When I sneak a moment to talk to Michelle, my girlfriend of four years, I pace the hallways of my all-boys-dorm – getting quiet when others get near, and ignoring the smell of jock. On good days, the study room is void of frat pledgees and we can fake privacy. In those moments, we plan for the weekends to come; when one of us can make the drive and we can drink coffee and go on walks through Dallas or Austin – whichever one is closer. We find intimacy in the touch of the other, and to this day I’ve never felt anything more delicate than her wrists.
Learning to love from a distance isn’t awkward like side hugs. It’s more like being in adolescence when nothing feels quite right; everything is always changing and growing and aching.
Beyond phone calls, we have found solace in sending letters; the pages are laced with Michelle’s very essence. She decorates them to match the seasons, and I try to pepper my words with poetic phrases and fragments. Her handwriting is tangible, like how her hair grows. One time she sprayed her perfume on the paper and it gave me shivers for days.
Falling in love with Michelle was unavoidable. I met her in the eighth grade; a few years after she had emigrated from Finland. We started dating in our freshmen year, and I found her exotic and enticing. In those days, I burned incense and had dreadlocks and prided myself in being vegan without really knowing what it meant. She thought me more eclectic than I was, but I was just getting fat and needed a new diet to hide it.
She encouraged me through my weight loss and subsequent haircut. She introduced me to fashion and H&M, and my whole world changed. I started reading Hemingway and receded into myself. She would look at me with eyes that were open and concerned and ask me what I was thinking about. I wasn’t over myself yet, and would answer ambiguously.
We were together through my days as a barista when our coffee dates consisted mostly of me talking shop with other snobs. She would save our seats until I was ready to join her. I tend to get like that about a lot of things: overcome with such excitement as I discover new passions. With each new interest, she smiles endearingly and listens patiently.
When I became disinterested in coffee and started shopping for motorcycles, she stood by me. She even rode with me down a side road once – ignoring all of her rationality that makes me swoon. I’ll occasionally send her links to sexy women’s motorcycle gear, and she laughs, and tells me that I need to “put a ring on it” before we do any serious riding. I’ll just dream about cruising through the Sequoias with her until then.
Michelle let me be everything, but being away from Finland caused her to slip into an identity she didn’t like. She wasn’t from here, and she certainly didn’t feel like she belonged. Sometimes, I’ll catch her looking around anxiously and with discontent – like the Bengal tigers I saw at the Dallas zoo as a kid. But I couldn’t relate. Hell, I was born and raised in Texas – what did I know about different cultures?
The first time she asked me to go with her to Finland, I was incredulous, and I still don’t know why. I think I was scared of my parents’ response, like the time they found out all my friends smoked weed. It ended up that my assumptions were empty and mother and father were accommodating, but I refused to give her a straight answer. Maybe I was spooked by the commitment or the expense, but I think I was just conceited.
As the relentless Texas summers would come and go, the question stood every year: won’t you come? It wasn’t until she saved my life that I realized I had to go. It was Sadie Hawkins that night, and the theme was “The Roaring 20’s.” She did her hair with these tight curls, and wore sequins and pearls to match. She was Daisy Buchanan, and I didn’t stand a chance. However, the night didn’t last long. I had an anaphylactic reaction from an unknown shrimp allergy, and as my vision left me, and my throat started closing, she had an ambulance there in minutes. I would have thanked her, but the Benadryl knocked me out cold. She wouldn’t require a thank you, anyhow.
So I didn’t consent to going for myself, and I didn’t do it entirely for her, either. I said yes for all the moments prior to. For every New Years spent together, and secrets shared. For the forts built in our parents’ living rooms and for her keeping me from dying – Finland had to happen. It was a leap. There, I thought we would find if we truly belonged together.
When our plane finally landed, I remember seeing acres of trees in boundless stretches. Neither of us had slept the past 24 hours, and were only kept awake by constant movement. When we hit Helsinki, and through dried eyes I witnessed the architecture poets have marveled over, I became aware that I was somewhere entirely larger and different than I had expected. There, the people didn’t make eye contact, and it was okay. Everyone dressed like they cared, and the air was mixed with scent of birch and sea – the gulls filling it with their distinct calls. We would sail to islands off the ports of Helsinki, and we would pick wild strawberries and marvel at the hedgehogs dashing between the bushes.
I’ve yet to find intimacy greater than living in a foreign country with the woman I love. I suppose, in reality, we had been waiting for some arrival up until that point – that feeling like drinking too much coffee – and we found it there. We realized immediately that we couldn’t imagine anyone else we would rather be with. After three years together could we really let loose, live together and forget what we left. Suburban Dallas didn’t stand a chance. It was utopic.
We spent a week in her family’s lake house where we would collect berries and make pie. While we prepared lunch, her cousins with hair as beautiful and wild as Finnish flora would ride their uncle’s massive Newfoundland dog – appropriately named “Berta.” We ended those days drinking cider and Jamaican beer on the dock overlooking the crystalline surface of the lake reflecting the steep forest in the distance – obscuring the falling sun. I would look into her eyes in that late, tangerine light – when we’d be wrapped in our towels after shedding clothes and tension for the sauna – and I would wonder: is this possible? She would shoot me an assuring glance and we would make for the lake, sinking into ourselves.
See, this wasn’t like getting a letter. It wasn’t making out or going on walks or even getting rescued from death. This was the deepest, most vulnerable connection Michelle and I had ever shared – maybe deeper than we ever will. It was sacred, and it was the only way I could truly learn who she was.
And coming home was the oddest thing. I felt shattered, with parts of me in Helsinki, many with Michelle, and some shards scattered along the way. We were expected to say goodbye after all that. It was like surgery. It was like drowning, and all the water was coming in and all we could do was sit and watch. I felt sick. I still do.
We have tried to develop a routine of seeing each other, but it never seems quite right. When we steal away for weekends together, on Friday, we just want to lay in bed. Saturday is busy, and too short, and we see friends, eat too much ice cream, and watch TV. Sunday is just a joke – it’s over before it starts, and that feeling like drowning floods back. Just when we get used to having the other around, one of us has to leave.
When she does go, I liken myself to Holden Caulfield: a loose spirit, and mad at just about anything. I listen to songs about smoking cigarettes and tell her I want to try every time she goes. She scolds me and tells me how my fingernails will turn grey and I will die, and then kisses me. I smoke my pipe and ride my motorcycle to feel independent.
These lonely moments make me wonder what being apart from Michelle is really doing for me – or us. When I imagine forsaking friendships I’ve built and tying my future to where she is, I don’t know what’s right. Or what if I proposed and we became that married couple that is young – whose skin is still smooth and prickles in the cold? When I catch the last glimpse of her Volkswagen leaving the parking lot, I look at her silhouette to try and make out a wave of her hand or one last look over her shoulder to see if I am still watching.
I suppose I am still imagining some sort of arrival. I tell her I’m crazy. She tells me she loves me. She’s been gone for three days, and I’ve been sick since Sunday.