Something a little personal this afternoon. I’d written this essay back in May and am finally able to share it today, if you’d like to see…
No Matter How Near? No Matter How Far?
I’ve never had a boyfriend before and then, I did. I was finally in a relationship after watching as an outsider my girlfriends who seemed to enjoy all the perks that come with a relationship, like going on dates without a slick of makeup on. That was sometimes enviable but, for me, having been single for 22 years was mostly okay.
To be honest, I didn’t exactly know what a sustained feeling of ‘singleness’ felt like. Not like how the movies associate singleness with liberation or inadequacy, anyway. But at certain points in my life, like when I decided to travel across Europe by myself the summer after graduating college, singleness meant updating my parents back in America just once a day, if that. It was a wonderful chance for me to build thrilling, personal memories without having a large guilt wound constantly pressing me down, reminding me that I’ve left someone else behind.
A few weeks after I moved to a new city for my first job, I met a man. By winter, we had started dating. He and I kept only a close group of friends and family in the loop about each other and mostly spent our time shuffling between restaurants, occasional outings and our apartments. By the new year, we had had enough personal rations to stay at his or my place exclusively for at least half a week. In retrospect, I had made a bigger deal about leaving my toothbrush in his bathroom because I had thought that was one litmus test the movies affirmed. Maybe we were rushing into things. Though, I guess one abiding tenement in relationships is to do what feels right. So, we did.
Around that time, he started contemplating a better professional venture abroad. It would be a joint decision for him to relocate, he’d said to me one evening in February. But really, was it my place to disagree? We were both in our early twenties and I had traveled around a bit to know how much our home countries resounded in our hearts, like an dock to return to. The question would be if he would come back to me.
In early Spring, in the weeks after he left for his months-long stint, I slowly began to acknowledge the fact that we were dating long-distance. In college, this type of dating seemed to me like an odd invention, made even more so clear in large social settings. I remember friends scraping pockets of time and excusing themselves to update their significant others on several weekend nights out. Some of them had to duck into dank bedrooms or brave the cool night air out front in thin clubbing apparel to speak on the phone. Maybe they also enjoyed the immediacy of their surrounding peers on nights like these, but to me, they seemed at once removed and concentrated, committed to an invisible presence and focused on not over stepping boundaries while mingling with mutual acquaintances. I wondered if I would be subjugated to that sense of intimate longing.
I started sifting through blogs and readers’ comments on the matter. The literature was positively encouraging (how can it not be- who dares knock down the already wounded?). I’d come across optimistic spins like “not taking each other for granted…”, “having the chance to thoroughly dedicate yourself to your own interests” and “being able to binge watch Netflix without feeling guilty…”. Ultimately, all these tips centered on “finding a way that worked for us…” to make the relationship meaningful and worth the investment.
All in all, the blogs reaffirmed my belief that my boyfriend and I are in an unusual and downright unnatural spot in our relationship. Even as the circumstances seem unfair and the world so imperfect, we also have to acknowledge, like in any new relationship, the nature of human personalities which occasionally stand between us. Tempers flare, uncertainties arise and joy and tears come and go all in good measure as a phenomenon of becoming more comfortable with one another and for now, even as we’re apart. Dating across an ocean means that we can’t afford to shy away from disagreement. We’re blunter, tending to how each of us feels. We’re taking more initiative to pose poignant questions when we feel the other is clamming up. Either way, we’re trying to dedicate as much of ourselves as we can by showing our intentions to one another over grainy daily video calls and a 12-hour time difference. That’s how we make it work.
We are a team, we’d constantly reaffirm to one another when we spoke. He reminded me that soon enough will be our vacation, a trip designed to meet halfway between where each of us were. And then, my birthday weekend during which he would visit. The prospect of near-future reunions became a comforting mantra. Still, this is a test, I’d think to myself. We’re going to have to sit it through.
But how do I assess the strength of a long-distance relationship? Should I measure the resiliency of our relationship by his picking up on the first ring? By the thoughtfulness of our talks even after a long day? By the number of surprise cards and packages that come in the mail? All these metrics seemed too circumstantial. These can’t be only the ingredients in a recipe to reconstruct intimacy. Fulfilling them would only enhance a feeling of connectedness that already existed.
So far, I’ve developed a habit of counting down the days. Countdowns are a large presence of any young person’s life. I suppose it’s our limited scope of life that holds true a universal and naive belief that there is to be some sort of expected sameness or pattern to each day preceding some major event from which everything will, all at once, change. Sometimes, when I’m on the couch after a workday, I would open up my calendar app and flip through the months ahead, wishfully thinking that a term commitment abroad meant to the day and no more. Will the weeks pass by as quickly as a scroll of my finger? More often, I’d refer to my birth control cycle. I’d wake up to reach for the pill pack on my nightstand every morning in the weeks before we see each other again. Then, almost instinctively, I would locate the day we would be reunited and count by little white tablets backwards, sort of like an advent calendar, at once happy with anticipation and discomforted by the inevitable passage of time and the next goodbye.
I should be used to this feeling, I’d think. After all, I used to live apart from someone I love. My father lived halfway across the world from my mother and I for three years when I was a toddler and later, child. Like all immigrant stories, it was at once simple and complicated, altogether ignited by a general certainty that better opportunities existed abroad in the US. I remember my parents’ weekly phone calls and the letters my mother and father would exchange on crepe-y beige paper. Each correspondence was pages long and drawn out in slanted, adult script I used to think looked like miniature text architecture.
“Separation can equal splitting up,” my mother sighed into the phone. “If it had been another three years, I don’t think we would have made it.”
I had just told her about the start of my own long-distance relationship and her candor shook me. Looking back, I had always been comforted by the fact that I’d been the product of a mutually rewarding and happy marriage. I remember posing large what-if questions to my father during my last year in college. I thought I was gathering wisdom for the unexpected but I now know that I was hungering for reassurance. We’ve never thought about and will never get divorced, my father had said when I’d asked.
That was the certainty I was hoping for when I opened up to my mom. That being apart would be hurt, but that they’ve done it because each of them had succeeded at the many hard things I was aware of even as a child. That due to the generosity of genetics, I would do the same.
“That’s the truth, but only time can tell for you,” my mother concluded.
“Acceptance is a small, quiet room”, wrote Cheryl Strayed in her column Dear Sugar. I suppose having the courage to do so means getting used to being at once humble and proud of how our decision to stick together has made us. A long-distance relationship isn’t ideal but nor does it seem like a chore; it’s simply something we choose to live with for the moment because, again, it feels right.
I can’t provide a satisfying ending to this story. Still, even as it’s happening, it doesn’t seem fair to leave off without some resolution of if we’ll stay together or go our separate ways. I’m at a point where, as a twentysomething, my life is fraught with uncertainties, just like every one of my peers. I’m learning to realize that this is what living entails. With uncertainty, there will be resolution only to which many other resolutions will come to amend in due time. It’s the same with loving and having that love go the distance.”
End note: Only very recently, Dan and I decided to take a break. Despite moments of sadness and disappointment, differences and minor setbacks, we’ve very much managed to sustain a perennial feeling of comfort between us. I’m very proud of the both of us for that. It’s fascinating the degree of permeability and understanding between two living objects. And, it’s fascinating just how large the world can be in comparison to the nest two people build together in a relationship.
As we age, we all come to realize that a lifetime is never enough time. In a long-distance relationship, that understanding is not so much motivating as it can spur emotional distress and whittle fulfillment. Though when all is said and done, a relationship, despite its complexity (as each and every one is), behaves like any other experience. It begins, and then it ends. Each has a plot line, some perhaps too short-lived, yet each in their own way compelling and unique.