Essay Posted: 1,546 words
The events of this essay may be dramatized or fictional. Names removed where possible for the sake of privacy.
On my fifteenth birthday, I first kissed a girl. And while I was still fifteen, my family moved to Central Asia, ten hours away by time zones. I thought I had remembered the break-up correctly – you always think that, even when it’s not true. Of course it broke up; what tenth grader can sustain a real relationship across ten hours, two continents, and a world of differences between two kids who are still changing plenty on their own? What I’d never realized was just how hard she tried after I left.
I remember, of course, when we said goodbye. It was after P.E. with the home-school co-op on the college soccer fields. In a twist, she walked me home, because I lived on campus, and she had a car to go home in afterwards. I was fifteen, if you recall.
The sun was shining on a bright, Georgia fall day, and we strolled slowly back to my house. We took the pipe shortcut because even though it made the walk shorter, it cut through the woods which were perfect for strolling, hand-in-hand, until the path came out in someone’s backyard.
“I’ll wait for you.”
“I’ll come back for you.”
There were so many incongruous things about our relationship, especially after I left and landed in a third-world country with barely any internet, a completely new culture, and a host family.
But for months after I had left, we exchanged emails and text messages, trying desperately to keep that thread woven together. Today, in a fit of ambition, I decided to clean out my old email address – an email address I still use. Like an archaeologist, I turned back layers and layers of time, and I realized why I had never had the stomach to delete these before.
“I wish I could be there and see what you are seeing.”
She had written that, months after I was in Central Asia, and beginning to fit in. She talked about visiting me, something so stunningly improbable that it shocked me when I read it. Four years – the length of my parent’s term – felt like an eternity. Of course, we didn’t realize that it would only be two years, that we would be kicked out, that my dad’s passport would be taken. If you squint a little two years would have almost worked to wait.
She used to send me reports on Wednesday night potluck and Sunday School, and I replied with cultural stuff, language quirks, and the new horizons I was experiencing. We talked about our faith (more openly than I did with my own wife the first few years we were married). We tried.
“It’s just been really rough.”
Reading to the end is like trying to piece together a vase after it’s fallen off a shelf. As an adult, reading more for curiosity than anything, I pick up pieces I’m sure I missed as a teenager. Issues to work through at home and at school. Hints that the strong, vibrant friends that had sustained her were growing up, moving away, and getting married. She had new friends, because our church was shriveling up from the inside out, and there was no one her age in it anymore.
12/24/2009 – Christmas Eve
“so i’m considering moving me and my sisters out of our house”
“just gettin kind of rough…”
I didn’t have the tools to build that kind of relationship then. I was in tenth grade, and I shied away from the tough questions and the hurt between the lines. I could have put in the investment and time to keep things together. Maybe if she had had a friend, she wouldn’t have ended up the way she did, with the friends she had. Maybe I could have changed a trajectory, however slightly, for the better, but I didn’t.
I let the distance get the better of me.
I didn’t realize how much was being offered to me back then. Her emails got longer and longer, with more and more details. She was struggling. My emails got shorter and shorter. I didn’t have good internet access, but there I was in Central Asia of all places, and all I said was,
“Things are so boring here.”
Somehow, stunningly, high school me created monotony and drudgery out of living in a former Soviet Socialist Republic where people tied goats to our front door and the mountains were right in our back yard. I didn’t have words to explain what I was seeing and experiencing, and my door began to close.
“My life is like crap.”
We tried hard to chat in the cracks of our lives but syncing everything up halfway across the world proved to be nearly impossible. We’d set appointments and times to meet up, and then never make it. We talked endlessly about Skype calls, and never had one (the metered internet in Central Asia made it impossible for me to Skype). Several scattered chats read similarly:
“Hey, you doing OK? Talk to me.”
“Sorry…my computer’s been down from the internet….life’s just same old same old, though.”
At some point, we stopped pretending to keep in touch. Big life events were relayed second- or third-hand and then discussed in hurried conversations. I had friends – good friends – around me, and we spent hours talking about life, going on adventures, and growing up. The connection was fading, and neither of us said anything.
Things were changing for her as well:
“So … told me u got a boyfriend”
“i’ve been trying to get a chance to tell you”
“so are you mad at me for not telling you?”
“I’m not mad”
“i can’t wait to see you’re face again on skype”
We kept talking, and I even talk about the girls I liked, in that same conversation. I guess we thought that if we pretended to be siblings, or best friends, we could eke out a few more months.
But there were only a few messages in 2010, and only one in 2011. There’s one final chain in 2012, and then nothing.
This was the girl I’d kissed. This was the same girl who came up with names for our kids with me. This was the girl who was going to visit me in Central Asia. Distance had let all of this – stupid and superficial though it was – slip through our fingers.
“How are you doing? It’s been awhile…haha. How’s school?”
“Doing good, could be worse.”
“It’s crazy how much people change.”
“P.S. When are you coming back again?”
“I’m coming back next June or sometime”
“It will be fantastic. I’m so excited you’re coming back. :D”
And that was that. The last thread I have. That day, we talked about maybe re-reading all our old letters when I got back: pages and pages of dreams that were out of date by now (we never did).
After we got deported, and I went back to the United States, I looked her up, but we never had a conversation one-on-one again. Never addressed the hopes that we both separately buried, at some point in the middle of a two year separation.
The distance kills a lot of things. The distance killed my next relationship off, too. And by 2012 – the time of the conversation above — I had met a girl in Russia, and we went to high school together. Our lives overlapped simply enough: high school, the play and drama club, and being oldest siblings. I asked her out, and we sipped coffee and walked the boulevards of Moscow.
I was terrified of the distance that was coming. It seemed like graduating – and the resulting distance – would kill that relationship off as well (it didn’t).
Third-culture kids always deal with distance.
And when I say distance, I don’t just mean geographically, or time zones. Distance of experience: life experiences that are weird, hard to explain, and different than many teenagers. I couldn’t vocalize how or why my life was changing so drastically, so I didn’t. I bottled up. I let everything that was happening to me just happen, and I didn’t put in the time and work to faithfully relay the details to any interested parties. That takes a lot of work.
It did happen, further down the road. Alisha and I graduated, went to different colleges in the US. Separated by about 400 miles (but no time distance), we poured in hours each day to keeping our lives connected. We knew that was necessary if it was going to work out. And countless Skype calls, emails, letters, and visits later, it did. I live in Kansas City now, and Alisha is my wife.
But five years before that, I didn’t put in the work. I was friends with a teenage girl who was going through upheaval of her own. It wasn’t a whole new country or culture, but it was upheaval all the same. I can see it in all the letters, reading back on them as an adult.
“Can you chat for a little bit, or not? :)”
… is offline.