The story below, by yours truly, is one of 25 essays in the recently released anthology “Chicago Storytellers From Stage to Page,” available on Amazon and selected independent bookstores around Chicago.
We were in the Netherlands, so it seemed only fitting that we should rent a tandem bike.
My husband and I were in the country that cycles, celebrating our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Renting a tandem had been on his bucket list for a while, but before this trip I’d usually found a way to put the brakes on it.
The streets are too slick.
Visibility’s too low.
It’s too cold.
Despite the tendonitis in my foot and my claustrophobia in crowds, I gave it the green light because bicycling is David’s second love (or so he claims). No matter the occasion or the weather, he will choose the bike over any other mode of transportation.
Let’s ride our bikes to the wedding!
You won’t even notice the sleet if you’re covered in waterproof-breathable outerwear.
I do enjoy a bike ride. But I don’t live for it like he does.
However, I knew it would make him happy and I was running out of reasons to resist. Seeing his sky-blue eyes twinkle and his cheeks turn pink is something that I do live for. On a bike, he’s the embodiment of joy.
He’s also a body in motion with a constant proclivity for propulsion. My set point is sitting still. That difference is one of the main tensions between us.
Once on the bike, after assistance from bike shop owners and a few practice runs, I hadn’t anticipated how heavy a double-seated bicycle would be, especially with two grown adults trying to balance on it. I’ve always liked how easy and fluid biking can be. A subtle lean can initiate a turn. When you get into a rhythm, it can feel like an extension of your body. Not so much when a lefty is the captain and a right-hander is the stoker, and both like being in control. Especially when one of the riders has a bum foot and is navigating urban areas, which leads to stopping at intersections and stabilizing the bike with her foot.
In those first minutes after we left the shop, balanced and upright, I leaned to the right to save my left foot, but he leaned to the left. We were centimeters from toppling, but he swiftly shifted his weight, and with some quick settling steps, we stayed upright.
This ride was going to be harder than I thought.
When David and I started dating in the early 1980s, I liked that he had a lot going on in his life and that he valued self-sufficiency. We were together, but also independent. He was also frenetic, whizzing from class to delivering pizza to a softball game and making it to an evening concert, often in a day. All on his bike.
My main form of exercise was a weekly yoga class, walks at lunch hour, moving my hands around computer keys, and worrying.
I was a worrier. I still am.
Which is what I was doing as we left the city of Haarlem and crisscrossed the streets of Bloemendaal and Zandvoort to the sea. What glorious sights! Only I hadn’t counted on not seeing anything in front of me aside from his back. My grip on the handlebars tightened, because even though I trust him, I’ve seen him drop things. He can be clumsy. But because he navigates city traffic on a regular basis and was wearing his prescription sunglasses, I took a deep breath and tried to let go.
Of the worry. Not the handlebars.
In his work as an attorney, he never walks into a courtroom without a plan. It’s the same thing with a bike. He had spent hours, long before we even arrived in the Netherlands, mapping the route.
We were starting to get into a rhythm when we came to a stop by a four-lane highway. David saw an opening for us to get across two lanes to the divider but neglected to tell me. Before I knew it, he was pedaling us into the street. As I hopped on my good foot to keep up, cars were honking at us and drivers were giving us the stink eye until we safely reached the middle.
We’d been canoeing, but unlike that cooperative venture, in which the person at the bow and stern help one another steer, tandem biking was clearly more of a master-slave scenario. My only job was to let him lead.
And I was only going to be good with that for so long.
Once we got beyond the enchanting Dutch residential area and into the country, I began to accept that I would be taking in the country’s wonders sideways. I could close my eyes and still move forward as he determined the pace. Like his general demeanor, it was steady. It was just up to me to keep up with it. My pedaling could add or take away power.
So I experimented with this. Because I do that.
“Hey. You’re pedaling anxiously. Stay mindful of your cadence, E,” he said firmly but calmly, remembering that I respond best when he speaks in a non-accusatory tone.
“What do you mean, anxiously?”
“You are overexpending your energy. You’ll tire out. See if you can settle into my pace.”
Suddenly he stopped.
“Ack! You need to tell me when you are stopping!”
“Sorry! My shoelace got tangled up.”
“We need a safe word. Give me a safe word.”
“Stopping. How about ‘stopping’?”
The breeze picked up by the sea. The sun shone over spectacular rolling scenery in perfect upper-sixty-degree temperatures. He was happy doing most of the heavy pedaling, and I was good with that. It occurred to me that I hadn’t felt this relaxed in a long time. I was actually enjoying this.
Like Chicago, where we live and bike, the Netherlands is flat. But soon a slight incline appeared and threw us off pace.
I called out,“Stopping!”and shimmied off the bike.
I needed a break anyway. I stood for a moment and watched him pedal up the hill. I took in the sea and sand that spanned in front of me and the charming cottages behind.
Over the course of our three-plus decades together, we both have needed breaks. When our daughters were young, I stole writing weekends in Wisconsin and Michigan. He rode the AIDS ride from Minneapolis to Chicago and took week-long bike rides with buddies. We needed that time because there were some seriously derailing years.
Luckily, the topography doesn’t stay the same for long.
Our daughters had graduated from college and were now working and living full lives. We had just paid off the final college loan. Our youngest was engaged. I turned sixty. We had not been on a two-week vacation, just us, ever!
That’s when I planned this trip, which took much discussion and a lot of compromise. We had to select a place where he could ride and that also had art and culture. We had to keep to a budget. Get a good airfare. An affordable Airbnb.
After a scrumptious lunch on the beach, we got back onto our two-seater and David said,“Let’s try a different route back.”
“Yeah. As long as the sun is at our back, I know we’re heading east.”
“You’re sure? You don’t want to look at a map?”
“Nope. I’m good.”
This trip had been about making new memories together. All of those rotations had amounted to something.
About half of our married friends are still together. The other half are divorced, widowed, or have chosen the single life. My parents went separate ways just before the thirty-year mark. I know that we are lucky to have found one another. Lots of people love each other, but whatever it is that makes one relationship work longer than another is still a mystery to me.
We were getting close to the rental shop, relying on street signs, when suddenly I had the urge to pick up my feet and position them on the steering stem. Once balanced, I stretched out my arms, like Kate Winslet did when she was secured by Leonardo DiCaprio at the bow of the Titanic, and hummed the opening bars of “My Heart Will Go On.”
We came close several times, but we never fell over.
Einstein wrote that people are like bicycles. To keep balance, people need to keep moving. But balance also involves the ability to remain still. If you wobble in the seat as the bike is moving, the whole thing can topple over. And if you don’t pull over once in a while and take a break, then you will be exhausted.
On the train back to Amsterdam, I closed my eyes and replayed the day in my mind’s eye. The ride was not without its bumps or close calls and had taken us across pavement and gravel, flatland and hill, sand and mud, off-road and on.
It had been all-terrain. Like our marriage.
Want to read more? You can find the full anthology here.