The whirlwind of the first few weeks at college can be a real trial by fire, and when you have to turn a relationship into a long-distance one, you realize just how hard communicating with people you care about can be when you are far away. You need to figure out when to call your mom so that it’s soon enough that she doesn’t worry about you, but not too soon that she thinks she should be worrying about you. On top of that you need to figure out when, how often, and for how long you should talk with your significant other. You might tell yourself you are doing just fine, but in those first weeks you may also find yourself crying on the sidewalk after a really bad haircut that feels like the physical embodiment of everything that has gone wrong since leaving home.
I worked on this balance as my girlfriend and I settled into our routines on different campuses. One of the first things I discovered is how hard it can be to go from spending time with someone whenever I want to waiting three months to see them. Going from being able to do things together to having separate lives and needing to schedule time just to be able to talk with them.
Before we left, I wrote her a letter. I still have no idea what drove me to sit down and do it, and even while I was writing it felt somewhat strange. I realize now that it was because I had never felt so sure of my feelings for someone before. It was nothing fancy, just pen on plain white printer paper in my awful, scribbled cursive, but she loved it and wrote one back when she got to school. Soon, little hand written surprises started showing up in my mailbox every week.
Letters are nothing new, of course, but it always feels special to receive one. Perhaps because no one writes them anymore. Anyone older than me will remember a past full of postcards and expensive long-distance calls. Today we have text messages, Snapchat, and Facetime. These tools have made long-distance relationships easier, and being able to talk with someone whenever I want, for as long as I want, means we do not need to rely solely on letters to know how someone is doing. Hearing her voice, seeing her face, being able to tell jokes and stories just like I would if she were there with me is something letters cannot do.
What letters can do, however, is give me something physical, something I can hold. Each one is a little piece of her, her thoughts and feelings frozen in words on the page, the way a picture freezes a smile in time. Reading about the details of her week or the fun plans she has gives me a look into her life at school. Sometimes I pick one and read it again, looking at the handwriting and seeing every word move from her brain, down her arm, and onto the page. Even though she is far away I still have her close by.
As those first weeks of freshman year went by, I started measuring time in letters. I keep hers in a stack in my desk drawer, where they build up like sheets from a tear away calendar and the size of the stack shows how long we have been apart. We sometimes close our notes with how many letters we have to send until we get to go home and see each other again in place of days or weeks. Breaking the long wait into lots of shorter ones makes the separation easier.
A long-distance relationship is a lot of hard work. Even when things are working and everything feels like it is going right I still make mistakes. The hectic schedule of being a college student means letters can be forgotten. Valentines Day has snuck up on me when I forgot that I need to get chocolates and a card ready to ship a few days beforehand. Finding the right balance between being present and making the most of my time at school and giving my relationship the attention it requires is challenging, and going too far in either direction means one of them is being neglected.
I cannot write love poems like Shakespeare and I do not write everyday like I am in The Notebook. All it needs to be is the simple act of taking the time to write something down. Extras like sending candy at Halloween or snacks just because are good ways to cheer each other up after a bad week. Right on top of those goodies is always another letter. Each package and carefully chosen word is a special reminder that I am important to her, reassuring me that she cares, that she takes time out of her day for me.
The common thread for all of those challenges is the hardest to conquer, and that is just being far apart. To care enough for someone to want to try a long-distance relationship means that you will miss them everyday. And I do. But what I have found is that more than I miss her I want to see her again, and everyday I choose to keep waiting until I do.
For the last two years writing the letters has been easy, even if everything else has not. Starting another year apart means many more to write, which feels like a less daunting task now than it did when we started. It will not be easy, but I know now that a roll of stamps can go a long way in making the time go by faster. And I know that after just a few more letters I will get to see her again, and it never feels too far away when I get a little bit of love in my mailbox every week.