It had been almost a year since we last saw each other -- 11 months and 13 days, to be exact. After living together for almost 25 years, my husband and I had decided to try living separately -- first in the same city, then in separate countries, and finally, separate continents. Last September I left Paris, tentatively packed a few bags and arrived in Washington, sure that the distance would do us both good.
We'd met at a party, in the third week of what I expected to be a six-month adventure in Paris. I was hooked the minute he opened his mouth -- he sounded just like Paul McCartney, though I later learned he was from nowhere near Liverpool. All Brits sounded like Paul McCartney to me in those days.
As I was leaving, he whipped out a pen. "Give us your number, then," he said, writing on his open palm. He called later that week, and told me to come by after work "so we can pick up me bike."
Then it hit me. The "bike" he was talking about -- I don't suppose he meant a bicycle built for two?
When I showed up at his place, he asked where I wanted to go for dinner. "I'll let you decide," I said, adding: ''Listen, I've never been on a motorcycle before. If I don't like it, or am too scared, you don't mind if I take a taxi home, do you?"
He gave one of those grunts that I came to know so well. Acknowledging that he'd heard what I'd said, but prepared to totally ignore me.
He lived near Montparnasse, and chose a restaurant on the other side of the river. I dutifully put on my helmet, got myself on the back of the bike and put my arms around his waist. We drove through the Latin Quarter, bustling with commerce and people. We wove in and out of other vehicles and, when he felt like it, drove up onto the sidewalk to avoid pesky traffic or annoying one-way streets.
"You see, never a traffic problem when you have a bike," he turned and said, grinning. Nor, evidently, a parking problem, as he later parked on the sidewalk, next to the restaurant's entrance.
When we got to the river, illuminated by the luxurious apartments along each bank as well as by the bateaux-mouches, we crossed at the Pont du Carrousel. If I wasn't already hooked on his accent, that first motorcycle ride across the Seine clinched it.
Each time after that when he'd ask where I wanted to go for dinner, I had one response: whatever is farthest away.
We had some of our best moments on motorcycle trips, and of course some of our most spectacular fights and dramas. Like the time high on a Greek hillside, when I'd somehow let the map -- our only map -- slip through my fingers. I cried and cried and was sure he'd never take me anywhere again. (A good lunch of moussaka and ice-cold retsina remedied that problem.)
Or the time we were headed to the ferry to England, canvas bag strapped on the motorcycle. Some people in a passing car pointed, laughing. I turned to see the bag in flames, inches from my back. We managed to get it off in time and salvage most of the clothes -- though the smell lingered for days. My husband's precious address book, tinged brown around the edges, survives to this day.
Fast-forward to about six years ago. We were on our way to visit an English friend who ran a bed-and-breakfast in the Cevennes. The left rearview mirror kept spinning around when we went too fast, and the bike was making alarming noises. If I even suggested that it felt scary and dangerous, I got shouted down. "If you don't like motos anymore, then you can just get off," he roared, stopping short of adding the most hateful words he could have said: "Why don't you get yourself a bloody car?"
Riding on the back of a bike, holding on to someone who is weaving in and out of traffic at 120 kilometers an hour, takes total trust. When you lose that trust, it stops being fun. Our motorcycle rides ended soon after that, shortly before I made the decision to move out.
When I arrived in Paris a couple of weeks ago, on a brief trip to sort out some financial matters, I figured my moto-riding days were over. We'd agreed that I would stay in the house, but I didn't expect we would spend much time together.
Over a welcome glass of champagne -- one of our old rituals -- my husband asked where I'd like to go for an afternoon moto ride. Not "if" but "where." We ended up riding along the Marne, alongside families out walking for the day, stopping only for a cafe in a little village. The next day we had a four-course Sunday lunch across from a 13th-century chateau about an hour and a half from Paris.
I felt like a biker again.
A few days later we drove up to visit an old friend in Etretat, a seaside town famous for its cliffs. As we rode up the autoroute, the motorcycle became my madeleine, as I remembered one after another of the trips we'd done, similar trips on equally sunny days, more tense trips as things got more difficult between us. I waved at the other bikers. I relaxed my grip around his waist.
I wondered if we met at a party today, would he write my phone number on his hand? So much had changed since that first ride, so many years ago, but there were too many shared memories -- of good times as well as bad -- for us not to be forever linked.
On my last night in Paris, he asked where I wanted to go for dinner. Once again, 27 years later, I deferred. "You choose," I said, "with one condition. I want to cross the Pont du Carrousel."