I’ve been thinking about maybe getting married. I’ve been with my boyfriend for eight years, and I figured: Hey, may as well round that up to forever, right?
When I suggested this to my boyfriend, Steve, he shrugged. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
This romantic exchange happened while we were driving to West Virginia to go tubing. If you’ve never heard of it before, tubing is a low-impact outdoor activity that primarily entails drifting slowly down a stream in an inflatable tube. More advanced tubers may attempt this while drinking alcoholic beverages, even after being briefed on the dangers of doing so.
Steve is not as advanced a tuber as I am. Spooked by the safety video, he suggested we jettison our beer. He also felt we should wear life jackets, even though: a) No one else was wearing them; and b) they were mildly uncomfortable.
Most important, we needed those life jackets in order to link our tubes so we could float down the river together. I ignored Steve’s protests as I threaded the life jacket ties through the handles of our inner tubes and clasped them together. We hopped into our respective tubes and began to drift downstream.
Is there anything more peaceful than gazing up at the blue sky on a summer’s day while trying to ignore your boyfriend’s increasingly urgent appeal for help paddling away from the rocks? We’d only been on the river for about five minutes before it became apparent that Steve and I have rather incompatible tubing styles. I like to lie back and go wherever the current takes me. Yes, sometimes I might hit a low-hanging branch and pick up a few spiders, or bounce off a rock or two, but that’s just part of the ride.
Steve, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop paddling us around obstacles, real and imagined. It wasn’t easy, what with me dragging along behind him.
“Can you give me a hand here?” he asked, panting.
“Will you stop paddling and chill out?” I replied.
My argument was undermined, somewhat, when we ran aground on a large rock.
“I think we’d be more maneuverable if we weren’t attached,” Steve said.
“If that’s what you want, fine!” I shouted, while furiously untying our tubes.
I was pissed. From the beginning, Steve hadn’t wanted to be attached. He wanted to wear his life jacket. Why am I always the one keeping us together? As far as Steve is concerned, I’m just dragging him down.
As I shoved Steve’s tube away from me, he started to realize that this argument was no longer just about tubing.
“Wait …” he said.
I kicked away and pulled down my visor to hide my tears. I’d be fine, I thought, floating down the river alone. At least I had the spiders to keep me company.
A few minutes later, I peeked back to see how Steve was doing.
He was doing great! In fact, he had somehow gotten attached to a whole family. They were having a fantastic time together, laughing, sharing beer.
Isn’t that perfect, I thought. How quickly a 30-something woman becomes an old maid, while a 30-something guy gets snapped up immediately.
It wasn’t so bad, being alone. But I missed Steve, even with his annoying habit of paddling around imaginary obstacles. Too bad he doesn’t miss me, I thought bitterly as I drifted off to sleep.
Before long, I was awakened with a jolt. Another tube had hit me from behind, and its owner reached out to grab my hand. It was Steve! He had paddled to catch up with me! He did care.
And he had come up with a solution.
It was so simple, yet so ingenious. By holding hands, we could float down the river together, but separate briefly if we needed to maneuver around a rock or some other obstacle. It’s just like a good relationship, I thought. You want a bond that’s strong but flexible. If you get separated, it doesn’t have to be forever. You can just paddle to catch up.
“I’m so dumb,” I said. “I was thinking this whole tubing fight was, like, a metaphor for our entire relationship.”
“Maybe it is,” he said.
This story originally ran in the Washington Post’s Solo-ish column.