Racing hearts

When my motorcycle-racing boyfriend proposed on my 40th birthday, I couldn't tell if it was a joke or a dare. Then I risked all for a life at the track.

Published October 11, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

Imagine: You meet a wonderful man and he falls in love with you. What are the odds? After all, you're nearly 40 and struggling to raise three teenagers on your own. You are moderately successful, but due to monstrous orthodontia bills you still shop at Kohl's. You are neither fashionable nor beautiful; what you are is smart and self-sufficient. And in the dating game, you've found this is a liability more often than it is an advantage.

But here, suddenly, on a rare, rainy winter night, is a sturdy specimen. He is low-voiced and gentle, but clearly intelligent. A man with a job, a full life. He is in software, a "math geek," he says with a charming tinge of embarrassment. But also, it comes out, he has read Dante, Dickens and Cervantes -- in the original Spanish.

You were married to an addict for 14 years. So you watch carefully as the wine is poured, as your date lifts his glass. You see him sip abstemiously, after using the small reading glasses he keeps in his pocket to read the label. He drinks little these days, he tells you, because he's in training.

"For what?" you ask, thinking through various middle-class possibilities. Marathons, mountain biking, the company softball team.

"Motorcycle racing," he answers. And a dangerous flush runs through you.

So you move to a restaurant with this man, where he takes your hand. Asks you what you want from a relationship and you tell him the truth: Saturday nights. Movies, nice dinners and maybe -- you force yourself to meet his sharp, hazel eyes -- with the right person, occasional sex. He takes this in stride, nods, raises his hand for the check, then takes you out to his car where he slips a hand up your skirt and acquaints you with his fast-cornering ways.

On your third date, he takes you to a motorcycle show. The convention center reeks of motor oil and black leather. You meet various long-haired, tattooed people who greet him with great cheer. Afterward, you go to his place and eat the lime-cured salmon ceviche he's prepared. Candlelight flickers, the stereo clicks from Coldplay to Rachmaninoff. He touches you reverently. It is, you think, the perfect affair.

But then, suddenly, this thing begins to move faster. It is like you are riding something that's not within your control. He is around not just on Saturdays, but on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and sometimes Sunday as well. He is teaching your daughter to dirt bike, helping your son with higher algebra, stopping by with grocery bags full of imported cheeses, dark chocolate and red wine.

For your 40th birthday, he whisks you away to New Mexico where he takes you to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum then drives like a demon along curving mountain roads. A sign for Las Vegas appears and he points at it, "Want to get married?" he asks. And you look at him in profile, thrilled with confusion, wondering if this is a joke or a dare.

Summer means racing season. By this time he has made his proposal official and you have accepted. Also, he's begun taking you to club dinners, where the talk is all of throttles and gear. Race weekends are surprisingly long, you discover -- Wednesday night through Sunday -- and involve at least three days of prep work to ready the bikes.

It is the first time you've been apart for four nights in a row since you met. He calls you several times from the track, text messaging "I miss you" in the middle of the night. His friends, he says, are teasing him about being whipped. But he is racing better than ever, shaving two to three seconds off each lap. You are secretly pleased that even at 40, while schlepping kids to and from the YMCA and the shopping mall, you can inspire both recklessness and love.

He arrives home Sunday near midnight with a new beard and a raw quality to his voice, both of which turn you on. You welcome him into your bed, though he is sweat-stained and slimy with axle grease. It's never been better than this.

During the second race weekend, he calls you from the track to tell you one of his friends crashed. You notice that your man sounds odd -- both anxious and strangely high. He's packing the injured man's gear while two other guys accompany him to the hospital. They've all agreed to forgo the last race while waiting to see if their buddy will lose a hand. He says this as if it is a major concession, an act of extraordinary goodwill.

You join the racers at the bar where they eat tacos each Tuesday. It is here that your fianci announces your engagement. His friends raise their glasses and the only other woman at the table leans in to give you a hug. The evening goes on, more beer is drunk. Someone tells a joke: Why do they call it PMS? Because the name Mad Cow Disease was already taken. You draw in a breath that you let out raggedly, almost like a laugh. You think about your 12-year-old daughter who once went dirt biking with this crowd, and remember her, just last month, doubled over with cramps.

Not the sort of person who hides your feelings easily, you are probably quite visibly tense. Aloof behind your plain librarian face. One of the men scoots his chair over next to yours. He is young and handsome, with a wide Tom Cruise grin, which he employs at its fullest wattage now.

"A guy gets to be a certain age, starts to slow down, he starts feeling a little desperate," he says quietly, in your ear. "Suddenly, he's getting married."

You stare at your blood-red glass, realizing at exactly this moment that you are the only one in this entire biker bar who is drinking wine, and blink back tears. The room is awash in '80s music and laughter. You may as well have morphed back 28 years; this is junior high all over again. And you remain the odd, eggheaded girl on the edge.

The third race weekend coincides with your book tour. You have a hotel suite in downtown San Francisco and a car, all-expenses paid by your publisher. You mention once, trying not to sound needy, that your fianci would be welcome to join you but he simply raises his hands and shrugs. "If it weren't a race weekend..." he says.

So you go alone, enjoy your canopied bed and complimentary champagne. Your cellphone rings on a bright, breezy afternoon in California as you are standing on the bay, gazing out at the fortress of Alcatraz. It is he, calling from the track, his tone heavy, morbid, depressed. There was a rainstorm and a flood, the races were canceled, his entire weekend was ruined.

There is a wedding scheduled for the Saturday of the fourth weekend -- a racer who "messed up" (or so you're told), forgetting to inform his fiancie which dates were off-limits. By the time he figured out the ceremony would conflict with an endurance race, it was too late to change it.

"The race?" you ask hopefully.

Your math geek stares at you. He's decided to keep the scruffy beard and seems suddenly unfamiliar. "No." He speaks patiently, as if to a small child. "The wedding. They tried to switch to another date, but the reception hall had already been booked."

You excuse yourself, get a bottle of water, ponder the fact that he offered to plan and book your own wedding and honeymoon. Then you return and sit down with the man who is on your couch reading "Middlesex," your cat lying across his lap. "Did you schedule our honeymoon around race weekends? Is that why we're rushing to get married?"

He lowers his book, nods calmly. "I thought you understood that."

You stand, and in the only act of violence you've committed since leaving your first husband, throw your water bottle at him.

To his credit, he forgives your violence and is himself contrite. To your bewilderment, he remains singularly focused. He offers to move your wedding, absorb all the cancellation fees, and plan something nice for winter. After the racing season is over.

You go away to brood. You calculate the following things: that he is helping your younger son apply to MIT; that he is coaching your autistic son to find a job; that he once fixed your garage door; that he is kind to your parents; that he took your daughter to school on the back of his bike after she sprained her ankle -- lashing her crutches on with bungee cords and performing a few comic stunts for the waiting crowd.

Moreover, you truly love him. Sexy, dirty, dangerous obsession and all. You will marry him as planned, you decide. Take the bad with the good, the yin with the yang. That's what marriage is all about. In fact, as a gesture of supreme solidarity, you will go up to the track and show support for your man the weekend before your wedding.

You show up on a Saturday at the end of summer. It is a warm, golden day and when you walk into the garage he looks up and breaks out into a huge smile. He is happy to see you even though you don't wear American flag short shorts and a spangled halter top, like 98 percent of the other women at the track. You take this as a sign of true love.

There are races all afternoon and evening. You travel from one to the next on the back of the bike of an onlooker -- an elementary school teacher who tells you he's thinking of taking up the sport. You listen, even as the news of a near-fatal crash is broadcast over the P.A. system. Two riders have been transported to the hospital by helicopter; the track is closed until officials can assemble more ambulances on-site.

After dinner, there is a campfire. Your fianci, freshly showered, sits with your hand in his and jokes with his friends in a desultory way. Racing, politics, science. A weirdly sarcastic reference to concentration camps. You stiffen at this last and pull your hand from his, but he barely notices, so focused is he on the conversation.

Back at the hotel, you cry. Your people died in those camps, 6 million of them. He listens to your latent, useless grief and holds you. Moves in and makes love. But the next morning he awakens agitated, irritable and brusque. At 8 o'clock, he says, "Gotta go, the races are starting." And he hurries away, without a kiss, leaving you to drive blearily 180 miles back home.

The wedding is off, you tell him when he returns. You have a career, three children to raise, a set of hard-won values of which you are proud. He turns meaner than you'd ever imagined he could and rages for a while, then drives off into the night and follows with a frantic series of e-mails. He is worried about you. He is sorry. He is done racing, no matter what you decide.

The next day, he pulls up after work and explains that racing is like cocaine. Expensive, destructive, addictive. He wants to quit, to help raise your children, to have a life with you instead.

This is like some kind of fable in which the beginning matches the end. You recall the hailstorm at the end of your last marriage: whiskey, drugs, gambling debts. Never again, you have told yourself. And yet...

This is a truly fine man. Your children have come to love him; they will be torn apart -- again, as they were when their father left -- if he disappears. Your wedding is just five days hence and his arguments are compelling. He was an unencumbered bachelor when he began racing. Circumstances have changed and he is willing to change with them.

You make a date with a couple you trust, motorcycle riders themselves who have been married for 22 years and still treat each other with the utmost respect. They tell you to have faith in your commitment. Romance, disillusionment, joy, they say. This is the endless cycle. So you take a breath and decide to believe.

Your wedding is perfect: a sunny, cool day on Lake Superior. A friend -- licensed by the church of Mother Earth -- marries you. Throughout the entire ceremony, Bach's cello suites play in the background and your 240-pound linebacker son cries.

You leave for your honeymoon by train. Glacier Park, Mont. It is completely remote: no phone, no e-mail. Just the two of you hiking and camping in the mountains. By the fifth day, you are certain you have made the right decision. The man you met in that wine bar so long ago -- the sweet, gentle math geek with the funny pince-nez -- is back.

Day 6, on a side trip to Alberta, you stop at an Internet cafe to download the hundreds of e-mail messages each of you has received. Then you drive to the trailhead where you begin an 11-mile hike. It is on your first water break that he speaks.

"You should know, my friends are talking about us," he says, referring to the racing listserv to which he still subscribes. "Dallas wrote to ask why I'm not racing anymore and Mike posted back saying you laid down the law and if I ever want to have sex again, I have to quit. A few people actually defended you. But overall, it wasn't ... good." His voice is mournful, his bearded face perplexed.

It is late afternoon and the air is beginning to chill, but you flush hot with embarrassment and irrational hurt. You are the mother of teenagers, a woman with a small but respectable literary reputation, and a gang of bikers has been discussing your lovely new marital life via e-mail. Making it sound dirty and ugly. Accusing you of using sex as currency. Essentially calling you a whore.

You open your mouth to say this is not your life, you do not associate with people who talk about women in such a diminishing way. Then see that, in fact, you do: When you married him, you inherited this group as surely as you would have a set of in-laws were his parents not both deceased. You close your eyes and try to adjust to this.

From the glacial valley below a silence rises, thick and clear. And you are simply two tiny people at the top of a gorge, whimsically linked together for life, risking everything, wondering what comes next.

By Ann Bauer

Ann Bauer is the author of three novels, including "Forgiveness 4 You," which the Overlook Press published this month. Follow her @annbauerwriter


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