Neither of us walked into that dinner at a mutual friend’s apartment on New Year’s Day 2010, expecting to meet someone. Mo was in the middle of a gap year between college and medical school, and I was still trying to jump-start my journalism career and justify living beyond my means on New York City’s Upper West Side.
At the time, I was 27, and every decision I made was determined by what I could afford on an entry-level salary, so dating was off the table. But she told a story from her time in college that absolutely captivated me, and I thought: This person is worth pursuing.
Over the weeks that followed, Mo became my most-active activity partner, attending comedy shows and panel discussions as my plus-one. One evening, as we walked and talked, she asked what was happening between us. Without hesitation, I said that we should have our first date that week.
Pretty quickly, we were seeing a great deal of one another. We lived 12 blocks away from each other, making it easy to become fixtures in each other’s daily routines and social circles. She was near enough that even on busy nights for one of us, we could squeeze in a quick visit.
Yet we were both bracing for news that spring of where she’d be accepted to medical school, and in turn spend the next four years of her life. Sure, some studies show that distance can even strengthen a couple’s ties. But I knew that I wasn’t cut out for the travel and the absence.
Thankfully, she was admitted to Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Nine months after we met, Mo moved from an apartment a short walk away to a dormitory an hour away on the express train. We were still in the same city, but suddenly we were in a long-distance relationship.
The first time I visited her at school, the train was rerouted through a neighborhood I didn’t recognize and the trip took almost twice as long as expected. At times we had to go 10 to 12 days without seeing each other, because her schedule was so demanding. When the big exams were creeping up, I would hold back and give her space. If she had a few minutes at the end of an exhausting day, I’d have to be sure to hit all the right topics. I began to write them on a Post-It note I would permanently keep in my pocket, just in case something happened or a stray thought popped into my head that I wanted to share with Mo when I had my chance.
Getting together required more foresight and planning than any other relationship either of us had been in before. And neither of us had been in a relationship this long — or this meaningful — before. We tried to block off time on weekends: If not the whole weekend, one day of it. If not a full day, a few hours.
Sometimes my expectations were unrealistic. Even the good nights to visit could turn out to be problematic. Rather than cancel our plans, I’d come have dinner with her, we’d catch up, then I’d watch TV in one of her classmates’ apartments until she texted that she’d wrapped up her studying for the evening.
At times I would get irritable after having not seen her for a while, and she’d gently reassure me over the phone that if I could just wait a few more days, everything would feel normal again. And it usually was.
I was moving forward in my career, too. I’d taken on a new job in marketing and communications that left me needing to prove myself all over again. Mo and I commiserated over both having impostor syndrome. I quickly realized that the best way for our relationship to develop and thrive was through cultivating a life separate from hers. Others have made these kinds of situations work, so we could, too, right?
While she was busy with school, I spent more time with friends, went on weekend trips and went to events without her. For example, when one of her best friends had an engagement party on a rainy Sunday during a particularly grueling study season, I attended on behalf of the two of us.
As I struck up conversation with friends, new and old, about the difficulties of living separate lives and also merging them together, I found that I was identifying with and empathizing more with women. Traditionally, it’s been women who have had to grapple with a partner’s unavailability, whether physical or emotional. Mo and I both knew I was the needier one.
She joked around that I was “the woman in the relationship.” I was the one insisting that we continue to go on dates, who volunteered to run errands for her, who silently wondered where this journey was taking us.
When Mo’s Match Day rolled around last spring, we were in a similar spot to four years earlier. I’d taken the day off work to be there. The room was absolutely electric: People shrieked and hugged, while others ran off to the side to make phone calls and update Facebook statuses. Mo opened her envelope nervously, followed by the widest grin I’d ever seen. She had matched at her top choice for residency, at a hospital in the Bronx.
As I scanned the room that afternoon, I floated away from Mo. The joy was so infectious, I began to cry. This wasn’t my celebration, but it sure felt like it.