From the Road Trip Test to the Seven Year Itch

On the Heightened Experience of Being Married

Seven years ago today, my wife and I were married on a hillside overlooking an olive orchard in Tuscany, with a family friend officiating and a guest list that included five children, six adults, a couple of pieces of rusted farm equipment, and a spectacularly timed performance from the setting sun. Our first date had taken place just seven months before, but by the time we made it to that hillside we were pretty sure about what we were doing, in part because those months had included some of the most intense moments either of us had experienced in our (no longer quite so young) lives.

While we hadn’t intended our courtship to serve as a crucible, tempering us against whatever difficulties might lie ahead, it had something like that effect. And because it involved a slightly insane three-week trek across high-summer Europe, our anniversary always puts me in mind of a piece of advice I’d gotten years before: that one should always administer the Road Trip Test to a prospective partner before taking the momentous step of marriage.

The Road Trip Test

The thinking behind the Road Trip Test runs something like this: If you’re considering spending the rest of your life with someone, first make sure you can spend at least a couple of days traveling somewhere together without either ripping each other’s throats out or becoming hopelessly turned off by the intimate details of your prospective partner’s unadorned days. No amount of dating gives you the real story on someone, and even sex doesn’t fill in all the details you need to know. No, if you want to know whether you’ll be able to tolerate someone through all the experiences a life together will throw at you, spend some time with them at their grubby, unkempt, annoyed and annoying, slightly flatulent, and resolutely undignified worst. And where better to find that person than on the road.

Traveling together tells you all kinds of things: How do you get along in the dull moments that aren’t work, romance, or roadside attractions? And are you attracted by the same attractions at all? How does she look in a pair of coffee-stained sweatpants? What happens when you hit a rough patch? How do you cope? Who’s cool under pressure and who falls apart? How do you feel about taking his underwear to the laundromat in a country where you don’t understand the language well enough to even ask for change?

Is this a good proxy for marital compatibility? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, what travel really does is generate heightened experiences in a context of more or less enforced togetherness — a recipe which, in many ways, is similar to a marriage. What our prenuptial wanderings couldn’t prepare us for was just how heightened an experience the next seven years would be.

On the Road

Our road trip test began in London, three weeks before our wedding. I had traveled extensively before meeting my wife — to European capitals, remote rain forests, war-torn African nations, and everything in between — but never like this. Because the trip was to end in our wedding ceremony, we landed at Heathrow fully loaded: two hatboxes, a garment bag with a suit and several dresses inside, an array of checked and carry-on luggage, and a ten-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl — my wife’s children from a previous marriage.

In the past, I had always gone alone, or with my first wife, or at worst with a passel of work colleagues I could safely ignore. Now I was part of a miniature tourist convoy. We made our way into England bound together by the stains on our sweaters, our pockets lined with broken crayons, our rearguard brought up by a brood of stuffed animals the loss of which would constitute nothing less than an international incident, I’d been assured.

It was August, and Europe was dreadful. London was muggy, and the ice creams we ate on the lawn by the Tate Modern drooped alarmingly, though the kids didn’t care. We found a playground near the flat we were borrowing in Islington (natch), and seemed to stop at it every morning and every afternoon. One day we trekked for hours to the zoo in Battersea Park, and then for hours through Chelsea, somehow managing to miss any kind of eatery or taxicab, before finally going to ground at a pub that was kind enough to serve us some bangers and mash and shepherd’s pies, despite the kids being technically underage — and quite excited at the prospect of perhaps being nabbed by the cops. I took my stepson-to-be to the Transit Museum while the girls shopped Covent Garden. We rode the Eye, and bought our souvenir picture. The kids had a gas. And despite how I’ve just described it, the adults did too.

Paris taught us why the French take August off by showing us its hottest, most irritated face. The only people in the entire city were tourists. Still, we managed to eat crepes, visit a museum or two, get up the Eiffel Tower, and cool off at Shakespeare & Co., where I was tempted to ask George Whitman to take the kids for a couple of nights, so comfortably did they settle in. We saw a handful of sights and visited a larger handful of playgrounds — including the one behind Notre Dame, the one with the infamous “tilty spinny thing” from which I sent my stepdaughter-to-be flying into the dirt by spinning her a bit too fast. I still haven’t lived that one down.

And then we tried to leave.

Gare de Bercy

If travel generates heightened experiences, second-rate French railway stations at the peak of summer generate decidedly lowered ones. Gare de Paris Bercy glares spitefully at its grander sister, the nearby Paris-Gare de Lyon, and seems to extend its self-loathing to those who make the mistake of traveling through its brutalist loins.

We made sensible allowances for the kids: we arrived at the station 45 minutes early, and looked for a snack. None was to be found. Or maybe we bought them a bag of chips and a bad candy bar, I can’t remember. All I know is that our train was more than two hours late, and as the heat of the afternoon grew, as the stink of the toilets drifted out through the holes where the doorknobs once had been, as the rough-shouldered crowd of commuters and con men congealed into a denser and denser mass that seemed like it could hardly flow through the gates and down the platform, as the afternoon reeled from passable to neutral to bad, it became clear that something was coming to a head.

Oh, but I had no idea.

I don’t know who started crying first. I think it was my future stepdaughter, overheated on the platform and lacking protein. At long last unpenned, we struggled to the train car, but her brother had trouble getting his suitcase up the steps, and he broke as well. Then my betrothed barked her shin or stubbed her toe or hit her head or fell foul of some other painful collision as we came into our compartment, and I got the full tableau.

Things weren’t pretty. Her son had made it into the room only by sprawling on his toppled suitcase (the one with the little blue cars all over it), where he lay, defeated and crying. His little sister huddled on one of the compartment’s foldaway beds (probably the one that had attacked my fiancee), helpless, catching her breath in the stifling air as she tried bravely to wipe away her tears. And my bride to be, cursing, and crying now too, fuming at the heat, at France, at the shitty little train station we’d been trapped in for hours, at herself, at the kids, at me.

The result was a family-wide implosion, the bad moods feeding off each other in a kind of contact meltdown that left everyone in free fall, lacking the mutual support they usually provided one another. I was able to wade in, but all I could be was a calm eye for the storm to circle around. It seemed a token gesture. I’d like to have done more, but it’s only my ego that tells me I could have turned their frowns upside down at a moment like that. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is not do anything, and not run away.

Things weren’t pretty, but that was the scene, and it was the last time I would be participating as merely an observer. There wasn’t much I could do about things, but I was glad I was there. Even at their worst, I was glad I was joining this crew. Road Trip Test passed, I thought. If we can weather this, we can weather anything.

Little did I know.

The Road to the Road Trip Test

We’d met in Rio two and a half years earlier, at the wedding of mutual friends. I lived in New York at the time, she in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend, but it was clear from the moment we met that there was a connection between us. At that time of my life I didn’t put much stock in love at first sight. I have a different attitude on the subject now. The first thing that crossed my mind when I met my wife was, “What’s a fabulous woman like this doing hanging out with a bunch of losers like my friends?” She also reports an uncharacteristic thought on first laying eyes on me: “Who’s the hottie?”

My excuse for staying in touch after our friends’ wedding was that I was running a tech startup and she had done marketing for similar ventures. On my trips to Silicon Valley to see our investors, I would ask my friends about her and whether she had dumped her boyfriend yet. We saw each other once or twice, but never in a context that allowed for more than polite conversation. By the time my company moved to the west coast a year later, she had dumped her boyfriend. But now I had a girlfriend in New York.

The problem was that I had a better time with my future wife than I did with my current girlfriend. There were a couple of close calls, though no coloring outside the lines, and I actually suspected I was being friendzoned at one point. But when I broke up with my girlfriend, it was because I didn’t want to be in that relationship anymore, not because something else had started up on the side.

Much to my surprise, I found that this woman I was somehow so fond of had been dumped by the guy she was dating that same day (via text message — classy). We arranged to meet for coffee the next morning. To commiserate, of course. Coffee became a walk in the park, which became an ice cream, which became a movie, which became Vietnamese takeout, which we ate in her kitchen. Seven months later we were crying on a French train.

The Kind of Woman

Gare de Bercy couldn’t stop us. We made it to Italy in one piece, and though it was, if anything, more sweltering still, we spent a charmed week in a villa outside Florence, as guests of friends who were living in Europe for a year. We went into the city to marvel at the David, and to find flowers for the miniature reception we had planned for ourselves and our few wedding guests. We gave up, having found none, until, just as we were about to cross the Arno on our way back out of town, we spotted a lone streetside vendor selling his last sunflowers out of the back of a truck. We bought them all.

Our wedding was the culmination of a relationship only seven months old. What amazes me about that period, about getting to know my wife, was the openness with which we approached each other. Rather than play hard to get or strategize about how often to ask for a date, we simply indulged our impulses. As trite and hackneyed as it sounds, we followed our hearts. We swapped house keys after about a week. We told everyone who we were seeing. We said “I love you” with abandon. We were walking down the street one morning about ten days after our first date, when she turned to me and said, “Do you think we’ll need a bigger house?” I’m pretty sure she surprised herself with that comment as much as she surprised me.

I met her kids early on. They were — and are — beautiful, and she handles them with a grace and love that still puts me in awe. She is gorgeous and generous and sensitive and smart, she can have an ungodly temper, and she sleeps like a teenager. She is, as a friend once said of someone else, “the kind of woman you want to know,” whether as a friend, as a lover, or as something more.

There has not been a more beautiful day in my life than the one on which I became that woman’s husband.

The Seven Year Itch

Today, our marriage is seven years old, our relationship a very different thing. We’ve been through a lot. My company folded just before we got married, and my work has had peaks and valleys ever since. My stepchildren have had their own trials to go through, and my relationship with them has not always been easy, though all of us try.

We have visited all the stations between sublime and ridiculous in the last seven years. We were sued over damage to a neighbor’s yard plant. (I wish I was joking about that.) We committed ourselves to having another child, a project that turned out to be utterly consuming and to take more than three years. It succeeded, though not quite as we expected. My wife joked, at one point, that she wanted to start a blog called Teen, Tween, and Twins. Yes, we have four kids now — which is about four more than I ever expected to have. The blog never got off the ground. We hardly have time for frivolities like writing.

Some patches have been pretty rough. There’s been friction between the big kids and their dad (and between their dad and us). Happily, those troubles are behind us, and everyone is on good terms again. At the big kids’ last school function, the twins, now three, chatted happily to their siblings’ father, and we all stood together for a moment, a somewhat awkward but very modern extended family.

We’ve been wildly lucky. And though (as my wife will tell you) I am not always good at expressing it, I’m grateful for our life every day. Our relationship isn’t perfect. We’ve had some pretty low lows in the past seven years — half-jokes about the Seven Year Itch sometimes hit too close to home. But nothing has heightened my experience like being part of our family. And nothing so facile as a Road Trip Test could have prepared me for it.

So much has happened in the course of our marriage that I now think of the Road Trip Test as a kind of relationshipial astronomy class — not completely boring, and almost impossible to fail if you’re paying attention. It’s certainly no test of our ability to sustain a marriage.

That test will last the rest of our lives, if all goes to plan. Though I hate to contemplate the scenario, it’s of course not impossible that our marriage won’t last. Love may or may not conquer everything, and tolerance, it turns out, can be just the thing to carry the day, at times. But if the last seven years are anything to judge by, the joys and triumphs are worth so much more, to all of us, than the conflicts and strife. Even when we’re getting the other answers wrong, the only test question that seems to have mattered is, do we love each other? And there’s only been one choice, so far, where that question is concerned.

Besides, if we were to split, where would we find anyone else willing to put up with our farty, snoring, sweatpant-wearing selves?

Happy anniversary, baby. I love you.

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