Nearly five months had passed since I’d been in the same room with Alex (or on the same continent, for that matter), so when I got off the final plane of my very long journey and saw my wonderful boyfriend in person for the first time, it was magical. It was fulfilling.
It was through a hardcore glass wall.
Until my suitcase deigned to make an appearance on the baggage carousel, I was confined to the claim area and he was not allowed in. We had waited and Skyped, planned and pined. I’d flown to bloody Africa, for fuck’s sake, and now we were in some airport purgatory that vaguely resembled the visitation room at a maximum security prison. Without the phones, even, so we — like all the idiots around us — were forced to soundlessly mouth our greetings.
I knew he’d be waiting there, so I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to see him after this long and dramatic separation and not be able to make contact. In romantic movies the characters always get to run into each others’ arms on the runway, or at least at the arrival gate. If I’d tried, I would have been like a cartoon bird that flies into a window, the ecstatic grin on my smushed-in face leaving a smear of bloody drool as my stunned body slid into a heap on the cold airport floor.
Having little to no self-control in most matters, I turned and looked at him. I felt myself get teary; my stomach dropped. Natch, since this was an emotional situation, I spazzed. I gave some awkward pantomime about my bag not showing up. I’d hoped to get off the plane coolly and elegantly — like some kind of Audrey Hepburn, or at least one of the Olsen twins. The kind of woman you are so lucky to have waiting for you at home 9,000 miles away. Instead I flailed around like Ace Ventura and realized I’d left my sunglasses in Chicago.
Thus began our long-awaited and theoretically romantic vacation.
As some of you may remember, until Alex and I decided to stay together while he tried to save sub-Saharan Africa from HIV/AIDS and I tried to complete my distribution requirements, I had sworn I would do all I could to avoid long-term long-distance dating. It seemed an endlessly frustrating, probably unsuccessful and virtually pleasure-free experience.
To some extent, it is. The home-alone fun of being in a committed relationship and not having to worry about seeing the person (keeping weird hours, never shaving your legs, not bothering to get dressed up or even shower before going out on weekends) wears off pretty quickly. In my experience, at least, you stay with somebody when he and his bleeding heart flee the Developed World for a year because you love him. And loving him means, at least occasionally, that you want to see him. So it’s definitely tough. Even after we worked out the kinks in our international telecommunications so that we can see and hear each other quite frequently, it’s been tough.
One of the main ideas behind this trip was that it would be a much-needed break in the toughness. Being together when you’re together is definitely easier than being together when you’re apart. There were, however, some unforeseen challenges to twelve days of non-stop together time.
Obviously, I got the better end of the deal, since Alex is almost unfailingly cheerful, exceedingly patient and just generally an easy guy to get along with. He is also an excellent driver, a fearless killer of tropical bugs, a proficient cameraman and much better than I at carrying a purse for long periods of time without complaining. I, on the other hand, have a frustratingly incomplete set of travel competencies: I’m great at planning, packing a suitcase, dealing with airports and reading guidebooks; I’m worthless when it comes to waiting, packing fewer than six pairs of shoes, dealing with anybody who seems “mean” to me and reading maps. I also have a tendency to exhaust people. Every teacher I had between kindergarten and third grade promptly left the school district after having me in class. Although my role in these departures remains completely unconfirmed, you get the picture.
I think it was on the day I made Alex wake up at 4:30 a.m. so we could get to the Cape of Good Hope “before it got crowded” (we were there for hours before the people who work there, much less other tourists, began trickling in) that we bothered to acknowledge how hard it was to go from 0 to 100 percent of each other in just a matter of days. Both of us realized that we’d never been one-on-one with anybody for such an intense and uninterrupted stretch of time. We realized, too, that being together when you’re together — while significantly more fun and infinitely more sexually gratifying than the long-distance thing — isn’t actually easy. Wanting to see somebody 24/7 and actually having to do that are different things. People get cranky and sunburned and devoured by mosquitoes. Shit happens; shit hits the fan; one of you wants the fan turned on while you sleep and the other one is too cold. And those little things — being able to disagree and discuss and laugh with the person I’d been missing so much for so many months — was the best part of the whole thing.
Reuniting at the airport was more Farrelly-brothers comedy than chick-flick fantasy, and so was most of our vacation … and so is our relationship, really. We had our beautiful moments, of course, but often they weren’t where we expected them to be. Our visit to the much-hyped and picturesque winelands was spent inside a hotel room watching “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” while Alex tried to get over a sinus infection. In my memories, it won’t hold a candle to shivering together on a dangerously windy cliff top and impulsively deciding to call home to hear who had won the Iowa caucuses. In the end, I wouldn’t have it the other way around. It’s the mundane stuff that makes a relationship you wait around for. I’ll leave the romantic junk for the movies.
Sarah Minkus is wearing a pith helmet.