'I would rather be with her than with anybody'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; E08

In the summer of 2005, Elise Baran and Neil Canfield did what thousands of eager college students will do over the next few weeks: They came to Washington and sorted mail.

On his first morning as an intern with Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Canfield was at his desk when "this cute, dressed-up girl" approached, he recalls, "with her arm outstretched, very self confidently and says, 'Hello, I'm Elise Baran.' It was sort of like 'Who are you?' "

Canfield, a senior at Denison University, and Baran, a junior at Brown University, got assigned to mail duty that afternoon and were teamed up on a public relations project for the rest of the week. By the middle of the following week there was "a definite crush and the thought of a summer fling," says Canfield, who was trying to "figure out how to make a first date happen."

His plans for a group outing to a baseball game fell through, so after "a moment of panic," Canfield, then 21, regrouped and asked Baran out to dinner, just the two of them. A senior staffer caught them splitting a pitcher of sangria, but it didn't dampen the mood -- the evening ended with a kiss.

That summer was a rush of days and nights together, exploring Washington, cooking together and hanging out with other interns. And after seven weeks -- and no discussion of where things were headed -- Baran drove Canfield to the airport.

"We kind of both looked at it like the endless summer," Canfield recalls. "But then once she dropped me off and I came into the airport, I remember sort of looking back and feeling like this sort of magical moment was ending."

There was little expectation that their romance would continue; that wasn't the way these things usually worked. Besides, Baran, who was recently out of a long-term relationship, was heading to Poland for a semester abroad.

But their e-mails became a daily routine, and Canfield bought international phone cards at Wal-Mart to call Baran once a week. "We weren't dating at that point," he says. "It was just kind of keeping up."

Her return trip that December included a layover at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Canfield, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., told Baran that Chicago was directly on his route home from Denison, in central Ohio, and that he'd stop by to see her. Because of what Baran calls her "lack of knowledge of Midwestern geography," she didn't realize that instead of the normal five hours it would take him to get to Grand Rapids, Canfield would be driving eight to reach Chicago.

Baran didn't have a cellphone at the time, so Canfield wandered from terminal to termial looking for her. When he finally spotted her, they had less than an hour together before Baran had to catch her next flight, and Canfield would drive another 3 1/2 hours to get home.

"It was like, 'Oh, you're still real,' " Baran recalls of the visit. "He was still invested."

By the following spring, it was clear that Canfield would be moving to Washington after graduation to take a research position at a law firm. Baran, who grew up in Alexandria, was also coming back that summer for another internship. She flew to Ohio for his fraternity formal and that, Baran says, "was when we really started dating again."

After a second fun summer, Baran returned to Providence, R.I., for her senior year at Brown. "And compared to Krakow, Poland, this was a breeze," Canfield says. "We were always in contact."

He was busy working on an intense case while she wrote her thesis and applied for a Fulbright scholarship. The distance, both say, taught them how to really communicate with each other.

"If I needed to talk to Elise and I needed to be the priority for that day, we kind of just said it -- 'I need you to be my sounding board right now,' " he says. "We could be a little bit demanding when we needed to be."

In spring 2007, when Baran found out she was a finalist for a Fulbright, Canfield sent flowers. When she found out she got the award -- and thus would be moving back to Poland -- she cried.

"I knew I was going to take it, and I was so happy to have it, but I also knew that it meant we were going to kind of put our relationship on hold for another year," she says.

There was another happy summer together, but with Baran's departure looming. This time their goodbyes came with a lot of serious discussion. They would try to make it work and reevaluate the agreement if it became too difficult. Both decided that even if they didn't end up together in the end, what they had was worth fighting for during a year apart.

"I knew that I had never met someone like Elise . . . I would rather be with her than with anybody. I don't get sick of her. I don't get bored by her conversation. She's always stimulating, always humorous. And I could see that happening for the rest of my life," Canfield says.

For a big chunk of her stay, Baran had no Internet connection, and the six-hour time difference made phone conversations tricky. But Canfield, who now works as a Department of Homeland Security consultant, came to visit twice, touring the university where Baran was teaching English and traveling with her to Barcelona and Paris.

Still, "it was hard -- really hard," she says. "But there were no doubts."

In late June 2008, Baran returned to Washington, and, for the first time in their relationship, there was no departure date in sight.

Dating long distance, their time had always been compressed -- "you're really 'on' for that week you're together," Baran says, now 25 and a math teacher at Washington Latin Public Charter School. "It was nice to have a life -- where some days are good and some days are crappy."

"And you figure it out," adds Canfield, also 25.

In August 2009, after a year in the same place, Canfield proposed. On April 10, the two were married at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown.

"It's funny," Canfield said before the wedding, "Whenever you're engaged or getting really close, everyone's like, 'Ooooh, do you know that it's done? You're spending the rest of your life with this person?' I'm like, 'Bring it on -- can't wait for it to start.' If you're not ready for that, you better not be getting married."

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