It had been eleven years since we’d met, and nearly seven since we’d married. My husband and I had been through our share of growing pains, the dull ache of everyday problems swept under a dirty rug and those sporadic stabs that pierce your chest and leave you on the floor. Marriage is hard. People who lead you to believe otherwise are hiding vodka bottles in the crawl space or a secretary on the other side of town.
Not that my marriage doesn’t have its lies. Maybe not hourly motel level, but we have slippery truths and omissions that squeak us past inane arguments. “Should I finally let my hair go gray?” “Do you like the chili?” “Am I too old and damaged from three pregnancies to wear a bikini in public?” These matters are to be handled with delicacy and a layer of fabrication should you wish for your marriage to survive.
And we were getting good at survival, especially with the addition of each baby. The first one almost broke us. The second brought us back together. And the third, I think – I hope – bound us together for the long haul.
That binding should have happened when we said our vows that frigid day in October, the bay crashing against the rocky shore of Lake Huron, but those words did little to solidify us. Our kids, though, made me see my husband for who he truly was. The man who presented a strong and arrogant front became gentle and steadfast, kind and shamelessly devoted. I could not make the machine run without him. He knew this, and it softened him towards me in a way I had yet to see in our years together. I finally really needed him, and I think he liked it.
But when you’ve had three kids in the first four years of marriage, it doesn’t leave much room for romance, and the noise that surrounded us nearly every second made me wonder how we’d react to one another without it. We needed to run away, just us, to see what we might find in the absence of distraction, outside the machine.
We could have flown to Florida and sat on a beach if we wanted a break. I didn’t want a break from my life. I wanted to feel like I was fully in it. Vacations, for me, aren’t taken to relax. I take them to wake up from the mechanical routines that exist in our every day.
“Glad you’re home.”
Kiss on the cheek, pat on the back, look in the fridge. Suitcase open on the floor. Laundry and dishes and ESPN. School drop-offs and pick-ups and bedtimes. Zip up the suitcase. Rushed hug. Off to the airport. Repeat.
We had it down to a science, pushing and pulling the levers together to keep the machine running. We’d press the wrong button occasionally, which would shut the show down for an hour or an afternoon, but we were getting good at shifting ourselves back into production pretty quickly. He’d learned to say he was sorry; I had learned to actually mean it.
Machines are built for efficiency, and we had grown to be efficient. The alternative was failure, and that was not an option. In the very back of my brain, though, I was worried that’s what we would find when we dared to leave the machine – undeniable failure.
Enter the jungles and dreamy cayes of Belize. It promised equal parts adventure and relaxation, and we could use a little of both – not that three boys weren’t an adventure, but we’d long since tackled the ups and downs of diapers and sleepless nights. How would we function when the only people to care for were each other?
We booked five nights away and would split our time between Belize’s Cayo district, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. After touching down in the tiny Central American country, we were met with a blanket of thick heat and a rickety Suzuki that whistled and rattled down the dusty roads. “We’ll be lucky to return it with both doors,” I thought as the vehicle buzzed along, taking every bump in the road with the ease of a Little Tike’s Cozy Coupe. We were one hour down and in full adventure mode.
I was leery of the backcountry roads given my pre-trip research, so we stuck to the main highway which led through Belmopan and on to San Ignacio. The drive revealed meager housing, tiny huts sprinkled across giant fields of sugar cane and sprawling orange groves, and every so often, a seemingly enormous estate with multiple vehicles and security gates, reminiscent of any number of houses I pass on my way to and from our small Midwestern town. We drove by women and children lined alongside the roads waiting for a bus or a friend with a car. Mothers carried babies and dawdling toddlers up and down the highway in the boil of a noon sun. I thought about my kids back home, tucked away in an air-conditioned house to combat the mild May weather.
We reached the Maya Mountain Lodge by late afternoon and cracked a beer by the pool before taking a quick dip. A stunning yoga instructor climbed the stairs to the pool deck and announced she would be holding a free session should we like to join. She stretched and flexed her body against the backdrop of the jungle palms and blue sky, and I couldn’t look away. Neither could my husband. After years of nagging him to come to a class, he might finally concede. If that animal print spandex painted onto her thighs couldn’t do it, nothing could.
He agreed, and we rolled out our borrowed mats toward the back of the group. While I am no graceful yogi, I was familiar with the terminology and requests of our bodies. My husband, however, was not. Out of his element and with zero flexibility, he tried his best to follow instructions, looking over at me when he lost his way. That does not happen often.
We returned to our room and were met by our next obstacle, a formidable spider. He lay waiting, hidden inside the folds of our curtain, ready to scare us back to America. It nearly worked, but my husband rose to the occasion, squashing the unwelcome bug and bringing me back from a bout of hysteria.
The next morning, we woke early and drove to explore Xunantunich, one of Belize’s Mayan ruins which lies along the Mopan River. Unlike preserved sites in the States, this was open access with no guardrails or boardwalks to protect the original structure and careless tourists from plunging to their death. Guardrails or not, I don’t love heights.
We strolled through the open grass between the temples and made our way to the highest building in the ancient city. My husband started up the weathered stone stairs while I followed behind. Once we had tackled the first set of steps, we wound around the side of the structure to the next portion. I leaned forward and touched each new step with my fingertips before trusting my feet to take root and pull me up to the next stair. Again, we reached an overlook and paused to take pictures before the final ascent. We circled the temple to find the easiest path to the top, but each stairwell looked the same, smooth stone steps with nothing to grab hold of, nowhere to anchor your body as you pulled yourself to the peak.
I went first this time. I needed him behind me so I could blow him a passing kiss as I tumbled to my death. I felt my legs start to shake as I talked myself through each inch of the climb. “You’re doing okay, B,” I heard him behind me, not pushing, just allowing me the space to work through my fear, quietly and slowly, until I reached the summit where we stood together having accomplished this minor climb but major fear. It lasted a minute or two until he was drawn into conversation with Canadians over hockey prospects and playoffs.
The afternoon would be spent tubing down the Caves Branch River. I’m not a fan of caves, and my husband doesn’t love water. This was perfect. All along the two-hour drive to this next excursion, I pictured tightly confined caverns littered in spiders and giant centipedes. My husband was overly chatty with our tour guide and chauffeur, masking his reservations about the quick moving current. Would it be more lazy river or white water rapids? Did Belize have actual life jackets or would he be thrown a couple empty jugs to cling to as he jetted off downstream? I heard his thoughts over the camouflage of small talk and was scared for him. Maybe we should have picked a different adventure.
I had wanted to see how, or if, we would care for one another in the absence of our children, so I tried to welcome the discomfort. We strapped helmets and flashlights to our heads, buckled our ill-fitting yet seemingly sound life vests and lowered ourselves into the cloudy river at the mouth of a looming cave. The day was quiet and you could hear the gentle splash of water as we adjusted ourselves onto the tubes. I laughed at the fish flocking to my toes, nibbling any bit of skin they could reach through my water-proof sandals. I looked ahead to see my husband leaning back, settling in to this new environment with the cave just ahead, waiting to swallow us.
Our tour guide spoke of the regard the Mayans had for the caverns, believing them to be the entrance to the underworld. Rituals and burials took place in the recesses that we now breezed through for entertainment. Bones lay asleep in the catacombs, buried and forgotten, while smiling tourists kicked and splashed, giggled their way past the lingering spirits and into the dark silence. I wondered what ghosts would follow us home.
I didn’t know if we could fight any more ghosts than we already were. Just when you think you’ve shaken one, it sneaks into your room right as your breath slows for sleep, and the rattle of your inner voice has shrunk to a whisper. The stars through the window throw their dying light down to Earth and out of the quiet and calm that you’re almost accustomed to, that nearly feels like home again, that ghost materializes. It creeps into your bed. It shouts in your ear, “I’m not gone yet!”
Part of this trip was to help me fight those ghosts, those lives abandoned mid-step for something safer, more predictable. This trip was my chance to shake off the voice of that woman I might have been. It was my chance to feel a little unsafe and see if my husband would allow himself to do the same.
We made it through the damp caverns unscathed and spent the last hour of the float trip in the open jungle air, tropical birds squawking their songs at our foreign bodies gliding through their home. My husband held on to the toe of my shoe to keep me from floating too far ahead. I rested my head against the tube and stared up into the trees, letting the river take us.
Back at the resort, we were treated to an unsettling evening of traditional dance from village children who were young, unaccompanied and reluctant. I was conflicted, not wanting to watch or look away, unsure of which was more disrespectful. I squirmed in my chair, my husband doing the same. Then, when I thought my discomfort was at its peak, one of the little girls walked into the small crowd and grabbed my hand. I shook my head and she insisted, pulling at me until I obliged. This was too much, but I saw no way out.
I followed her to the small stage and stood there. Two older boys sat to my left, drumming a quick beat, but I could not force my body to move, making the scene all the more uncomfortable. I did not want to be a part of this – the children on display, the foreigner on display. I couldn’t stand it any longer and retreated to the table. My husband obligingly took my place. He knew I had been pushed too far, and he saved me, happily clapping along to the music.
We left the jungle the following morning and returned our rental car to the airport before climbing aboard a puddle-jumper for a 30-minute flight to Ambergris Caye. I hate planes, and this was barely a plane. I looked at the twelve other passengers about to cram into the hot box with wings and ascertained that we were most definitely over weight capacity. Once inside, I took an aisle seat across from my husband, leaving an open chair in the very front. A sizable man stepped onto the plane next and looked at that final empty seat, knowing he couldn’t force his body through the aisle to reach it. I had to move.
I took a breath, lifted myself from the security of my husband and clambered to the front. I couldn’t reach him now. I could barely see him. The propellers started spinning and I said a prayer or 100 prayers as we rushed down the runway and into the turquoise sky. Turns out, I kind of love tiny planes.
The next day was spent lounging by a pool, napping in one of The Phoenix’s luxury condos and splurging on seafood. A day later, we hopped a crowded water taxi to the neighboring island, Caye Caulker, and a golf cart transferred us to Iguana Reef, our final accommodation. I had wanted to snorkel at some point on the trip, but knowing my husband’s level of anxiety around water, I let that adventure go in favor of a sunset sail, the safer choice. But something was in the Belizean air. We’d already seen each other through rickety rental cars, impromptu yoga classes, giant spiders, rushing rivers, black caves, public humiliation, and miniature airplanes. What was one last obstacle?
We walked to the docks to find a charter. I went looking for an evening cruise with rum punch and a relaxing breeze, but my husband had something else in mind and started asking questions about the snorkel tours. Could he wear a life jacket? How deep was the ocean? Could a snorkel fill up with water and result in one’s subsequent drowning? So many questions, but I stood there, in awe of him and his ability to step outside of the machine and into an experience that I knew terrified him.
“Are you sure, babe? We don’t have to do this. It’s no big deal.” It was half true. I did find it unforgivable to be next to the second largest coral reef in the world, a diving and snorkeling mecca, and not take a peek under that glistening blue sea – but I understood that some things were just a little beyond our reach, no matter how hard we stretched. I thought this was that thing for him, and I was wrong.
We laid down a deposit for the morning tour and headed to a surf shop to purchase a snorkel and goggles so my husband could try it out in the hotel pool. He wasn’t leaving anything up to chance. Morning came, we slugged our coffee and jumped in for a practice round.
I put the snorkel on myself and showed him how to float along, safely breathing in and out through the rubber tube. I took it off and helped him fasten it. Instant coughing and sputtering, spitting out water, shaking his head.
“It doesn’t seal! I can feel water coming in around my nose.”
I tried it again. No problems.
I tightened the mask on his face. Back underwater, back up with the coughing and spitting.
“Maybe it’s your beard? It probably doesn’t seal with your facial hair.”
We didn’t have a razor, and there was only an hour before we needed to be at the docks to sail. He rushed out of the pool and down the sandy street to buy a can of shaving cream and disposable razor. The burn would be hell, I was sure. My husband’s whiskers are as thick as toothpicks and I couldn’t imagine a $2 blade being kind to his face, but he was committed now, and after a frenzied shave, he returned to the pool with enough time to confirm that the mask sealed much better on a hairless upper lip. “We could have just given you some Vaseline, man” the captain laughed as we explained why we were late.
I looked at my husband’s blotchy red cheeks and strong chin, and I loved him fully. It takes a good man, a brave man, to set his insecurities and fears aside for his partner. He and I jumped into the deep waters of the Caribbean that morning, delighting in the seldom seen world outside our well-oiled machine.
Over those five days, we cared for one another in ways that we rarely do at home where we are stretched thin and weary from the calls of children and jobs and everyday living.
I was afraid of what we might (or might not) find in Belize, in the absence of distraction and duty, but we were just fine. We were better than fine. We were alive and in love and ready to go home to the machine that we are fine-tuning every day, a machine that runs on rushed hugs and a kiss on the cheek, a machine that sounds like “Glad you’re home” and “I’m sorry” and “Daddy, come see!” and “Good night, B” and “Hey, babe” and “I love you.”