Similar to a bike ride, a relationship is full of fast sections interspersed with hills and spills. Szifra and I met when we were both recovering from relationships that had hit gravel and spun out. Mine from a misalignment of personalities. Hers from the sudden death of her husband. Our bid to couple, and eventually to marry, was her third and my fourth attempt.
The day we met neither of us had ever ridden a tandem bike. Our first ride, three months later, was my birthday present to her. The day we met He had been dead over a year and a half.
Our early relationship was full of negotiations as we attempted to coordinate our cultures, family and personal. Szifra had previously celebrated forty-eight birthdays before our first together. She had a tradition of trying new experiences to mark her day. One birthday she’d gone to a small, exclusive village north of Boston where horse farms proliferated. She and a friend attended a polo match. Another time she’d taken an intracity bus into Boston and eaten at a new fusion restaurant. There had also been movies, concerts, and plays.
Each birthday was a celebration of adventure, a sampling of some indulgence or subculture, a thing to check off her curious-about list. When her forty-ninth birthday came around, she didn’t have an idea ripe enough to tempt her. In the past, when clarity refused to appear, she asked someone else to choose from her list or to surprise her. Surprises weren’t the key attribute she looked for. Sometimes just having someone else make a choice from her options was the gift.
During the weeks before that first shared birthday, Szifra told me about her ritual and mused about possibilities for her upcoming day. Renting a tandem was one of several things she mentioned. The idea had no particular genesis she could remember. Somewhere she’d seen a tandem and thought, “That would be fun!” In the end, she couldn’t choose a birthday activity from her list and asked me to arrange something. I asked, “Do you want to be surprised?”
“Sure! Or no. It doesn’t matter. Sure!”
Tandems have been around almost as long as single bikes. They were manufactured starting in 1898 and have been a fixture of the pedaling scene ever since. But tandem dealers are few and far between. I found only one, which sold and rented the big bikes, within thirty miles. That spring neither Szifra nor I knew there was an active, quirky subculture of riders of the over six-foot-long machines. Years later we met teams from nearly every nearby Massachusetts Middlesex County village and town.
During our early days my modest income and mortgage payments demanded I live within a careful budget. The bike shop I found rented tandems for $100 per day—my normal birthday present for someone I’d only been with a few months topped out at $25. But the chemistry of Szifra enticed me to splurge. At the beginning of our improbable relationship, we kept stumbling over many things that had the potential to cool our heat. His lingering presence was certainly one. I didn’t think about it consciously, but the bike-rental fee was a small investment in keeping the hungry-for-each-other fires burning bright.
The morning of her birthday threatened rain. I drove fifteen miles the opposite direction from her house, which was twenty-five miles from mine, to pick up the arranged rental bike. The dealer was located in an older brick building on a street of small shops. Inside were a menagerie of bicycles-built-for-two. A row of fast looking road tandems stood on either side of the narrow showroom—sexy curved handlebars announced they were road bikes. I stood alone in the shop, breathing in the smells of new rubber and grease. A black frame—the crux of a bike, without wheels or handlebars—dangled from a tripod work stand. New parts, chrome and colorful, hung on the walls behind the parked bikes whose bright blue, deep red, muted orange, and stark white paint jobs sparkled in the bare florescent lights.