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Is there anything more romantic than kissing your boyfriend goodbye on the platform of a train station as snowflakes swirl down from the moonlit clouds? At 20, while standing in boots buried in the snow and watching my boyfriend’s train pull away from the platform in Charlottesville, Virginia, I didn’t think so. Watching the wheels gain speed transported me to a past I’d only seen in black and white movies like “Brief Encounter” or “Love in the Afternoon.” The big, wet flakes, my chilled lips brushing against his before breaking apart, the dark silhouette of the train moving into the blackness of the night — every romantic detail marked our love as fated as one of Jane Austen’s couples.
Moments like that — those heightened goodbyes and hellos — were common during our four years of long distance. My now-husband and I began dating when we were 16 years old. We broke up before leaving for separate colleges in different states. He attended Clemson University in South Carolina and I went to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But, after spending our freshman year apart, we got back together despite the distance and reality that we’d spend most of the next four years living in different places.
For the first two years, we traveled between our college towns when we had the time and money. Until he had a car, he’d take the overnight train to see me. I’d drive to see him. After I graduated early and started teaching full-time with Teach for America in Memphis, it was even harder to find time together because I was working, and we were farther apart. Logistics became more challenging once he graduated a year later and moved north to Ithaca for a graduate program at Cornell.
Now, over a decade later, I look at those years of extended separation and wonder how we survived the distance. Then, I’ll remember the sight of him in crinkled jeans with his gray backpack slung over his shoulder stepping off the train, backlit by the sun peaking over the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’ll remember the relief I felt when I spotted his lanky frame and brown curls at the humid bus stop after my flight was cancelled, and I had to alter my mode of transportation. I’ll remember the excitement of seeing him smile through the windshield of his friend’s car at 2 a.m. as I pulled into a random McDonald’s parking lot in Richmond, Virginia, where he was getting dropped off.
We were never traveling anywhere glamorous or together — those types of vacations didn’t happen until later when we were living in the same city and had jobs — but it didn’t matter. The overnight trains, planes, and cars we took to see each other during our early 20s, even just for a one-day visit, felt more romantic than any of our exciting “adult” vacations later, including our honeymoon in Kauai.
One reason is probably that the bar for a “good trip” was so low during that time. We didn’t have an agenda — sites to see or restaurants to try. We just wanted to be together. It didn’t matter if I packed all the wrong clothes or got a cold. It didn’t matter if we were trapped in the mucky apartment that he shared with three other guys because of an ice storm.
We weren’t hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Napali Coast or watching the sunset on a white-sand beach or wandering the cobbled streets of Nantucket. On those trips, I loved exploring new places with him, but I also felt pangs of disappointment. Unlike our lazy long-distance weekends, there was the pressure of trying to create new memories and make our trip feel like the romantic getaway it was supposed to be.
After we moved in together, I missed traveling just to say hello or goodbye. There is nothing more romantic than knowing your journey ends when you see your partner. It’s the feeling of Darcy and Elizabeth meeting in the countryside after so many misunderstandings. It’s the airport declaration at the end of so many rom-coms. That’s what makes the missing worth it, and I’ve grown to miss the missing.
After our daughter was born in 2018, I didn’t have as many opportunities to miss my husband. He went to work and on business trips, but most were shorter than a week, and his absence meant I could order takeout and catch up on TV.
I didn’t think much about those brief separations until my daughter turned one. Every afternoon, she’d crawl to the front door and press her nose to the glass, waiting for my husband to pull into the driveway. Her excitement was a visible reminder of how I used to feel. Watching her, I remembered how those hellos and goodbyes sustained us until we could be together again.
Now, our reality is the opposite. Instead of spending four years mostly apart, we’re embarking on our fourth year of being mostly together. Since March 2020, my husband has worked from home. He doesn’t leave to go to the office. He’s only taken two short work trips. This level of closeness is the exact opposite of the distances — mountains and states and oceans (when I studied abroad for a summer) — that used to separate us.
As married adults navigating life with young kids during an ongoing global pandemic, the distances we travel are now mostly metaphorical. The closest we get to traveling is a trip to Target or the grocery store. Instead, there’s the “journey” of parenthood. The “voyage” of living a life together. Mostly, this kind of “travel” involves bridging ideological gaps. Arguing about the division of labor or potty training or how to discipline a three-year-old doesn’t make my heart flutter or knees go weak.
In a romanticized version of our life, I’d say the commitment of those four years we spent in a long-distance relationship prepared me for the challenges of marriage. But I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s not the perseverance that glues us together; it’s the romance of those hellos and goodbyes, the touchstones for our shared history.
All the traveling we did to reach each other is a reminder that the journey is worth it. We are still each other’s destinations. There’s still no one else I’d choose to wave goodbye to at the train station or drive to the airport or sit across from on the couch and argue about who’s turn it is to do the dishes before bed. It turns out there’s still nothing more romantic than traveling distances — both real and metaphorical — to find each other. When I need a reminder, I simply remember a dark train slipping into a darker sky, already looking forward to its return.