Submitted to the New York Times “Modern Love” essay competition.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she says and turns to the sink full of dishes. I stand behind her, munching on a piece of cold cheese, and try to see things from her perspective.
When she was twenty-three, my age, my mom was married, simultaneously going through law school and learning on the go how to be a wife and a mother. A year earlier, before she said I do to the man she had been in love with for three years, she had never experienced physical intimacy or even talked about it much. My father was the first man she ever kissed.
So when I tell her that my long-distance boyfriend of two years and I have recently decided we should be “nonexclusive,” she is confused and incredulous. I provide a definition, in which she hears a reckless and unintelligent joke.
I try to explain that being apart is too hard, that unfulfilled desire breeds resentment and that the strong love we feel for each other will not change if we occasionally see other people. Immediately after that I feel embarrassed, talking about “hooking up” with multiple people to my mother, who has had one partner her entire life.
“Consider the whole thing over,” she says. “Things will never be the same between you.”
She might as well be right. In her experience, writing long slow letters par avion and waiting diligently by the phone for days transformed into the foundation of a lifelong relationship. During the two years my dad was away at university, my mom rejected three marriage proposals and managed to never see another man for more than a cup of coffee or a family lunch.
But, standing in the kitchen that night, I think I know better. In this world of constant change, of tireless redefinition of moral values, of easy access and endless recycling, a long-term long-distance relationship seems doomed to failure by its very definition. We are the generation with the shortest attention span and the strongest multitasking skills ever recorded, how could we ever stay put?
For the past two years the same person has occupied most of my emotional energy. Because our current plans are not in geographical alignment, G and I are finding ourselves in different time zones. It has been worse: I spent a semester in Buenos Aires, which is five hours ahead of California, and on a different continent. And when I visit my family in Bulgaria the time difference doubles to ten hours, making days and nights strangely interchangeable.
Of course, technology helps. If you can have an hour-long phone conversation while looking at the interlocutor’s face, it is hard to imagine being out of touch with the one you love. You can always text / call / chat / BBM / message / wall-post / email / tweet / whatsapp / viber / heytell / leave a voicemail, right?
And even beyond means of communication, technology knows no limits. The number of long-distance relationships in the United States is now higher than ever – the Internet tells me that a third of college students are dating someone long distance and a total of 28 million people are using phone and email to keep the fire burning. As a result, there have emerged devices and apps that aim to create or imitate intimacy across distance. There is a social network for couples: you can exchange messages, pictures, songs, there’s even a special spot on the smartphone screen that vibrates when both people touch it with their thumbs, creating the illusion of physical contact. There’s a device you can hook to a web camera and use to simulate kissing. I bet my mom would laugh if I told her about it. There is, of course, Skype, the invention with the highest potential for long-distance intimacy, if you dare to go there.
But what about late nights or Sunday afternoons; what about the times when you “just want to have fun;” what about the bitter personal dissatisfaction that can bleed into the relationship, slowly eroding it from the inside. I’m leaving the question mark out because I am not sure I believe there is a satisfactory answer.
There is a fragile balance between “distance makes the heart grow fonder” and “eyes that you don’t see you forget” (Bulgarian wisdom) and over the past two years I have often found myself at the mercy of poor Internet connection, unexpected Skype malfunctions and delayed and expensive international text messages. Somewhere between Los Angeles, Dallas, Buenos Aires and Sofia, the perceived intimacy of kissing goodnight an image of G’s face on my laptop screen stopped being enough. We didn’t want to call it quits just yet so we decided to allow each other the freedom to find warmth and human contact elsewhere when necessary. We wouldn’t talk about it and we would be respectful in our choices, but mostly, we would do whatever it took to remain sane and happy until we saw each other again.
I save my mom the details, but the plan is clear in my head. The point is to have fun, to not go home until very tired, to not go to bed sad and never drink when upset. This part, I think, is pretty healthy. I do my best to be happy, which turns out to be crucial, because it is virtually impossible to be happy with someone else before you are happy in yourself.
My mom is not at all impressed by my musings. But she doesn’t realize that this odd philosophy is the secret that will keep what G and I have intact despite the distance.
During the next few months, we will strategize. To make sure our personal happiness is not endangered by pangs of sadness and painful physical solitude, we will keep our relationship, whatever its definition, open to any interactions with other people. In this way, G and I will be able to maintain a state of individual satisfaction and independence without having to give up the love that pulls us toward each other. I will not be bothered by the fact that he has been with someone else, just like I am not bothered by the fact that I have been with others. All along, we will both keep in mind that these encounters have no effect on what we have built together.
That night in the kitchen I leave my mom unsatisfied, maybe even disappointed. But my own conviction is nothing but confirmed: I would not have it any other way.
In my room I log in on Skype and look for the green icon next to his name. Here he is, his goofy picture floating in space, coming to me in data packets over the Internet. It is early afternoon in his part of the globe and he has just finished lunch. We talk about everything that comes to mind and then I fall asleep with a computer next to me on the bed, the closest to G I can get in that moment.
As I type this, the story is not over. Once again, G and I are in different places. I send him cards from San Francisco and he sends me pictures of desert flowers from the hills of LA. We are seeing each other in a week.
Next time I talk to my mom, I can tell her with assurance that things are fine. All is not lost just yet. Who knows, maybe the generosity of our nonexclusive love is what makes it resilient enough to triumph over the distance.