coffee and bread

Love Between Cups of Coffee

illustration by Chris Gregory

Much like relationships and COVID-19, cleaning a fancy road bike is complicated. Sure, your childhood BMX probably just needed the occasional hosing (although leaving it out in the rain proved equally effective), but the modern racing bicycle is an intricate machine packed with fragile pulleys, gears, cables, and emotional baggage, requiring cleaning and lubrication. That lubrication constantly mixes with the sot, grime, dust, sand, and the frustration of city living. The bike gets filthy. The filth clogs the gears. The bike doesn’t work as well. So, you have to keep cleaning it. 

Scrubbing deep into that complex machinery sometimes accidentally turns a screw or pulls a cable the wrong way so that everything goes out of whack. You might find your chain rubbing against your derailleur cage or maybe you can’t shift properly. It’s usually a relatively simple fix but, in the moment, it’s incredibly annoying and you wonder why you ever washed the bike in the first place…

…which was exactly what she thought as her chain clack-clack-clacked down Palos Verdes Drive on their way home from a Sunday ride. Except she hadn’t washed the bike. Her husband, the guy riding next to her, had. The noise only occurred in the lower gears and it didn’t slow the bike, but still. Clack-clack-clack! 

He glanced in the direction of the noise. “At least it’s clean?” He offered meekly. He wasn’t a weak man, but his ego could be as fragile as an orchid in a hail storm. He’d messed up, however accidentally, and he knew it. What’s more, he’d married a woman who didn’t see the value in mincing words. 

“Maybe I should just clean my own bike from now on,” she stated flatly.

It’d been a long few months. The pandemic didn’t have an end in sight. Neither of them really felt the urge to join the many pack rides that had resumed across the South Bay, where pelotons of twenty or thirty riders from all walks of life (walks that could afford a fancy road bike, that is) rode shoulder to shoulder with their respiration, perspiration, and aspiration surrounding them in a fine, virus-rich, Pig Pen-like cloud. 

At least, that’s how he saw it. He wasn’t sure if she did too. If she a more mellow stance, she kept it to herself out of respect for his boundaries. So maybe she did do some word-mincing after all.

Because of this situation, they rode just the two of them, a lot. Routes changed, but the routine remained essentially the same. Wake up early, drink coffee, ride bikes for three-to-five hours, drink more coffee. Somewhere in there, they’d usually breakfast on her homemade sourdough bread, layered thick with almond butter and fresh jam she’d make from the fruit of neighborhood trees. He loved the meal because it seemed like something Hemingway would have eaten had almond butter existed 100 years ago. She loved the meal because it was delicious. 

Between cups of coffee, sometimes they’d ride 200 miles a week, side by side, or one in front of the other, pedals grinding and, occasionally, nerves grinding, which inevitably led to comments like:

“Ya know, it hurts my feelings that you just said that,” he responded. He’d spent the better part of an hour scrubbing the hell out of that bike to the point that it almost looked brand new. When you detail a rear derailleur with that much passion, the occasional twisted limiting screw was inevitable. 

Her shoulders slumped. They’d only been married a short while—he was her second husband—but she’d seen him take on countless painful challenges, hours of cycling, running, dismantling bathroom sinks, raising teenagers who were not his, and yet his ego always bruised over the most minor of comments. She was a little annoyed at herself, frankly. She should have guessed he’d react this way. 

“I was just trying to say… I was…” she stammered.

“Yes?” he responded patiently. Or, at least he felt it was patient. To her, it felt closer to patronizing. 

“I’m done!” She shifted into a higher gear and surged forward toward the light at Hawthorne Boulevard. He could have kept up, but he didn’t. He maintained the recovery pace they’d established at the outset of the ride. His legs were still sore from a long run on Thursday. This was the agreed upon tempo. It would be maintained. 

By the time she got to Hawthorne, she was a full block ahead. She looked over her shoulder. As she crossed the street, the light turned yellow. He’d have to stop for it. She could have waited for him, but she didn’t. 

Mutual assured obstinance guaranteed they’d both ride home alone.

Sitting at the light, he watched her fade into the distance. He didn’t feel it was healthy to bottle stuff up, but it never ended well when he spoke up. How was he supposed to say it? He just wanted to express his feelings without triggering her. And by the way, was she going faster now?

Up ahead, she poured her frustration into her pedals. It had just been a comment. Did she need to stop talking entirely? She just wanted to express her feelings without hurting his. And by the way, was he even pedaling back there? 

Riding up Esplanade, he saw her as a distance spec up ahead. He started closing in once they got to Broadway. He finally caught her as they crossed Pacific Coast Highway, a few blocks from their house. He didn’t say anything. Neither did she.

They pulled into the driveway, both stopping their bike computers, maybe mumbling something along the lines of, “Good ride.” They threw their bikes over their shoulders and climbed the steps, crossed the grass to the gate, and made their way to “The Bike Cave,” a large shed in the backyard where they kept some of their toys. They had a lot of toys. 

As they hung up their bikes, he began, “I just wanted to—” 

“Why do you need to make me the bad guy?” she cut him off. 

“No one said anything about you being the bad guy,” he responded. 

“You just assumed that I was attacking you for causing that noise,” she continued. “I was trying to say that maybe I should wash my own bike so that if it starts making noises, you don’t blame yourself like you always do.”

It was a solid point that stymied him for a second. He wasn’t sure if she genuinely felt that way back on Palos Verde Drive or if she’d rewritten her narrative on the way home. Regardless of scenario, she no longer questioned his bike cleaning, which was his initial concern.

“So why didn’t you just say that instead of sprinting off?” he finally asked as he unclipped his helmet.

“I don’t know. I was just mad,” she said, taking off her helmet too, “but I didn’t ride away that fast.”

“It was kinda fast.” 

“Why didn’t you catch up?”

“I just wanted to go the speed we had been going the whole time. My legs are still tired from that run on Thursday. And I don’t think you’re the bad guy,” he said. She had spared his ego; Now he spared her intentions. “I love you.”

She played with her helmet. “That was a hard run. I was impressed.”

He was embarrassed by how much that pleased him. “I’ll take your bike to the shop tomorrow. I’m sure it’ll just take a little adjustment.”  

They stood in the doorway of the Bike Cave. The kitchen, with its toaster and espresso machine was a short walk away. “Do you want coffee?” she asked as she hung her helmet on a nail in the wall.

“Only if there’s toast involved.”

“I can make that happen,” she said. Together, they walked to the house.