Ray’s birthday ride, he was as slow as I’ve ever known him to be, but anyone might have gotten there after the year or two he’s had. The divorce and the house and his possessions scattered all over between his friends, and the job and now the baby. He said he didn’t want to climb but wanted to get out to Spinnerstown Hotel for a beer, and I said I knew a way. I didn’t, but I knew I would know a way once we were out there and I could look around.

            We ended up climbing a lot more than I said we would—and it was not that thing I do sometimes to sneak the right ride into people, the ride they don’t know they need until they’re into it or maybe even not until they’re done with it. This time, we just climbed more than I really intended. Almost every section of the route I strung together carried just a little more elevation than I remembered, had one extra rise or a false flat I hadn’t considered.

            Coming up Mill Hill where it turns to hardpack, he and I sat as the group went away, let them string out at the head, bunch in the middle, then single out again to form a tail, that group-ride snake that has swallowed something it sometimes spits back up but never digests. We made our way upward and talked for a bit, doing what we could to keep the pace conversational, but after a while Ray was breathing too hard even at that slow speed, and from then on we just rode while he breathed.

            I didn’t say anything, didn’t run out what would feel to both of us like a dialogue but would actually be me telling some long story, which sometimes is good to do for someone. And he knew the hill, so there was no sense in me pointing out how many spikes were left, how far to go, or what the road was like afterward.

            He emptied his lungs each time as if he were lifting some great weight in a controlled and slow effort. His inhalations were fast and voluminous and made me think of some old story I had heard or read once about a boy who swallowed up the sea. It was a process, riding this way, he knew what he was doing, and knew to do it, and I was thinking about that more than anything else when he found a space between his breaths and said, “Remember that day we raced up this?”

            Though we have ridden this series of pops too many times to even guess at a total, I knew the day he meant. And in a flash of thought, almost pure visual cognition, like pictures flipping or filmed scenes in quick-cut montage, I also saw bits of the day he and I had raced up Keim ahead of everyone, when he’d dropped me right at the top with a thing he did with the pedals not unlike what he was doing with his lungs. And I saw the day we’d raced up Flint when, right where it had gotten the littlest bit steep before the end I knew I had an advantage and pressed him with it, watching him hurt more and more until, that day, I left him.

            After we rode out Mill Hill, and the next, and one more that he said counted but I didn’t think so, on the gentle but generous descent through the orchard, we saw an outhouse we’d noticed on other rides but never really stopped to study. It was the nicest outhouse I’ve ever seen, with a copper roof, with a manicured path leading to it through a lush garden, and the sunshine was on it in a manner that made it all seem gauzy but also more real than reality, like the most vivid moments of a dream, and I figured this crazy thing would be what I would remember about the ride.

            But I look at the picture of the outhouse in my phone sometimes, and what I remember when I see it is climbing Mill Hill with Ray while in my mind I raced him up all the others we’d ever had a serious go at. I remember his patience with his breathing, his dedication to the execution of it. I remember spinning easy beside him, so easy, while he worked so hard, and I remember feeling bad that I had to keep shifting to find gears with no pressure, that I almost couldn’t ride soft enough to keep any kind of cadence that wouldn’t make it obvious I was riding a pace near to pity. And I remember a ride that hasn’t even happened yet, the hill Ray and I will race someday in the future, some season when he’s fit again, when he’s as good as he ever was or better, and we get near the top and he drops me. After we catch our breath, I’ll tell him about this one back on Mill Hill, just one more ride we did a long time ago, one more climb in our history of them. I’ll ask him if he remembers that it was the first time we saw the outhouse, and maybe I’ll show him the picture if I still have it. Then we’ll clip in and go down the opposite side of what we just climbed, and we might not know where we’re going that day or maybe we will but, either way, for sure, there’s going to be more hills waiting for us.

Originally published in The Selection, May 24, 2013