The first year of our relationship had come easily. We established a secret hideout in McClellan Ranch Park: a secluded pocket so hidden that even we had trouble finding it. We had a creek to listen to, a log to sit on and each other. As we laced our fingers and I felt the warmth of her hand fill up the folds of my palm, I felt safe.
But her graduation, which came a year before mine, cleared the trees guarding our secret hideout and exposed us to a large and desolate world. As a silver car took her away, I felt one mile become two miles become three until the distance between us was immeasurable, infinite, unknown.
For a moment, I pushed aside the uncertainty that had seeped in between us. For a moment the distance between us was nothing more than 54.1 miles, which is three-fiftieths of California’s height, or 0.02% of the Earth’s circumference, or a negligible fraction of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The small fifty miles seemed inconsequential — for a moment.
That first night, we video called and laid together in our respective beds to say our good-nights that never take less than half an hour. When we were about to go to sleep, we laid in silence and I listened to the computer’s speakers imitate her soft inhale, her quick exhale — and that’s when it struck me. My eyes watered as I realized that the number of miles doesn’t really matter, because for the next eternity my girlfriend’s breathing would come not from her lungs but from my computer.
Inches, meters and miles mean nothing. Distance can only be measured in hours spent imagining that person’s face on a bedroom wall. Or possibly in kilobytes of text messages that try to capture the warmth of hand-holding and security of hugs with just 26 letters of the English alphabet. Or in pints of tears that stream down to the chin because the person who wants to wipe them away cannot reach past the computer screen that contains the video call.
College and distance had put our entire lives out of sync. Between class schedules, club meetings, work and extracurriculars, we only ever got two, maybe three hours a day to talk. The wide gap between us lived within endless, alienating silences and I came to understand that distance corrodes every material aspect of our relationship. The sound of our voices, the taste of our cooking, the rhythm of our breaths — with fifty miles between us, what was left of our connection?
Well, pretty much everything that’s not material.
I remembered that back in our spot at McClellan Ranch Park, there were always these moments when we’d stop mid-conversation and stare — just stare — at each other, dumbfounded by the thorough comfort and safety that reverberates through our bodies when we’re together. No distance can take away this visceral feeling that fills the gaps in our conversations and comes from me being me, her being her and us simply being us. In the end, all distance did was strip away the physical shell that decorated our relationship’s emotional core.
Most importantly, that core has an echo. When she’s fifty miles away in class or on a retreat or at a hackathon, when our short moments together have passed and I’m sitting alone, the echoes of those feelings still ripple through the night’s silence. And if I pay attention, I can still feel the even softer echoes of the previous night’s video call, of our last meeting in person and even of our very first conversation. They’re small, small remnants of past times together, but they’re just barely enough to overcome the ominous distance that tries to tear us apart because the battle is one intangible distance versus two years and counting of complete, solid companionship.