Although my life has had a somewhat singular focus recently – breast cancer, getting rid of it and recovering from the getting rid of it – life does still keep going on and on. Kids still get colds and stay home from school. We still have to pay bills and we have to argue with the cable company. Birthdays, anniversaries, events still come and go.
I’ve always been in tune with patterns and dates, taking note of what I was doing this time last year, five years ago, 20 years ago. Sometimes Facebook reminds me with a picture of my girls when they were so tiny, or a video of them doing something cute or funny. These Facebook memories make me smile and bring back a flood of memories.
But sometimes a date pops up that doesn’t need a Facebook memory to be significant. Often it’s a date that is no longer appropriate to celebrate, like a deceased friend’s birthday, my parents’ wedding anniversary when they’ve been divorced longer than the 25 years they were married. Or something that was never a celebration in the first place, like the day my grandpa died or the day I got divorced. But I still take note of the dates, and I remember, enjoying a silent celebration, a smile, or a moment of sadness at the memory, and sometimes I reach out to one of the people who shared the day and understand its significance.
Today is one such date. November 8th, the 16th anniversary of the day that I met my ex-husband, Matt – Camryn and Kate’s dad – in a dusty schoolyard in Gila Bend, AZ, a life-changing day, no matter how you look at it, and regardless of the fact that we are no longer married and each happily remarried. If it wasn’t for that meeting, we wouldn’t have our two beautiful daughters and I would probably not have become a Christian. I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It’s hard not to celebrate a day like that. It’s amazing how a single moment can change the course of a life. My life has had many of those moments. Has yours?
Here’s an excerpt from the “shitty” first draft of my memoir, Believe, that I wrote many years ago. It’s the scene of that day 16 years ago, when I met him after riding 75ish miles on a bicycle, and the next day as we rode back together. The details are less clear now, and if I was writing it from today’s perspective, there might be different things that stand out as important than the ones I shared when I wrote it. But I’m glad I wrote it down back then, even though the writing makes me cringe just a little. I don’t know if this scene or a version of it will be included in the final draft of the memoir that I’m working on now, but it was on my mind and I wanted to share it since this may be the only place this particular version is ever published.
November 8, 2003
I take a bite of the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I have ever tasted: the bread is soft and moist and it’s bursting with sticky grape jelly and smooth salty peanut butter. I can almost feel my blood sugar perking up and my muscles start to suck up all these good carbohydrates and protein. Always watching my weight, I internally rejoice at the realization that I probably burned like 2000 extra calories today riding my bike, and I’ve only eaten a few energy bars, some banana halves, a turkey sandwich at lunch, and a packet of chocolate Gu! Surely I must have lost a few pounds in all those hours! If I’ve ever earned a meal, I have today. A glob of jelly plops down on my leg. I look down in an exhausted haze at my aching, tingling legs. They don’t look any leaner, but maybe a little tanner, or is that just a layer of sweat and grime?
My right calf has a little bit of chain grease on it, a rookie mark, my cycling buddies in college used to call it. I smile as I remember buying the purple Cannondale road bike in Tucson 10 years earlier. I shouldn’t be such a rookie anymore, I think, but I imagine that Bruce, my boss at the University of Arizona’s “Outdoor Adventures” and the other guys I worked with there who helped and encouraged me to get into cycling, would be pretty proud if they could see me now. I wonder where they all ended up. OA was such a fun job. I got to lead all kinds of outdoor trips: hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, with a group of rugged laid-back college students, mostly very cute and athletic guys, with a few way-cool granola-eating girls thrown in there. I could have rushed a sorority, but chose Outdoor Adventures instead, and I’ve never regretted that choice (no regrets ever!), even though I didn’t quite fit the mold. There weren’t many molds I fit. I was always a bit of a chameleon.
I’m still not fast on the bike, and I don’t exactly look like a cyclist, but I am one persistent little Energizer Bunny. My head is pounding and I don’t think I could get up if I tried, but somehow I feel strangely great, powerful, like I could accomplish anything.
It’s been a warm day, but a cool breeze blows through my hair and whisks the sweat from my skin. It feels like a typical summer day in New York or Chicago, but here in Gila Bend, Arizona, this is what we get on November 8th!
Gila Bend is usually nothing more than a stopping point on the way to San Diego or Rocky Point from the Phoenix area. As a child, we’d have lunch or dinner at the Space Age Diner, a sort of classic diner right on the main road through town, outside a dingy motel that tries to look like some sort of futuristic space station. In later years, we’d stop at the McDonald’s for a quick meal before getting back on the road. But today I’m glad I don’t have to get back on the road until tomorrow morning, especially since getting back on the road will mean another eight hours on a tiny bike seat!
I look around the dusty school yard: sunburned grass, a few good-sized trees, a pretty dismal- looking place. I take a long, hard swig of cool water and turn back to my sandwich.
“Hey, do you know where Beth is,” I hear a male voice say. I look up. Three young guys are staring down at me and my sandwich. They all have on Bank of America jerseys that match my own. The guy on the right gives me a shy grin. I must be quite a sight, I think, my hair a frizzy mess, dried sweat on my face, my jersey zipped wide open to my lavender sports bra and probably an ample amount of cleavage exposed. I peek down quickly and discreetly pull the jersey closed. Oh well, at least they can tell I’m a girl, I think. The shapeless jersey itself certainly doesn’t do much to show off my curves, and these lycra cycling shorts make my short legs look even chunkier than they are. I smile back at him.
“I’m Dave,” says the guy on the left. “This is Jake and Matt,” he gestures roughly toward his friends.
“Hi, I’m Danielle,” I say, swallowing hard on a bite of peanut butter, then taking a quick swig of water to wash it off my tongue. “I’m sorry, I was just really hungry. I just finished a few minutes ago and that was the most I have ridden in a long time!” Is it ridden or rode? Is ridden even a word, I wonder?
I think about the “Century” I had ridden/rode in college, 100 miles to Picacho Peak from Tucson on a Super Bowl Sunday. I liked it because I could enjoy all the chips and dip at the party later and not have to feel guilty!
“Ah, we understand. Good job,” Dave says, evidently the designated speaker. “Did you happen to be riding with Beth? She crashed after the first rest stop and we haven’t seen her since.”
“Oh my gosh, no. I didn’t even know she crashed! We were supposed to ride together, but right before we were ready to start, she realized she had forgotten her helmet and went back to get it. She told me to just go and she would catch up, but she never did. I was too afraid to stop and wait,” I say, laughing at myself, “too afraid I’d never get going again or end up last! As it is I’m probably pretty close to last.”
I feel a pang of guilt for not insisting that we stay together, and I hope my friend is OK.
“No, there are still people coming in, probably will be for a few hours yet. You didn’t do so bad. 80 miles is no joke!” Dave says, smiling as he turns to walk away. “Well, we’re going to go get our camp set up. Maybe we’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, see you later. I’ll tell Beth you were looking for her when I see her.”
Beth is my best cycling buddy. We met on a Saturday Morning bike ride that our local Scottsdale bike shop, Bicycle Ranch puts on each week. They call it the ABC ride. A’s are super fast, think Tour de France. B’s are just a little less fast. And C’s are fast compared to an old lady on a beach cruiser, but too slow to keep up with most serious cyclists. Beth and I fit squarely in the C category, which is fine with us. The way we figure, we are still doing way more before 8 am than most people do all day. We usually ride around 30 miles each Saturday.
Today’s MS150 was our first stab at a really big ride, a 2-day, 150-mile event to benefit MS, Multiple Sclerosis. Just like runners train for marathons, a few months ago I decided it would help to train for something bigger than just getting around the mountain and home in one piece on Saturday mornings. Luckily Beth agreed, and she even went so far as to organize a whole team of us for the event. Since she works at Bank of America, she got the bank to sponsor the team and they matched all of our donations. But other than a few introductions at the start with some of the team members and the brief conversation during my peanut butter sandwich, I really don’t feel much a part of a team. I rode solo most of the day, meeting people along the way, and even catching Mark and Carl, recent buddies from the Real Estate firm where I work, and managing to hang on their wheels for about 15 minutes, which I consider a major accomplishment.
Eventually I find Beth, who appears unharmed by her earlier “crash.” She has a small scratch on her leg, but says it was mostly just her ego that was damaged.
Together we go collect our luggage from the neatly staged rows where they’ve unloaded it from the trucks. We bring our stuff over to the big circus tent where we’ll be sleeping tonight, pump up the air mattress my sister Jaclyn let us borrow, and set out our sleeping bags. The mattress is queen-sized, so we figured it’ll be OK to share, and a lot more comfortable than sleeping on the ground.
We gather our shower supplies and head off to the girls’ locker rooms by the gym, passing by a few scattered tents along the way. Our group of a few thousand cyclists has completely invaded the small campus. Some of us will sleep in the large, semi-air-conditioned circus tent they set up for us, but others have brought their own tents and just set them up wherever.
In the locker room, there are girls in various stages of undress, not at all bashful to be taking a public shower in a high school gym. Apparently most of them haven’t heard of using a razor “down there,” I notice, without wanting to have that much information. Though I like to think I’m comfortable with my body, and I’m definitely in decent shape from all the riding and yoga I have been doing lately, I have a hard time just baring it all. I sheepishly undress, wrapping myself in my teal green towel as quickly as I can, and only removing it the moment before I slip under the stream of warm water. The water burns my skin, chafed from over seven hours of sitting on a tiny bike seat and peddling my stocky legs round and round.
It feels good to be clean. I pull on a pair of comfy Abercrombie jeans and a light blue tank top, then zip on a gray form-fitting hoodie. I grab my makeup bag and walk over to the mirror. Not bad, I think, checking out my reflection. Rosy cheeks, deep brown eyes, pretty face and a curvy, but fit body. Even if I’ll never be drop-dead gorgeous, I look casual, yet feminine. It sure would be nice to meet a cute cyclist tonight at dinner, I think, already tasting the spaghetti and meatballs and even a nice cold locally-brewed beer, which isn’t necessarily my drink of choice, but sounds amazing right now.
I’ve only recently resolved to spend less time obsessing over guys and more time focusing on what I love to do, like cycling, yoga, singing and writing, and of course Real Estate, which is how I make a living. But my secret hope is that by not focusing on it so much, a great guy will magically show up. And as far as I’m concerned, tonight would be as good a time as any.
I brush on a little pressed powder to even out my sunburned complexion and just a tiny bit of mascara and lip gloss. I don’t want to look too made-up, after all this is just a casual dinner in a tent on a high school football field, and most cyclists tend toward the natural look anyway. I rub some gel through my naturally curly hair and twirl it with my fingers so that it will dry smooth and wavy, slip on my flip flops and head back to camp.
After dinner, Beth heads off to make a phone call and I hang around to mingle in the bar area that has been set up under a large tent. There are several cute guys, but it seems like every time I start to consider one of them, a girl walks up and grabs his arm. It’s pathetic really. Are all the good guys taken? I’ve sure dated my fair share in the year and a half since my divorce, but now I’m at a crossroads, tired of all the guys who only want one thing, and very tired of giving it to them and then getting hurt, but not sure how to find a nice guy who’s also good looking, fun and likes me back. I glance at my watch. It’s only 8:00, but I’m beat. I head back to the sleeping tent, thinking I’ll see Beth there.
She isn’t there, but I pull off my jeans and slide into my sleeping bag. I lay wide awake for about five minutes before I realize I still have my contacts in. I debate about taking them out right there in the dark, but decide that could be a disaster. Besides, as exhausted as I am, I just don’t feel sleepy. And I wonder again where Beth is. Maybe she’s over by the guys’ tent – What were their names again? I know the one guy who works with her and asked me about her earlier – Dave – had to go home to his wife and new baby. He’s not doing tomorrow’s ride. Beth showed me where they set up their camp earlier, so I slide my jeans back on and head over. Sure enough, as I walk around the corner of some school buildings, I see Beth and the guys huddled around, chatting along a low wall under a large tree just outside their tent. As outgoing as I am, I always feel nervous walking up to a group of people I don’t know too well. But I hold my breath and do a good job pretending to be brave. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” they always say.
“Hey guys, hope I’m not interrupting anything,” I say brightly as I walk up.
“Hi Danielle. Not at all. I just got here myself. Glad you found us,” Beth says.
“I tried going to bed, but it was just too early, so I thought I’d come look for you.”
“Good to see you,” says Jake with a smile. He’s boyishly cute, tall and very lean. He re-introduces himself and the others — Matt, who, it turns out, is his brother, and an older guy, Keith, who I didn’t meet earlier.
“Why don’t you girls have a seat and stay awhile,” says Jake, offering his fold-up Crazy Creek-style camping chair to Beth. Matt stands up wordlessly and offers me his own chair. Wow, I didn’t notice how tall he was earlier.
“How sweet you boys are, giving your chairs up to the girls. Your mom must have raised you right,” I say, flirting. I glance furtively at Jake and notice his bright blue eyes, but then my eyes fall to his bright gold wedding band. Yep, all the good ones are taken, I think. Then I turn to Matt. No wedding band there. He’s sitting in the shadows so I can’t really check him out without being obvious. He seems kind of shy, a little scruffy in a way that could possibly be sexy. But he’s awfully tall compared to me at barely 5’1”. I’ve always liked tall guys. Six feet even is just about right. But I’m pretty sure Matt is closer to six and a half.
At some point we start talking about tandem bicycles, where two people ride together on one bike.
“It would be so cool to find someone to ride a tandem with,” I muse. I notice a quick, almost imperceptible glance between Jake and Matt.
We all talk and joke for almost two hours. The conversation moves to careers and I tell them I’m a Realtor.
“Cool. Maybe you can help Matty find a house when he gets on with the Fire Department,” Jake says excitedly.
I smile. Matt wants to be a firefighter? How cool. Finding homes for single guys seems to be my specialty lately. For whatever reason, most of the potential clients who stop by the Realty Executives Kiosk at Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall where I’ve recently started working are single guys.
Although I’m sure some of them are looking for a date more than a home, I also think I’m just approachable and relate well on a professional level to guys.
Beth and I reluctantly get up to go get some sleep for the big ride back to Phoenix the next day. Matt hasn’t said much to me, but he seems interested in an innocently shy sort of way. Well, I did ask God for someone different from the typical jerks I usually end up with. Maybe shy and innocent is a good thing. He definitely isn’t Jewish, that much I can tell. But then it never seems to work out with the Jewish guys anyway, even if I do manage to find one I’m actually attracted to. Hardly any of my past boyfriends or my ex-husband were Jewish, even though being Jewish is a big part of who I am.
God, I hope he isn’t Mormon, I think, just before drifting off to sleep. Not because I have anything against Mormons. I have many LDS friends. However, I know there is no way a Jew can can marry a Mormon or a Mormon can marry a Jew. Not that marriage is what I want. Of course marriage is not what I want…
November 9, 2003
I’m woken up several times during the night, once by someone’s coughing spell on the other end of the tent, once because I have to pee (slide on the jeans, go outside and around the corner to the J-Johns and then hightail it back to the tent, still a little scared of the dark, even at 29 years old.) Finally, in the wee hours of the morning when it’s still pitch dark out, I lay awake as some truck-mounted machines suck all the waste from the J-Johns, very loudly and for a very long time. It feels like I have just barely fallen back asleep when the alarm on my watch starts beeping me awake. I feel around for the button that makes it stop and hope it was a snooze.
Ouch! As I peel my eyes open, I realize that every muscle in my body is screaming in pain. I carefully pull on a clean pair of cycling shorts and the light pink, form-fitting jersey my sister, Jaclyn got me for my birthday a few months ago. The BofA one is still damp and smelly from yesterday and besides, this one is much cuter. I like to think that I can be powerful and sexy, or at least pretty cute. I grab my toiletry bag and head once again to the girls’ locker room to brush my teeth, wash my face and pull my hair back.
I am so sore I can barely walk over to the cafeteria for the pancake breakfast. How on earth am I supposed to ride another 75 miles today? I don’t even think I could sit on the seat! I’m feeling grumpy as I eat a few pancakes and gulp a cup of sweet coffee. I lay on the air mattress for a few minutes, take a few Excedrin, hoping it will dull the pain and give me a caffeine rush of energy, then pack up my sleeping bag and clothes and lug them back over to the trucks that will carry them back to Phoenix. I kind of wish I could ride in the truck, but no, I am tough. “You can do this!” I say to myself.
Reluctantly, Beth and I mount our bikes and start pedaling. I wince with every pedal stroke. Even my wrists and ankles ache. The wind is also blowing pretty hard, which makes the whole thing seem like a futile plight. But I keep pedaling and soon we make it to the first rest stop, about 10 miles into the 80-mile ride. I’m not very hungry, but grab a few orange wedges and some Gatorade, hoping it will give me a little bit of energy. I still feel like I haven’t really woken up.
We’re just getting back on our bikes when the BofA guys – Matt, Jake and Keith – pull up next to us. They started a little late, but have quickly caught up to the group. They look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like this is just a walk in the park, and I can’t help being annoyed by that.
Mercifully, it’s decided that the guys will “pull” Beth and I for a while, which means that they will ride directly in front of us, blocking the wind and creating a “draft” that will make our ride far easier. This will cause them to have to slow their pace considerably, but I get the feeling that behind all their bravado, they are secretly a bit tired themselves and don’t mind taking it easy today. And maybe I even detect a slight bit of interest from Shy Matt?
The 75 miles pass in a blur, and though I spend most of the ride within a few feet of Matt, I still haven’t gotten a really good look at him, and we haven’t even managed to have an entire conversation. I have learned that he’s interviewing to become a firefighter and currently is head mechanic and manager at a local bike shop. He loves to mountain bike and go “four wheeling” with his jeep/rock buggy. Most of the guys I’ve dated since my divorce are high-powered executives or work in the Real Estate business like me. Matt seems so much simpler, more blue-collar, more of a guy’s guy, and I like that. He doesn’t say anything specific, but I again get the feeling he’s religious, or at least very traditional, and for some reason his wholesome innocence is so refreshing. In a weird way that I don’t completely understand, I feel attracted to his essence, his soul. I’ve never felt anything like it. But then again, I do tend to be a bit dramatic with my feelings. Once I decide I liked someone, I’m thinking about marriage before most guys think about a second date – a quality that has often gotten me in trouble by causing me to get intimate way too quickly and getting attached just when the guy was ready to run.
I remember when I first realized that kissing a guy I liked didn’t necessarily mean as much to him as it did to me. I was in high school and he was a friend of a friend, kind of a bad boy. I was surprised and flattered that he even liked me enough to spend time with me, although looking back, I don’t even think he bothered to take me out on a date. He did kiss me. And I thought that kiss sort of sealed the deal, making us boyfriend and girlfriend. I probably asked him, “Does this mean we’re dating?” or “Am your girlfriend now?” I was such a dork. And of course, that scared him away. I never heard from him again. Don’t even remember his name. I can’t tell you how many more times a similar scenario would play out in my life. It hurt me every time, deeper than I realize, I think. I’ve gotten kind of numb to it, and I’ve learned not to expect much, to be a playful, fun sort of girl rather than a needy, emotional one. I’ve never understood why some girls have boyfriends that last forever – the guy they dated freshman year of high school is the one they marry – but everyone I like either ignores me or likes me for a day and then moves on. And on the rare occasion that a guy does stick around, it ends up being me who realizes he’s not the one and moves on. I want something different from that. But I feel like these initial experiences with love and lust, crushes and obsessions have scarred me, and I’m not sure I’m capable of forever love now.
But I am being overly contemplative, I decide as Matt and I finally pedal into the parking lot of the Phoenix High School where the ride started yesterday. We join the rest of the group and enjoy barbecue sandwiches and free massages. I meet Jake’s wife, Brenda. She’s cute and friendly and looks amazing after giving birth to their second child just weeks before. They are like the perfect wholesome family and I instantly want to be part of it.
I hand Matt my glossy Realtor business card, complete with a recent headshot in the upper right hand corner, not so much because I hope he’ll call me to buy a house, but more because I want to spend more time with him and get to know him. He’s different, refreshing, and I sense a possibility of… something with him.