“I don’t really care about any of this anymore. I think I just want to give up and go back.”
We’d been driving for nearly two hours to reach a restaurant that was supposedly 90 minutes from our hotel – a restaurant that we were only headed toward because I’d read that it had a fantastic gluten-free menu. It didn’t have an official webpage; I’d gleaned everything I could about it from reviews I’d read on TripAdvisor and Facebook, and I was essentially operating on faith.
Still, it was in Isabela, which was in the direction we already wanted to head that day – west, then south, toward Rincón – so I figured that we could find it easily and simply be on our way. At worst, we could just check our phones and use one of our navigation apps and BAM!, we’d be there in no time.
Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and uses the American dollar as currency, delegates English as a second official language, and seems, in so many ways, to simply be an exotic 51st state, we had naively assumed that our cell phones would work just as they had on the mainland. Turns out your phone won’t just magically function and we actually had needed to configure things before we left, because although we could make (expensive) calls, we had no internet or email access unless we could make a wifi connection.
At first, I thought that my mad map-reading skillz would save us (not to brag, but I’m basically like Magellan with maps), but – hey! Whaddya know! – the roads in Puerto Rico aren’t so well marked. You don’t rely on signage as much as intuition to determine when to make a turn or if you’ve long since passed your destination or even which town you’re in. Likewise, assuming that a numbered street – Route 451 or whatever – will be larger or more important than their non-numbered counterparts (as they are back in the States) is an enormous mistake. Route 724 may sound important, and it could be a well-marked four lane highway… but it also could be a partially paved street with absolutely no painted lines whatsoever that technically is designated as two lanes but which is actually barely wide enough for a Radio Flyer.
Additionally, given that we were app-less and had to rely solely on tangible, old-school, omg how the hell do you fold this thing up? maps, we really needed the ones we had to be super-clear, up-to-date, and detailed. Naturally, the maps we did possess were either entirely missing the streets that our directions called for or wildly inaccurate, indicating that roads began and ended when they absolutely did not (as we discovered more than once when we were certain we’d be coming to an intersection only to find ourselves at a dead end). This made driving exciting and certainly kept us on our toes, but did little to actually help us get anywhere.
What began as a smooth, well-maintened freeway suddenly, and without warning, turned into a meandering suburban highway a la the Boston Post Road but with four times as many red lights and only half as much asphalt. I’d hoped to be on the road by 9 a.m. and digging into my gluten-gree breakfast sandwich around 10:45; instead, we’d left at 9:30 and, although it was nearly noon, were nowhere near our destination but instead were coming to a stoplight-ed halt every thirty feet. It was at this point that Nick uttered the words at the head of this post, and I began to contemplate whether or not to acquiesce and turn the car around.
Instead, we stuttered along in silence, creeping down the coastline but unable to see the ocean at all. When at last we found the road that the directions had listed and followed it as it wound its way toward the shoreline, through hairpin curves and up and down impossibly steep hills, passing cars that surely should have hit us because there was simply no room for the both of us (but somehow there was – we were on the automotive equivalent of the Weasleys’ tent at the Quidditch World Cup), we expected to be at our destination momentarily…
… but failed to find it at all. It simply wasn’t there. Whether the directions were incorrect or our maps were wrong or we just had no idea where the hell we were going and didn’t know who to ask, it didn’t really matter. It was just no use.
Two and a half hours in the car for nothing.
AND we were still starving.
We’d known all along that this third day of our vacation would involve a lot of driving; we’d expected that much, had planned for it. When we’d told Annie and Ella our itinerary, they had balked at a day that included so much driving, saying it would be boring, but my sister-in-law chimed in that adults enjoy that kind of time because it allows us to just talk to one another, check out the scenery, etc.
As Nick and I headed back on the road toward Rincón (after throwing in the towel and admitting defeat on the GF breakfast) and 2.5 hours became 3 (after stopping at the only skating rink in the Caribbean) and I contemplated the caloric content of our poorly printed maps, my sister-in-law’s words came back to me… and it was all I could do not to laugh. Or maybe cry.
To say that Nick and I were not enjoying this little jaunt was a ridiculous understatement. Our blood sugar was so low, it was barely measurable. We had no idea where we were, where we were going, how to get there, or if we even wanted to get there. There was no “checking out” of scenery because a) sometimes there was no “scenery” save for strip malls and red lights, b) when there was “real” scenery, it was hardly noticeable because were were scanning every road sign for possible directional clues, or c) we couldn’t even attempt to look at the scenery because we were focusing on staying alive and not being driven off the pavement, in part because of the tiny twisted roadways filled with crazily confident drivers, and in part because the rain clouds that had been off to the north were now causing torrential downpours that overwhelmed even the fastest setting on the windshield wipers.
And talking with one another?
Unless swearing and muttering under one’s breath counts. If it does, we are communication experts.
At last, we essentially gave up and settled at the first restaurant we found that was even halfheartedly mentioned in our Fodor’s guide, where we watched the rainstorm slide down the beach. We also purchased food that could, at best, be considered mediocre (is chicken salad supposed to contain gristle?), but that was pretty much the only thing keeping us from dying a low blood sugar death, so we devoured it as though we hadn’t eaten in sixteen days, not sixteen hours.
On the way to Old San Juan – three-plus hours back exactly the way we’d come, except slower – we decided to stop and see these amazing-looking petroglyphs that I’d been dying to explore. Which meant that we drove out of our way for another thirty minutes, still couldn’t find what we were looking for, realized we didn’t have enough time to take the time to find it and still make it to our dinner reservation (on time), and just headed back to the hotel.
Whiiiiiich meant: seven hours in the car. Essentially an entire day of our vacation. Seven frustrating, exasperating, disappointing, hungry, soggy, exhausting, uncomfortable hours. They were not the highlight of our trip.
While we drove the final hour to Old San Juan (or, if I’m getting the facts right, while *I* drove; Nick gave up 2.5 hours in so I drove the remaining 4.5), sitting in brooding silence beside one another, I heard my sister-in-law’s cheerful words in my head once again, and noted that we were hardly the picture of marital happiness, or even a moderately content couple. Not only were we not talking – we weren’t really enjoying one another’s company, period. The more I considered topics we could be discussing, and the more I decided that I didn’t want to be discussing any of them at that moment, thank you very much, the more disheartened I became. We came on this trip to celebrate twenty years of being together and we can’t even take a little adversity and laugh it off? We can’t even manage to hold a conversation? WTF is wrong with us?
It was only after we handed the car over to the valet (a little too eagerly, but I don’t think they noticed) that I realized my entire upper body hurt. Yeah, some of that was due to the (incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed) kayaking we’d done the night before in the bioluminescent lagoon, but the majority of it was due to the tremendous stress from our drive. I’d been so busy trying to navigate, read nonexistent street signs, avoid potholes, see through the wall of rain, and evade drivers who wove in and out of lanes like pinballs, I hadn’t considered that my fingers were permanently welded to the steering wheel. Uncurling them was physically painful; my shoulders hurt to the touch.
So, hey. Perhaps when you’re that stressed out, cheerful conversation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe not talking is just fine. Maybe nothing is wrong with us.
When we’d told friends that we were taking this trip, the most common response was, “Good for you!” Sometimes, this meant exactly what it sounds like: “I’m genuinely happy for you guys that you’re able to take this vacation together! That alone time is really important. I hope you have a great trip!” Other times, it carried a slightly snarky edge: “Oh. How lovely that your boss doesn’t mind you taking time away from the job. Interesting that you’re comfortable leaving the kids like that. Would that we all could be fortunate enough to take such a trip.”
But most often, it was said with an air of envious but dubious incredulity. “Wow. I’d love to take a trip like that, but we don’t even take the time to go out to dinner together. Good on ya for making it happen.”
Every time I heard it – “Good for you!” – I was surprised, because not taking the time to do stuff just the two of us simply isn’t an option for Nick and me. It’s not that we think our relationship comes before our family (although plenty of people do, and that’s dandy), and, in fact, most of the time it’s the exact opposite; it’s more that we know that our family won’t exist if we don’t put our relationship first sometimes. That, and – for as fabulous as our daughters are – it can be awfully nice to not be actively parenting every so often. The time we spend away from our kids is important and awesome. Plus, we genuinely enjoy one another’s company. (As evidenced by our blissful Puerto Rican drive, duh.)
It doesn’t have to be a full-on VACATION, just the two of us – the last time we did that (which was only our second solo vacation ever after having kids) was three years ago. Mostly, it’s not. But, when we are fortunate enough to afford it, it is leaving the girls with a babysitter and going to a concert or a game or a show. Or even just Barnes and Noble and Starbucks. Or it’s leaving the girls with their grandparents overnight while we go to a hotel. Or it’s a lunchtime date while the kids are in school. Or, when time and finances and life’s curveballs don’t allow for anything more, it’s talking and watching TV after Ella and Annie have gone to bed. No matter what it is, it’s something, and that’s what’s important.
Back when the girls were three and five, we were driving home from a (family) trip to Vermont when Ella threw up. All over. In her carseat. After stopping and getting things cleaned up (and the girls quieted down), Nick and I engaged in a lengthy and heated conversation as the girls napped. It was just a difficult time, with the butt-wiping and the crying at the drop of a hat (the kids, not me; not most of the time, anyway) and the refusing to eat broccoli one day and gobbling it up the next. He adored the girls, but this stage was hard. I asked him how I could help and expected to hear any number of solutions except for the one he gave me: He wanted to eat dinner with just me one night a week after the girls went to sleep.
BOOM. Of all the things, that was what he wanted: a little more alone time. A little more conversation. A chance to hear and be heard without having to cut somebody else’s meat or refill sippy cups.
We had those dinners for years, albeit not at regularly scheduled intervals, up until last year when the girls’ sports schedules changed our dinnertimes. Although we rarely eat together anymore after the kids are in bed, the premise remains: we two are important. Spending time together, alone, is important. Even if it’s driving aimlessly down the Puerto Rican countryside.
After our day spent ziplining and food kiosk-dining and kayaking in a glowing lagoon, I actually said to Nick that such a perfect day would be impossible to top. I didn’t anticipate being stuck in our rental car for seven hours in torrential rain, but indeed, the previous day proved un-toppable.
As we ate our dinner that night – the greatest meal of our lives – we discussed our disappointing day and what it symbolized… and what it didn’t. Upon reflection, we realized that there was nothing we could have done to prevent it; we were going on the best information available to us, using the resources at hand, and we got stuck. It was no one’s fault – it just happened. No, it hadn’t been how we’d wanted to spend the day. In fact, it sucked that fully one half of our sightseeing days in Puerto Rico had been wasted driving to nowhere. But it was what it was, and it was over now, and next time, we’d know more and could make better-informed choices. In the end, it was a small portion of our total vacation, and our tremendous meal – and subsequent, unexpected performance of native Puerto Rican music and dance – far overshadowed the bad parts of the day.
Which, the more we thought about it, pretty much summed up our twenty years of being together. Yes, there have been bad times – days and weeks and months of them. Sometimes, they’ve been avoidable, but more often than not, they just happened – no one’s fault. Rather than giving up, we’ve chosen to continue the journey – and some days, that brings us to something delicious. Others, we drive around in circles. We can become so stressed, we can scarcely communicate, but we don’t realize that’s what’s happening while we’re in the thick of it.
Sometimes, life throws crap at us that we don’t want, that we didn’t ask for. We are prepared for it to be tough and long, but sometimes it’s different than what we expected, and that sucks. Still, we’ve kept on – in silence, if need be – knowing that the other one is there. And, when all is said and done, the bad days are outnumbered by the good ones time and time again. There is rain, but there are rainbows. There is silence, but there is so damn much laughter. There are peanut M&Ms and Skittles purchased at the only gas station in Puerto Rico where the attendant doesn’t speak a word of English (not that I’d know), and there are singular meals that make an entire vacation worthwhile. The journey isn’t always easy, but in the end, it’s so totally worth it.
I knew that I was excited to go to Puerto Rico with Nick, but I didn’t realize how much we needed this trip together until we took it. It was, indeed, “good for us” — in every possible way.
Especially where plantains or wine were concerned.
At last, I declared that we’d taken enough of these, but we should try one more – sitting on the chair, just for good measure…
… annnnd that’s, like, the creepiest picture ever taken.
Plus my ass looks enormous.
I guess we’ll quit while we’re ahead. Or whatever.