Going the distance

Impulsive Coward

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10,428 kilometers, 11,725 kilometers and 9,873 kilometers.

That’s how far I am from Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco — and how far I am from my boyfriend, my grandparents and some of my friends. 

Everyone is in some sort of a long-distance relationship right now, and I’m no exception.

There are a lot of things I miss about being just a few inches apart from them, but most of all, I miss the privilege of relying on comfortable silence. I miss sitting at my grandparents’ rounded wooden table, snacking on sunflower seeds. I miss going on walks with my brother and our two dogs. I miss making a mess in the kitchen with my friends while baking banana bread and strolling around in Century Park holding my boyfriend’s hand. 

I miss those moments of silent intimacy that don’t need to be put into words.

When I can’t share that with them, the best way I can show people I still care is through words — texts and calls, to be specific, both of which I find draining. I find words to be tactless, and I often can’t find the right ones. I prefer my “I love yous” in the form of hugs and you remembering my birthday. When it comes to maintaining my long-distance relationships though, particularly with my boyfriend, words are the only thing I can rely on. 

I’ve never been particularly good at condensing my emotions into words, at least when I speak directly to people. I have an annoying tendency to start tearing up at the slightest show of vulnerability. Still, with writing, that becomes a little easier. 

If I’m having a serious conversation, I’ll pull out my notes app and edit my texts until they’re perfect. I’ll take all the time that’s socially acceptable to process my thoughts into coherent sentences before hitting send. If I’m feeling extra sassy, I’ll consult my friends as assistant editors. The best part is, I won’t have to make eye contact with whoever receives the final product.

When I translate my feelings into that little bubble of text on a screen, there’s a filtration process. 

I get to sound a lot more rational and articulate than I would have been in a face-to-face conversation. I get to lie and have it be convincing. No one is there to read my body language or look me in the eyes. In the end, some of my immaculate texts end up conveying only a fraction of how I feel. I get to opt out of being too vulnerable.

Maybe I should use my notes app to workshop my issues with vulnerability instead. 

Maintaining a relationship online is tricky because it depends on effective communication, yet emotional intimacy is easily avoidable without its physical counterpart. Vulnerability feels so much more optional from afar. 

There have been times when I’ve taken full advantage of this. I’ve opted out of starting important conversations because my emotions are easily concealable from 10,428 kilometers away. I turn my camera off on video calls so no one can tell how I’m feeling.

I’ve blamed the distance for my relationship problems even when it was me who was afraid to be too present in my relationship — because being vulnerable is scary, even if it’s with my boyfriend, one of the people I trust the most. I’m scared of my emotions being an inconvenience. How much emotional transparency is enough, and when does it get to be too much? 

So now, I miss relying on comfortable silence. 

I miss the unspoken moments of understanding and the quieter forms of affection. Online, though, I’ve come to experience complacent silence, complacency with not having the uncomfortable conversations, in not wanting to risk getting hurt by opening up. 

I’ve felt myself grow lazier with relationships because of it, even though that’s not what I want. 

I don’t think human connections are supposed to be without vulnerability, at least not from what I’ve seen. Relationships are messy. Everyone is messed up in their own childhood-trauma-specific ways. I can’t opt out of emotional intimacy forever, because that’s all a relationship is. 

And I don’t want to filter out my emotions in my notes app all the time either, because I would rather sound inarticulate and irrational than be disingenuous. 

So lately, I’ve been trying to video call people more often — and with the video on. Sometimes I call when I don’t have anything to say, just to have them on the other line, each of us in our own worlds. In our comfortable silence, all those thousands of kilometers suddenly don’t feel so far. 

As for my boyfriend and me, we mostly try to call when we’re arguing. When we do, I let it all hang out: my limited vocabulary, my inability to form complete sentences, the way I stutter when I’m frustrated and of course, the way I tear up when it gets too much.

I’m usually a mess. But I’m starting to let go of wanting to perfect my words and condensing my emotions down to digestible bits of eloquent language. 

And it’s alright if I’m a mess — I want to be present.

Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]