Magazine

Coupling

Traveling in tandem

As the nest empties, we’re learning to pedal together.

Illustration by Kim Rosen

For our first wedding anniversary, I bought us an enormous silver tandem bicycle. I imagined we would have to compromise on our preferred riding rhythms, a challenge that would lend itself to satisfying relationship metaphors. Our combined children, ages 9 to 17, hooted their derision till we threatened to ride around town wearing matching T-shirts with all their names printed in really big letters on them.

Before our maiden ride, Peter and I both assumed that he, being bigger and stronger, would ride in front, so that wasn’t a source of disagreement. But everything else was: our pedaling pace, when to shift gears, our speed, and – most important – the need for communication, such as warning the other person when you’re stopping. It had not occurred to me that the back rider has absolutely no control over any of these things; nor does she steer or see what’s in front. This complete lack of control was an unwelcome discovery.

Peter’s riding was wobbly, slow and erratic: Either my thighs burned because we were working way too hard (that’s why we have gears!) or we were spinning madly around, going nowhere (ditto!). I held on tightly, not to be knocked off the bike altogether.

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I wanted to enjoy riding with him, but it was anything but fun. Peter wasn’t bothered by any of these things, confident in his ability to ride and in our ability to sort it out. He readily offered to switch with me. I had more extensive biking experience, and had just completed a 90-mile Pan-Mass Challenge ride. But I didn’t want to switch; instead, I preferred to discuss the issue at length, until we could establish agreed-upon indications for shifting gears, etc. Amazingly, this alternative didn’t hold much appeal for him.

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Basically, I wanted to be able to handle this experience of not being in control, but I wanted to influence (OK, control) how he was in control.

We floundered a few more times, riding a little farther each time, but never more than a few miles and always feeling as if we weren’t in synch. We intended to ride more, but somehow didn’t get around to it. We had more pressing problems in those early years of becoming a family of six than dealing with a bicycle built for two. The kids were no doubt relieved.

Seven years later, as we planned to go to the Cape, one of our first vacations without children, I found myself remembering biking the Cape Cod Rail Trail with my kids when they were little. As we talked about our big, dusty bike, hanging upside down from yellow hooks in our garage, an unexpectedly sunny image arose: the two of us riding along salt marshes  –  where no one could possibly be embarrassed by us. Even the kids, now 16 to 24, seemed to view this ride as cute-dorky instead of embarrassing-dorky.

Then, finally, on our last day of vacation, there we were, standing at the beginning of the rail trail with one foot on either side of our pedals, our backs against the seats. Peter said, “OK, ready?” He put his left foot on the pedal. So did I. He paced us, “One-two-three-go.” We wobbled a bit, but he steered us in the right direction. In a little while, when the pedaling got weighty, Peter said the most beautiful word: “Shifting,” which he proceeded to do, smoothly. I complimented him, and he said, “I haven’t been on a bike since my Schwinn Chopper.”

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I guess that handful of unpleasant rides we’d shared was probably better forgotten. But I observed to myself that he’d gotten a lot better since then. As we moved along promisingly, I took my hands off the handlebars and stretched, spreading my arms wide like Rose on the Titanic. The scenery surrounding us changed from scrub pines to sweet marsh grasses blowing in the high-tide breeze. That’s when he said the second most beautiful thing: “OK to glide now?” “Sure,” I replied.

We slowed to a stop at a cross street. Seeing no cars, he asked me if I was ready to pedal again. I said: “Honey, you don’t have to ask. Just tell me.” Maybe I’ve made progress, too.

We had a great time that day. It wasn’t exactly riding off into the sunset, but as we approach living together as a pair, we seem ready to be on the same ride.

Molly Howes is working on a childhood memoir. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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