The rules are simple:
- Every participant starts from the same line in New York City, New York and ends at the same location in San Francisco, California.
- Every participant must own their own motorcycle, have proper licensing and paperwork, and wear a helmet at all times.
- Participants must stick to competition-approved roads only.
- Participants may only ride their motorcycles during daylight hours.
Sometime around 2am the day of the competition, Bruno breaks up with Chiara because he wants to win the competition.
“It’s just a week, you won’t even notice. It’s better for both of us to focus,” Bruno tries to persuade her, secretly grateful for the veil of darkness that coats them both, hiding the hurt contorting her face.
“I don’t see why we have to be broken up for you to do well,” Chiara’s eyes are glistening in the moonlight and Bruno is certain she’s on the verge of tears.
“Look, I’m sorry.” With that, he turns on his heel and walks away, fast. The darkness envelops her, forlorn, behind him.
Three hours later, they’re both on their bikes, separated by six others, surrounded by dozens more. Lined up on a wide road, Bruno catches himself glancing over at her. Chiara ignores him determinedly. The sun breaks over the horizon and the sound of nearly a hundred motorcycles breaks the early morning peace.
As the drive grows longer, the riders thin out. Halfway through steel town oblivion, it starts raining, and the riders lose track of each other. Bruno stops at a gas station to use the bathroom and eat three slices of pizza, wiping the grease from his fingers on his rough jeans. He sees a small bird, bright blue, and takes a picture to send to Chiara, before remembering. His fingers freeze over the screen. The bird hovers around his bike as if daring him. He shakes the thoughts off, mounts his bike, and drives into the hazy gray.
Chiara spends most of Pennsylvania thinking about Bruno’s betrayal. It’s not like this current arrangement is helping her focus. She motors past a pickup truck where a man leans out the window and shouts lewd things at her. For a fleeting moment, she wants to stop racing and figure out where Bruno is. Motorcycles being dangerous? Ha. Nowhere near as dangerous as being a woman.
The first night. Bruno hops off the bike two minutes before sunset. The GPS tracker embedded in his phone whistles as the sun slides down. He parks his baby in the garage of a second-rate motel and heads in, focused on getting well rested for the next morning. The blanket is scratchy, and the room is too cold, and he misses Chiara’s familiar warmth, tucked into his arms. It ends up taking a beer to fall asleep.
Chiara carefully logs her location and then heads into an Airbnb. She’s always been the dedicated planner; she can’t imagine Bruno even knowing how to book a room online. She takes an hour-long shower, dust and rage swirling down the drain. When she’s done, she sits on her bed, hair wet, and calls her mom until she falls asleep.
The Midwest is massive, Bruno thinks to himself, passing the millionth cornfield of the day. Motorcycling seems like such a solitary activity, just a man and his bike on the open road, alone. But as much as it seems like a lonely thing to do, the communities for it are massive. He remembers the first time he met Chiara, wearing purple jeans, pushing her blonde hair into tight braids, perched atop her motorcycle. He made eye contact with her. She complimented how big his bike was, smirking. He was smitten.
Chiara pauses her riding for lunch, Oklahoma style. She sits next to a toothless man at a diner counter and bites down on a fry, remembering her first date with Bruno, when they rode up to the top of a mountain in the Catskills at dawn, and he’d managed to fit a whole picnic into his backpack. She misses how lighthearted he was back then, how carefree. She can’t bring herself to finish the fries, so she just drops some cash on the counter and heads outside, noticing how much stronger the wind is.
In Texas, Bruno’s father calls him while he’s on the road. He declines the call, but the sudden distraction means he misses his exit. Cursing underneath his helmet, he maneuvers himself back, but he’s wasted a precious half-hour. Ironic, isn’t it, how the man who missed his birth just made him miss his exit. When he stops for a bathroom break, he sees the text from his dad, be safe. It would be sweet if it wasn’t so obvious that his father is just desperate for a relationship now that he’s old and arthritis-stricken.
Chiara sees a police officer riding a horse as she rides through a small town. How different her life would be if she rode horses, she thinks. Horses don’t have the same speed, the same elegance, the same adrenaline rush, but they have emotion, personality. The gleaming hunk of metal beneath her is beautiful, but sterile. Chiara knows she’s too emotional sometimes, but there’s something magical about the bond between horse and rider.
Every time Bruno has ever been to Arizona, it’s been ideal desert conditions. Bright, bright sun, endless shimmering red sand, dryness baking his darkening skin. This time, though, is a once in a million. Gray rain pours down on the road, wide and unforgiving. He is careful, but he is unwilling to risk his place in the contest. He tries humming to himself to drown out the ceaseless pounding of the rain on his helmet, but he hasn’t spoken in days and his voice is hoarse.
The rain stops as night falls, and Chiara spends precious hours outside instead of sleeping. There is a freshness in the air, and as the clouds clear the constellations are bright and vivid above her head. She dances under the arch of the Milky Way, drunk on the magnitude of the desert around her and the universe above her. The sand is pitch black, and the sky is glowing, and Chiara dances in the middle.
Bruno wakes up to a text from Chiara. Check out the stars, they’re so bright tonight. He wanders outside, still half asleep, but the stars are beginning to dim in the soft beginnings of sunrise. He sets off as soon as his GPS beeps, his whole existence in a bag strapped to his back. Red clouds streak softly across the sky, and he wonders why Chiara would text him. Is this to get back at him for breaking up right before the contest? Is this a trick, to distract him? He didn’t mean harm, really he didn’t. It’s just that he doesn’t want to be comfortable. Zoo animals are comfortable, and zoo animals would never survive in the wild. He needs to be wired, alert, uncomfortable. He needs to be unhappy to have a shot at winning, and so does she.
Chiara checks her phone before she leaves in the morning, but Bruno hasn’t responded. She puts it out of her mind. Southern California is sunny, and the black road ahead of her glitters in the heat. She’s forgotten how bad traffic is here. She motors through the towering glass buildings, zips past flea markets and glamorous women with hoop earrings and fake breasts. Late in the afternoon, she thinks about how close they are to the end, how she’s almost made it. She’s proud of how independent she’s become, how the rude gestures and catcalls don’t faze her anymore. Maybe Bruno was right, she thinks as she turns a tight corner. Maybe tomorrow night, they can dance in the stars together, she thinks as her front wheel crosses paths with the front wheel of a minivan. And then she doesn’t think anymore.
Bruno accelerates when he sees he’s in the last stretch. Three more miles, then two, then he’s flying over the big white painted streak, the crowds around him cheering, the exhaustion and euphoria blurring his vision. He tumbles off his bike, surrounded by supporters and competitors. He hears the words “fifth place, Bruno Blake” and he drops to his knees, overwhelmed. When he stands up and removes his helmet, his eyes scan for Chiara, but he doesn’t see her. He does glimpse his father’s face, deep in the crowd, but he turns away. He doesn’t want to celebrate with his father. He wants to celebrate with Chiara.
Hours later, Bruno has showered and napped and cleaned his bike and accepted his award. He stands by the finish line, cheering as he watches racers pull in, high on their accomplishment, falling into the welcoming arms of their friends and family. Chiara’s purple pants and red bike are noticeably missing from the festivities, however, and he catches himself worrying about her. He tries to call her, but there is no response. He doesn’t know whether to be concerned or annoyed. As night falls, he goes drinking with the others who have finished, and the loneliness of the past few days abates as he remembers what it’s like to belong.
The next day dawns bright and clear, and the sun beats down on Bruno’s hair as he heads out to find Chiara. She has to have arrived by now; everyone who didn’t finish yesterday was disqualified. The finish line from yesterday has been swarmed by participants and their adoring fans, eating hot dogs and taking pictures in front of the bikes. He pushes his way through the crowd, but Chiara is nowhere to be seen. At noon, the organisers post a list of everyone who finished, but Chiara isn’t on it. Halfway through the afternoon, the organisers begin their finale speech, but are interrupted by a pudgy man in a blue suit. The man climbs the podium, tears gliding down his sunburnt cheeks. Bruno is hot and annoyed. He is certain that Chiara simply ditched the competition at some point, but he can’t get a hold of her.
“We are devastated to announce that yesterday, one of the participants, Chiara Amante, died at the tragically young age of 25, after colliding with a car just outside Los Angeles. We would like to hold a moment of silence in her honor.”
Bruno can’t see anything. He can’t hear anything. He is enveloped by a wave of white static. The next thing he knows, he is lying on the ground, staring up at the sun, glaring unforgivingly down at him. Organisers surround him in bright orange t-shirts, asking if he’s okay, offering him water, but he just wants it to be night again. Desperately, more than anything, he wants it to be that night again, the night he broke up with her and ignored her tears, or the night she danced in the darkness and texted him to share in her joy. But there’s no night to blanket his tears or reunite him with her, just the harsh, unflinching truth of the daylight.