After I sent out an essay in May about getting engaged I received more than a handful of letters from people on my mailing list complaining that they hadn’t even known I was dating someone, and that they felt they’d missed a few chapters in the story. A couple sounded quite aggrieved.
How did we meet? And was it true that Mike proposed after we’d spent a mere three weeks in the same city, or had I now taken to blending fiction and reality? What’s the story?
So here’s the rest of that story, from the beginning. It’s long, I’m warning you. But don’t expect any sympathy from me. You did ask for it. Or some of you did, anyway.
Early October 2007. I’m living in LA, working for the Headington Institute and preparing to take off for a month on the road in Kenya, Ghana and Washington DC. Mike is living in Papua New Guinea, working as a water and sanitation engineer for World Vision and preparing to take off for two months on the road in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Erin, an old friend of Mike’s, is living in Atlanta and working as an acquiring editor for a magazine.
The story really starts with Erin. As she explained to Mike via email later, “Lisa’s publicist at Moody sent me the usual press stuff for the month including a one-sheet type thing for her book. ‘We’ don’t usually work with fiction, so I normally chuck those unless they sound really interesting. But the title was killer and the cover was quite nice (I judge books by their covers in general), so I read the synopsis and the little author bio blurb.”
It wasn’t my novel that caught Erin’s attention at this point, it was the fact that I worked for the Headington Institute. As Erin saw it, we helped “burned out and tortured aid workers”. She thought of Mike and his last six years on the field and knew she had to figure out how to sign him up for our newsletter.
So she went to my personal website, which was listed on the press release, and looked for a link to the Headington Institute. What she discovered first, however, were my essays. A couple of essays in and Erin suddenly found that she wasn’t as interested in hooking Mike up with the Headington Institute newsletter as she was in hooking him up with me.
Yes, she acknowledged to herself, the fact that I lived in LA was going to prove a minor drawback. But she also knew I was a third culture kid. My upbringing, she reasoned, had prepared me well for the challenging romantic equation she was visualizing. As for Mike – as she told him months later – “I was so overcome with giddiness at striking gold via one glossy sheet of press mess that I just had to brag to the people in the nearest three cubes that I had just found the perfect woman for my friend in PNG.”
So Erin wrote to Mike that day and strongly encouraged him to look at my website.
Mike, apparently, rolled his eyes and wrote back to Erin pointing out that he lived in PNG, with a dial-up internet connection, and wasn’t about to go browsing the website of a stranger living in LA.
Undeterred, Erin downloaded all the essays on my website, put them in a single word document, and emailed it to Mike.
Mike groaned at Erin’s meddling, but opened the document. Fifty pages later he was intrigued. Dial up connection notwithstanding Mike then visited my website, and as the photo on my homepage popped up he realized that he’d seen my face before – on the Facebook profile of Alison Preston, a friend he’d met in Melbourne when he was doing his masters there five years previously.
Mike decided to drop me a line.
Mid October 2007. I received a note from someone named Mike asking whether I would add him to my essay list, which I did. As he’d mentioned Alison’s name I also friend-requested him on Facebook. After he accepted the request I was more than a little surprised to see we had several mutual friends.
In addition to Ali, Mike knew the Scoullars – a family my own family had gotten to know very well when we all lived in Zimbabwe during my teenage years. Mike also knew another friend of mine, Ryan Schmidt. I learned later that Mike met Ryan in Afghanistan and how I got to know Ryan… Well, that tangent could be a tale unto itself. For now, suffice to say that back in 2004 I read some of Ryan’s essays about his experiences as an aid worker in Afghanistan and Mozambique. Raw and powerful, they were so compelling that I tracked him down via email and pestered him until he gave in an agreed to be my friend.
So, back to Mike. Five days after his first, casual, email, the email dropped into my inbox.
The email where Mike laid it all out on the table and said he’d like to get to know me better – that he really liked my essays, my smile, and my Australian passport (though he was also quick to point out he didn’t need said passport as he had already an American one that functioned just fine). The email where he confessed trepidation as to whether a relationship between LA and PNG would even be worth trying given the potential ordeals involved. The email where he acknowledged the massive information imbalance between us and sent me some of his own writing, told me to give it a think and decide what I wanted to do, and thoughtfully reassured me that regardless of what I said he wouldn’t turn into a Lisa stalker.
The email made me blink. And gulp. His writing made it clear that he’d lived and worked in Australia, Tajikistan, Uganda, and Sri Lanka in the last seven years. He struck me as someone who was either seriously interesting, or seriously crazy. Or perhaps both.
Now I was intrigued. I was also, like Mike, more than a little wary. My own previous long distance relationships had taught me a fair bit about those potential ordeals that Mike was referring to – and that had been without the added complications of an 18 hour time difference, jobs we loved anchoring us on different sides of the world, spotty internet access, and starting from the ground up with these constraints already in place. If ever I’d heard of an against-the-odds long distance scenario, this was it.
It didn’t make much sense to even consider this, and I knew that, but he was cute. Along with the essay he’d sent a link to thirty photo’s he’d compiled to celebrate his thirtieth birthday the previous year. He was only in one of those photos – he was kneeling, surrounded by children in Rwanda. Who has the power to stay untouched by that? And his writing, chatty and confident, was very compelling…
This issue, in and of itself, was one that had me particularly worried. Mike had been frank with me. Despite a sudden shyness, I figured it was the least I could do in return and I tackled this head-on in my reply.
“I know it’s an edited version of me that goes in those essays. All the boring parts, all those days and moments when I’m just flat, or exhausted, or grumpy, or uninspiring, or selfish… I know I’m not as interesting, witty, or attractive as those essays make me appear when read in a vacuum (not to mention the press photos for the book).”
My forays into long-distance relationships, I told him later in that letter, had taught me the very valuable lesson that, “The tangible, living, breathing someone will inevitably turn out to be very different from the idealized someone who springs to life in my head when I read their writing.”
But doing my best to convince Mike that I really wasn’t that interesting or attractive didn’t address the issue of what I wanted to do.
What did I want to do?
After some thought I put it this way.
“Let’s email. As friends. Or as people who think they might want to become friends. With no expectations of anything more until we at least cross paths in person, if we ever get there.”
And email we did.
During the next three months the two of us covered six countries, a dozen cities, and managed to exchange more than ninety thousand words – your standard novel.
In late November, about six weeks into emailing, Mike wrote to me from the Solomon Islands. He waited until the very end of a three page letter to drop a question on me – one, he said, that he trusted I’d answer truthfully and straightforwardly.
“So what do you think of me trying to come down to Oz sometime between Jan 10 and Feb 6 while you’re there? I’d like to try. If you think that would be okay.”
I was truthful and straightforward. I told him that I thought it was a good idea and would be lots of fun.
I knew when I answered that this would mean taking Mike home; there just wasn’t going to be any other sensible way to do it. Luckily, I also knew that when I informed my parents that I had just invited someone I had never met or talked to to come make himself completely at home with us for two weeks during our family holidays, I could count on my parents not to freak out. And indeed they didn’t.
The same cannot be said of the handful of friends in my life who were tracking this story as it unfolded. Several of them delicately suggested I may be crazy.
“What are you going to do if it’s a disaster?” One of them asked.
“Well,” I said. “All going well we’re planning on going to Melbourne to see mutual friends after spending ten days at home in Ballina. I’ve already bought those tickets and I made sure the dates were flexible. Worst case scenario, he gets off the plane, we have an awkward couple of days, I hand him a plane ticket to Melbourne and say “nice try, thanks for coming”. Mike has plenty of friends in Melbourne, he’d be fine. Look, we win either way. It’s either going to be a great holiday, or a great essay.”
I didn’t feel near as flippant as I sounded, of course. But we’d made the decision, what good was it going to do to freak out now?
That mantra carried me right up through to January 20th, the day before I was due to pick Mike up at Brisbane airport. Then I started to get a little nervous. By the time I actually made it to the airport on Monday afternoon I was about as stressed as I ever get.
I stood there in the arrivals lounge of Brisbane airport for an hour, scanning every Caucasian male who looked somewhere in the range 20 to 50. What if I didn’t recognize him? I’d seen a couple of photos on Facebook, but I’m terrible with faces. I didn’t even know how tall he was!
By the time he finally walked out I’d almost hugged three complete strangers and was having to remind myself to breathe.
I did recognize him. Or, more accurately, I recognized his smile. I saw that first, almost in isolation.
There were no Disney fireworks, or choirs of angels singing the Halleluiah chorus as we exchanged our first glances, and our first words. I don’t think either of us thought in that first moment, “this is it.” In fact, pretty much the only thing I clearly remember thinking during those first ten minutes was…
Because it was easy. Despite the objectively bizarre situation, as we got in the car and began the drive from Brisbane to Ballina, it felt natural. And that feeling stuck around for the next two weeks as we slowly but surely, surrounded by my family and friends, figured out the answer to the question Mike asked me on his second morning in Ballina.
“What are we going to do, Lis?”
By the time we parted ways in Melbourne airport in early February we were utterly exhausted, emotionally overloaded, and happily determined to give this a serious try.
So there you are… That’s the start of the story. There’s more, of course, but I’ll save the trials, tribulations, and treasures of long distance dating for another essay.
In the meantime, Mike’s back in some village on an island in Vanuatu this week. No internet. No phone.
And I have a letter to write.