We turn our bikes out of the town square and onto a quiet cobbled lane. “This must be it,” I say, dismounting. I wheel my bike toward a black iron gate, set a little ways down in the yellowish stone wall.
“But we’re still in the town. How can a chateau be in the town?” says Mike, frustrated. He keeps riding down the lane past me, trying to see what’s further ahead. I shrug and proceed through the gate.
On this first day of our honeymoon bike trip, learning to navigate the Czech Republic on two wheels is exposing our worst divide.
My orientational confidence springs from a decade of solo international travel experience. Mike, my husband of one month, is on his first trip to Europe, and not as ready to trust our bearings.
We married each other knowing the ways we’re different. Not only is he a foot taller than I am, he’s kinder, more considerate. He thinks through situations carefully, imagining how they’ll play out and who will be affected.
I process information faster, make quick judgments, and am more likely to leap into action with incomplete data.
“But what happens then?” Mike will ask, or “How does that work?”
“I don’t know,” I’ll reply with a smile. “Let’s find out.”
Today I wonder if we can harmonize our styles enough to make it the thirty miles to our next hotel. Mike turns his bike around and reluctantly follows me through the gate.
Inside, we’re on a close-cropped lawn. High, dark hedges surround us, forming an outdoor room with a stone fountain at its center. Although I haven’t seen the Czech version before, this place is so obviously out of Central Chateau Casting that I can’t wait to explore.
Yet Mike still hangs back. He’s dismounted and taken off his helmet, but he’s staying by the gate, making a big production of unfolding the large topo map we received from the tour company. Extending his long arms—he’s 6 foot 5—he splays the paper out this way and that, comparing it to the GPS on his handlebars, stubbornly trying to make sense of the dense maze of tiny roads labeled in a language we don’t understand.
“Where’s the town?” he complains.
I feel impatience rush through my body. I should have warned Mike about the anxious, acquisitive hunger that kicks in when I travel. FOMO, my teenage nephew calls it: Fear Of Missing Out. I hate the idea of skipping any cool spot that the guidebooks rave about, a café or view or art exhibit that’s supposed to convey the absolute essence of a cultural attraction.
“Come on,” I urge him. I see people flowing through the gardens, and can feel the pull of energy up to where the actual castle must be. I’ve got to get going. I remove my helmet, wipe away sweat. “We’re here, I promise,” I say.
“Just a minute,” says Mike, still absorbed in his maps. Damn it! Why won’t he take my word for it? I can tell he still wants to ride the rest of the way down the lane and see if somehow there’s another Lichtenstein castle hiding at the far end.
"I’m not going to argue with you,” I say. He doesn’t look up.
I know that he’s trying his best to process a flood of new information. But he’s so damn slow! Why can’t he just believe me?
Suddenly, without having decided to, I’m moving. I march away furiously from Mike and wheel my bike up to the main path where the other tourists are, following them further into the grounds. I just can’t wait for him any longer.
Besides, I figure it will be like the gate all over again; in a moment, he’ll realize I’m right and follow just behind me. By the time I park my bike, he’ll catch up and we’ll explore the chateau together.
Walking through another hedge doorway I see the chateau right ahead, exactly where I thought it would be. I turn, ready to wave the good news back to Mike.
Only he’s not there. Not following. Weird.
Maybe he took a different route. I shake off my worries and find a rack in the shade. Chaining up my bike, I unzip my saddlebags and pull my skirt over my shorts. Between every move I look around for Mike, expecting to catch the gleam of his aw-shucks smile as he turns a corner.
But he doesn’t appear.
It dawns on me that on his very first trip to Europe I have just walked away and left him alone. I was right, of course, and he was being a jerk, but… I hope he’s OK. I retrace my steps, through the hedge, across the lawn, all the way back to the town square. I walk around the chateau and peer down the adjoining streets. No Mike anywhere.
What if something’s happened to him? I decide not to tour the chateau. I’ll stay outside, somewhere I’ll be sure to see him as he passes. I’m hungry, but one of the recommended restaurants is right ahead, opposite the castle entrance. I scan all the possible approaches. As far as I can tell, if I sit out on the restaurant’s patio, there should be no way he gets past me.
I bump into several tables before finding one in the shade. Damn, I’m shaky. I can feel the tears coming, too. I flag down a waiter to order food and water before I totally fall apart. Then I pull out my journal to empty my brain. Where the hell is Mike?
I never had these problems when I traveled on my own. I recall other cafes in distant cities where my thoughts and my journal were plenty of company. So what if he never comes back? I’ll be fine. I always was before.
But before, it wasn’t Mike. I don’t want to do without him. I turned that corner. I married the man.
After writing each sentence I swivel my head, scanning the paths to hunt him like an owl. I change chairs as the broiling sun keeps catching up, driving me closer to decision time. Soon I’ll have to ride on to the next town, and I don’t want to do it alone.
Running out of chairs and patience at the same time, I walk back to unlock my bike. The crowds have thinned out. It occurs to me that I should be able to recognize Mike’s bike among the few remaining, and so know if he’s still around.
And there it is. He hasn’t left! Relief floods my body. I look for paper to write a note, to leave a message while I search further.
Then up he walks, his own dear self. Supremely pissed off, I can tell. I don’t care.
“You’re here! I’m so glad I found you!” I move to hug him, but he’s not having it.
He walks past me to his bike. “Where have you been?” he says.
“Looking for you.” I am so happy to see him. I know he’s mad, but I am grinning.
“Huh.” He shrugs his disbelief, can’t bring himself to look at me. He unlocks his bike, preparing to ride on.
“Oh no,” I say.
He looks up at last. “What?”
“I’m not going to ride on until we have this fight,” I say, perching on a stone step. He stands nearby. I recount the events from my point of view. How he was being a stubborn turtle. How I got impatient. FOMO.
“But you can’t just BAIL.” His words hit my gut with the weight of truth. He’s right.
Bailing was once a useful skill. When a partner was thoughtless, too clueless or just too damn dull, I didn’t hesitate to say, “I’m out.” I’d rather leave first than be hurt. Sticking around to have the fight and admit where I was wrong would mean getting too vulnerable with someone I wasn’t planning to stay with.
But with Mike, I stay in the room and hash things out. Except today.
“You just walked away,” he said. “I would have been with you in a minute. I just needed to go over the directions again. It takes me a little longer.”
“I know,” I say.
“Then why did you leave?”
Annoyance? Eagerness. Feeling like a too-cool seventh grader ditching a frazzled parent in the department store. None of my answers are good enough any more. I look down at the ring on my left hand.
“I’m sorry. If it helps, I realized in a minute that I had messed up. I spent the rest of the time looking for you.”
He grunts, a small acknowledgement.
Mike may never make decisions as quickly as I do. And that’s a good thing. We may have this same fight dozens of times in the years to come—if we’re lucky. I feel a solidifying, a consolidation somewhere around my middle. Here’s what marriage really is.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I won’t bail again. I missed you. And I am here to stay.”