Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Long Distance

Despite what the frequency of flashback episodes in American sitcoms would suggest, most people manage to live their lives without often having to explain how they and their significant other met. No-one wants to sit around for ten minutes while a couple gushes about a romantic, dramatic chain of events that almost certainly didn't happen, nor do they want to hear the truth, as the story is ultimately pretty much the same for everyone.

I've only been married for about three months, but I've already learned that this will not be the case for me. My wife and I have voices that immediately give away the fact that we're from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and this makes people curious.

My usual response to the question is to say that we met in 2004, when we were both at the University of Kent. Which is true. Unfortunately, it's a response that creates more questions than it answers. Kristen is clearly not English, nor does she have (yet) the sort of mid-Atlantic accent that would imply she's lived here for a long time. The next question, therefore, is invariably about how long she's lived in the UK. When she says ‘three years’ people start to look confused.

A decent explanation of how our unusual situation came to be requires rather more detail than one can reasonably fit into a few sentences at a party. It also involves delving into a period of my life that I'm rather self-conscious about. As a result, I tend to run away as the next question is forming itself.

Right now I'm sitting in the attic of our shared home, with a wedding band on my finger and a warm fuzzy feeling in my head. I figure now is as good a time as any to look back on those four missing years, however, and perhaps if I actually set the story straight in my head I'll be able to answer the question properly next time it comes up. So, first up, a declaration: I was in a long distance relationship for about four years of my life.

There's a tremendous stigma associated with long distance relationships. It makes me feel uncomfortable to even write the phrase, to associate myself with it, because it immediately springs to mind so many negative associations – maladjusted ogres lurking in the darkness, emotionally desperate loners clinging to a vague approximation of affection, and, of course, girlfriends ‘who live in Canada’. As a result, without really meaning to, I tend to jump straight from the summer of 2005 to the autumn of 2009 when I'm talking about me and Kristen, glossing over the period of my life that makes people look at me funny.

When Kristen went home at the end of her year at Kent, it hit me pretty hard. I was grouchy and morose, prone to Marvin the Paranoid Android levels of gloominess. I tried to deal with this in my usual way – by trying to put a new band together and going on manic crosstown benders with my friends, but the gloom always seemed to sneak back in. I spent a lot of that summer wandering around in Oxleas woods, talking to myself, or rather, talking to a Kristen that wasn't there.

I was still was in occasional contact with Kristen through messenger and email, but that's a laughably pale imitation of actual interaction. This blog post Kristen wrote in June 2005 sums up the feeling of that summer pretty well.

Around the time that I went back to university I remember reading a news story that mentioned a program called Skype. Apparently it was something that allowed you to call people for free over the internet. Needless to say, I downloaded it immediately, as did Kristen, and one rainy evening in October (after the internet had finally started working properly in our house) we heard each others' voices for the first time in several months. Endless technical problems aside, it was a good evening (I say evening, I think it was well after dawn by the time I finally went to sleep).

We soon established a routine that would continue, with periodic interruptions, for the next four years. We both went about our daily lives as usual, occasionally chatting on messenger or through email while we worked on other things, but in the evening we would fire up Skype and talk for a few hours. This was before Skype supported video-calling (and neither of us had webcams anyway) so our relationship soon became a strangely abstract one – we were just two disembodied voices and minds. Sometimes we'd send each other pictures of ourselves, but for the most part we remained invisible to each other.

Our relationship would never have been possible without Skype. This was primarily because it was free, obviously, but there was another reason. Skype provides far higher audio quality than a regular phone line; I was able to hear kristen – through my big monitoring headphones – as clearly as if she was sitting by my side. I could hear her breathing, the full range of her voice, and the ambient sounds of the room she was in. I don't think that I could have held her image so distinctly in my mind if it were not for that three dimensional quality. Another tool that helped us keep in touch was Audacity, the open source recording software. On evenings when I knew we weren't going to be able to talk (which happened quite often when Kristen was living in California) I'd use audacity to record little messages or read poems and short stories I’d discovered that day.

The time difference meant that we generally talked when it was very late for me (11pm–2am, usually) but still fairly early for Kristen. This had the strange effect that while everyone in Kristen's life knew about me, because she had to excuse herself to talk to me, very few people in my life knew about Kristen. It wasn't that I was keeping her a secret – if people asked about my personal life I'd mention her – it's just that unless they asked (and very few people ever did) they'd have no way of knowing she existed. Obviously my flatmates and my close friends (who knew Kristen before she went back to the states) knew about her, but most of my extended circle of friends assumed I was either an unusually shabby closeted gay man or completely asexual. 

For me ‘Kristen Time’ came at the expense of sleep, rather than any of my daytime activities. I got used to this after a while – I became able to function at work or university even after only an hour or two of sleep – but I've gotten the impression that it was not without side-effects. Most notably, several of my friends have mentioned that I've become a noticeably calmer, nicer person since Kristen's been living the UK. My own recollections back this up – there are lots of things I can clearly remember saying that make me cringe now, they seem mean spirited and bitchy. How I appeared to other people back then was well summed up by one of my friends, who in the autumn of 2009 remarked, ‘It'd never occurred to me that you were capable of love. Before she appeared I'd always assumed you were some kind of Charlie Brooker-style misanthrope’.


Earlier on I mentioned ‘interruptions’. I'm not going to gloss things over and claim we've always been madly devoted to each other. There were two periods during those four years where we didn't really talk much. One was in the spring of 2006, when I had a crisis of confidence and decided I wanted to break things off. This lasted for about two weeks, if that, but made things a little awkward for a while afterwards. The second time, in spring of 2007, was more serious. I was in my third year of uni and working really unpleasantly hard, sleeping little and thinking way too much. Kristen was living in California, and also working unpleasantly hard, thinking too much, and sleeping little. The eight-hour time difference, coupled with the fact that we were both going mad, led to us just imploding. We didn't speak at all for around three months, but then started to write in our blogs more and more – until we both realised that we were writing mostly for the benefit of each other, and started talking on messenger again. We resumed talking on Skype towards the end of the summer, I think, but it took a pretty long time for things to return to how they were before.   


We did occasionally see each other in person during those four years. The first time was in the summer of 2006, just after I'd finished my second year of university and Kristen had graduated. She knew that she was going to have to drive from New York (the Hamptons actually, dahling) to San Francisco during the summer, and asked her parents if they'd pay for me to come along as a graduation present to her. Amazingly, they agreed to this, perhaps because Kristen had neglected to mention a few pertinent pieces of information like the fact that I can't drive, I'm shit at reading maps, I can't change a tyre and I am in fact significantly weaker than Kristen.

Luckily, none of those skills were required, and we had a wonderful time. For a suburban English boy who'd never traveled any further than northern France, traveling across America was an amazing experience. We spent our days talking and watching the landscape go by (I-40 is pretty much dead-straight from Knoxville, Tennessee to Bakersfield, California, so Kristen rarely had to devote much attention to driving). We lived off Waffle House pancakes and stayed in a constellation of – to my European eyes – absurdly large and air-conditioned motel rooms. Settling back into each other's company felt completely natural, as if we'd never been apart. Parting again was a bastard.

I tried to write about that trip on here, but I was swamped by university work (the third year was hard) and only managed to write these three posts. Kristen wrote just one, but it was much more thorough. The fact that I didn't write more pisses me off a great deal. I could still write thousands of words about that trip if I set my mind to it, and that's after those experiences have been left in the damp basement of my memory for years. Perhaps one of these days I'll sit down with all the photos we took, all the notes I wrote and see if I can recreate the trip in my mind and write about it.

We didn't see each other in person for another two years after that, not until my friends and I all decided to go to New York on holiday. We only spent two days in each other's company on this occasion, but we made up for it by not actually sleeping. Despite all the time that had passed, the period of silence, and how much our lives had changed in the interim (I had by then graduated from university and gotten myself a job working as an editor at a publishing firm, Kristen was working with children on a sailboat in Baltimore) we found, as we had last time, that everything just clicked. I remember sitting on the plane on the way home, reading and rereading a message she'd sent me as she left New York on the chinatown bus to Baltimore: ‘The city is out of sight now. I can still smell your hair on my hands.’

She's always had a knack for words.

The next two times we saw each other (she came here at the beginning of 2009 and I went over to New York in the summer of the same year) we were busy planning Operation Live in the Same Country, so I'm not sure if they really count as part of the long distance period. By this time we were talking on video Skype (which in some ways felt less intimate than when we were just voices in the darkness) and actively planning our future together, something that we'd never felt able to do before.

I wrote about my first trip to New York here and here. Kristen wrote about her trip to the UK here. I wrote about my second trip to New York here, here and here.


I sometimes wonder what the long-term effects of those four years have been on our relationship, and the way I've developed as a person. I'm reminded of something my dad said at our engagement party, which I can't remember clearly enough to do justice. It centered on the British idiom ‘tried and tested’ and the American one ‘Tried and true’. I feel like it's made us stronger and more confident as a couple – we know, more definitely than most people, that we categorically did not take the path of least resistance. We know that you can take us, fling us to opposite sides of the world and leave us for four years and we'll still love each other. That knowledge makes the everyday trials of the long workdays and cold winters, of the richer and poorer, the sickness and health – seem almost laughably insignificant.

It's one of those things though, like the scale of the universe, that it's almost impossible for me to hold a clear image of in my head. When I actually put what I have now in perspective, compare it to all the nights spent staring at a computer screen, struggling to keep my eyes open long enough to see the little note pop up that says ‘Kristen is Online’, I tend to tear up almost immediately. At our wedding Kristen's sister said something – I can't remember what – that made me glimpse, just for a moment, what was happening through the eyes of a younger me, a version of me to whom this all seemed like some wonderful dream. I think t was a bit much for Kristen too. We had to go and hide outside for a while.

I think relationships like ours will probably become more common over the next few years, providing the phone companies don't manage to get Skype shut down. I'm not the only person in my social group who has married an American, and I know of several other people my age who have also opted to do things the hard way (one of them was even brave enough to marry a Canadian). I doubt that will stop people from backing away from you at parties though. I think even people who've gone through this secretly believe themselves to be the only normal ones who did it, different from those other weirdos.