I remember when you sat across the room from me while I was reading and you were sketching in your notebook. The whole house was so quiet, and I remember feeling like I shouldn’t move or say a word out of fear of breaking the moment. Maybe those kinds of things were not that important to you, but my happiest memories were always just the two of us quietly living our lives together, each in our little corner, interacting in an implied love. We didn’t need to shout anything from the rooftops, because we could hear each other’s thoughts. We were only 17, and the feeling of being able to be yourself with someone was the greatest high we could ever have hoped for — it made everything else feel like a waste of time.
When you got up to walk out of the room, I tensed up and thought that you were going to break the magic of the afternoon. You turned to me and said, “Would you like some tea?” and it was the best thing I’d ever heard.
When you moved away, I thought I was going to die. It was teenage melodrama, of course, but there was a literal pain in my chest at all times, and I was ready to leave every single thing in my life on the side of some unnamed road to follow you into the next phase of your journey. You reassured me a thousand times that it would be okay, that we would see each other at every opportunity and then reunite soon enough as a stronger, more committed, more mature couple. You told me that it was imperative that I live my life and accomplish my goals, and not abandon them to dedicate everything to our relationship. (And you were right, of course.) You told me that you would call me the moment you landed.
And for a while, things were okay. We called each other nightly, we stayed up until five in the morning on chat, we wrote long emails about all of the things we couldn’t wait to do when we saw each other again. You sent me a package and I was so excited to open it that I cut part of the gift while trying to get the flaps of the cardboard box open. We saw each other when we could — which, given our limited budgets, was not very often — and we were making it work. There was always a promise of something more behind our conversations, our purchased plane tickets, our arguments sparked from a miscommunication when one of us picked up the phone at a party. We were fighting for something more, something bigger, something that provided a light at the end of the seemingly-endless tunnel. It was hard, we thought, but it would get better.
It didn’t get better. Those days I so loved where we just sat in one another’s presence and shared the mundane, beautiful aspects of daily life were like a kind of stitching that held everything else we had together. Without our interactions, our common stories, our baseline of coexistence, everything felt fragmented and strained. The true pain in loving someone far away does not really come from the distance. It is the memory of what it is like to be with them that tortures you, that makes the long stretches of silence or misunderstanding unbearable. The distance is a manageable, known quantity. The ache within you that reminds you of how beautiful the simple things are, and how much you took them for granted, will eat you from within.
Truth be told, I doubt we would have worked out even if we had stayed in the same zip code. We were a relatively short-lived teenage love affair, the kind which usually runs its course in just a few seasons and is as susceptible to a change in temperatures as a migratory bird. And the decision to stay and make my own life and choices was undoubtedly a positive one. But I also have no doubts that, if the circumstances were different and the both of us much more sure of what we wanted, we could have made a long-distance relationship last. It happens every day, and many people much stronger than you or I overcome with selfless compassion the most crippling spans of separation. That was never supposed to be us, though, and that’s fine.
But to know the pain of losing someone to distance is to remember it forever. There is something about it which feels so deeply unfair, so callous, so uncaring in the face of all that you have together. You want to look at the sky and know that the other person sees what you see, call out to them that you still remember what it was like when you were able to hold hands. You want so badly to cover a thousand miles in a single step and you cry at the permanent indifference of the map. When love fails to bridge these enormous gaps, it serves to remind us of how precious the moments we have with the ones we love are today. When I look at someone from across a restaurant table and watch the way the dim lighting frames their eyes, when I touch their hand resting on the stem of their wine glass, I know how lucky I am. I know what it means to not have to fight that relentless distance. And though our particular story didn’t have a happy ending, it will have always given me that. I will never forget how lucky I am to be close.