long distance

Thomas is on his way to the airport and I’m staying here. In Paris it’s raining and the hotel room is a box with a white bed in it, slung below windows between the backs of other buildings. The rain makes the city the idea of the city, all water-stained ivory buildings with their long grand windows and balconies blinking down damp avenues. In New York it’s going to snow and I’m hoping Thomas’ flight will be delayed because I am essentially selfish and want him here longer and don’t want to have to think about him flying into snow, about landing conditions and the freezing body of water bounding the airport at JFK. 

But mostly I want him here longer because his being here drags out vacation, extends the part of life that isn’t real. Vacation is the way the buildings here are lit up in the brief bright part of the long afternoon; vacation is thinking how beautiful a city is without digging down to think about how it got that way. Even in new buildings here you see Haussmann’s echoes, as though everyone is the ancestor of the same violence. The maintenance of beauty is, in general, always a function of violence. Vacation is a short time when you get to think about beauty without thinking about violence.

You meet those people all the time who say they’re traveling to find the real place, whichever esoteric destination is currently the trendy place people go in order to prove to everyone who follows their instagram that they aren’t a tourist. These people are seeking the gritty and ugly and undisguised, authenticity, the place that locals keep for themselves, what life feels like in the true rhythms beyond the holidays. 

I am extremely suspicious of anyone who says this stuff. If you wanted authenticity, you wouldn't take a vacation. If you wanted reality, you would stay home and do your taxes, check your credit score, call people to whom you’ve done slight, avoidant wrongs and have difficult conversations with them about whether you might be able to regain their trust, click open a new browser tab late at night and, because the thought isn’t letting you sleep, look up what your options would be if you had to put your parents in assisted living, price out your savings budget for eventual tragedies and then sit there silent through the blue-screen hour of the night staring into the middle distance, up against the reckoning with how selfish you are willing to be, with what you think you might do if your mom started forgetting your name. You would let your mind wander over to predictive math about whether you or your partner is most likely to die first. You can do all of these things at home. No secret fight club in a basement in Slovenia or house party in a neighborhood the Styles section hasn’t written about yet will ever be a fraction as authentic an experience as counting out change at the bodega on your own block, hungover and bored with the routine of yourself on a Sunday morning. The only reason to travel is escapism; that’s the the only thrill it offers. The only desire expressed by going elsewhere is to escape these dull-heart rate concerns, these mute and ceaseless daily terrors. Travel is the hope to experience the world as obliterative, the clean and unladen opposite of the self. Most travel is vacation. Vacation offers unquestioned beauty, so pure you could drink it out of your two hands. 

A long distance relationship is a vacation, too. When Thomas and I first were dating, the weekends he visited and the weeks I went to Atlanta to see him were unmarked time, free spaces; nothing counted and everything was allowed. I ate things I know make me sick and didn’t email anyone. To some degree all romance is escapism, is a vacation. It’s using someone else to block out the light, substituting the obligations of your schedule for the minutiae of their presence. People warn you about turning a long distance relationship into a short distance one and then into cohabitation, that the expectations of long-distance won’t be able to the reality of actually seeing the person each morning, nothing special, the opposite of vacation. I haven’t found this to be wholly true - up close and continuously present, individuals are stranger and more fascinating, more likely to give up secrets and show their soft underbellies, more willing to let down their guard and surprise you. 

But I also have never resolved the fact that as love continues we see the absolutely mundane, the unspectacular, the quotidian details of a person, that they to some unavoidable degree cease to be a vacation and become a schedule. A hotel room is a hotel room because it is blank and contains nothing of oneself; the reason my own home can never feel like a hotel is not because I can’t make it clean enough or don’t own high enough thread count sheets. It’s because my own home, no matter how clean, contains reminders of things I’ve done and forgotten to do, receipts and holiday cards and dishes in the sink, items bought in bulk that I bought myself, stains and dents and traces of my own body in this space over and over again before now, making meaning by repeated action, doing things that can’t be taken back. Building a life is the process of accumulating permanent things, of making choices from which we have no escape, of repeating the same patterns until they come to define us. We do this mostly in a few same repeated spaces and those spaces gather consequence like a smell. Travel allows the pretense that we could be rewritten, that there are no actions that can’t be taken back and nothing that can’t be shrugged out of like a jacket.

A while ago I wrote this essay about living alone as a woman. The point was, mostly, that living alone is a luxury. Rather than something we blessedly escape when we get into a serious relationship, loneliness is something we give up. I love living with Thomas, but not living alone is a sacrifice I have made for the purpose of being with him. It’s one I have found worth it, but a sacrifice nonetheless. The thing is that there’s no way to stop the process once it starts; I can stay here by myself while he flies home, but being alone is not so simple as being in a room by myself. His presence still paints the edges of everything brighter and makes the air softer outside, and his absence still dulls the light and makes it more tempting to stay inside and do nothing. This is also a sacrifice, a bargain we make when we love someone. We allow them to leech some of the unfiltered joy out of experiences we otherwise could have had without imagining them there with us. We allow them to crowd into our experience even in absence, we give up the hoarded space of loneliness, the self-sufficiency of not wanting more than exactly what is present.

Thomas is on a plane now (I didn’t get my wish, it wasn’t delayed). His good face at the door at the end of every afternoon is like vacation. It briefly shuts out the ticking off of schedules and the accounting of clutter and errands. At the end of every day this summer, we met up on the steps of the big museum near us, and sat with our legs folded up and drank iced coffee and ate bodega popsicles and watched the cabs go by until the view of the long flat avenue lit up into hazy purple dusk. I felt like a tourist in the best way, seeing beauty without seeing its violence, loving the city along its surface, without obligation. We walked home and our same life closed up around us. This dullness without him, the inability to access the self-contained energy of being alone, is worth it, but the trade is a material one, with weight and regret and substance.

The night my parents moved in together, my dad came home to find my mom gone; after a frantic search he eventually found her at a bus station, and talked her back home. They are open about their relationship and the difficulties of it, and have turned almost every other story into something funny, an anecdote you can tell at parties. They have never succeeded at making that story funny when they tell it. I understand it, though. So much of love is agreeing to be constantly seen, to be present again and again, to let another person’s failings matter as much as one’s own do. In the face of all that I understand the impulse to disappear.

Other people are from beginning to end a massive inconvenience. That’s what we agree to, from answering a DM, to going on a date, to moving in with someone, to getting married, we are saying, I agree to be inconvenienced by you. I agree to let you make things partial and absent and lacking, to carve out spaces where you fit and leave them empty when you go, to make it matter whether or not I come home, to give up the times when I step out of a party to text you, the times when I stay where the wifi is until I know your plane has landed. 

I have hated flying since I have been with Thomas, because it matters now if the plane crashes, it matters if something goes wrong. Last year when I was on the same flight Thomas is on right now, flying home alone to an airport where he was waiting, the person in the seat next to me had marked his place in the book he was reading with a note that said holding you tight. I love you. Airplanes knock us, chemically, into a higher emotional gear. It is easier to cry on a plane, easier to feel things. One’s blood pressure literally rises. But also the structure of air travel, which is entirely beginnings and endings, ratchets up emotion. It’s our coming-home gratitude for one another, that white-knuckled long prayer just let the plane land safely so I can touch you again. Agreeing to live up against someone and yet still love them is agreeing to live with an airplane heart, constantly aware of the possibility of loss, alert with hope and worry, unable to disappear into the hotel room comforts of low stakes, anonymity, and convenience. 

On the flight here, Thomas held my hand when I was scared of turbulence and his heartbeat caught up to mine, our pulses against each other, the joints of fingers and edges of palms lining up, the seams of us promising we were still here together, humming in time. Holding you tight. I love you.