Gillie Folley

Tender at a Distance

A few months ago, a friend brought up how much she loves the word tender, and now it’s my favorite word in the world. This word doesn’t have one clear meaning to me; it’s an emotion embodied in a myriad of images which overwhelm my mind. Tender is vulnerable and odd, like the underside of an elbow when outstretched or the pink tip of a sunburned nose. Tender curls into itself; it’s a too-long shower and the bruise on the bottom of a peach. It is a bending line rather than a sharp corner; it aches like a soft wound, but it cannot be smashed like a vase. Tender is the pink skin on the inside of someone else’s wrist or the vulnerable, unsmiling way they look at you when both of you want to kiss but neither has the courage to make a move.

I think about this word a lot in relation to my best friend from high school, Lila. We hooked up for the first time two weeks before we left for college, and she is, in a word, tender. She is skinny but her limbs are soft, not like a girl who plays sports, but like the kind of model that Francisco Goya paints—always naked, always lounging on a bed, so that you sometimes forget that she could exist in any other kind of space. She describes herself as fear-based with a tinge of pride in her voice. She won’t go on hikes because she has a crippling anxiety of heights. She has comically long blond hair that she refuses to cut and freckles and blue eyes that are often leaking. The longer I go without seeing her, the harder it is to conjure her up when I close my eyes, and I cling to these details just as a reader might, while the rest of her vanishes behind a tree on the other side of a lake.  

Other college students I know who have been in long-distance relationships describe very similar experiences with their faraway partners. My friend Phoebe explained that she sometimes felt like her long-distance boyfriend was a figment of her imagination—he existed in a separate space back home. Although texting and Facetime help negotiate the distance, Phoebe said that seeing him in person could feel jarring, as if recognizing a character from a dream while walking down the street.

There’s no exact statistic, but according to a 2017 Cornell University study approximately one quarter to one half of college students consider themselves to be in a long-distance relationship. This surprised me until I realized that it included those in less clear-cut relationships, like mine, which maybe lack labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but involve powerful, unshakeable emotional connections nonetheless.

My friend Dani was in what seemed like a perfect long-distance relationship last year, so I was shocked when she came back to campus single in the fall. We talk about it on the grass one day after class. It’s one of the first sunny days of the year and people look happier than normal, flouncing past in their favorite sundresses. They all smile a little wider when they see Dani. “I just have so many friends this year!” she giggles at the end of our conversation. A mutual friend describes Dani as a small dog with the personality of a big one; she is magnetic and jubilant as passing classmates call out greetings to her. Her Tinder bio is “It’s hard to be famous,” which is only partially sarcastic. Earlier this year she put on a one-woman show which did, in fact, make her famous; Dani says she isn’t sure if she would have been able to do it if she was still with her boyfriend.

“It’s not that I didn’t have people last year, but I didn’t put myself out there in the same way,” Dani pauses. “I think I felt like I didn’t need to because, emotionally, I was already so fulfilled by Sam.” She made sacrifices such as staying in on weekend nights, visiting him over block breaks and constantly communicating, terms they had agreed on from the start. “They didn’t feel like sacrifices because I loved him,” Dani explains. “I don’t regret it at all, but I’m so much more present on campus now that I don’t have to also be emotionally present in New York with him.”

Dani explains that her relationship worked so well because of how she and Sam communicated. She broke up with him as an intentional choice to be more present on campus, not because she stopped loving him, and the breakup was very clean. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Dani is a good communicator; she sets her boundaries firmly. Sometimes when I’m talking to her it catches me off guard how quickly she can brush off the kind of tiny decision that haunts me—like what kind of coffee to order—and express herself so clearly that it can feel almost abrasive. She does not experience doubt about her needs and she conveys them without apology.

I envy this quality in people. I also envy people with good memories. I forget little details often—I lose a very nice pair of Sony headphones, or I forget a quiz, or miss dinner with an acquaintance—but I particularly envy people with the ability to specifically draw themselves back into a past moment. Most of the time, I’m a fairly short-term thinker, but once every few months I will have a recollection so visceral it jars me.

On my way to Colorado College I took a long, winding road trip with my mom. We drove a scenic route through the mountains, along cliffs so steep and open that my mom had to stop the car a few times because she “felt dizzy.” I got out of the car while she huffed into a paper bag. We didn’t have service for two days on this road trip, and when I opened my phone, I had a few dozen texts from Lila, starting with how she cleaned up her cat’s litter box and made a too-strong edible and ending with how much she missed me. I remember this moment so clearly because it was the last time we were able to communicate as we had when we were together.

Where is the line between codependency and communication? How do you keep loving someone when you’re not with them? Lila and I never considered dating in college. Yet, we stayed in constant communication, texting every day and Facetiming at least once a week. When we were in high school, she had kept me updated all the minute details of her day, what she had for lunch or the passive-aggressive comment her friend made, and I would laugh and say how easily I could picture those specific intonations, or, more likely, I had been there in the moment for it. Most conversations with the people around us are built around our daily experiences—what block you’re in, the universal IBS burn that copious Rastall consumption causes—but when in a long-distance relationship these daily experiences are not shared. My friend Phoebe points this out to me and, when I notice it, I see it wherever I look.

Phoebe just broke up with her boyfriend of two years, and she describes her long-distance experience to me as “a lot of waiting” and “super fragile.” Long distance is waiting to see the other person again, waiting for the future when you can physically be together, waiting to make sacrifices and to have sacrifices made for you in return. She explains the fragility of long distance as a bridge in another metaphor: “If you have a bridge and the wind was to blow it, it would be way too strong to fall apart. But if [the bridge] is a string, the wind would shake the whole thing.” The physically not being together magnifies any problem in a long-distance relationship and makes it much harder to work through.

Since she broke up with her boyfriend, Phoebe has seemed physically lighter. Phoebe is tiny and, when she’s happy, emits a spontaneous light that makes me want to giggle even when we’re sitting in silence. She makes sporadic changes to her appearance late at night or when she’s high. I’ve woken up to crazy Snapchats from her, where she dyes her hair blond or gives herself a pixie cut or tattoos freckles on her face. Her ex-boyfriend Mitch, contrarily, is a quiet pre-med student obsessed with maintaining his GPA. He prioritizes academics over everything else, including facetiming Phoebe when she’s having a hard day. Their differences became more pronounced the more time they spent apart.

Phoebe cries often, and she wipes her eyes as casually as possible while we sit on her floor talking. She lives in a large single overwhelmed by fairy lights, and she mandates that we get high together before this conversation to make it easier. Watching her relationship deteriorate felt even more painful for me because it coincided with Phoebe’s own deterioration into depression. As their relationship spiraled downwards, Phoebe explains, she directed a lot of her anger towards Mitch inwards. By the end of their relationship, “I was dating him more for our history than our time together.”

Yet this is two-sided; the comfort of knowing each other only from home did not allow them to change or grow together as the people they are now. As a friend I wanted to scream—Why keep dating this douchebag? What is he giving you that you feel you can’t get elsewhere? —but it is difficult to judge holistically because all that I heard about him was filtered through her perspective. Just as he began to feel like a figment of her imagination, Mitch did not exist as a whole person in my mind.

However, Phoebe told me that she “would definitely do long distance again if it was the right person [because] next time I would know what red flags to watch out for.” Phoebe believes that the problems between her and Mitch were based on their differences as individuals, not the distance itself. She says that a long-distance relationship, when it’s working best, is the feeling you got from texting your first crush in middle school under the covers late at night, as if the light emitting from your phone is a star and a skinny glowing string stretches between the two of you, connecting you across a great distance. The butterflies move from your stomach to your throat and out into the air. Together you come to occupy a third space, large and open and full of possibilities, suspended above the daily grind of reality.

I read an article on that a third of long-distance relationships involve people in college. When I google around, I find kitschy pieces of advice: 21, 10, five, and eight “best” tips to keep “the romance alive.” Many of the tips are about how to spice up phone sex and the best angles for nudes, but my favorite articles were the ones with unique pieces of advice: “Start a book club together!” “Buy each other stuffed animals to cuddle with!” Some of these magazines are reputable and some are ridiculous, but they all emphasize open communication, setting a clear schedule and plans together, and finding balance in your own life without actively making the other person jealous. Most of them end by saying that “if the person is worth it, you’ll make it work!”

For me, the most jarring part of moving to college was its suddenness. In high school, before we started hooking up, Lila and I were rarely apart and functionally existed as one entity. No experience felt real until I told her about it, and so we always did, rehashing minute details until I could remember her childhood stories as if they were my own. In college, we continued talking like this, more out of habit than out of conscious choice. We said we weren’t dating, but labels are ridiculous and meaningless in any context, particularly when you wake up and your first thought is still of the other person.

I used to feel extremely confused when people, mostly grownups in movies, talked about timing and working through relationships. My parents have been divorced since I was an infant. Most of the time I don’t think about this for whole days, and other times I believe it has affected everything I know and believe about relationships. I am so naive about them, as naive as when I was five, sleeping over at my best friend Hannah’s house, and gasping when I saw her parents dressed up going out to dinner—married people do that? To me, relationships are built on a mutuality of tender feeling for another human. The end of a relationship should simply occur when you think of them and no longer smile.

At first, I decided to write this article because I’m deeply interested in the subject. Later, I wondered if talking to people about their own experiences with long-distance relationships was an attempt to work through my own feelings. During interviews, I clung onto moments that sparked relatability, but they were fewer and much farther between than I expected. Phoebe’s and Dani’s relationships were extremely different in terms of how they communicated and attempted to meet their partner’s needs. My relationship with Lila is even more different because we were never clearly dating. I am someone who loathes labels for myself—dating, gay, straight, etc.—because it feels like they limit and corner me more than represent me. A label like “girlfriend” or “long distance relationship” means nothing in itself, but it allows a level of clarity, communication, and openness about your own needs that our relationship never had.

Here is the action I am least proud of: last spring, I ghosted Lila. She wanted to text and Facetime much more than I did and, instead of telling her that, I stopped responding to her. Texting or looking at a tiny version of her face on my phone screen only made me miss her more. Negotiating across physical distance sometimes only emphasizes the ache of missing someone you love, causing it to reverberate between you two, and expel into space.

I fully believe that all romantic relationships are tender, and all relationships, in turn, make you tender. All relationships, from a one-night stand with a stranger to the last person you will ever love, involve some form of mutual understanding and respect. Entering a relationship is cracking open a door, hoping that something wonderful pours in but knowing that you are making yourself vulnerable. Yet long distance, in my opinion, magnifies all of these most terrible parts of a relationship, particularly the potential for hurt.

 Lights Out Issue | May 2019