The Long Distance Plan
March 1, 2004
The true meaning of the word “cold”
by Gary Cozine
n the film Quills there is a scene in which the Marquis de Sadeas punishment for his lascivious publishingis stripped of his writing paraphernalia. Soon thereafter his wife visits him in prison. Hoping to provide some comfort, she arrives bearing aniseed drops, chocolate pastille and some handcrafted “toys” that must have been difficult to procure in the days before the Blowfish catalog. But the Marquis couldn’t care less about the giftsin fact his wife receives a backhand to the face for her troubles. He is enraged that she has brought him neither writing quills nor ink. She asks how she was to know that he needed them. He replies, “How was I to tell you, by writing a letter?” Anyone who has ever been in one knows that the lifeblood of the long distance relationship is the written word.
Back in the summer of 1992 I met a woman (whom I will call “O”) while doing theatre in Illinois. O was blonde, curvy, beautiful and from Wisconsin. (Even now, I have difficulty hearing the Badger state mentioned without some sort of queasy Pavlovian response). We weren’t together long that summerten weeks perhaps. A couple of months may seem an insufficient period of time to fall deeply in love. But when you’re young, you learn that summer operates outside the laws of the time-space continuum. When fall came, she had to go back to school while I needed to move on to another job. There was no talk of ending the relationship. There was no, “Maybe I’ll see you next summer.” It was too late for that. Instead we formulated a strategy. We would call when we were able, we would visit when we could afford it and we would write every single day. We had devised a long distance plan.
Many people assume that the long distance relationship (or, for the purposes of this essay, the LDR) is a modern custom, born of technologyairplanes and telephones and Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. But it is actually an ancient ritualthe origins of the phrase ‘LDR’ can be traced to a Latin root roughly equivalent to “spend a lot of money and be miserable.”
Every man in his lifeif he is fortunatewill meet at least one woman who gives a vigorous shake to his little snow-globe world. I’m not referring to love herelove is uncommon and not to be taken for granted and if you’re lucky, you’ll find a handful of people to love in your lifetime. I’m talking about someone who is able to make you see more possibility in life. I had lost my virginity seven years prior to meeting O and I had slept with my fair share of women. But O did things and said things that I had never had done or said to me before. She made sex feel new, as if I had discovered it at twenty-three instead of sixteen. And it wasn’t simply that she knew tricks or had certain skills, it was more profound than that. She tapped into my id. She turned me on so much that I felt as if I had been hit in the head with an iron skillet. It was disorienting. It was also frightening and exciting. I remember lying in bed with her one night andwhen my breath finally returned to mesaying, “I didn’t even know I liked that.” It was as if she opened doors to rooms that I didn’t even realize existed in a house I had lived in all my life.
Since O’s contract ended sooner than mine that summer, she was planning to go home before heading off to school in Mississippi. I wanted her to stay but without a job she had little reason to hang around. To complicate matters, her father was sick and she wanted to get back to see him. But after staying with him for a couple of weeks, she decided to come back to visit me. I was thrilled. We were still trying to find our footing and I wanted to spend every moment I could with her.
The rest of the summer was fantasticshe and I lived on that new relationship planet where no one has ever heard of gravity. When the summer finally ended we felt we had something tangible that we could hold in our hands. It was as if our relationship was an exotic rock that we had picked up in this new world. We were fascinated by it: so light and yet so solid. Then she went back to school and I went on to my next job and we found ourselves back on Earth and suddenly that rock was very heavy. It wasn’t as much fun to carry around anymore. We started to realize how much work it was to be in an LDR.
Now here’s where things get really terrible: around Thanksgiving, her father died. This sort of thing would put stress on the healthiest relationship but with us it was further complicated by the fact that she felt as if she had neglected her father in favor of me.
In retrospect it was an impossible situation. Had she not returned, our relationship might not have been strong enough to last the winter. But by coming back we both had guiltand hers was exacerbated by anger. I tried and failed to comfort and console her; if I struggle with such gestures now, back then I was utterly incompetent. I was useless to her. To make matters worse, I didn’t call her on the day of her father’s funeral. I phoned shortly thereafter yet somehow it wasn’t quite the same. I was like that idiot who stands behind you at a concert, merrily clapping away, half a beat behind the rhythm.
My relationship with O occurred in the quaint days before e-mail and instant messaging, when communication actually cost money. Today, words are cheap. Once you’ve paid your ISP chargesand you’re going to do that for the porn alonecommunication is free. From Guttenberg onward, the value of language has plummeted. It’s the economies of scale at work. But in those days, you paid for your words. Literally and figuratively. What do words cost? When we were writing they were 29 cents an ounce. That’s $4.64 a pound, friend. Hell, for that kind of money, you can get a pound of sugar and a pound of salt. Some of our letters were like a pound of sugar and some were like a pound of salt.
Back then, I knew when the mail was delivered, when it was picked up and the average number of days it took for a letter to go from here to there. I possessed more knowledge about the U.S. Postal Service than Cliff Clavin. Her lettersmuch like the ones that soldiers receive on the battlefieldwere absolutely essential for morale. A day I didn’t get a letter was a day I didn’t hold out much hope for humanity.
Occasionally she and I would actually fight about whether the other person was writing with sufficient frequency. This during a time when we were writing five to six times a week and had to number our letters just so we would know in what order they should be read. Those letters were read and re-read, analyzed and re-analyzed. We examined them more closely than ransom notes. We even came up with codes: Initially we numbered our letters 1, 2, 3, with an occasional Roman numeral thrown in to spice things up. But following a visit, we would change the code to “PV1”, which stood for “Post-Visit Letter Number One.” I’m pretty sure we even had a “PF1” code for “Post Fight One.” Each letter was obsessively created with considerable thought given to the selection of paper, ink color, envelope, stamps and penmanship, and included drawings, magazine clippings and poetry. Thousands of words. Pouring every thought that crossed our minds into them. Hoping to achieve distant intimacy through words alone.
If the written word is the lifeblood of the LDR, then the phone call is the cholesterol. On paper, you tend to be more reflective and less likely to overreact. But even if you do exaggerate, you still have the option of reconsidering your words before mailing your letter. With the phone you don’t have the luxury of a cooling-off period. You’re often lonely and feeling betrayed by the distance, which causes you to take it out on the other person.
This leads to a lot of fights. And the most frustrating aspect of arguing on the phone is not the fact that you can’t see the other person or even the preclusion of instant-gratification-make-up sex. Instead, it’s that no matter what the topic or how angry you might be, the only thought going through your mind the entire time is, “I’m paying 25 cents a minute to be yelled at.” And this makes you angrier, which makes you fight more, which costs more money.
You would think that talking on the phone was just like talking face to face. But it’s not. You don’t have the opportunity to read facial expressions. You can’t see body language. Talking on the phone is not the same as talking in person just as speaking Latin is not the same as speaking Italian. Although some of the words are the same, there’s still going to be an awful lot of miscommunication.
A regular event in our phone calls was the mid-sentence hang up. This would occur when one of us became so angry that we didn’t even bother to wait until the end of the sentence before slamming the receiver into its cradle. (Preferably in the middle of the other person’s sentencealthough I’m fairly certain there were times I was so enraged that I actually hung up on myself.) Immediately after hanging up, I would invariably either a) regret it or b) think of a good retort to one of her accusations (a sort of esprit du telephone). Either one of these situations necessitated a call back. When I was at home, it wasn’t a big dealI simply hit “Redial.” But when I was standing at a payphone using a calling card, I was forced to punch in more numbers than it takes to launch a Trident missile from a nuclear sub. By the time I got her back on the phone, either the moment was lost or I was so frustrated that instead of apologizing, I would start a new fight.
Due to the demands of her work or school schedule, O’s visits were usually brief. There was always a tacit pressure to convert separation into togetherness: six weeks of dinners and conversations and movies and hanging out compressed into three days. And sex. Oh, the sex. The truth is that once you cram forty-two days worth of sex into seventy-two hours, you don’t have much energy left over for anything else. Though this is nothing to complain about, it does mean that a lot of stuff that is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship gets ignored. It’s difficult enough when you live in the same city and get to see each other whenever you want, but throw a few hundred miles into the equation and you’re in for a lot of turbulence.
Part of our problem was that I wasn’t very good at being faithful. Nothing I’m proud of, really. And there was no logical reason for it. The women I slept with weren’t better looking or nicer or even superior in bed. They were just there. And she wasn’t. I know she suffered as a result of these transgressionsI know this because I confessed them to her. (I’ve always been an inadequate liar and burdened with a surprising amount of guilt for an atheist.) Separation now coupled with mistrust was corroding our relationship.
So in the winter of 1992, O and I decided to extract the “Long Distance” component from our LDR. She was going to move to Cleveland and live with me. I felt that if she moved in with me everything would be OK. She seemed to feel that once everything was OK she would move in with me. When she didn’t show up on the appointed day, I was a mess. I don’t know how many frantic calls I made to her home outside of Milwaukee; my phone bill must have looked like one big typographical error. When I finally got her on the phone instead of the answering machine, she ended it. I promptly made an effortless transition from frantic to a Grade A Lunatic. Not convinced that I could persuade her to see she was acting impulsively over the phone, I told her I was getting in my car and driving there. Right that minute. She didn’t want me to come but gave me directions nonetheless. Since I couldn’t figure out a way to drive through Lake Michigan (an idea that seemed appealing then), I drove around it and up into eastern Wisconsin. She purposely wore dumpy clothing and didn’t have a lot to say but seemed flattered that I would make such a spontaneous gesture. I could only stay the night and had to get back to work the next day. Although I left with the relationship in complete limbo, this actually constituted an improvement over where it had been twenty-four hours earlier.
On the way homesomewhere along one of the major highways linking Milwaukee and ClevelandI pulled over to the side of the road. I don’t remember the reasonperhaps the hatchback of my mustard yellow Toyota Tercel was rattling. I got out and, leaving the driver’s door open, walked to the back of the car. Huge eighteen-wheelers were screaming past and the wind blew the door partially open into the lane of traffic. Deciding that the last thing I needed was a truck taking off my door, I slammed it shut. It was only then that I realized that it was locked. As was the passenger’s door and the hatchback. The keys were in the ignition. And the car was running. There I was in the middle of winter, somewhere in between cold and colder, locked out of my running car. Had the engine been shut off I could have called a tow-truck to come pop the lock with a slim-jim. With it running, I didn’t have that option. By the time help arrived the car would have overheated (the radiator wasn’t working very well) and I would have been out of gas. I made a half-hearted attempt to hitchhike, but back then if you wanted a trucker to stop in the middle of Middle America, you needed to look like Jenny McCarthy. I didn’t.
Turning back to my car, I studied the triangular-shaped window located near the rear of the vehicle. For some reason I visualized pulling on it with just the right amount of force until it popped out intact, like a can from a six-pack. Instead it shattered between my fingers. I stood there for a moment looking at the diamond-shaped pieces that were now strewn on the road and the backseat. When I realized that there was no one there to share the joke with, I climbed in through the non-existent window and got back on the road. It was then that I discovered that you don’t really comprehend the true meaning of the word “cold” until you’re driving along some Wisconsin highway at 65 mph with no window in the middle of winter in the opposite direction of the woman you love.
Because it is so difficult and unfulfilling you’ll do almost anything to turn an LDR into an SDReven walk out on an acting job in New England to go live in Mississippi and work in a school cafeteria. I know this because I did exactly that in the fall of 1993. O was a grad student at Ole Miss while I was headed back East to do children’s theatre and I couldn’t stand it any longer. Once I arrived in the Magnolia State, it took me months to find a job. And when I finally got hired, I realized I was a college graduate serving freshmen while getting paid third-world wages. But it was worth it. Anything to end the phone calls and separation and miscommunication and longing. Anything. Just make it stop.
Of course living together carries its own set of problems. Day-to-day life is challengingit’s hard to keep romance alive when you share a bathroom. And when the quotidian is contrasted with the romantic struggles of an LDR, the relationship suffers as a result. When you’re apart, all you can think of is how great things will be when you’re together and then when you’re together all you can do is beat yourself up for being the boring, petty person you never were in your fairytale fantasies.
When I moved to Ohio for a theatre job in the summer of 1994 and then on to Illinois to enter grad school, we returned to our LDR. I had expectedas I had expected when I was in Clevelandthat O would come live with me when she finished school. This meant that in my second semester she would move north and we would be done with LDRs once and for all. But O had had enough of LDRs and, as it turned out, enough of me. She went back to Wisconsin where she decided to take the advice of the state motto (“Forward”) and announced that she was moving to Seattle. Now I found myself actually arguing in favor of another LDR. When it became obviouseven to methat it was over, I begged her to come to Illinois and say goodbye. She came, we spent the day together, had incredible sex, she got back in her car and I never saw her again.
O ended our LDR the only way one should ever be endedby sitting down in the same room with the other person. She gave me closure in a relationship that had been ill defined for much of the time we were “together.” Ten years later I am still haunted by my inattention, my selfishness and my general obtuseness. But I am at peace with how the relationship concluded. I was given a fair shot and I was too young, too arrogant or too unskilled to make the most of it. In the endas it should beI paid a heavier price for my mistakes than she did. After all, I lost her… not the other way around. What I’ve discovered is that there is no such thing as an easy breakupthere is only clarity or confusion. Both are rife with pain, but clarity is better, and that’s what she gave me.
If a relationship is like a rope, then distance is an anvil tied to the end of the ropeif the relationship is even slightly frayed, the distance will eventually snap it. If you can avoid LDRs you’ll have more happiness, more money and more sex. There is little to recommend them.
What I find I am left with are those letters. Buried somewhere in my parent’s garage are boxes of them, documents of passion and anger, betrayal and love. I can’t bear to look at them but just knowing they’re there is a sort of redemption. They are the interest that is earned on misery.
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