It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I can tell you something I won’t be doing… talking to my husband.
No, we’re not fighting.
He’s in Papua New Guinea.
It’s been ten days since we got back from Australia, eight days since our Los Angeles wedding reception, and six days since he left for a about a month to do a consultancy with Oxfam. I’m relearning what it’s like to be alone, which is exactly the lesson every new bride longs to learn two months after her wedding.
To be perfectly honest, there’s something to be said for alone. Reading late at night and a whole bed to yourself, for one. No one pestering you to give them more than 10% of the closet, for another. But, on the whole, alone has been emptier than I’d anticipated this week. Quieter. And I have had to light my own candles, pour my own glass of wine, and turn on the mood music myself after I get home from work.
If I said that to Mike he’d roll his eyes and say, “Awww, it’s so hard, isn’t it? How do you manage to be you?”
But I can’t say that to Mike, because he’s in some remote village right now completely out of cell phone range and keeping company with fleas instead of me.
I was thinking, driving to work this morning, about how often we’ve been in this situation during the last year, and how few places there really are left in the world where you are literally uncontactable. Even in aid work that’s unusual now – most international NGO offices in Darfur have high-speed internet access – and when it comes to the reach of mobile phones the true wilderness of the world is shrinking faster than Antarctica’s ice. With an ever-growing number of access points – email, text, mobile, facebook, twitter – our ability to connect with others almost anywhere, almost anytime, is also expanding. And so are our opportunities to pursue love across the miles.
Starting during my wedding reception, more than a handful of people in the last few months have suggested that I start writing essays about married life now, while others have pre-emptively recommended that I not lay Mike’s life quite as bare as I appear to be willing to lay my own. Well, those concerned with protecting Mike’s privacy can rest easy for a while. For, as my sister said to me yesterday on the phone; “You haven’t really had any normal married life time yet, not a single day.”
“Yes we have,” I argued. “There were a couple of days there in Australia after honeymoon and before Matt and Lou’s wedding.”
“You were both on holiday, and living in Mum and Dad’s house!”
“Well,” I said a bit wistfully, “I wish that were normal. It was really nice.”
“Yeah,” Michelle said, in a tone that made it clear that any hopes she’d held that marriage would magically mature me had just been dashed.
So perhaps it might be wise to give things a couple of months and maybe some more time in the same country before I tackle my marriage in writing. But having Mike away again has highlighted something I can write about that we have a lot more experience dealing with to date – a long distance relationship.
Before we met face to face in Australia for the first time about a year ago, Mike and I spent three months writing letters. It was a modern beginning in some ways – we could transmit those letters instantly with a click of the send button – and it was decidedly anachronistic in others. We agreed early on, in our second exchange, that we wouldn’t consider anything more than friendship until we met in person (if we ever got that far), and we never talked until we met for the first time in Brisbane airport.
The letters we wrote during that time, an entire book of them, laid the foundations for the relationship to come. It was then, with little to lose and the extra protection afforded by distance, that we established the range of our discourse – and there wasn’t much that was off limits. We wrote about our childhoods and our families, our love/hate relationships with the work we are drawn to, mental health and what we’d learned from previous long distance relationships.
We wrote about the little things that made us smile that day, or sigh, or wonder.
It amazes me now, but we were so used to communicating via letters that when we met for two weeks in Australia we didn’t give much thought to whether or how we were actually going to talk once we’d decided to date. We also didn’t figure this out until some time after we had returned to our respective sides of the world.
Two weeks after I returned to LA last year I was sitting on the couch in my new apartment on a Saturday night, writing, when my mobile rang. The number came up No caller ID, which usually means someone overseas, so I picked it up expecting my brother, Matt.
The line wasn’t working that well, and neither was my brain, apparently, because before I relay the conversation I have to pause for some disclaimers. I didn’t know that Mike had my mobile phone number. I wasn’t sure it was technically possible for him to call me from where he was. And I was writing – I was therefore vague. Very vague.
Mike: “Hi. So you like surprises?”
Lisa thinks: Hmmm, guy’s voice. Probably foreign friend. Possibly foreign friend flying into LA tonight who wants a couch to crash on. Crap, I don’t want to drive to LAX to pick someone up tonight!
Lisa: “Uh… sometimes.”
Mike says something about sitting on a rock looking out over the Pacific Ocean.
Lisa thinks: Hmmm, mystery guy friend trying to mess with me by pretending to be Mike. Who would be that mean??? Okay, let’s face it. A lot of my friends would be that mean.
I really had no idea who it was, and for some reason I was firmly convinced it wasn’t Mike. After we’d traded a couple more sentences I finally sighed and asked, “Ah, who is this?”
Mike: “Your secret admirer from PNG.”
Lisa: Hmmmm, he didn’t say Mike. He said secret admirer. That’s something a mean friend might say.
It took me about three awkward minutes to accept that it was Mike and about thirty seconds after that, while I was still trying to pretend that I normally acted like such a weirdo at the start of phone calls, the line went dead. I was left with no way to call him back and no way to even debrief by sending an email because my new apartment didn’t yet have working internet. I went to bed with the phone that night in case he managed to ring again, and stewed all evening about the fact that I hadn’t recognized my own boyfriend’s voice on the phone and must have come across as a suspicious freak.
It was not one of my favorite long-distance moments ever.
In fact, I’ve never liked long distance in the moment. It’s not like I sit around thinking, I’m really glad Mike’s half a world away right now. But although I haven’t liked it, I do think it’s ultimately been good for us.
Having nothing to build a relationship with but words, forces you to cover a lot of ground. Doing this at a distance – unable to exchange text messages and only able to talk every couple of days in chunks of an hour or two when Mike was in Madang and the one high speed internet connection in town was working – bought us some additional benefits. It removed some of the pressure and pitfalls that attend expectations of instantaneous response and 24-hour accessibility. It slowed us down, granted us extra time and space to think, and encouraged us to be deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in our communication.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all rosy, and I’m not advocating that all my single friends looking for potential spouses should suddenly start corresponding with strangers living on technologically-challenged
islands in the Pacific.
It took effort and energy to rearrange schedules to talk, or prioritize writing letters when I was exhausted or flat. Intermittent week-long stretches of total silence like the one I’m in the middle of now have sometimes assaulted my sense of surety in the concept of us and prompted unexpected mood swings. Then there was the temptation to feel that my “real life” was on hold until Mike arrived – to live life in such a haze of anticipation that it obscured the complex beauty of the present. Probing pasts and futures, joys and sorrows, across the miles when we might otherwise have been discovering what snacks we each liked at the theatre provided us with a deep, solid, foundation in one way. But it also rendered our quirks as merely adorable abstractions, and robbed us of small daily opportunities to identify differences and head off or resolve conflict.
Mike knew that I was not as neat or organized as him, but I’m sure it’s been a different thing altogether to see me get absorbed in writing something and subsequently ignore dishes on the bench, hair in the drain, and the fact that it’s lunchtime. I knew he was a lark to my nightingale, but it’s been much harder to fully appreciate the togetherness when he wants to experience the sunrise with me in person. We learned a great deal about sharing our inner selves across distance, but little about sharing our space or schedules. Those particular lessons have just begun.
Some will see this unusual progression as too high-risk a game to play, and there’s definitely an inverse reward function associated with long distance relationships – at some point payoffs start to decrease and costs increase. But even now, nine weeks after our wedding and facing a birthday alone, I can say that high risk has so far equaled high reward and that long distance has, on the whole, helped us more than it has hurt.
I am however, looking forward to Mike’s return, even if it means sharing the closet and the covers. Skype dating has lost some of its charm – although I’d take it right now over incommunicado – and apparently, there’s this brand new adventure called normal married life that I have yet to experience.
Bring it on, I say.
Or, I will, when I talk to my husband this weekend.