanting.
-Many men carry purses, almost universally alike (brown or black, slung across one shoulder).
-There are lots of scooters, but only a few motorcycles.
-Some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten are to be had at the fresh produce market outside the old town walls, third stall from the end closest to the town entrance.

I flew up to England on Saturday. It’s windy here, rainy off and on, and much cooler than where I’ve just come from, and it feels good. I’m spending a few days with a friend and her family before going to the Horizons Unlimited meeting next weekend. She has two teenage boys and a dog, the sight and sound of whom remind me of my own and thus fill me with a delicate mixture of tenderness and remorse, and a husband of twenty years who reminds me of nobody and whose presence instills me with awe and wonder and envy at his devotion to his wife and children. The government here is in disarray, after an ambiguous election, much like my own country’s, and we talk about how fed up the people are getting with the status quo, the promises broken, the old pretending to be new, and the old guard soldiering on in the face of change they refuse to acknowledge though it will not be denied. We go for long walks in the fields no matter the weather. She makes gourmet vegetarian meals, I help where she lets me, we drink wine, we talk, I cry, she puts her arms around me, we laugh. I am glad to be here.

Interesting fact: last year worldwide more people were killed taking selfies than by sharks. Why does this not surprise me?

Culinary tip: to quickly and easily remove the skin of the garlic, lay the clove on its side and place the flat side of a butter knife on top. Press down hard until you hear and feel the sound of the clove splitting open, then remove the ‘meat’ of the garlic without effort or mess.

 

I would ride, ride, ride.

Posted in Prose on June 5, 2017 by 1writegirl

I recently posted a thread on a travel forum, giving a general idea of my whereabouts and requesting people contact me if they are riding a motorcycle in my vicinity and wouldn’t mind a pillion for a few hours, possibly even a couple of days. It’s been a few months since I’ve been on a bike and I really miss it.

I put a link to my blog at the bottom of the thread in an attempt to weed out any respondents who wouldn’t want as a pillion someone in the throes of grief. It can be a downer, let’s face it, to spend much time with someone who is perpetually sad, no matter how adept she thinks she is at disguising this fact. So it felt like the right thing to do to be above board and just put it out there. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t matter on a short ride where conversation is limited, but if hours turned into days, the subject would almost certainly arise in the course of ordinary back and forth; it’s a conversation that takes a lot out of me so I avoid it if I can.

Over the next couple of weeks I received about two dozen replies and personal messages, some of which were links to potentially useful websites (a motorcycle organization by and for women, for example) or “Hey, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods let me know and I’ll show you around” type messages from as far away as Brazil. The rest were people telling me their itinerary and either inviting me outright to join them at some point, or suggesting we meet up at the Horizons Unlimited event in England in June to chat and see if we’d be compatible travel companions.

I was in Sofia when I got a reply from a man I’ll call Dave, who said he was also in Eastern Europe and would be happy to give me a ride. I envisioned him stopping by and picking me up, riding out into the countryside for a few hours, then dropping me off as he went on his way. There would be little to no conversation.

When he wrote back it was to say his route had changed and he was heading west with a view to Morocco instead. If I had no plans after the Balkans I was welcome to join him. As an aside, he mentioned that he too had lost a child.

Since leaving the U.S. in April I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to find an online grief mentor, someone who has also experienced the death of a child and might be able to help me with the especially difficult days. Now it seemed I might have accidentally stumbled upon just that.

We emailed. By now I was in Ohrid Macedonia and he was back in the U.K., visiting his elderly parents he said, and giving his bike some much needed maintenance before leaving for Morocco. He thought he’d make a detour, ride down to Montenegro and pick me up. We could visit Durmitor National Park, one of the places I told him I especially wanted to see, and he could give me a ride at least part of the way up to the U.K. after. He was recently retired, he said, and wasn’t tied to any particular place or time frame. What did I think?

Yes! All I’d asked for was a few hours on the back of a stranger’s bike: the scenery, scents and sounds left and right, raw, direct, unfiltered by plastic or metal; the feel of the back and forth, the grip and release, the subtle dance that is riding a motorcycle and unlike anything else; a lack of agenda, the ability to close my eyes and, for a few brief minutes, just forget. He was offering to give me that, but something much more too – the chance for awhile to be in the company of someone who had survived what I am trying to survive. There would be no need for explanations or apologies, for awkward silence or pretense. There wouldn’t even be the need for words if we didn’t want them. Just to sit in the same room, to know that he knew – I desperately wanted that.

So it seemed sorted. He’d leave at the end of the week and would arrive June 1-2. I warned him that I cry often, and sometimes without notice. He didn’t mind, he said. So there would be tears, so what? There would be laughter too. I liked his optimism. I liked the kind of person he seemed to be: respectful, serious, thoughtful, quiet, and compassionate – so much so that he would deviate from his original travel plans in order to meet me and let me ride pillion with him for a few days.

A couple of days passed and I heard nothing. Then a brief note saying his email had been compromised, and to use this new one. He was leaving soon, he said. Another few days passed during which I made my way to Montenegro and he was conspicuously absent from my inbox, though I assumed he was on his way. Then a message much like the previous one, short and cryptic, stating that he was still dealing with email problems, and giving me a UK phone number I could call. My phone still had my Bulgarian SIM so I couldn’t call him, but suggested he text me if he couldn’t email, figuring I could probably get texts. Where are you? I asked. Do you still anticipate arriving on the first? I got a text in return saying only that he expected to arrive between the first and third.

Then silence again. I wondered about the compromised email scenario, how likely that was to be true. I worried that he might have been injured or taken ill on the road. I felt a strange mix of anxiety, concern and suspicion. So I did what everyone does these days when their only contact with another human being is via the internet: I googled him.

The only link I found that looked feasible was to a Facebook page, showing a man in an embrace with a pretty woman, cheek to cheek, her arms wrapped around his neck, both of them smiling; two small children; and a motorcycle. My access was limited so I was unable to read posts, but the photos had captions under them, one stating how happy they were, awaiting the birth of their son.

I had no way of knowing for sure if this Dave was the same Dave who’d been writing to me, though his profession, age and interests fit. Nor did I know how current the photos were. It hadn’t occurred to me during our correspondence to ask him if he was married – firstly I am not ‘looking for love’, and secondly it seemed improbable a married man would invite a woman, not his wife, relative or possibly long-standing platonic friend, to ride across Europe with him. In theory his marital status is none of my business. Nevertheless I wouldn’t have felt comfortable riding pillion for any considerable distance with a married man. Maybe he was divorced, I reasoned, or at the very least separated, and he didn’t mention it because it hadn’t seemed relevant.

The only other identity breadcrumb I could find was a thread he’d posted about five years ago on the same travel forum where I’d posted three weeks ago. It read: “Tall, good looking 44 year old would like to meet a female motorcyclist or pillion for a trip through europe and beyond.”

He got a lot of flack from responders, claiming match.com was a more appropriate forum for such a post. He defended his choice to post the thread where he did, saying he was looking for a particular kind of woman, specifically one who shared his love of motorcycles.

I put this together with the Facebook page to conclude a likely scenario in which he’d been seeking a partner, found her, and subsequently lost her. Maybe he was lonely, hurting, and began responding to personal ads and threads, looking for any connection with women who might be feeling the same, and wanting to take a chance on love with someone new. Did I, as someone who touched a nerve because of a shared sorrow, get added inadvertently to the mix, in spite of the fact that neither of us so much as hinted at the idea of romance? Did he tell me he was coming this way because at that moment there was no potential lover on the horizon and he thought I’d be his good deed of the year, then someone, somewhere, popped up, so he went off in that direction instead?

I’ll probably never know. It’s been more than a week since I got that text in spite of my various attempts to contact him. His arrival window has opened and closed, and I’m left to speculate, imagine, regret and doubt. What I do know is that he appeared, reeled me in, then simply vanished, all from the comfort and security of the cyber world, leaving me not only to wonder what reason he could possibly have had to do any of it, but to question the veracity of everything he said to me: if he used his real name, and if he was in Eastern Europe when he first replied to my thread like he said; if he really did have a daughter who died, if it really was 18 years ago, if he was then and is now so devastated by her death that he can rarely bring himself to talk about her. And if he ever had any intention in the first place of meeting me, of letting me ride with him, of letting me just sit… or if that too was part of a story that he liked to tell. Unless he suffered some sort of calamity on his way here, making it impossible to let me know he wasn’t coming, this is what I fault him for: not trolling the internet for a love connection, if that’s indeed what he was doing; not for changing his mind or his plans and backing out, if that’s what he did; but for his indifference to, and willingness to exploit, the feelings of someone who admitted to being vulnerable and fragile; for his callous disregard of what it might cost someone in an emotionally precarious state – to have that hope extended and then mysteriously, abruptly rescinded.

I could be angry with him, I could feel victimized and trodden upon, and indeed I did when June third came and went and with it, that last sliver of hope I’d been clinging to that he’d show up here. But I want to turn this into a gain rather than another loss. I don’t want to use it as ammunition in an arsenal of reasons not to trust people, or not to take risks. In spite of, maybe even because of what I’ve been through in the past 3 years, I want to believe that most people are good, and that people are mostly good, so I’m continually looking for evidence of this. I have no way of knowing what Dave’s reality is, how messed up or charmed his life may be, what might have motivated him to toy with me the way he did, or if in his mind, he was actually doing me a favor by letting me believe that I was talking to someone who knew exactly what I was going through, whether or not I really was, and whether or not he ever made good his expressed intention of coming to see me. I have the power to make it a favor, and remind myself how good it felt to believe I wasn’t alone.

It’s certainly not the first time, nor will it be the last I suspect, that my powers of judgement have misled me. But I still wish we’d met, the same way I wish he’d been the person I thought he was.

If wishes were horses……