1. The first vacation my wife and I ever took together was to Portland, Maine. I was twenty and she was nineteen. I’d bought the tickets for her as a gift for our first anniversary. It was, I’d thought, a grand romantic gesture. I’d spent an afternoon at the mall trying to find an adequate gift, but the only gifts they want to sell to young men buying gifts for their girlfriends are baskets of shampoo and lotion, or bad jewelry, or candles that smell like s’mores. I passed a Border’s and saw a travel guide to Maine in one of the window displays. I vaguely remembered LauraBeth having said something about how she’d like to see the foliage in Maine. I called my dad from the mall and asked him if he thought it was crazy to just go and buy plane tickets to Portland without checking with LauraBeth first. I could tell that his answer was that he did think it was crazy, but he viewed me then as ambitionless, as smart but lacking direction, so any time I showed enthusiasm for anything, he encouraged it. “Sure,” he said. “If you think it’s the right thing to do, just go ahead and do it.”
2. She had to drive me to pick up the tickets. I’d ordered them online, but had them shipped to my parents’ house. At the time, I was living in an off-campus apartment in North Philly, in a place where we didn’t have a mailbox or a functioning door (it had been kicked off its hinges by angry fraternity guys, chasing a friend of mine who had stolen money from their doorman; at night, we leaned the door in the frame and pressed a kitchen table against it as a brace). My dad had somehow missed the delivery and the tickets had been returned to the FedEx warehouse. He had cancer, and was deep into chemo treatments; probably he’d been too weak to get to the door in time, if he’d even heard it in the first place. When he told me he’d missed the delivery, I tried to swallow my rage and I hung up. I thought terrible things about him. I called him lazy and I called him fat, and I thought: why can’t he just answer a fucking knock on the fucking door? I thought: you try to count on him for one fucking thing. I thought it hard enough that I hoped he felt it. A year later, he was dead. Most of the things that cause me the greatest shame are things nobody even knows about.
3. I didn’t know anything about Portland. I knew there was a place called Portland, and I knew it was in Maine. I knew there was foliage, somewhere. I booked a room in the Howard Johnson in South Portland, which turned out to be an entirely different city. In the mornings, we took a bus into Portland, then wandered around town, not knowing what to do with ourselves. We’d skimmed the guidebook, but had no idea how to plan a vacation. For lunch every day, we ate at the same Italian restaurant where they served enormous portions of a pasta dish with lobster and alfredo sauce. Most nights for dinner, we ate fried rice at the Chinese takeout place down the road from the HoJo.
4. At the time, LauraBeth was being tested for celiac disease. The doctors were pretty confident she had it—her mother had been diagnosed a few years earlier, and she had all the same symptoms—but they wanted her to eat regularly for three months as a trial. Every day was another opportunity for a last meal before being sentenced to a lifetime of gluten-free eating: the last brownie, the last lasagna, the last soft pretzel. In 2002, on a college budget, it was almost impossible to conceive of a gluten-free life. For a year, the only thing she would eat for lunch was rolled up ham and cheese slices. Some days, we would drive over an hour just to go to places that had a flourless chocolate cake on their dessert menu. We mail-ordered gluten-free cookies for unfathomably high prices. The trip to Portland was the only one we ever took where she could eat anything she wanted. For years, the primary consideration in all travel decisions was the availability of gluten-free food options. When we went to Disney World in 2004, the chef came to our table to ask her what she wanted, and when he brought her gluten-free spaghetti and meatballs, she nearly cried. Things are easier now. Her disease is trendy and there is a profit to be made. Back then, we never imagined her being able to walk into a restaurant and order normally off a menu.
5. On the third day, we took a whale watching tour. I was still harboring my fantasy of switching my major from English and becoming a marine biologist. I’d never seen a whale in the wild before. I didn’t see any that day either, though we saw some seals and a dolphin and hundreds of birds. Ninety minutes in to the tour, a storm rolled over us. The boat rocked like it was trying to toss us all overboard. Half the passengers got sick. LauraBeth laid on a bench trying not to vomit. I wondered if a storm was a good thing, if maybe the weather would for some reason draw more whales to the surface. There was the possibility, I thought, of coming eye-to-eye with a breaching humpback. When I was a sad, lonely child, I thought often of the logistics of living inside a whale; if you could handle the smell, if you could ensure a steady food supply, it seemed like a tenable situation. You could be alone and always in motion and so deep inside an ancient animal that you could actually touch the blue whale’s soul. It seemed safer than life on land, and there was no possibility of rejection. Choosing to be alone seemed safer than trying not to be and failing. I live in a house now, where I have my own office and I have a basement with a wet bar. I like it here, and I can now see the downsides in living inside the stomach of a large mammal. You can’t really live inside a whale’s stomach. I understand this. But imagine the speed. Imagine the sound of the whale’s calls from the inside.
6. We didn’t have a lot of money then. We were lucky not to be accruing extra debt—I had scholarships and she paid no tuition because her dad worked at the school—but that wouldn’t become meaningful until years later, when we realized how many of our friends were crippled by loan payments. I was lucky to have had enough money to pay for the trip, but most days we couldn’t afford to do much besides walk along the coast and look at things. We climbed to the top of a lighthouse and looked over the land and said the sorts of things you’re supposed to say from the top of a lighthouse: look how high it is; you can see so far from here; imagine what it’s like to be out there by yourself on a boat; what should we do now? LauraBeth’s mom loved lighthouses for reasons I only vaguely understand. We went there partly so she could show her mom a picture of the lighthouse and say: see, we saw a lighthouse. Her mom had cancer then too. She was dead two years later.
7. Five years after that trip, we got married. My dad wasn’t there and her mom wasn’t there, and I hate to keep harping on it, but, look: that’s fundamental to who we are. They were dead and we wanted them to not be dead, and no matter what I set out to write, it bubbles to the surface in some way. We were alive and, on that first trip together, we felt like adults. We were still learning so much about who we were, what we wanted, how to go to another place and claim part of it as your own. I was much more impatient then than I am now; that’s why I’d bought the tickets in the first place. I wanted to accelerate everything and get older so quickly, to rush past the tentative, fearful stage of the relationship into the comfortable, reassuring love we have now, but I didn’t know how to do any of it. I wanted to open my mouth wide like a blue whale’s and swallow a decade worth of experiences. I wanted to swallow myself and live inside my own belly.
8. The storm intensified and the whale tour boat had to turn around. They gave us a lifetime voucher for a free return trip, and I was impressed by the confidence: they expected to outlive us, and they expected us to come back. I carried the voucher through seven years and five moves, but I lost it during our move to our new house. We’re going back to Portland this year, to celebrate fifteen years of dating. We’ll get on a different boat—voucherless—and we’ll look for different whales. We’ll climb the lighthouse again and we’ll look all around us. Everything will look more or less the same, but so much will have changed that there isn’t enough time to explain it all.