The editor's email was straightforward enough: “Can you do something on long-distance relationships?” she asked. And teasingly, she added, “You should be familiar with that topic!” I smiled to myself. I was in the middle of my recent trip home, my wife was singing in just the next room. It seemed an easy enough subject to tackle, and certainly one of which I had enough experience…
As I sat down to think through the piece, a number of options arose. Perhaps I could begin with a look at the language we use to describe the emotions which rise in the minds of so many long-distance couples the way we so blithely maintain, for example, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Although when you are really missing someone, the words 'growing fonder' seems a poor description for what is happening in your heart. Or the intriguing turn of phrase in Bangladesh where people often reassure me that distance “makes your love thicker”. In some ways I can understand what they mean: “thick” is a marvellously apt adjective to describe the depths and intricacies of long-term love - though it sounds rather curious to a British ear. Evidently, it has yet to catch on in the world of love songs, or take the Valentine's industry by storm. In some ways, you can see why: “Roses are red, violets are blue, our love is thick, and so are you”? Not an immediate winner, perhaps...
Or by way of introduction I could turn instead to the philosophical underpinnings for the idea that couples are meant to live together, not apart. Was it Plato who first wrote about the concept of soul mates about how you are drawn to one person your literal “other half” who makes your life complete? Or was it Elvis? Either way, they had a point. In every culture on earth, we are born alone but then gravitate towards another. I occasionally find myself staring at elderly couples on buses or in parks back home: some chatting away, some in companionable silence. Each couple has its own peculiar history, its intimate knowledge of the meaning of shared facial expressions, its common secret language. Once this deep bond exists, it is strangely unnatural to live at a distance from each other. It is of course a relatively modern phenomenon in this newly globalised world. Our forefathers, unless they were soldiers, sailors or imperial adventurers, wouldn't have recognised the logic of this: the majority rarely travelled beyond the square mile in which they lived.
Alternatively, I could start by looking at the wondrous technology by which long-distance couples can now keep in touch. I know younger readers may find this impossible to grasp, but my wife and I fell in love before the internet was born. (Don't worry, I remember feeling the same amazement when my parents told me they had had no TV in their youth). When we first got together twenty years ago, we were living in China, but met at a conference in Beijing. The only slight problem was that, when we reluctantly left the conference, our workplaces were a mere eight hundred miles apart, and we could only meet once a month. Not an easy fate to accept at the age of twenty-four.
The only way I could communicate with her was by going to the college telephone exchange once a week. There I found an old-fashioned switchboard, with coils of coloured cables which needed deft and skilled handling by the operator in order to put a call through, all of which depended of course on the vagaries of the Chinese telephone system. We would regularly wait for up to four hours to get a connection. Sometimes during this time the operator would nip out for a quick cigarette, leaving me staring in despair at the mass of cables, particularly when the phone rang and it might be my beloved. That it might equally be any one of a billion Chinese wasn't uppermost in my mind. I was often on the verge of trying to work the cables myself, but at the same time apprehensive of making a false connection and blowing up the switchboard, or perhaps the entire college.
And we sent letters. Remember those rectangular things with stamps and real hand-writing? Every day for six months. Today we can take Skype and MSN for granted, and all the paraphernalia of mobiles, webcams, real-time chatting and emoticons. We can SMS each other across the world, or sit at our laptops, see if our partner is online and make instant contact. “But”, I hear you cry, “where's the romance in that? Where's the mystery?” Listen, you take the mystery, I'd opt for the contact any day…
You can tell that in terms of responding to the editor's request I was on a roll. There were so many possible ways of tackling this article. I could even opt for the frothy style of an airport magazine: 50 top tips for managing a long-distance relationship! I began to make a mental list of easy ideas about arranging regular online times to share news, using internet flower companies, dealing with the emotional ups and downs. Mixed of course with some profound advice on how you need to understand and trust each other. I'd also throw in an acknowledgement of those who would actually like to put more distance between themselves and their partners, as well as a few pointers to danger signals, such as when you find out your wife or husband has remarried, sold your house and forgotten to tell you.
Then, before I had time to put pen to laptop, something small but simple happened: my holiday came to an end. I had once again to fly off and land very far away from my wife. And of course, as soon as we were apart, the easy platitudes, the musings on philosophy and language, the helpful tips all seemed rather pale and hollow.
Actually it started earlier than that. The night before I got on the plane we were at a theatre in London one of those grand traditional affairs with purple velvet curtains and seats disappearing up into the heavens, to watch a famous opera. Set in the Deep South in the States in the 1930s, it began with the beautiful and now famous lullaby “Summertime”. Was it the fact that this had been a song we'd both loved since we met, and requested of so many different musicians in countries the world over? Was it the unbearable purity of the singer's voice? Or simply the fact that we knew this was the last day of our time together? I can't tell you exactly, but the combined effect was that, there amongst the seasoned theatre-goers, the expert Gershwin fans, the wide-eyed tourists, two people in Row C were sitting with tears streaming down their faces.
And then the next morning, as my wife dropped me off at the airport, I did my old trick of running alongside the car as it pulled away. It was meant as a little joke but she told me when we next spoke of how it had reminded her of the time I first chased the Beijing train out of the station. And of how on remembering this, she had cried all the way home. So maybe I should erase “running next to departing vehicles” from my list of 50 tips…
So here I am, alone in Dhaka, and my partner sits, also alone, six time zones and five thousand miles away. As I now wonder how on earth to give advice on coping with the effects of this, it occurs to me that maybe I am in fact the worst person to write an article on this subject. It's what you might call a commission impossible. Perhaps I should just draft a simple reply to the editor, and say exactly how useless I am at the emotional management of long-distance relationships. Yes, let me do just that …
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