long distance: a violation of time, space, and together
A long distance relationship is a relationship with an idea, not a person. It’s a conceptual relationship, existing only in the past and the future.
I realized that right away. That, I think, is why I kept kissing her, why I kept turning my head around and summoning smiles constrained by the muscles in my throat. We didn’t want it to become officially unofficial. Because, when a relationship becomes an idea, it ends—maybe not forever, but at least until it stops being an idea again. And I felt it end immediately. That's why I made myself turn around and smile, even though every time I turned back toward the Terminal, our relationship was over again.
The first time I really realized it came soon after. It was a searing blow to the nervous system, a sudden and painfully unfillable craving that filled our bodies. I was sitting on a shifty wooden stool in a classroom in the tiny Bai village. I was a few hours from the Burmese border. She wasn’t. The Burmese border was somewhere between two oceans for her.
“Hey you. Wha—“
“Hey. Ca—…… —e?
I closed the computer and walked down to the teacher’s lounge. The lights were dying, but the Wifi was usually OK. I’d find these things happening again and again during the two years I lived in the village. A Mercedes with Shanghai plates destined for tourism in Dali or Tiger Leaping Gorge jostles down a crumbly dirt road, skirting cavalier chickens. A water buffalo saunters across a freshly painted crosswalk. Life there was a confused anachronistic paradox, a violation of time and space. Just like our relationship.
I sat down on another stool and opened my laptop. I clicked the little video camera in the top right corner and listened to the 5-second soupy, digitized loop. That loop would become the sound of anticipation, anxiety, frustration, etcetera, etcetera. I didn’t know it then, exactly, but I think I felt that it had to be true.
That frog loop would precede every single “moment” with everyone from my past and future over the next two years.
“Hey. Why is it so dark in there?”
“Eh. The lights are kind of meh.”
“So. Wha—…. ettled in?”
The “call dropped” sound—air sucked out of something.
She called me back.
“I think I’m gonna go. I have to go to class.”
“Ok. Yeah. I have to go to bed.”
“Talk soon. OK?” She smiled. “Love you.”
“Yeah, sorry about the—….. gets better. –ou, too.”
“It’s ok. It happens.”
I’m sure I could feel my eyes filling up. I don’t remember now, though.
I like to tell people that we did it right. We understood what it meant to be in love with someone you couldn’t be with. We understood the reality of distance and the desires of simple, imperfectly evolved human being animals. I like to think we looked at ourselves honestly and said—I love you, I’ll still love you in two years (two years!), go live your life. I like to tell people that we didn’t cry each other to sleep and wake up to dead computer screens. I like to think I’m capable of living in the moment. I like to think that I rolled into an airport and rolled out two years later, our relationship cryogenically frozen and cracked open again, same as ever. I like to think we were wearing the same clothes.
And that’s all true. Except the last few sentences. Because you can’t shut your eyes and ears, go to sleep, nod off for two years and open the book right where you left off. You have to live it all. And the future and the past have an insidious habit of sneaking into the present and taking over.
I lived in a village on the side of a mountain. I lived in Mandarin, which will never be my first language, but which was my only language in the village. English, like our relationship, was an idea—something that I knew I’d return to someday. At night—some nights were freezing, inescapably cold and some were hot, heavy hot, punctured by the sound of big flies mashing against windows—I’d walk into the village. I would sit or squat around a low wooden table with men twice or thrice my age. The men my age were all in Dali or Lijiang or Guangzhou or Shanghai crushing stones or sewing jeans. The old men and I would drink black tea and baijiu and eat peanuts and fried grasshoppers. It always smelt like cigarette smoke, until you brought the baijiu to your lips.
The old men loved to ask me if I was married, even though they already knew the answer. When I told them no, they would ask me the next logical question. I never figured out how to answer it. My Mandarin wasn’t strong enough to go down the rabbit hole that would follow the answer “kind of.” And even if it was, “kind of” wouldn’t really make sense to the old men. Most of them had “definitely” had wives since they were 19 or 20. “Kind of” having a girlfriend at 23 was cause for concern. I usually just said “yes,” which made things easier.
But, truthfully, I didn’t even know.
Modern long-distance relationships are cruel in their knack for testing the boundaries of with. I could see her and she could see me. I could hear her. I could text her impossibly insignificant things. My dad recently showed me a letter from my grandpa to my grandma postmarked from a training base in Northern France. It was 15 pages long and he missed nothing. They showed us some new pictures, dear. The pictures were ok, but the seats were not comfortable. I could text pictures of my nipples to Greenland at 3 in the afternoon if I needed to. It tricks the mind, like a rice farmer with a laptop. Technology deceitfully tangles the barriers of space and time. It leads you to question the concepts of with and together.
During the two years, our relationship with waxed and waned. Sometimes it was I love you, sometimes it was bye, and sometimes it was Hey. I love you. OK?
Our Skype calls became infrequent and then frequent again. Sometimes I called more. Sometimes she did. But, it was hard a lot of the time. Hard and confusing. Why sacrifice so much time for an idea? Especially when your understanding of what that idea is frays as the days go by.
We live in a free society, which means no one can have everything they want. We weren’t bound to the other. And the other wasn’t bound to us. For this reason, fighting in a long distance relationship feels superfluous and impossible to justify. There are no kids to solve things for, no house to be shared, no dinner plans to be kept. There is nothing to fight over or for—except an idea of something that you might do someday. But, it’s not an idea like Socialism or God or Freedom, just the idea of two people someday having kids to solve things for and a house to share and dinner plans to keep.
So, we hang up, irritated and unsure why. I go to work. She goes to bed.
When we met last November, there was no sweeping off feet, no cinematic embrace. There was no definitive anything. Maybe it was a mix of confusion, relief, and exhaustion. What happens when an idea becomes real again? It’s probably what revolutionaries feel when they effectively execute the coup. They stand in the dictator’s office and look at each other and say… ok… so… we did that… nice. Fuck… Now what?
It had been so long. In many ways, we only knew our relationship as something in the future—a might, a maybe, a hopefully, an idea in our heads represented by a soupy, five-second loop and a grainy face.
Slowly, I grew accustomed to sitting in chairs instead of stools. Slowly I grew accustomed to eating chickens that came in plastic wrapping with expiration dates. And slowly, our relationship metamorphosed out of an idea and into something real again. We became a part of each other’s lives. Dinner plans are made. Goodbyes come without tears. Fights seem to matter.
There was no cryogenic reemergence. We weren’t wearing the same clothes as we were the day I left. We both changed—just like in any relationship, distance long or short. To say that those two years weren’t a part of our relationship would be like saying I never lived in the village at all. It would be like saying that that experience doesn’t color my thoughts and the way I move through my life now. If you were inside, went outside, and came back inside again, you still went outside. You still know what it looks like out there and you might even still be wet from the rain. Life is not a string of discrete experiences. To say that our simple dinner plans and now-customary goodbye-see-you-tonights are not somewhere, imbued with the times when all of that was so far off as to be nothing more than an idea would be misleading.
The part of our relationship that wasn’t with, the part of our relationship that wasn’t is just as real as all the parts that