A young woman travels to France with her boyfriend where she draws the line... and crosses one herself.
Crossing the Finish Line
ZoŽ yawned and eased out of bed. Her leg muscles ached, and she winced at the stiffness in her calves when she hobbled to the bathroom. Standing in the doorway, she shook her head at the mess. Water had leaked around the shower curtain, pooling in front of the tub, around the toilet and beneath the sink. Martin found the European hand-held, high-powered shower heads high entertainment, to say the least, and she reminded herself to remind him to take it easy next time.
The mighty wielder of the shower head was already gone--he had left an hour or two earlier to stake their places along the side of the road, somewhere. It was the last stages of the Tour de France, and ZoŽ had followed him to the Pyrenees for the last few days of it.
Tossing some towels to the floor, she stripped off her clothes and ran water into the tub. She slipped in and moaned. Yesterday’s hike into the mountains had been murderous on her underused hip and leg muscles.
Letting the water run, she leaned back and closed her eyes, her mind lazily drifting over the past days. She had been thrilled when Martin asked her to go to France to see the Tour. Since the Tour ended in Paris, she’d expected to spend a few days there in the bargain. But she soon discovered he was not the least interested in Paris beyond watching Lewis Armbrust win his fourth T de F cup. “I wanna be right there when he crosses the finish line,” he said when their flight landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, his eyes bright. “Right there! I wanna make eye contact.”
They’d arrived three days ago, and had spent two nights on the road before they saw their first race. It had been only yesterday, though it seemed longer to her. They’d found a place to wait, a nice level spot after a long hike uphill from the little inn where they’d stayed. And there they waited. And waited. While people milled and crushed in around them; hundreds of people who had lined the narrow streets of a small mountain village in the Pyrenees, also waiting.
When word rippled through the crowd that the cyclists were on their way, she caught some of the crowd’s mounting excitement. Like the others, like Martin, she craned her head and peered down the street in the direction from which the riders were expected. It was fully two hours after she and Martin had claimed their places, fully two hours of baking in the hot sun after that long hike.
Some policemen on motorcycles came first, and then the cameramen on mopeds. Finally, the cyclists appeared, a few in single file, then fanning out and bunched together in a long fat group. They whizzed past, and seconds later they were gone. All some-hundreds of them. Their trainers and assistants followed behind in cars with spare bicycles and wheels strapped to the roofs. And that was it. Nothing else.
ZoŽ was gravely disappointed.
“Did you see? Did you see?” Martin shouted, pulling on her arm, his smile stretching impossibly across his face. His eyes were round and moist, like a young boy who had just seen Spiderman swing by, webs shooting from his wrists.
“Well…” she attempted. “I saw… something…”
“Did you see Lewis? Did you? Wow… there he was, right there in front of me. I could have touched him!”
_Or tripped up his bike with a stick,_ she thought.
“I think I felt sweat or something hit me in the face.”
She rolled her eyes. “Nice.”
The thrill lingered in the crowd a few moments longer, then one-by-one the spectators began to disperse. A few empty water bottles lay on the roadside, but it was impossible to tell which cyclist had thrown which bottle from the fast-moving amoebic group of racers.
Two men grappled over one of these bottles. “It’s from Beloki!” the shorter one shouted, sweat standing out on his forehead, his hair gone limp and falling over one eye. “It’s mine!”
Others searched along the roadside for more discards--energy bar wrappers, a tattered glove, even an empty mini cola can--from the food bags filled with snacks and drinks from high-paying sponsors that spectators could hold out to the passing racers.
This is what they’d come for, ZoŽ marveled. The expense of prime-season airline tickets to France, scrambling to get passports in time (neither of them had had one), to spend her days hiking up and down mountains in the sunny heat of mid-July, then scurrying to make the next waiting spot for the next stage? All for what again? Thirty seconds of blurred, sweaty, emaciated bodies speeding past on bicycles, and grown men fighting over trash.
Big Hairy Deal.
But maybe today would be different, she thought, turning off the water and swishing soap bubbles over her body. Maybe it would be better.
ZoŽ opened her eyes and looked at her watch in alarm. She had fallen asleep. When she turned off the water and climbed out of the bathtub, the telephone was ringing. “Damn,” she said. Grabbing a towel, she tip-toed across the still-wet floor into the bedroom. She sat on the bed, reached for the phone. “Hello?”
“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Martin.
“I was in the bathroom.”
“What took you so long? I’ve been trying to call you for an hour!”
ZoŽ didn’t appreciate the tone, and closed her eyes with irritation. He hadn’t been so petulant when they first met. In fact, he’d been rather sweet and charming. But this other side of his personality was showing itself more and more lately, and she didn’t like it. She let it slide this time; she didn’t want to start the day with a fight. “What is it, Martin? Did you find something?”
That got him back on track. “I’m a little further up the mountain, away from the main bunch, so it shouldn’t be so crowded this time.”
Martin had a consuming need to get away from the crowd. His crazy notion that he could catch his idol’s eye and that some kind of unspoken exchange would take place--one that would change him forever, binding the two men for life--made ZoŽ’s head spin. She was sure the only thing going through Lewis’s mind--if Martin succeeded in catching his eye at all--would quite likely be, _ Are we there yet?_ Or even, _I think I can I think I can._
She said nothing as he gave directions from the hotel, several blocks from the main road up which the cyclists would ride. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just buy a couple of cheap camping stools and park their butts on the side of the road here, right in town, where they wouldn’t have to walk very far to or from their hotel. The evening before, she’d seen an old man peddling some in front of a quaint Pyrenean pub on a street corner near the main road. When she pointed him out to Martin, he scoffed, blowing smoke through pursed lips in a derisive gesture. Enough said.
She wondered if the man would be there again today, if he had any of those camping stools left. She’d have to check it out.
Hanging up, she dressed and left the room, checking her hair in the little mirror that hung above the dresser. She stepped out of the hotel, looked around her and decided she would get coffee and a bite to eat. So, instead of turning toward the main street as Martin had instructed, she turned left where she thought she’d seen a _brasserie_ the night before, near the place they’d parked their car. By the time she’d found a little bakery (and not the one near their car, which, incidentally, she hadn’t found at all), she’d circled and weaved herself through the convoluted streets of the small medieval town and realized she was lost.
A bag of baguettes under one arm and an _au lait_ in each hand, she swallowed the rising sense of unease that lurked in the periphery of her consciousness. She saw a stone church she thought she’d passed before and wondered if she were going in circles. She should ask someone, she thought, but she didn’t know French. It was a little mountainside village, she reassured herself, and there wasn’t much for her to get lost in, so she walked around and around until she noticed a stream of people heading east. Thinking they would lead her to the main road, where they were surely going to wait for the entourage, she followed.
When she reached the main road, she saw the old man from the night before. He stood in front of the pub, leaning against the wooden rails that sectioned off the courtyard from the sidewalk. As ZoŽ approached him, she saw he wasn’t very old, after all. Middle aged, with leathery, deeply lined skin from a lifetime of cigarettes and sunshine. “_Pardon_,” she said. “_Parlez vous, ah, Anglais?_ Do you speak English?” That much she had learned from Martin.
The man smiled at her, his cheeks pressing into his sparkling eyes. His teeth were startlingly white. “_Oui, madam,_ indeed I do.”
She returned his smile. “I saw you last night selling some stools… some chairs. Do you still have them?”
“_Mais oui._ I have some right here.” He reached behind him, into the small courtyard, and lifted an aluminum camping stool. “You would like one?”
She nodded. “Two, please.”
Money changed hands, and ZoŽ struggled for a few minutes with her burden, juggling the coffees, the bag of food and the chairs, when the man laid a hand on her shoulder. “You have far to go, _madame_?”
“Yes, I do. Somewhere way up that hill.” She pointed toward a vague point up the road with her elbow. Tepid coffee sloshed out of the open cup onto her hand.
The man looked at her carefully a moment, his eyes narrowing, boring into her own, reading her. She shuffled her feet, cleared her throat. He leaned close and she could smell his smoky breath. “I think I have something you may enjoy more than these.” He gestured toward the stools. “You return these, and I will give you something better.” His eyes sparkled again.
“What is it?”
“I farm the land, and make little money. I do what I can to get by,” he explained. He pulled something out of his fanny pack, which he wore slung forward over his pelvis. Taking one of the coffees from her, he slipped a slim object into her hand, folding her fingers over it.
She opened her hand carefully and peered quickly inside, certain of what she held. Smiling broadly, she stuffed the item into her front jeans pocket. “Yes, I think this will do just fine. Thank your for you help. _Merci_.”
The man bowed his head forward slightly, touching his fingers to his brow, returning the coffee.
“Thank you,” she said again, and turned away.
Once on the main street, ZoŽ turned left and followed the road up the mountain, beyond the town limits, thinking about her good fortune, wondering if she would share it with Martin, or keep it for herself. She wiped sweat off her forehead with her wrist, cursing the heat, the effort, that she was so out of shape. After a while, the stiffness in her legs finally began to ease. The road curved sharply to the left. Hills rose high above her on either side and she entered a deep crevasse. The light dimmed and the air cooled. The shoulders of the road were too narrow to walk on and she was forced to walk on the pavement. The bag of bread and cheese had slipped under her elbow and her arm ached pinning it to her side. She hoped a car wouldn’t careen around the curve and sideswipe her.
She rounded the bend, and as suddenly as she found herself in the crevasse, it had opened upon a little meadow, the bright sun blinding her. She looked for Martin but couldn’t see him.
“Hey! Over here!”
She turned and shaded her eyes. “There you are!” she called, walking toward the voice.
“Where were you? What took you so long?”
She paused long enough to control her irritation. “I stopped for some breakfast and got lost.”
Martin made a sound with his tongue. “You got lost? How did you manage to do that?”
“I was looking for a bakery to bring you some breakfast.” She handed him a _au lait_, which he didn’t take.
“I already ate.”
She looked at her boyfriend a moment, and reminded herself to make the day nice. “Well, I didn’t know that, and thought you might like something. Here.” She pushed the _au lait_ at him again.
He took it and sipped through the plastic lid. “Not enough sugar. And it’s cold.”
ZoŽ ignored him. She sat in the grass and opened the bag, tearing a chunk from a baguette, stuffing it in her mouth. “Mmm. Delicious. What fantastic bread. You sure you don’t want some?” She drank from her _au lait_ and took up a wedge of cheese. This meal, she thought, really was delightful.
Martin settled himself next to her and grabbed a baguette. He tore a large mouthful from it with his teeth and grunted. “Tastes like bread to me.”
“Fine, don’t eat it then.” She moved to take the bread from him, but he jerked his arm away. “I thought you already ate, anyway.”
“A little more won’t hurt,” he said around another mouthful of bread. “Gimme some of that cheese.”
She passed him the cheese and leaned back, looking up at the sky. It was a perfect robin’s egg blue. Big clouds floated past, and a light breeze sifted through the long grass. They were at a higher altitude than yesterday, and the air was cooler, but the day, still promised to be hot.
“What are we going to do when we get there?” she asked.
“When we get where?”
“To Paris. After the Tour, what are our plans?”
She sighed. “When the Tour is over, when it finishes up in Paris, what will we do then?”
He paused. “I don’t know. Go back home, I guess.”
“But we’ll be in Paris! We can’t go home right away. We have to see things. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. Walk along the Seine. What’s the point in going, if we don’t see anything?”
Martin looked at her. “What do you mean? We’re here to see the Tour de France? Isn’t that enough? My God, we get to watch Lewis Armbrust in the last and toughest stages of the whole damn thing, and you’re thinking about a _museum_? What do you think we came here for?”
She snuggled closer to Martin, wrapping an arm around his waist, leaning her head against his shoulder. She ran her hands over his love handles. “But Paris is the city for _lovers_. It’s supposed to be so romantic. Don’t you want to walk along the Seine at night, holding hands, have dinner in the moonlight?” She nibbled his earlobe. “We can see the Eiffel Tower…”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
She sighed and let go of him.
“Maybe we’ll catch a water bottle, today,” Martin mused, as if talking about bass fishing in Minnesota. “If you see one, try to get it, will you?”
“Mmm,” she replied. “Sure.”
The day’s stage had begun in another village seventy-five miles away, and the cyclists were expected to arrive within the hour. Martin informed ZoŽ that the riders were only a half-hour behind schedule so far, so that wasn’t too bad. She looked around her. The road had begun to fill with people, which made Martin grumpy. He had been so sure no one would find this place. It didn’t take a wiz to find it, but the hollow was deceptively concealed. She tried to be sympathetic.
Some of the people milling around, ZoŽ had seen before. Some were from their hotel, others she’d seen earlier that morning as she wandered around town. Some of the spectators, she noticed, held American flags. But most were European, taking a few days--or even a few weeks--out of their annual six-week vacations to follow this tour. She marveled at their tenacity, caravanning from mountain to mountain to watch a bunch of sweaty guys zoom past on their bikes, too fast to really see. The grade of this part of the mountain was pretty steep, though, and ZoŽ suspected no one would be traveling very fast right here.
One man in particular caught her eye. She’d definitely seen him before--even on television before they’d left for France, while she was studying up on the event. He was bent over, spray-painting a large white pitchfork on the pavement. He was dressed in a red unitard, sported a red pointed tail and horns, and carried a pitchfork. It was Devil Guy. He was an institution in these parts, frequenting not just the Tour de France, but other European tours throughout the summer. She smiled. Here, at least, was some entertainment. Though he didn’t do much except stand around like everyone else, waving his pitchfork, he was something to look at. And he looked pretty good in that unitard, too, she thought in spite of herself.
She nudged Martin with her elbow. “Hey, he’s here again.” She pointed at Devil Guy as he crossed the street and stood near her.
“Yeah? So? He’s everywhere.”
ZoŽ sighed. Leave it to Martin to let the wind out of her sails. “Yeah, but right here? When he has a good couple hundred miles or more of route to choose from? That’s twice in two days, Martin. Think of the odds!”
But Martin didn’t want to think of the odds. “So what? He’s here. Big deal. We’re not here to see the Devil Guy.” He rose and began shifting from foot to foot. The big moment was coming. He could feel it.
She wanted to hit him. Hard. “Oh yeah,” she said, feeling peevish, “I forgot about Lewis. Shame on me. You know he’s completely doped up, don’t you? They all are. Every last one of them. No one could take these mountains without a little chemical help. Not even Lewis.”
Martin whirled around, furious. “You take that back! No way is that true !”
ZoŽ shrugged, looked evenly at her boyfriend, impressed by this new level of petulance. “Read the papers. I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yourself. Don’t you remember when they surprised Jan Eldritsch with a drug test a few weeks ago, the prince of the German racing team? He said he’d been out clubbing the night before. My ass. And now he’s not in the race, blaming it on a cold. Really, Martin. Open your eyes.”
Having hit her mark, ZoŽ backed down, feeling satisfied. “Okay, Marty. Maybe you’re right. Maybe Lewis is the only exception.”
“Damn straight. I don’t want to hear shit like that again.” He spat on the ground, an action ZoŽ found disgusting and a little antiquated. “Lewis taking drugs. Never heard such bullshit.”
“Calm down. I was just teasing you.”
Martin was silent.
“You really ought to loosen up a bit,” she said. “You’re way too tense.” She rubbed his shoulders, and made up her mind. “C’mon. I’ve got something that’ll help you out.”
Martin didn’t move.
“C’mon. It’ll be good for you. We’ve got plenty of time.” She took his hand and moved toward the drainage ditch. The long grass looked cool and dry there.
He shook his head, pulling his hand out of hers. “No, I don’t want to lose our spot.”
She turned away and headed for the ditch alone. As she pushed her way through the crowd, Devil Guy caught her eye. He nodded at her and smiled. She felt her cheeks color and looked away.
ZoŽ climbed out of the ditch in better spirits and rejoined Martin at the roadside. She hoped no one could smell the sweet-acrid odor of the joint she’d just smoked still clinging to her. She could still smell it, but then she’d been smoking it. Could others smell it, too? When it came right down to it, though, did she really care? That was good-quality pot the farmer had given her, a nice fattie, too. She wondered if he grew it himself, and suspected he probably did.
They held hands, talking quietly, giggling now and then, and she wondered why they couldn’t be like this more often, why it took a fight, or a joint, to get to this part of their relationship.
The crowd was getting nervous, and tension crackled the air. Someone nearby had a radio. “_Ils a rete!_ ” the stranger shouted in French. A buzz of excitement rippled through the crowd.
Martin, squeezed her hand, and grinned. “They’re coming.”
She smiled back, and sniffed the air again. She was sure the smell was gone, now. Wasn’t it?
ZoŽ turned her head and looked toward the chasm. She could hear the crowd on the other side cheering, the sound carrying through the narrow corridor of rock like a vast echo, followed by the rumble of motors. The crowd started to move, people jostling for a place closer to the road, upstaging each other and encroaching on the hot tarmac. Their collective voice was a rhythmic thrum in her head.
Martin was silent, and ZoŽ glanced at him. His gaze was fixed on the opening of the defile, jaw set, the muscles there twitching, his hands clenched. It was this kind of focus that had first drawn Zoe to Martin, the dedication and attention he directed toward his work, his music, all things that inspired his passion. And that was the problem here, she realized. She failed to inspire Martin’s passion. She found the idea strangely liberating.
The drone of the motors grew louder, and a pair of police officers burst forth from the crevasse. The crowd cheered and began clapping. Two more police officers followed then, a U.S. team car, and a pair of cameramen riding on the rear of two mopeds. Someone pushed her, and ZoŽ opened her mouth to say something when the cyclists finally emerged. It was still the beginning of the day’s race and Lewis had not yet established his place at the head of the group. A few riders cycled past, laboring up the steep incline, before she caught sight of the yellow tricot.
Martin grabbed ZoŽ’s shoulder, his fingers digging into the bony flesh there, and pointed. “There he is!”
ZoŽ shrugged out of his grasp. When Lewis reached their part of the road, his head was tilted back as he drank from his water bottle. ZoŽ watched as his elbow rose in slow motion. Then, gripping the bottle cocked at his chest, he thrust his arm outward, side-arm. The bottle left his hand, defining a graceful arc through the air, descending end-over-end until it nailed ZoŽ right on the forehead. She fell backward, people grappling not to catch her fall but scrambling after the discarded water bottle. She fell hard on her butt, a rock digging painfully into her left cheek.
Martin, now bending over her, ignored her reaching hands. “Where is it? Did you see where it went?”
She shook her head, speechless, and rubbed at her forehead.
“Where did it go, dammit? Why didn’t you catch it?”
Slowly, ZoŽ got to her feet, feeling a little unsteady. “I tried to catch it, asshole, but my head couldn’t quite grab it.”
But Martin was already pushing past her into the crowd, scanning the ground for the prize.
ZoŽ stared after Martin, remarkable in his single-mindedness, and made her decision. She turned toward the crevasse and started back toward the hotel.
Nearly all the cyclists had worked their way past the crowd, deeper into the mountain. ZoŽ eased past the crush of spectators, already dispersing, and was almost to the mouth of the chasm when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Without turning, she closed her eyes and said, “Look Martin, I’ve had it. I’m leaving.”
“Where are you going?” The voice was deep, full of humor. And not Martin’s.
ZoŽ turned around to see Devil Guy smiling crookedly at her, a red-white-and-blue water bottle held loosely in his hands. “I, uh… I thought you were my boyfriend.”
He nodded, and held out the water bottle. “I think this belongs to you.”
She looked at it, but did not take it. “If that’s what I think it is, I don’t want it.”
He withdrew his hand, but did not reply.
“You can just give it to that guy over there.” She pointed to the curly mop of shoulder-length hair that was Martin’s. He stood where she had left him, but now he was looking at her, watching her talk with the Devil Guy. He made no move toward them.
Devil Guy nodded again, but didn’t turn to look.
“You’re American.” ZoŽ said.
“Yes. From Montana. I have a ranch there.”
She raised her eyebrows. “A ranch? You a cowboy?”
“You might say that.”
“You must be doing pretty well if you spend your summers touring Europe to watch bike races dressed in a devil costume.”
“You might say that, too.”
“And I might also say you look pretty silly doing it.” She smiled to lighten her words, and was rewarded by a low chuckle.
“There’s a story behind that, and maybe I’ll tell you about it some time. Where are you from?”
She glanced at Martin over Cowboy-Devil Guy’s shoulder, and continued down into the chasm. The air here cooled her skin, and she touched her fingers to her forehead, grimacing. She would have a goose egg there by evening. “I’m from Chicago.”
“You didn’t answer me,” he said. “Where are you going, if you’re leaving your boyfriend behind?”
She hadn’t thought it out beyond simply packing up and leaving the hotel, but now she said, “Paris, first, though I have no idea how I’m going to get out of here without a car. It’s rented in his name.”
Cowboy-Devil Guy smiled white even teeth through a tanned face. The corners of his eyes crinkled deeply. “You’re welcome to ride with me. I could use the company.”
Now it was ZoŽ’s turn to nod. She let a beat or two go by, weighing her options, before she said, “What about the Tour?”
“That’s no problem. You see one Tour, you’ve seen them all.” He lowered his voice and spoke into her ear. “Besides, we all know Lewis will win again. He’s got some mighty good doctors workin’ for him, don’t he?”
She grinned up at him--he was rather tall--and held out her hand. “My name’s ZoŽ Fisher, and you’ve got yourself a travel companion. As long as you change out of that costume, first.”
He laughed, taking her hand in his and gripping it firmly for a moment before letting it go. “Len Parker,” he said. “Pleased to meet you. And it’s a deal. No costume.”
Together, they walked to the hotel where she had stayed with Martin. He left her to pack her things, and by the time she exited the hotel, he was leaning against his car, legs crossed at the ankles, waiting for her. He wore jeans, a denim shirt, cowboy boots and held his well-worn cowboy hat in one hand, the other tucked into the front pocket of his jeans. Her step faltered. He was very handsome, and suddenly looked very much a man, and not a benign oddfellow in a devil costume. She wondered again if she was doing the wise thing, and stopped herself. Of course she wasn’t. But look at him! She recovered herself and took a deep breath.
Len smiled down at her, and her heart fluttered. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
He put her bags in the back seat and opened the passenger door. She slid in and he closed it after her. When he got in on his side, she smiled at him just so he would flash those teeth at her again. He started the car and they moved slowly through the throng of people still returning from the roadside.
When they were on the road, heading north through the Pyrenees toward Paris, she said, “So tell me the story about the devil costume.”
Len laughed his deep, hearty laugh, sending a thrill through ZoŽ’s body. “Well, let’s see. I suppose it began with my brother’s kid. He loves bicycle racing. Always had. Crazy about it.”
“How old is he?”
“Now? Twelve. But a few years ago, he wanted me to take him to see the Tour de France. Of course, he was too young. So, I said I would go alone and he could see me on TV. I’d wear something special, and then he’d know I was there for him. He was so tickled I did it again the next year. And the year after that.” He paused. “But he’s getting older, and I suppose he can start coming with me pretty soon…”
“That’s very sweet of you. You know you’re an institution now. If you ever stopped coming as Devil Guy, you’d be missed.”
Len nodded. “I suppose I would be. But it would be damned nice not to wear that thing anymore. Downright embarrassing”
ZoŽ laughed. Len droned on in his deep, Montana-accented voice, and as ZoŽ listened with contentment, staring out the car window. For the first time since her arrival she could marvel at the amazing beauty of the French countryside. That it was so different from, yet so similar to, her own Midwestern environs amazed her. She saw little villages nestled in valleys and on hillsides, villages that had existed for centuries and huddled together in little clusters around churches and cathedrals, all artfully preserved or built on the foundations of the original buildings. The age of it all baffled her, boggled her mind. Even the most ramshackle hovels embodied the dignity of the past. She shuddered, anticipating what Paris might be like.
How could Martin have been so blind to all this beauty? But then, she in turn had failed to appreciate the significance of this Holy Grail of cycling tours, and in that alone Martin had found her wanting. So, she figured, things evened out that way.
It was risky letting this stranger pick her up and drive her off into the sunset. She was no dummy, though. In the hotel she’d left a note for Martin, “I left with the Devil Guy. His name is Len Parker and he’s a rancher in Montana. Sorry things turned out this way.” She then called her own phone and left a message on the answering machine to the same effect. Just in case. But she had a good feeling about Len and knew that, even if they never saw each other again after Paris, they would have a good time in each other’s company right now and have something to remember on lonely nights.
She turned away from the window to look at Len as he spoke. He was handsome, friendly, and so far quite pleasant to be around. He had a smile always at the ready, and ZoŽ liked that. A lot.
“Yee-haw,” she thought to herself. Lance wouldn’t be this year’s only winner.