For over two years, up until last September, whenever I was in the depressive throes of my long-distance relationship, I would scour the internet for one small smidgen of reassurance. Just one article, one survey, one blog post, one online-journal entry—anything.
At best, I would stumble upon a few heartfelt, scattered scrawlings in the comments section of some blog about “how we made it long-distance.” At worst, I would read the blog, which was always written in a dispassionate and impersonal way, as if this “increasingly common arrangement” were a thing to be dissected and studied in our “increasingly global world.”
So, I’m here now to write as someone who’s come out of it and is still in it (the relationship, that is). I hope it's a realistic, honest glimmer of what those of you in long-distance relationships are probably going through and failing, as I did, to appreciate.
Before diving in, it must be said that I would not deign to offer advice, because long-distance relationships are just like any other: complex and particular, with no one but the two who are in it knowing what it’s truly like.
What is known, however, is the power of what happens on the telephone.
Tonight, I was reading a novel based on the life of Mata Hari. In it, the famed heroine, Hari, constantly finds herself with men she can all but oblige. One scene has thus far hit me harder than others, inspiring me to put down the book and write this.
The scene is set in Paris, in the immediate aftermath of the World’s Fair—the very one that conceived the Eiffel Tower. The man in the scene is, like many Parisians of the day, complaining that the Eiffel Tower is an eyesore, hoping that “they move forward quickly with the plans to dismantle that monstrosity.”
A few short pages later, Hari finds herself sitting at a café in the same city, joined by yet another man, similarly pessimistic. This Parisian man complains of his old city’s new, fast-paced, technological life. What bothers him is the arrival of the telephone, and, “the possibility of having long-distance conversations on that intervention brought over by the Americans.” (Emphasis added.)
“For millions of years,” he observes, “man spoke only to what he could see. Suddenly, in just one decade, ‘seeing’ and ‘speaking’ have been separated. We think we’re used to it, yet we don’t realize the immense impact it’s had on our reflexes.”
Then, he takes a surprise turn for the positive, ending with the admission that, “Frankly, the result is that, when we talk on the telephone, we enter a state that is similar to certain magical trances; we can discover other things about ourselves.”
There was quite a lot to digest in these few short pages. How technology has—and will continue to—intervene in human interaction. How we, as humans, are always uncomfortable with that intervention, believing it requires us to forsake some “real” human quality for the sake of modern adaptability. But more than anything, it was the man’s last, positive admission that really got me.
For more than 30 months, my then-boyfriend (now fiancé) and I had but handwritten letters and the telephone. I remember how my stomach would plunge when friends would—in an effort to put a positive spin on things— reassure me that, “Well, at least there’s Skype!”
No, there wasn’t. We didn’t have Skype. We didn’t have Viber. We didn’t have WhatsApp. We didn’t even have email. He was, after all, in a remote corner of the African continent where running water and basic electricity are luxuries, to say nothing of smart phones and an internet connection.
But that was okay. In fact, in retrospect, it was more than okay. It was ideal.
We talked daily, and when we did, we couldn’t rely on emojis or selfies. We couldn’t send each other random photos that may or may not have been meaningful. We couldn’t forward articles with subject lines like, “Interesting!” followed by nothing but an empty link. All we could do, and all we did, was talk.
How many of us talk these days? I mean, really talk?
If that’s not a luxury today, I don’t know what is.
Instead, today, we are inundated with the briefest of updates from friends whose lives display themselves on our screens, but of whom we know very little, if anything at all.
Sure, there were days in those 30 long months when one—or both—of us wasn’t in the mood to talk. Days when I hung up the phone and mustered all of my will not to cry, because all I wanted was to feel connected. But instead, all I got was a muffled “how are you?” and and/or an “I’m good.” Talk about a bad connection.
But, more times than not, there were the days we would talk from sunup to sundown.
It was during these talks—many of which would span four, sometimes even five or six hours—that we would pour ourselves out and into each other. Talking about our days, our deepest thoughts, our memories, worries, hopes… anything and everything that flowed through our shared stream of consciousness.
To sit on opposite ends of the phone, continents and oceans between you, with only your thoughts and words. Unencumbered by physical desires or distractions—just him, and me.
I don’t know that there’s a better way to truly dive into and truly get to know a person.
Make no mistake, long-distance relationships are hard. But those “certain magical trances” were also very real and indescribably great. Looking back, we were offered the opportunity to “discover other things about ourselves,” and each other, in a way rarely offered to others in our modern world.