When I was 17, I went to Israel on an educational summer program. I was sort of dreading it for various reasons, not least of which was the fact that I finally had a serious boyfriend and I’d have to be apart from him for seven weeks. This fact terrified me and I had plenty of breakdowns over it, even though it ultimately turned out okay and we kept dating for 8 months after that.
Seven weeks. That was my first long-distance experience, and it terrified me, but I had no reason to believe I’d ever end up having another. But things didn’t quite turn out that way, and I ended up having multiple long-distance relationships after that—first a serious, monogamous one, then a serious, non-monogamous one, and then the tangled mass of not-quite-romantic but definitely-not-platonic ones I have now. (My friends joke that you need a flowchart to sort this shit out, so I won’t bother.)
I’m used to relationships that start and grow and end with very little in-person interaction. It’s no longer strange to me that I can start to fall for someone before I’ve even seen them face-to-face. It comes as no surprise that it’s quite possible to maintain these relationships over long periods of time, finding ways to feel that cozy intimacy without frequent touch of any kind. For all the difficulties and baggage they bring along with them, long-distance relationships seem, for now, my preferred way of doing things.
It’s ironic that, while polyamory was something I initially embraced partially to make long-distance relationships a little easier, all it’s done is create more of them. Now I’ve split into even more selves, selves who dream of different cities, who have different little traditions and rituals, selves for whom the geography of desire looks completely different. There are selves who research cities they’ve never visited and check plane ticket prices every so often, selves who want to return over and over to cities they’ve been to many times. Part of this, I know, is the joy of having multiple partners. But part of me wishes I could all be just one self, the one that presses up against the airplane window as all five boroughs float by underneath.
The things they always say make long-distance relationships so difficult were not really the ones I’ve had to face. I don’t withdraw from local people and activities to stay home and talk to my partner online. I don’t miss them so much that breaking up would be better. Back when I was monogamous, developing new crushes wasn’t a huge problem, and now that I’m poly, it especially isn’t. (It is, in fact, the preferable state of things.) I don’t forget what I liked about them to begin with.
The difficulty and misery of long-distance love is something other than that. It’s the last day I spend with a partner before one of us leaves again, which I usually ruin by being completely, unreasonably miserable. It’s feeling like a broken and fucked-up person for not being interested in anyone who lives near me. It’s having to wonder why I keep doing this, what I’m trying to pathologically avoid or compensate for. It’s hanging out with friends who are all coupled up and don’t have to worry about the boring or potentially dangerous trip home at the end of the night. It’s having those friends not know about a huge part of my life because they’ve never met my partners. It’s having my partners not know about a huge part of my life because they’ve never met my friends. It’s having serious partners whom my family has never met. It’s having to choose between seeing partners and seeing family, because money and vacation time are limited. It’s spending those rare visits overwhelmed by the lack of alone time, because wasting that precious time on introversion seems stupid. It’s wishing I could take them to that bookstore or that park or across that bridge. It’s wishing they could see the city the way I see it.
The feeling of whiplash is the worst. I am completely different people in my ordinary life versus with my partners, and the fabric of my life changes completely. I can wake up at noon in a lover’s arms but already be in a cab crossing the bridge to Manhattan by sunset, and in those few hours I have to somehow transform myself from one person to another.
In other ways, my brain seems almost perfectly adapted for long-distance relationships in that, when I’m apart from my partners, they fade into the background of my thoughts so that I don’t feel their absence so acutely. They’re still there whenever I want to remember their soft skin or their beautiful curves, but I rarely miss them enough to really hurt. Whenever I’m about to leave them, I reassure myself with the thought that the pain I’m currently crumbling under will be completely gone by tomorrow, even as this thought makes me feel somewhat guilty.
And it always goes away. For the first few hours I can still feel their touch on my skin, having gotten so used to it over the few days that I just spent with them. My home, if that’s where we stayed, feels empty and alien, the bed too big, the floors too clean.
And then their voice starts to become harder and harder to imagine, and when I think of their face I start to think of photos I’ve seen, rather than of their actual face as I held it in my hands just hours ago. My life slowly returns to normal and part of me wonders if any of that ever even happened, because I’m so used to living alone, being alone, that anything else feels at least a little bit like a daydream.
Whenever I let myself think about it with any degree of depth, my mind is a mess of contradictory feelings. It’s not fair. I’m so lucky. Why can’t I date like normal people do. Why can’t I just appreciate what I have. It’s selfish to want more time with them and I don’t deserve more. At least I don’t have to worry about getting too busy. I just want to come home to someone who will cuddle with me on the couch while I catch up on my reading. But at least I’m absolutely, entirely free.
I wish I didn’t have to leave the city I love just to see the people I love.
I wish the answer to that dilemma were not “find new people to love.”
Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly angsty I think of my partner as a bird and of myself as a fish. Neither of us can survive in the other’s habitat; we can only meet at that fleeing spot where the water ends and the sky begins. But neither of us can stay there for very long. My life is far beneath the surface and theirs is up in the trees and the place where our two lives meet is not an easy or comfortable one.
In reality, it’s really not so dire. I could learn to fly and they could learn to swim. And, as they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
For now, though, I wouldn’t leave my city for anyone. Here I’m lonely but never bored or even alone. There, who knows? Relationships end. Moving somewhere because of a partner seems as impractical to me as throwing your entire winter wardrobe into the dumpster at the first sign of spring and then spending your savings on every single dress on Fifth Avenue. Eventually summer will end and you’ll be cold and broke.
But that’s not to say I would never do it. Some great decisions in my life have been impractical.
Given how I meet people—by doing exactly what I’m doing now, that is, writing—it wouldn’t make sense for all the people I like to live where I live. Love flows into the little nooks and crannies that form when people give each other the space to be themselves, and I’ve found that it’s a lot easier for this to happen over the internet than in person. I’ve gone on dates here in the city, and more often than not I found them stifling, heavy with desires and expectations I’m not ready or willing to fulfill, pregnant with unwanted meanings that I never sense when casually chatting with someone over Facebook—casual chats that have often ultimately gone nowhere, but other times have led to serious, long-term partnerships. The same awkwardness I find endearing in friends is terrifying in strangers whose preferences and patterns I don’t yet know, whose bluntness or silence or constant shifting of the conversation to sexual topics I don’t know how to interpret.
“Real-life” dating consistently feels like being auditioned for a role in a play I don’t even want to act in. I want to grab these unsuspecting and well-meaning people by the shoulders and tell them that I never said I wanted to be in their play and how dare they put my name down for the supporting role before they know the first damn thing about me.
So it seems that, for now, dating people who actually live in my state isn’t feasible. I’m well on my way to accepting this and I know the drill now. I have a long playlist of songs about long-distance relationships and I deploy it strategically. I play question games over email or Facebook. I’ve gotten over my dislike of video chat. I’ve decided that “dates” are something I do with people I’m seeing already, not people I have no idea if I even remotely like.
The time I spend in that space where the water ends doesn’t feel like enough. It’ll never be enough. I wish I could grow wings. But I like the time I spend here, largely free of expectations and obligations, lonely but gloriously alone.
Extra moderation note: This is a personal post so it has extra rules. I don’t want advice. I don’t want condescension about my age or any other aspect of my identity or lifestyle. I do not want devil’s advocate. In fact, since this is all completely about my individual experience and I don’t mean for it to apply to anyone else’s experience, I’m not interested in entertaining any debate over it. You are welcome to believe that I am wrong about my own life and experiences, if you keep that to yourself. If I see anything in the comments section that makes me regret having been open about my life, it’ll be deleted without further explanation. Commiseration and personal anecdotes are always welcome, though.
Extra special note for people who read this who know me personally: This is not about any specific person or people. I’ve had many long-distance relationships and have a few things going on right now, which vary widely in commitment and seriousness.