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The Newlywed Game

Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution. — Mae West

The rain fell in big droplets on the centuries-old cobblestones in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. As we searched for shelter, I questioned the wisdom of our decision to ignore all those umbrella-peddlers we’d seen earlier in the day. When the drops turned cold and began to pelt David’s unprotected head, we increased our pace, winding our way through the narrow maze between medieval stone buildings until we came upon an open area. At one end of the plaza was a cathedral, complete with beggars at every entrance, old women in headscarves who count on Catholic guilt to make their living. David and I were not drawn to the church with its cool blue tones, dank appearance, and hushed, reverent echoes, but to the wine bar at the opposite end of the square, from which emanated golden light and a din of joviality.

Since we had come to learn that seats in Spanish bars were few and far between, David and I were content just to have a warm spot, out of the rain, in which to stand with copas de vino tintos in hand. Sipping our Rioja red, we gazed out through the open doors of the cozy, smoke-filled bar onto the gray dreariness of the empty square.

We were in the midst of our silent reverie when an unmistakably American accent referencing “Napa” cut through the Babel of foreign tongues. David’s eyes met mine, confirming we’d both heard correctly. We glanced toward the bar, where a brunette in hip glasses was speaking animatedly to a man dressed like the “Don’t” page in our Barcelona handbook: T-shirt, shorts, white socks, and sneakers.

“What do you think,” I said. “Want to make new friends? It could prove entertaining, and we don’t have much else going on tonight. Then again, other people tend to complicate things.” David shrugged his assent. “Are you sure?” I asked. David nodded. Our desire for entertainment clearly outweighed our trepidation. “Okay, then, let’s do it,” I said, and led the way toward the bar.

I approached the couple and interjected myself into their conversation, “Did I hear you say Napa?” It was that simple. Catching the sound of familiar diction in a foreign city is like discovering a grilled-cheese sandwich on an escargot- and foie-gras-laden menu. Within minutes of chatting, we’d all set down our empty glasses and agreed to go in on a bottle together.

Their names were Theresa and Chris, and they’d gotten hitched in a big-ass ceremony (350 guests) less than a month earlier. They were on a five-week honeymoon, the first three of which they’d spent in Ireland, the last two of which they would spend meandering around Spain before they were scheduled to fly home from Madrid.

Right off the bat, I noticed marked differences between us. As Theresa explained the drama of her wedding (from the impositions of uninvited guests to all the stress and frustration that accompany such an immoderate undertaking), I thought of my relaxed, unceremonious elopement with David, which consisted of 20 minutes at the county courthouse between errands on a Wednesday. As Chris relayed a story with the volume and exuberance of a rabid football fan on Super Bowl Sunday, I noticed David nervously looking about, gauging the discomfort of the bar’s more reserved patrons.

Several hours and six bottles of wine later, we left the bar in search of food. The rain had let up, so we walked to Chris and Theresa’s funky futuristic hotel — where Chris changed into jeans and a button-down shirt — and then grabbed a cab to the opposite end of town. After waiting in line for 20 minutes at a small, laudable place called Cal Pep that David had read about on, we were seated on the four stools at the end of the bar.

The restaurant had no menu — people order by “meat, fish, vegetable, or other.” When faced with four blabbering and obviously confused Americans, Xavier, the man behind the bar, quickly decided that someone needed to grab the reins. Without consultation, he scrawled theatrically in illegible handwriting that hinted at a career as a doctor in a previous life. We were relieved, as the waiter’s boldness had lifted from our minds the burden of thought. As we transferred our binge from booze to food, David and I continued to get to know, and like, our companions.

After dinner, we agreed to check out Opium, a popular club that Chris and Theresa had heard about from their hotel concierge, who promised to get them on “the list.” As soon as we entered the joint, Chris, who in my estimation had already replaced all the blood in his thick 6-foot, 4-inch body with alcohol, ordered two comically expensive mojitos. David asked for a splash of bourbon, straight up. Beginning to feel the onset of our hangovers, Theresa and I were over it — we opted for comically expensive water.

At 2 a.m., I announced that we’d reached the point of diminishing returns; the night had been milked for all it was worth. Theresa agreed, after which a slurring Chris accused us both of being jealous of the other seven women in the bar. “Oh, no he didn’t,” said Theresa, sounding genuinely peeved.

“He’s just kidding,” I said. “Like we have any need to be jealous.” David, who’d been admiring a pair of stiletto boots, had missed the whole exchange and did not understand why Theresa was stomping away or why I was running after her.

“You’re not really leaving, are you?” I said when I caught up with Theresa on a furnished landing between sets of stairs leading from the bar to the exit. “Come on, let’s sit here for a minute,” I coaxed. “They can’t see us, but we can see them, and I bet you in a minute, they’ll put down their drinks and come after us, and then we can all leave together.” She complied, and the two of us watched and waited. And waited.

Theresa was pissed, yet resigned in the way of a woman accustomed to disappointment but determined not to let it get to her. I was tired and increasingly disturbed. “Trust me, I know David,” I said. “I can read him like a Kindle. He’s wondering where the hell I am right now, and it’s killing him. But what I don’t get is why isn’t he coming to look for me? What the freak is with that?”

When the men relocated to a seated area 30 feet from the bar, I found myself repeating Theresa’s sentiment: “Oh, no he didn’t.” I thought I knew my man. I tried working myself into a hissy by tossing up a hypothetical: “What if I’d gone back to where we were at the bar and couldn’t find him? What then?” Theresa shook her head, an inherently female gesture meaning, “Men.” “That’s it,” I said, literally putting my foot down as I stood. “I’m going over there.”

Despite my mask of indignation, my irritation was unable to penetrate the indestructible barrier of trust that runs deeper than my five senses. Regardless of how things may have seemed, I was absolutely certain of two things: 1, neither David nor I would leave without the other, and 2, we both understood number one as a fact of life. Therefore, I concluded, it must be the case that David had a good reason for sticking by that guy’s side. Still, I read him the riot act while Theresa confronted her nascent hubby. Despite my rambling about “courtesy” and “thoughtfulness,” I knew David’s intentions, whatever they were, would vindicate him in the end.

Even as I was laying into him, the look on David’s face was one of immense relief, and its effect of melting my resolve was complete. Before he had a chance to respond, I noticed Theresa running off again, and I bolted after her. David followed me. I’m not sure what had been said between the newlyweds, but by the time I caught up with Theresa, she was already outside, fast-walking away from the club. When she said she was over it, I inherently knew she meant more than this evening — that for whatever reason, her honeymoon thus far had not been as she’d imagined it would be.

Without a second thought about Chris, whom we knew would be okay because he had his wallet and spoke Spanish, David and I escorted Theresa back to her hotel. Once we were finally on our own again, winding our way back through the narrow streets to our hotel, David and I shared what had happened while we were apart. I told him about watching him from the landing, and he explained why he didn’t go looking for me. “Chris is really, really drunk; he’s doing the kind of stupid things that people often regret. And they’re on their honeymoon, so I wanted to help. I was talking about how we are and how he needs to be a lot less ‘me’ and a lot more ‘us.’ You know, like you and me.” David smiled and held my hand as we continued walking.

“Damn, I knew it,” I said. “The whole time I was sitting up there, appalled that you weren’t thinking enough about me, when in fact you were down there talking about me.” As we continued along, I couldn’t help but muse that to anyone watching, we must have looked like the ones who’d just gotten married.

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