We walked our bikes up the long path to Chiero’s Pizza in Marina di Castagneto, three fit American women, in our mid-forties, dressed in skintight cycling kits. Peggy was in the lead, red hair radiating from her silver helmet. I struggled to keep up, while Radha lagged behind, purring Italian with Carlo, our guide. We propped our bikes against a split rail fence and sat down at a picnic table shaded by a vine-covered pergola.
“Only dogs eat outside in this weather,” Peggy said, fanning herself. She’d been in some kind of a snit ever since we’d left Bolgheri Castle. If I’d had a tail, I’d have wagged it, I was so relieved to get off the bike and out of the sun. I checked to see how Radha was taking Peggy’s mood. She and Carlo sat across from us. Radha smiled dreamily, listening perhaps to the calliope music wafting from the carnival across the road. The Ferris wheel, just visible above the tree line, seemed unreachable.
The plump, middle-aged proprietor appeared with menus. Her hair was dyed an unnatural shade of red. Carlo introduced her as Daniella, his friend. He seemed to know a lot of people in Tuscany. He was a travel photographer who, between assignments, helped the local bicycle touring company that was run by a retired American racer. We were his first solo gig.
Radha and Carlo ordered first. I went next, mangling the pronunciation.
“Cosa?” Daniella said. She mimed puzzlement: shrugging her round shoulders, eyes opened wide, mouth drawn downward. Grimacing, I repeated my order in English.
“I always speak the language of the country where I am traveling,” Daniella said.
“Good for you,” Peggy said, thrusting her menu over her shoulder. “I’ll have the Margherita, please.”
Daniella turned to go, but Carlo asked her to wait for him. As he struggled to get up from the picnic table, she stole a glance at Radha. Was she measuring her own sallow fleshiness against [End Page 3] Radha’s flawless, brown skin and voluptuous curves as I’d seen other women do, as I’d done myself? In the bike shop I managed, I was often mistaken for a teenage boy with my narrow hips and cropped, bleached hair.
Carlo and Daniella walked off toward the kitchen, and Peggy leaned in and spoke in a low tone. “Is it just me, or was today’s ride bullshit?”
Radha raised her eyebrows. “Define bullshit.”
“I didn’t break down my bike and haul it across the Atlantic for a touristy ride to a castle,” Peggy said. “Did you, Julia?”
I shook my head, but I couldn’t say with any certainty why I’d gone to so much trouble. I’d disassembled and rebuilt two bikes—my own and Radha’s. On my first night in Italy, I’d woken at 2:00 a.m., convinced that both Anders and my mother would die. I couldn’t breathe and fled the hotel room. My nightshirt clung to my skin as I paced on the second-story walkway under the yellow bug lights. Two months earlier, I’d moved my mother, against her will, into a nursing home. “You had no choice,” Anders reassured me. When I neglected to visit her, he didn’t judge. Instead, he’d encouraged me to travel, even though only eight months had elapsed since his final cancer treatment, even though it meant he’d be alone. In June, our only child had left for her junior year in Prague. Why had he urged me to go? I became aware of the smell of cigarettes, and saw Fausto, the hotel owner’s son—a coarse-featured man in his early thirties—standing half in shadow on the sidewalk below, watching me. His louche gaze stilled my racing thoughts, pinned me in place.
“Obviously,” Peggy was saying, “Carlo thinks we’re novices looking for a tea party.”
“He did compliment me on my efficient pedal stroke,” I said with an eye roll. Only Radha laughed, but we’d all suffered the condescension of male cyclists. Our tight-knit female cycling...