A Honeymoon Panic Attack

We’ve been celebrating the arrival of peak travel season with a series of personal essays from contributing writers. Each post tells the tale of its writer’s most unforgettable trip. Here is Una LaMarche, whose honeymoon didn’t go exactly as planned…

A fun fact about the word “honeymoon” is that it was originally a 16th century form of shade-throwing. From the Old English hony moone, “hony” represented the honeyed sweetness of a new marriage, while “moone” was a reference to the moon cycles — and how fleeting that sweetness would prove to be. Basically, saying “Have a great honeymoon!” to your friend in the Middle Ages was like silently mouthing, “Enjoy it while it lasts, fools,” to the drunk strangers waiting outside of a Vegas wedding chapel.

I have been married for almost nine years, but I take comfort in this delightfully pessimistic definition of what is widely marketed to be one of the most blissful vacations a person can hope to experience. Because three nights after our wedding, in a tiny Italian hotel room, my husband Jeff had his first panic attack. And, as it turns out, Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome doesn’t have a listing for dealing with that particular type of travel hiccup.

“I can’t breathe,” he said abruptly, getting out of the bed in which we had recently failed to consummate the European leg of our new marriage, due to mutual exhaustion and inebriation.

“What?!” I said this not in the loving purr of a blushing bride but in the way someone might yell over the sound of a power drill or industrial vacuum. I was, it is relevant to mention, in a terrible mood thanks to the fact that my grade school-level Italian had failed and embarrassed me at dinner, and had forced Jeff to resort to ordering our meal in French.

“I think I have to throw up.” Jeff lunged for the bathroom door, which was conveniently located three inches from the foot of our bed. We were staying in the same hotel my parents had stayed in on their first trip to Rome, which was charming but claustrophobic, as if built for elves, and the dining room played nothing but “Light My Fire” by The Doors on an endless loop.

“Was it the carciofi?” Medical emergency or no, I was determined to regain the dignity that had been lost at the hands of our ponytailed waiter, who had stared blankly at me while I attempted to order artichokes.

Jeff didn’t respond, which finally got me out of bed. Despite my petulance and belly full of spitefully-consumed tiramisu, I had taken it upon myself to model one of the negligees I’d received at my bridal shower, essentially just a fish net with a head hole. My nipples poked out curiously from between the strands as I listened for sounds of vomiting, but there came none.

“Babe?” I called, pressing my fingertips against the flimsy door.

“I need a cigarette,” Jeff groaned.

“I thought you said you couldn’t breathe.” This came out harsher than I meant it to, and Jeff emerged from the bathroom, pale and sweaty, with a frown.

“I think I’m having a panic attack,” he said.

“What?!” (Again, power drill/industrial vacuum.) “Why?!”

“I don’t know.” He put a hand over his chest, and my blood ran cold. My first thought was, I have been married to this man for three days and he is dying. My second was, He’s dying because he can’t stand to be married to me. My third, and most chilling was, If I can’t even order an appetizer, how am I supposed to call an ambulance?

That one I said out loud.

“No ambulance,” Jeff said, wincing. “I think I just need some fresh air. Take a walk with me.”

Are you sure you want me to go with you? I almost said, but the words stopped short on the tip of my tongue. Whether or not I was the cause of his nervous system’s sudden override, we were each other’s companions in a country where neither of us could correctly conjugate verbs. Also, barely 72 hours earlier I had vowed to love and cherish Jeff in sickness. Granted, I had been picturing some old-man sickness, in a far-off future in which I dressed like Iris Apfel, but a promise was a promise.

I threw a trench coat over my R-rated ensemble and led him downstairs, clutching his clammy hand in a vise grip. As we passed the dining room, which was still serving at ten o’clock, Jim Morrison’s deep, haunting voice trailed after us: “The time to hesitate is through… No time to wallow in the mire…”

Jeff grimaced, and my breath caught in my throat, until he whispered, “I fucking hate that song.”

We both smiled.

Out on the cobblestone street, his breathing got easier, in spite of the cigarette and light rain. It had rained on our wedding day, too, and everyone had assured us that it was good luck, but I wasn’t so sure. Rain was random chance. A lifetime of happiness couldn’t be secured by a passing storm — as our current situation seemed to prove.

We didn’t say much as we walked hand in hand down narrow, misty alleys and through moonlit piazzas towards the Tiber River. It was late October, and I shivered in my chemise and trench coat, but Jeff seemed to be warming, and that was enough.

“Are you still dying?” I asked, kidding only because I had finally stopped believing it might be true. Out on the water, through the trees, we could see the Isola Tiberina, a minuscule island that, according to the information that Rick Steves had included in Rick Steves’ Pocket Rome, was home to a 400-year-old hospital.

“We’re all dying,” Jeff said.

“Like right now, though?” I asked, and was rewarded with his trademark cheeky grin.

“Not right now,” he said, and leaned in for a kiss.

“Do you regret marrying me?” I murmured, while our mouths were still touching. To anyone passing on the Lungotevere, we must have looked impossibly in love.

“Not for a minute,” Jeff said. And then added, “A woman who makes your heart feel like it’s exploding is hard to find.”

Almost a decade later, I’ve learned that travel can be stressful, but the real uncharted territory is marriage. There are no field guides for keeping that Doors-level fire burning, no translators or Michelin stars or multi-lingual audio tours. Sometimes all you can do is turn to your spouse and remind them of the time they almost passed out in an airplane-sized bathroom in a country where you couldn’t convincingly pronounce the names of vegetables, and watch them laugh and shake their head gently, remembering that sweet inside joke.

So who knows? We may have some hony left in our moone yet.

Una LaMarche is the author of the memoir Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer, as well as three novels. You can find her on Instagram, or at unalamarche.com.

P.S. On lopsided breasts, and a romantic trip gone awry.

(Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber for Cup of Jo.)