He plugged in the cable attached to my helmet, checked to be sure my visor was shut tight. Turning to his motorcycle, he straddled it, lifted and centered it, started the engine. I stepped on to the foot pedal and lifted my other leg high over the backrest, hoisting myself into the seat behind my friend Sebastian. I squeezed my arms around him to let him know I was good to go, forgetting that we had the benefit of being wired, allowing us to listen to music (Buena Visa Social Club and Madeline Peyroux) and to chat back and forth during the ride.
“Does that mean you’re ready?” he said.
We pressed through the light Sunday traffic, stopping and idling and starting again, weaving in and out of the lines of cars, splitting the lanes to move ahead. We weren’t overly impatient, but we both felt sense of urgency to get to the open road.
How long since I’d been on a motorbike? A while, maybe four years. It was in Milan, one unseasonably summer-like March evening, and in fact, it was on a Honda Phateon with Sebastian’s father. I was on my way to Rome, but stopped to see his dad, who had reason to be sad, and though I explained the visit as a gesture to cheer him up, it turns out that I was the one that needed to be reassured that he was okay. The night was too warm not to take out his motorcycle; he drove through the streets as only a seasoned-in-Italy driver can. The sky was clear, the moon friendly, summer felt close and everything was, eventually, going to be okay.
Stream of consciousness is like a river that flows where it wants, and one Italian motorbike memory becomes the tributary to another. I was a junior in college. He looked like Eric Clapton. Where did I meet him? Outside the Uffizi? Or near the Accademia where I’d stared up at the David for hours? I was only in Florence for a few days, but it was enough time to find a local guide with two wheels. Imagine being twenty, on the back of a Vespa with a handsome local; it’s a Rosetta Stone commercial waiting to happen. One night we sped out to Siena, winding roads with poplars silhouetted against the not-quite-night sky, the full hue of dusk my favorite shade of indigo.
Which made me think of another Italian ride, nearly a dozen years later, in my early thirties. Not on a bike, but in the back of a very fast car that my college roommate – who was visiting for a few weeks to Thelma-and-Louise with me through France, Switzerland and Italy – and I had no business being in. The owner and driver of the flashy automobile was someone we’d met a few hours earlier, flirting at a restaurant. Visiting the Termé de Petriolo seemed like a fine idea – “Just think of Rob and Laura Petrie,” my friend said to me, when I asked her for the third time where they said we were going – until we were speeding around narrow curves at a velocity much faster than was prudent. There were two conversations going in my head, at 150 kmh. The first voice, the father’s daughter, wondering how the hell I’d gotten myself in the back of this car in the middle of nowhere in the hands of two men unknown to us before, traveling at speeds that were putting our lives at risk. The other, watching the headlights skim across the rocks and cliffs as our car twisted through Tuscan hairpin turns, thinking this is thrilling and if I die here, at least I’ll go out having a marvelous adventure.
Hot springs have healing properties and it turns out they sober you up, too. Remarkably, no harm of any kind came to any of us, there was only laughing and swimming and then a more reasonable drive back to the city as the sun was rising and we found a café to have an espresso before we were dropped at our hotel.
I shudder to think how ridiculously dangerous that was, and how absolutely alive I felt through the entire experience and how it really did all turn out okay. My father always said I was naive enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but smart enough to get myself out. Lucky might be another word. Either way, I hope something more than this lucky intelligence is passed on to the next generation of daring girls.
What risks you can take when you’re young and single. I can’t do that now. I’m a parent.
Sebastian put the brakes on and I lurched forward against his back. “Sorry,” he said, but I knew he wasn’t being reckless. A car ahead had changed lanes and everyone’s brake lights had flashed. But he wanted to reassure me, probably because of the sharp intake of breath he’d heard, picked up by my microphone and sent to his headset, “we’ll be out of the city traffic soon.”
“I’m okay,” I told him, “I know that you know that I need to get home to my kids.”
This is what parenting does to you. It makes you worry about things that didn’t trouble you before. I makes you skittish. It makes you nervous. It makes you say affirmative, cautious things like, “I know you’ll get me home safely,” because now that you have offspring, the desire to be reckless, or worry-free, is muted, hampered by the hormones of responsibility. I have to be careful to stay alive to help them grow up, and not to scar their childhood with an untimely departure. I can’t die in some silly, tragic motorcycle accident on a curvy mountain road; I’m somebody’s mother.
Riding tandem on a motorcycle is a gentle team building exercise. It’s easy to hold on too tight at the start, to be uncertain. You need time to get used to being on this particular bike with that particular driver. But soon enough, driver and rider find a synchronicity. Maybe the rider gets used to it and relaxes and the driver feels that and relaxes, too – or vice versa. Soon the two are leaning into curves as one, like Astaire & Rogers, dancing lightly around the winding turns of even the most serpentine mountain roads.
Which is how my friend Sebastian and I rode to and from Martinborough, an hour’s drive away. Together we drank in the stunning New Zealand scenery, the music, the conversation, the good weather. He was the designated driver and I was the designated wine taster. There was nothing dangerous about the day. It was all pleasure.
Still, even with our prudence, I had a moment on the back of his BMW F650 CSA. A swift, noisy acceleration to pass a car so we could speed ahead unhampered, Ry Cooder sliding his way through the speakers, the famed super moon rising on the violet horizon, it was one of those but if I died now, at least I’d die happy moments.
With little ones around, the prevailing thought is I can’t die yet. The survival instinct is heightened beyond my own desire to keep living. I cannot imagine not seeing them through their puberty and into adulthood, not to mention I’m too damned curious about who they’ll become to leave the theater this early. Devil-may-care days are gone for good; there’s something else at stake once you’ve become a parent, something else at stake other than you and the thrill of your own wild moment.
But it’s nice, just for a few seconds, leaning into that hairpin turn, with the sun on your back and the open road ahead, to know that a few risks, in moderation, can still be taken. The key is to take that not-afraid-to-live-fully feeling home, and infuse it in the first big hug that wraps around those children.
And then, when they’re older and they want to go to Italy on their own, just not to think about it too much.