It is cold and raining and I’m pedalling my bike up a steep, muddy road outside Monpazier, France. One of those annoying songs runs repeatedly through my mind, like a gerbil in a treadmill cage-one I learned in Girl Scouts, but I can only remember the first two lines: Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.
In spite of the temperature, I’m sweating from exertion. The sweat mingles with the rain, runs down my neck, drips into my eyes. I try to brush it away, but my fingers are frozen into the shape of the handlebar grips. Make new friends but keep the old…
Just ahead of me through the mist is the black spandex of my best friend’s derriere. I hear her labored breath…or is it my own? We’re both too winded to speak, and that’s probably a good thing.
Since this trip began, Kate’s done nothing but complain. It’s too cold. It’s too rainy.
Okay, this much is true, but stating the facts repeatedly will not alter the weather.
She hates her bicycle.
Strictly a personal problem.
We’re riding too slowly..
I wasn’t aware that we were in training for the Tour de France.
I’m taking too many pictures.
For me that’s part of vacation.
The coffee’s too strong.
The coffee is wonderful.
And, my personal favorite—Steve (her husband) snores too much.
Like she never slept with him before?
Thirty minutes ago at the bottom of what I’ve come to hope is the last hill in France, she went off on the weather again. It startled her when I threw down my bike.
“Hey, space pod…” I tried to make it sound halfway joking. “When are you going to bring back my best friend? The one you kidnapped last Monday.”
I thought, but didn’t say, the one you replaced with this witch on wheels.
Knowing me as well as she does, I didn’t have to say it. She clamped her mouth into a thin line, got on her bike and started grunting. I picked mine up out of the mud and followed.
At the top of the hill, a rustic wooden sign announces the farm “le Tronc.” In a gravel courtyard other cyclists from our group are shedding rain gear and walking their bikes into the ancient stone barn.
“Bonjour! Bienvenue!” M. and Mme LaParre wave us inside the farmhouse where two sweet-faced dogs sprawl in the doorway. In the handsome dining room with its welcoming fire, our husbands are already seated.at a long wooden table with the rest of the group.
We remove our bike gloves, stash them inside our helmets, and join the party. I know I look like a drowned rat, hair plastered to my scalp, but nobody looks exactly like a fashion photo. Nobody even comes close, except Kate. God, she’s annoying. Her fine blond hair frames her face in ringlets. Her cheeks are rosy, while my complexion looks like W.C. Fields after a binge. Tiny droplets sparkle on the tips of her lashes, while my husband Ben leans over, smiles, and gently suggests that I blow my nose.
Steve, her husband, starts to pull a tiny camera out of his pocket, but Kate freezes him with a look.
“Take a picture of me now, and you’re toast.” She says it through her smile, like a bad ventriloquist.
“Don’t you girls want a before and after shot?” Ben asks.
“Before and after what?” Someone chimes in from down the table.
Kate and I avoid looking at each other.
Fortunately everyone else is talking and laughing, and our silence is lost in the conversational eddies swirling around us.
From the cubby hole kitchen, Madame LaParre produces a delicious lunch for 28 people that would sustain a team of tri-atheletes: steaming courgette soup, omelette of wild mushrooms, crusty sauteed potatoes and grilled duck breast, salad, cheese plate, Black Forest cake, gallons of local red wine, followed by espresso and M. LaParre’s own homemade eau de vie.
In the face of this bounty, Kate and I regain our camraderie. We eat and drink with abandon. We have conveniently forgotten that we must get on our bikes and ride back to Montpazier.
In 1989 I was a pending divorce statistic. My first husband and I had split, and I was waiting for the decree to become final in Houston, where he was already living the life of Bachelor Number One. One evening after my weekly appointment, I went with my therapist to a quiet local bar for a glass of wine, and the first thing I saw as my eyes adapted to the dim light was my soon-to-be ex and a rather fetching redhead playing tonsil hockey in a corner booth. That’s when I decided to put in for a transfer to the newly opened Denver office of Delta Airlines.
In less than thirty days I’d rented an apartment in Aurora, an innocuously bland suburb on the east side of Denver-well, I liked the name. It felt promising-sold everything I didn’t have an immediate need for, packed the rest of it, and moved to Colorado.
Everything in the reservations office still smelled new and clean. Most of the staff was my age or younger, and the general atmosphere was a bit like the French Foreign Legion. People had been recruited from offices all over the country to work there. Some were like me-running from memories. Others were just adventurous or bored with their former lives.
But I had little interest in socializing, even with the other women. Most of my days ended at home in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine and Mona, my basset hound, the television flickering silently in the corner. Without any real awareness, I was probably skating pretty close to the black hole of serious depression. By December, I’d politely declined so many invitations that they finally ceased to be extended and I viewed the approaching holidays with dread.
It’s always seemed that Kate and I became friends because of the elevator in our building. It was tempermental and creakingly slow and on a Monday morning two weeks before Christmas, she and I waited impatiently for it together. While we chatted, she suddenly asked if I had plans for the weekend.
When I said no, she asked me to go to a wine tasting she and her (then) husband Rob were giving Saturday night. I opened my mouth to give my standard polite excuse, but at that moment I realized that I couldn’t face another Saturday night alone. I accepted the invitation almost before she finished giving it, and after that we were inseparable.
We liked the same books and music and movies and food and wine.
She took care of Mona when I was out of town. Her daughter called me Aunt Fran. All through her divorce, I was an arm’s length away with wine or hot tea, a willing ear and the tactful (I thought) advice of a battle-scarred veteran. Once I even introduced her to a man I’d enjoyed dating, on the theory that good men are scarce and should be recycled.
Eventually she married Steve and moved to St.Louis. A couple of years later, I moved to L.A. and found Ben. Even so, hardly a week went by without at least one telephone conversation. We visited back and forth in each other’s homes. But in all this time, we had never taken a trip together.
Since Kate and Steve and Ben and I spent at least 50 per cent of our time together eating and drinking, or discussing wine and food, a bike trip through the Bordeaux region of France seemed a perfect vacation for the four of us. With the Canadian tour company Butterfield & Robinson, we could cycle at our own pace, stay in wonderful chateaux and inns, eat and drink to excess, and rely on tour guides to schlep the luggage and finesse the details.
Because she and I worked for an airline and I had travelled extensively, I was surprised to discover that Kate had never been out of the U. S. If I had thought about it, I might have wondered why.
The question was easily brushed aside in my delight at being the one to introduce her to France. I’ve been an unabashed Francophile since the French waiter in my parent’s favorite restaurant kissed my twelve-year-old hand. In high school and college I studied French language, history and literature, and spent nearly every vacation exploring the French countryside.
Outside Limeuil, the clouds are shot through with molten sunlight. The rain hasn’t stopped so much as paused. The clean smell of wet stone that comes on the breeze tells us we are nearing the Dordogne River, but I’m not prepared for the sight.
The pavement deserts us to the left, and we dismount, walking our bikes along the old gravel road that arcs to the right around a low green hillock. And there it is. Mists rise, then disperse. Willows and sycamores crowd the banks and, behind them, soaring pale cliffs of limestone reflect the morning sun. Only the churning green water weaves a thread of tension through the tapestry. I lean my bike against a tree and rummage in my pack for the camera.
Through the lens I see a stage set for the Hundred Years War. The bastide or fortified town of Limeuil sits atop the cliffs at the confluence of the Dordogne and the Vézère. From its vantage point the whole valley is visible, including of course, the river traffic. Who would control this region must hold Limeuil. Not surprising, then, that the surrounding fields were heavily watered with the blood of English invaders and French defenders.
I wander back and forth with the camera, testing the light, framing scenes from every angle, clicking off shot after shot until with sudden insight I realize my effort is doomed. Ben says, “Let me take a picture of you and Kate. Go stand over by the river.”
We clamber up on a rock and stand, bike helmets tilted together, arms across each other’s shoulders, comrades in adventure.
One January I succumbed to a particularly virulent strain of flu the same weekend that the biggest blizzard in recent memory blew into Denver. I had little food in the house and I was afraid that my kitchen pipes would freeze and burst, but I did not have the strength to get out of bed long enough to address either problem. The snow, which had begun Friday night, drifted in front of my doors until I was hard pressed to even clear a space to let Mona outside.
Kate called to check on me Saturday morning. I told her I was fine, but my voice must have sounded pretty pitiful. That afternoon as the storm dwindled to flurries, I heard a scraping at my front door. Mona sniffed excitedly at the widening crack, wagging her tail and barking. Suddenly the door burst open in a shower of snow revealing Kate and Steve. Between them they carried a large box filled with containers of soup and loaves of bread.
“How on earth did you get through?” I was nearly sobbing with relief.
“The magic of 4 wheel drive,” Steve grinned.
He built a fire and brought in more wood. Then he cleared my walk and wrapped the pipes with old blankets while Kate tidied the house and fed me hot chicken broth and dry toast with an aspirin chaser. After he left, she and I wrapped ourselves in quilts and spent the night dozing and talking in the glow of the fire.
Dinner at the Chateau de la Treyne should be the stuff of dreams. But even the blaze in the immense fireplace cannot take the edge off the chill at our table. Kate points out to Ben that he’s eating too fast and using too much salt. She tells me how many fat grams are in each course. The exquisite Champagne we’ve ordered is turning to ashes in my mouth.
Not content with the miserable evening, my mind stubbornly keeps replaying the events of the miserable afternoon, the way Kate rode off without a word in Souillac. Some time later Steve rode up beside me and asked,
“Have you seen Kate?”
“Not in awhile,” I said. “We thought she was with you.”
A cold and raw twilight was coming on rapidly, and we were already running behind our scheduled arrival time at the Chateau. Afraid that Kate might be hurt or had problems with the bike, the three of us spent an hour riding side roads through tiny villages looking for her.
We could hardly see each other in the darkness when at last the B & R van caught up with us, and our guide Mary shouted,
“Okay, you laggards, hop in or you’ll miss a fabulous dinner.”
“We’re looking for Kate,” I said.
Mary seemed surprised. “She’s at the Chateau. She said she was too cold to wait for you all.”
I couldn’t even look at Steve because he’d have seen that I was furious.
Most of our post-dinner evenings on this trip have been spent in cozy parlors sipping port or cognac and wondering contentedly what the peasants are doing. Tonight I cannot wait to get back to our room for my long overdue hot soak. Ben and Steve decide to have a drink. Kate wanders down the hall pretending to study the paintings of ancestors and landscapes.
I’m floating among mounds of bubbles, almost dozing, letting at least the physical pain seep from my legs and back, when I hear the key turn in the lock. Ben smiles from the doorway.
I sit up, my chin just at the rim of the huge old tub. He comes over and sits down on the little stool, rolls up his sleeves, and begins to soap my back. I feel so comforted that tears well up and spill out of my eyes, making little salty holes in the bubbles that surround me.
“Ben, what’s happening? Why is she acting so weird?”
My husband is often slow to answer my questions, it being his habit to thoroughly test several responses in his mind before saying anything aloud. Tonight he takes even more time than usual. I’m about to ask him again when he gives a thoroughly male sigh.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know.”
“Did Steve say anything?”
Okay, a dumb question. Who’d expect a couple of guys to sit around discussing their wives’ emotional crisis? I should know better, but it’s an indication of how bereft I’m feeling.
“Maybe she’s just feeling a little insecure right now,” he offers.
“You know…she’s in a foreign country for the first time in her life. Everything’s strange; she can’t speak the language…”
“That’s ridiculous. She’s surrounded by friends and people who get paid to be helpful. Why should she feel insecure? And why is she being so horrible to me? I’m…I was…”
Instead of answering, he dips the sea sponge in the water and squeezes it over my shoulders. Then he dries his hands, gets up and goes into the bedroom and I lay back, letting the water enfold me. Suppose he’s right? What else could explain her behavior? Other than a multiple personality disorder.
I recall those years in Denver when I thought we had the perfect friendship. Kate was easily the most attractive woman in the office. Not simply pretty, she had a directness, a friendliness that engaged both men and women. Everyone wanted to be her friend, so I was pleased and flattered that she chose to be friends with me. She was also the most senior res agent in the office-consulted and deferred to even by the supervisors.
After crawling up out of my depression, I was happy to be caught up in the social vortex that was Kate, oblivious to thoughts of who was the alpha dog. It didn’t seem to matter.
Ben calls from the four-poster, “Don’t think about it too much. You’ll turn into a prune.”
The spring before the trip Steve and Kate came and spent a weekend at our house so we could plan logistics and attend a travelogue on the Périgord, as the Dordogne region was called before the French Revolution changed all the old département names.
Saturday evening we fixed dinner at home. Steve and Ben occupied themselves with the grilling of a Vouvray-marinated pork roast while Kate and I worked on a salad of black beans, red peppers and rice. We sipped chardonnay and tried not to cry as we chopped onions and gossiped about people we knew from the old office.
Steve wandered in holding a beer and stood watching us. A cooling breeze from the ocean blew through the jalousied windows and our next door neighbor’s stereo entertained the neighborhood with early Bruce Springsteen. Then Steve said,
“Now, Kate, look how she’s chopping those onions. That’s how it should be done. It’s much more efficient than the way you’re doing it.” He paused and smiled, looking from her to me with proud male logic, ignorant of his tactical blunder.
I could almost feel Kate gritting her teeth.
I set down my knife and looked at him. “Steve, have you ever thought of the diplomatic corps?”
“No…” A look of confusion replaced the smile.
“Good,” I said. “Don’t.”
Now Kate was trying not to laugh. “Honey, why don’t you go see if Ben needs help with the grill.”
“I think I’ll just go see if Ben needs some help with the grill.” He backed out of the kitchen. The screen door banged shut, and Kate’s eyes met mine in a look of perfect understanding.
We laughed as she gave me a high five.
The trip is over. We leave Kate and Steve in Paris, where our return becomes a nightmare of delays and missed connections because of a French Rail strike. We finally land at LAX on a gorgeous October afternoon, exhausted and suffering from vacationers’ re-entry syndrome.
Several days pass before I speak to Kate. Finally I call her. She sounds cheerful but distant. We both act as if nothing is wrong. Interestingly, neither of us mentions this fabulous trip from which we have just returned. We talk about the weather, our jobs, our husbands, her daughter…everything but us.
I want to shout, “What’s going on?” But I don’t. And neither does she. After the second or third long silence, she says,
“Well, I’d better let you go. Say hi to Ben. I’ll call you next time.”
I hang up, feeling empty. No, I feel full. Like my chest will burst from sadness. This is silly. Call her back right now and tell her how you feel. I get as far as the area code before I gently replace the receiver. I can’t tell her how I feel when I don’t know myself. Am I angry at her? Or at myself? What is she guilty of… other than failing to be who I want her to be–who I thought she was?
The following day the photos come back from the lab. I pour myself a glass of the Haut Brion we brought home and sit down to look at them. There’s the obligatory airport send off picture. Ben and me at a cafe in Paris. The four of us on the TGV heading for Bordeaux. The hotel at Monpazier. The farmhouse with the dogs. Steve changing Kate’s tire in the rain.
The river. I have to smile. The pictures turned out just as I envisioned them-flat, grey, boring. No rush of water, no rising mists, no history, no ghosts.
The next photo is the one Ben took of Kate and me on the rock. It’s really good. Maybe I should have a copy made and send it to her. Maybe she’d look at it and hear all the things I want to say but can’t. Maybe she’d call me and we could talk about it. Or just talk. The way we used to.
I stare at the image, as if by isolating each detail I might spot the answer, like those puzzles in children’s books. Can you find the hidden friend in this picture? Kate and me on the rock, heads together, arms entwined, silly smiles. Sunlight pouring through the clouds. And behind us, the murky Dordogne racing to meet the Vézère.
I’m unaware that I have been singing softly to myself until the song ends.
Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.