I didn’t know it when I shoved my swimsuit into my backpack. My husband was blissfully unaware of it as I handed him his boarding pass the next day. Twenty-two hours later as the customs agent stamped my passport, I was still very much me.
But sometime during that first overseas trip with Jeff, I transformed from mild-mannered middle-aged woman into someone I didn’t recognize. Who knew our long-term relationship would be tested on our first long-distance trip?
Jeff and I had been together 11 years. We had been through the usual together: thick and thin, sickness and health, richer and (mostly) poorer. Now we were going through something new — more than a dozen time zones away in Southeast Asia.
I spent my 20s traipsing around the world with a budget that was more thread-thin than shoestring, but this trip was different. Although we were staying in inexpensive guesthouses, I was in my late 40s and Jeff, a decade older.
I was certain this new adventure would bring us even closer together, especially because our guesthouse rooms were tiny.
After a few days, we left Ho Chi Minh City, where Jeff and I had indeed grown closer — by clutching each other tightly as we crossed streets that were a never-ending river of traffic. We traveled through the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh. This was our dream trip, but I was about to learn Jeff’s dream of a trip was slightly different from mine.
After we checked into our hotel, we wandered the city’s dusty streets, stopping outside a restaurant.
“It’s too expensive,” I said as we looked at a menu. “Besides, the menu is in three languages. It’s not authentic.”
Jeff agreed to keep looking.
We ate at a less expensive place that I hoped was more authentic than the place down the street.
The next afternoon in our room, Jeff popped open a can of cashews from the hotel minibar.
“We could get those for half price at the market!” I said as I tightened my fists, filled with imaginary dollar bills.
Not unreasonably, he replied, as he tossed a handful of cashews into his mouth: “It’s our vacation. Let’s enjoy it.”
Like Dr. Jekyll, I could feel myself transforming into a monster. I gave Jeff eight reasons we should never, ever eat hotel snacks. He didn’t appreciate my helpful advice.
“Stop telling me what to do and stop trying to relive your past,” he said. “I don’t want to travel like you did in your 20s. I’ve had it. Go do what you want today. I’m staying here.” Jeff stormed off 10 feet to the other side of the room.
I would never have freaked out about a cafe or snack at home. What was happening?
I had returned to Southeast Asia, but I wasn’t trying to return to my youth, was I? I set off in a huff for the National Museum.
As I gazed at a stone Buddha, I wondered about what Jeff had said. Was this a midlife crisis? Maybe there was a kernel of truth to it.
I missed some things about traveling when I was young, but I also spent those years confused and lost, not really discovering myself as I discovered the world. As I got older, I got more comfortable in my own skin, even if it had more wrinkles.
I sat down at a cafe for an iced coffee, its bottom thick with condensed milk. Some people hit middle age and buy a shiny red sports car. My midlife crisis was slightly different — wanting to make this trip perfect, but perfect for me and the nostalgia of my backpacking youth.
I admitted this to Jeff.
We left Phnom Penh for a beachfront hut I had booked, with cold showers and electricity a few hours a day. I told Jeff next time we would search together for hotels.
The next morning the sun rose as we strolled the beach of Koh Rong Sanloem, holding hands. In my 20s, I had missed too many sunrises. Now, inching toward life’s sunset, I knew I couldn’t go back in time but I’d continue to go forward with Jeff, even when he hits the hotel minibar.
Departure Points explores the ways traveling changes us, whether it’s a lesson learned or a truth uncovered. You may submit a first-person essay of 700 or fewer words to firstname.lastname@example.org using “Departure Points” in the subject line. Please include your first and last names and your contact information for editorial consideration.