Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In a lot of ways, our breakup was pretty typical — just as mundane, and just as life-shattering as all the thousands of others that occurred that day around the world. He said I can’t do this anymore while laying in my bed and staring at the ceiling, and then got up and left. I spent the next day drinking a bottle of scotch by myself and texting him, the next few weeks making out with questionable men at bars (and then crying in the taxi home because they weren’t him), and the next few months going on mediocre Tinder dates (and crying in the subway home because those men are also weren’t him). The usual.
Except for one thing: At the time of our split, he and I had, for almost two years, been exclusively long-distance. I was in New York, and he was all across the country in California. In theory, this should have made things easier. We had few shared friends , and no spots that were “ours.” I had no chance of awkwardly running into him while I was at Trader Joe’s buying $4 wine with unwashed hair and tired eyes. It should have been a clean break. And yet.
Five months into the breakup, I was surprised by a sudden, violent urge for contact that ended in a drunk email. He responded, which I had both dreaded and desperately hoped for. Then there was another email, an attempt at a joke, a reciprocating joke, and then, a week later, a text conversation that transitioned into a Skype call where he dropped an Oh wow, you look great. There were follow-up texts, an It was so good to talk to you again that quickly upgraded to an I miss you and, finally, a tentative I’d love to see you again.
We began inching closer to each other again, trading careful hints about whether maybe, perhaps, depending on our schedules, a visit could potentially be arranged. Eventually, I made the leap. I bought a ticket to the west coast and sent him an anxiously happy text: “I’ll be there in five days!” And all of a sudden, I found myself once again faced with a question I had on and off for the entirety of our relationship: What the hell are we now?
As my flight to the west coast approached, I hesitated to tell people about it. I dreaded the questions. “Does this mean you’re back together?” “So are you his girlfriend again?” “Are you staying with him?” I knew he didn’t want to answer that, so I didn’t want to answer it, either. Instead, I decided, I was going to play it cool.
The problem was, cool is a lot harder to pull off from another time zone. You can’t just casually meet up at a bar on a Tuesday night to “catch up” over a glass of wine, or very discreetly drunk-text at 1 a.m. on a Saturday to tell him to come meet you while you’re out with your friends. Long-distance eradicates any “coolness.” It’s immediately high-pressure. When you go visit your ex, you are staying at his place. You broke up six months ago, you haven’t touched each other since, and all of a sudden your contact lens solution and your hyaluronic acid serum are sitting on the sink of his new apartment and you guys haven’t even kissed yet and what the actual fuck is happening right now?
So there I was, in a full girlfriend-experience immersion. I stayed in California for a week. We went out to brunch. We held hands. We went out for drinks with his friends. I cooked him dinner. My hyaluronic acid sat on his sink and my dry shampoo and my hairbrush sat on his shelf. I slept in his boxers and his T-shirts and I neatly folded them away every morning. And then I had to leave, and I still hadn’t asked: “What the fuck are we?”
By the time I landed back in New York, on a grim, murky morning after a red-eye flight, I was feeling frantic. “Are we back together,” I texted him on my way to work from the airport.
“Please don’t pressure me like this,” he wrote back. Okay, cool. I’d been his de facto live-in-girlfriend for a week, and I’d loved him for almost two years, but sure, I could be casual about this. Except — how do you casually date when the only way to see each other involves several hundreds of dollars and staying over at each others’ apartments, for multiple days?
I was determined to keep it going. I could win him back, I knew it. And so I casually suggested he make a stopover in New York while he traveled back home for Christmas. He agreed, staying with me for four days, and it was the same wonderful, intimate, confusing thing: holding hands, cooking, cuddling in bed. Walking around the city, his arm around me, while we scouted out brunch spots. It was stupidly domestic. Until he left again, and I asked him when we could see each other next.
He didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Here’s the thing about trying to get back together with your long-distance ex: Everyone says it’s so much harder, but actually it’s so much easier because it makes things clearer from the start. You can’t afford to mess around for long. There are only so many “casual” visits your checking account can handle before you need an answer, before you need to know know if it’s worth upending your entire life – your job, your friends, your protective circle – to move somewhere new and try to “casually date” your ex again.
“It’d be cool if you lived, like, across town, and I could just meet you for a drink after work, instead of always having to plan this far ahead in advance,” he said to me one night over Skype. “It makes me wonder if we could actually have a real relationship then.”
As I sat there, looking at his pixelated face on my screen, I knew. I’d built up distance, in my mind, as the obstacle to us getting back together, but in the end, that wasn’t what kept us apart. If he wanted me back, distance wouldn’t matter; if he wasn’t interested in calling me his girlfriend when I was a six-hour plane ride away, he probably wasn’t going to be interested in calling me his girlfriend when I was a 30-minute ride away. And if the intimacy we’d been embracing and the time and the money we’d been spending up to this point weren’t enough to make this “real,” nothing would be. I looked at his face again as he glanced at something on his screen, away from me, and I felt the loneliness of the long-distance lover billow up inside me.