Transatlanticism: A Very Long (Distance) Engagement

The first Valentine’s Day we spent together was blissfully ordinary. My boyfriend and I had been dating for a sufficient amount of time to curb the awkward “should we/should we not celebrate” malarkey, thank goodness, so I wrote him a sentimental card and cooked him dinner (and he bought me a fish, natch). Everything was happy and hunky dory because we had time left before my visa ran out, enough time to pace ourselves and just enjoy each other’s company without paying too much attention to the future. We knew that we loved each other and, right then, that’s all that needed to be said.

The next Valentine’s Day we spent together was in California, on my second visit since I moved home to the U.K. I flew out at the very last minute, after his mother lost her long, terrible battle with cancer. Though I am not the first and will not be the last to experience the pain of losing a loved one, I cannot adequately convey how gut-wrenching it is to be so far away from someone you love so dearly when their life is shattered. He bore the weight of his mother’s terminal illness on his shoulders throughout our relationship, but her death felt no less untimely. I went home again, changed once more. And still very much in love.

I met him in a class, and fell for him on a series of warm, sunny evenings in the late summer of 2011. We gravitated towards each other and then we were together and that was that. It was always easy to love one another. In other ways, though, things have not been so simple. I was a British student living in the U.S. on borrowed time—soon my visa ran out and I went home, and we stayed together because there was no viable alternative.

Two years after we met, he asked me to marry him as the sun was setting by the cathedral in Exeter, England—and I said yes. Now we’re engaged—engaged, and figuring our lives out. When we marry, I shall be moving back to the U.S.; partly because the prospect of a life in America is ripe with opportunity, and partly because, as a future Marine officer, he is quite literally committed to his country. In the past, the future frightened us, but now it’s exciting. But that isn’t to say that life is rosy again now we have hope for our relationship.

Right now, we are in limbo. Half my mind is constantly elsewhere; I can no longer switch off and just be entirely present. My daily life is littered with reminders of him, from my phone background to half the clothes I wear. I hear songs he loves and see people that might interest him and squirrel away amusing anecdotes for later, when we can talk properly. Time spent on Skype with him is often the highlight of my day. I don’t allow myself luxuries or an allowance for socialising because every spare penny must be saved. I don’t love this lifestyle, but I’m aware that a little hardship is entirely necessary to fully appreciate the better days, when that “happy ending” rolls around and becomes my new norm. That’s not to say it doesn’t get a little tiresome. In fact, sometimes it is downright miserable.

We can’t visit as often as we’d like; we are not rich. People seem amazed, and often quite jealous, that I have visited the U.S. four times in little over a year. What they don’t realise is that these visits come at a great cost. Literally, of course: I have worked hard, very hard, to make these visits happen. And then there’s the emotional expense—arriving, settling, and leaving again, with my heart a little bit more broken with every goodbye.

He has visited the U.K., too. He is enthralled by the history, the architecture, the countryside—and yet it doesn’t suit him. His smile is too white and his appetite is too enormous. The U.K. seems too cramped for someone who was spoon-fed Freedom from day one. But each trip is wonderful, in its own way, from the second I spot his luminous blond hair at Heathrow Airport. With each trip, he grows closer to my family—or at least the family members who will let him. Many of them adore him; seeing them interact with him and understand all the facets of his character that make him amazing is truly priceless.

Others have been less enthusiastic to embrace him as part of the family—like they would a British suitor, perhaps. I can’t help but compare my own situation to the excitement and furore of other family members who have been married. Occasionally I would like to talk about it: about getting married, about weddings. Maybe it’s selfish and materialistic to concern myself with wedding details. When I (seldom) have broached the subject, I realise that my wedding is among the group of conversations that no one is ready to have. Talking about my wedding means I will be Going Away, and whether they think he is the best man on the planet for me, it still doesn’t make the situation any more palatable. So guest lists, colour schemes and dress designs are forever pushed aside for another day.

In any case, I rarely allow myself to think about weddings. Why waste time thinking about a wedding when I haven’t yet come into possession of a U.S. visa? The visa process has been fraught with all kinds of small problems, mired with bureaucratic obstacles and mixed messages—not to mention mountains of paperwork. We went straight for it, with no lawyer and no advice, gathered forgotten files and forms, muddled together an application and waited. Small victories were won here and there, but for the most part it has been one long, long wait. While my life is quite literally in the hands of an office worker somewhere in London, I have driven myself half-crazy with boredom, always itching for one more nugget of information. We continue to wait. Here in limbo we daren’t think about what’s on the other side, not just yet. So wedding talk has to wait, too.

There is only one thing that I happily push aside. Moving to America, planning our wedding, and going to sleep together every night without the pain of a looming farewell… it isn’t without sacrifice. Adventure sounds wildly romantic and perhaps part of the romance of it is the visceral emotion that goes hand in hand with departure. Moving to America the first time was hard enough. I stood with my mother, my sister and grandmother on the platform of the train station and everything seemed so perfectly ordinary until the train came into sight and I was struck with a fear that was entirely foreign to me. Then came the “last supper” with my father, my grandparents, my aunt and cousins. I cried from the moment my grandparents got up to leave till the moment I went to bed. I didn’t know it was possible to shed so many tears without stopping. Those moments are going to come again, but I am not even tempted to contemplate them before they arrive.

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photo of a man carrying his partner

Our relationship has been testing. Most of the benefits of a relationship have been stripped away from us. Sometimes we bicker, never able to reconcile with a kiss. Sometimes we’re jealous, without ever being able to look one another in the eye and say, “Hey, it’s OK.” Sometimes we are sad, and there isn’t a warm human body to hold to just soothe the sadness away. For a long time, there was never much hope of ever going back to the way things were. Now we have hope, but it’s still tinged with a certain sadness.

People have asked me why it’s worth it. Quite honestly the answer is so simple that it often seems unsatisfactory. It’s worth it because it feels right. He has been the only constant in my life since the first days we spent together. When I am with him, wherever we are in the world, I am happy. Home, to me, can never go back to being one place or one person. For a long time, it has only been with him that I truly feel at home. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that all the waiting and wondering has a purpose, but deep down I just know that it does.

I think, sometimes, that when nothing else makes sense, just listening to your inner compass is the only thing you can do. I made up my mind long ago, probably before I even left America for the first time, that to be with him and to move away, is what I really want. America is bursting with possibility and beauty. America presents an adventure and I can’t wait to explore it. And then there is he, my future husband, who brings out all the best qualities in me and loves me wholeheartedly. We will have pets, and eventually children, and they will come to know all about the grandmother they never met, and their family back in England. They will know how their parents fought hard to bring something special to fruition.

So though we will spend this Valentine’s Day apart, for the first time, the bigger picture holds promise. Promise, and sadness of course. But the silver lining is my guiding light—and so we continue on, waiting and wishing our way to our happy ending.

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