No doubt sensing some horrible proclivity in me, my mother once suggested I would be wise to never fall in love with an artist. Of course, my mother is an artist. And of course, I did. She never told me it was inadvisable to fall in love with an artist who lives on the opposite side of the country from me, but I've done that as well.
As a result, I've discovered that if you're a reasonably mature woman who happens to be involved in a serious long-distance relationship, you don't need a mother to drill you with doubtful stares and dubious remarks. Everybody else will.
An exception to this rule surfaced when one of my early morning transcontinental flights out of National Airport was considerably delayed, an event which constituted enough of a deviation from form to inspire chit-chat with the woman standing beside me. Over a cup of coffee, we discovered that we were members of the same misunderstood minority. I was on my way to a boyfriend in Seattle; hers was in San Francisco.
Not so long ago, relationships like ours would have been unthinkable for anyone who didn't make major motion pictures for a living. But there are now more of us than you might imagine, passing for ordinary by striding purposefully along airport corridors, fooling others with our complete comprehension of airline procedure. Despite appearances, we're not there for business. It's simply our turn to travel.
Since neither the woman in the airport nor I came equipped with Vuitton carry-on luggage or first-class tickets, I told her about the most convenient discount deal in long-distance telephone rates for people like us. (If you're willing to share your toothbrush with someone, why not share your secret access numbers as well?)
She told me about membership in one of those airline clubs that award frequent flyers with free tickets after so many thousands of miles, an especially good idea if you figure out a way for both of you to travel on the same membership card.
"The airlines don't care," she breezily informed me, and she must have had a point because she and her boyfriend were already working on their fourth free trip, which put them in excess of 150,000 miles. They'd flown back and forth to each other at least 50 times!
Since I was then a novice with only 9,000 miles to my credit, I experienced the kind of awe usually reserved for couples who manage to stay married for 50 years. We nodded happily as we exchanged our stories.
Commuting relationships invariably detail a certain amount of drama, ingenuity and intrigue which--if we who live them should care to talk--heightens our appeal as seatmates. But mainly, we've learned to keep to ourselves. Most people appreciate the tale, but they fail to see the point. In fact, the best thing about chatting up a fellow minority member is discovering yet another soul who appreciates that commitment can't always be measured in terms of proximity.
Even at a time when commuter marriages have surpassed trend to become an established, if not necessarily desirable, alternative, there are still those who seem to believe that we who migrate to loved ones are incapable of keeping faith with human beings. Better we should pour what little affection we possess into goldfish; we might make neurotic wrecks out of more lovable pets. Oh, your boyfriend lives 3,000 miles away? Got a little problem with intimacy, huh? You're only home on weekends? Your husband must be terribly, er, self-sufficient.
What to do about the men who assume you must be available because there isn't always a brute on the premises? Play one of your answering machine's most heart-wrenching messages of loneliness and love and force them to listen? You begin to get the idea that if there were such a thing as "The Dumb Woman's Guide to Sex," you'd be a case history. I can't count the number of times I've been told that long distance is a killer.
Where have these people been, anyway?
After all, we're not talking about collegiate romances or the kind of affairs meant to stay in a hut at Club Med. What we're talking about are situations that are not always matters of much choice. They involve decidedly unromantic yet mutual considerations like job opportunities, economic necessity and a society that remains mobile in spite of airline deregulation. In a day when travel hardship means jet lag, why rule out a partner whose only liability is being a time zone or two away?
None of which is to imply that a constant stream of rationalizations is required in order to accept a loved one's quite literal distance--unquestionably a better thing than the metaphorical kind. There are distinct advantages, too. Distance can enhance romance, most notably by diminishing the accumulation of deadly daily detail to the point that preparing meals together and swapping sections of the newspaper become meaningful, poignant events. Little is taken for granted.
Such illumination of ordinary moments is best appreciated, of course, when neither person is feeling lonely or burdened by having no one to share the day-to-day responsibilities. It also just might account for why these relationships are sometimes ridiculed by those not involved in them: You might be having too much fun!
Your arrivals occasion flowers, candle-lit dinners, lust. Your departures herald a sweet sort of melancholy, letters detailing innermost thoughts, affirmations of the bond between you. An endless procession of poets and songwriters would gladly testify that Nietsche knew what he was talking about when he said one's real feelings emerge when separated from somebody one deeply loves.
No doubt there are long-distance marriages where none of these positive features is outstanding, where family life suffers and laundry is done all weekend. But there is at least the saving grace that migratory arrangements often exist precisely because the woman's priorities are considered as significant as those of the man, who is presumably enlightened enough to select the appropriate washing machine cycle. When the situation proves temporary and the miles dissolve, it can end up benefiting everyone by underlining all that men and women can mean to each other beyond division of labor.
Expense is an issue, naturally, although a good long-distance relationship is not nearly so costly as a miserable local one, which can shatter friendships, necessitate therapy and create a loneliness far more terrible than that of a long-distance type, who has at least located the object of her desire.
My own financial obstacles pale in comparison to those of a Seattle woman I know who recently met the man of her dreams while in Burma, where she often visits as a travel consultant cum art historian. He's a prince, a Baptist Burmese prince from a proud, educated, but not excessively wealthy tribe. In order for him to pool enough money to join her in the States, his family was forced to sell two of the tribe's valuable elephants. Clearly this is a passion that comes along rarely in the Computer Age.
Somewhere between the Washington Monument and the Space Needle, after only one Bloody Mary, I developed a little theory. The more pronounced a single woman's interests and skills become, the less likely she is to find a man who's both compatible and conveniently located. I count it as just another tangled fact of love, and I wish everybody else would too.
Meanwhile, in my own particular affair, I take it as an article of great faith that both of us are anxious to finally see what it's like to get on the same plane, together.