Making It Work
We were dozing on the couch, Alex’s face nuzzled in my chest and his arm wrapped tight around my waist, when I noticed tears in the corners of his eyes. It was four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in May, about an hour before I’d board the bus back to New York, and we’d returned from lunch to hold each other in the moments before my departure. I readjusted my seat on the couch to get a better look at him.
“What’s wrong, darling?” I asked. We’d had a lovely weekend in Hanover — laughing and dancing, kissing and eating dinner with friends — so I wasn’t exactly sure what the problem was just now.
“Nothing,” he said, smiling weakly, “I’m just sleepy is all.” He’d always been a bad liar.
“Come on babe,” I responded, “you know that can tell me anything. What’s going through your mind?” A pause, then Alex opened his mouth to speak.
Nothing came out. He pursed his lips.
“Anything at all,” I repeated, a bit more pleading this time. “Really, don’t worry about my feelings.” He fiddled with the necklace resting on my chest, his eyes refusing to settle on mine.
“It’s just that job,” he said finally, “what if you get it? What’ll we do then?” He wiped his eyes and tried to reassure me with a smile, but I could see the worry in his brow. I pulled him close, running my fingers through his hair and feeling the tension in his muscles, the warmth of his flushed skin against my own.
“We’ll make it work,” I replied. “We always do.”
The truth was, though, I didn’t know how. I’d been trying to figure that out since I’d received an email the afternoon before from a business contact at GQ. He’d asked me to come in to their New York offices the following Monday to meet with the Editor-in-Chief, the final round in a months-long interview process for what was my dream job, combining my long-felt passions for fashion and writing. Thrilled to be considered, I’d agreed to the meeting. But like any opportunity, there was a catch.
Three months earlier, Alex had received an offer for a job in San Francisco. An aspiring physician, he’d been accepted to a two-year pre-medical associate program at a non-profit, working to improve the lives of patients with diabetes. We’d agreed early in our relationship that we were too young to make major life decisions based on love; likewise, I’d urged him to take the offer. That meant, however, that he’d be moving three thousand miles from where I was, where the GQ job was, where my life was. Yet after everything we’d been through, I’d be damned if I was going to let this thing end.
Alex and I met late in my senior year at college, long after I’d stopped thinking that there was anyone at Dartmouth still worth meeting. We were taking the same yoga class and our instructor, a taut, spiritual Californian apparently lost in the wilderness of New Hampshire, constantly made fun of me for not being flexible. I’d noticed this cute blonde boy in the corner laughing when she made her remarks.
“If you’re not so limber, you can bend your knees like this,” the yogi would proclaim, poking the underside of my knees to collapse them as I stepped into a downward dog. “Though you should really work on that,” she’d follow up just to me, exasperated that I’d ever stepped foot in her studio. Our eyes met, Alex’s and mine, after this latter comment one afternoon. The corner of his lips curled up into the most charming of smiles. I was hooked.
We finally spoke a few weeks later, at a party during the College’s Winter Carnival festivities. My fraternity had thrown a “pop punk” party, based on the musical genre of the same name spearheaded by Hot Topic and Avril Lavigne around the turn of the century. Charged with bar duty during the most crowded moments of the event, I’d taken it upon myself to entertain the crowd while my co-bartenders poured the drinks, jumping atop the counter shirtless to dance for my adoring public in the mosh pit. Alex entered the room about two minutes into my routine.
Our eyes met once again, this time just as a sloshed sorority girl shoved a couple dollar bills into my skinny jeans. There was that smile again, that laugh. I couldn’t resist jumping down to introduce myself.
“What are you giggling at?” I asked as smoothly as I could, though admittedly a little embarrassed at what he’d walked in on.
“I liked your dance,” he said, blushing. Adorable. “I’m Alex, by the way. I think you’re in my yoga class.”
“I think you’re in mine.”
Our romance came effortlessly, a surprise to us both. He was young and shy and starry-eyed, having only recently come out to his friends and family. Until we met, he’d only had a few passing affairs with men on campus: dinner here, a game of pong there, nothing that constituted any semblance of dating. I, on the other hand, was still messed up about a relationship that had turned unhealthy a year earlier, dealing a significant blow to my self-esteem. I had no intention of starting something serious, especially so close to graduation.
But what Alex and I had wasn’t serious, at least not at first. We’d cuddle and go out dancing, laugh over long, drawn-out dinners. We’d talk and talk, but I’d steer the conversation clear of faults and hang-ups, the little things that drove us crazy. I didn’t want to hear about fears or insecurities. When I needed to vent or cry, I’d call a friend, and when he needed advice, he’d do the same. In short, I tried to keep things light. Our time together would expire soon, anyway.
Three months in, it was becoming clear that our connection was deeper than I’d anticipated. We slept at each others’ places apartment almost every night and friends began to invite us out as a pair. I accidentally told him “I love you” one night that I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember clearly and, for the rest of our time together, I felt a lump in my throat when I tried to repeat the sentiment. He, on the other hand, was able to utter those three words with ease, and frankly, that freaked me out. How could he love me? He didn’t even know me.
I broke it off suddenly one night on a walk. I cited timing and circumstance as reasons to separate; I was graduating without any job prospects (and moving back in with my parents in New York), Alex still had two more years at school, and I refused to try long-distance. I spoke quickly and without pause, him walking silently beside me as I rambled. When I finished, he said nothing, but turned and walked away. For the rest of the term, we saw each other only fleetingly, and when we did I’d shield my eyes, as people often do when they’re watching a spark die and don’t have the nerve to save it.
One year later I found myself again at Dartmouth, visiting a friend and reliving my glory days back on campus. It was Green Key Weekend, spring’s equivalent of Homecoming, and I’d returned as a first-year alumnus, newly minted as a writer at a start-up in New York. That Saturday, as I walked up to the annual block party on Frat Row, I found Alex standing right in front of me, laughing like the first time we met. Once again, I couldn’t resist.
“Hey there, you,” I remember him saying, “I figured I’d see you here.” He slipped his arm around my back like it was made to be there.
Later that night, I called him to meet me somewhere private. I wanted to apologize. For the way I made him feel by ending things so abruptly, giving him no forewarning. For the resultant awkwardness and tension that had destroyed what could have at least been a great friendship, even after we’d broken up. I wanted to explain that it was a fear of commitment that had forced my hand, that I wished him only happiness, and that I hoped he’d find someone that could give him that without the frustration he’d surely feel with me. When he arrived, I broke down almost instantly.
“Shut up,” he said sternly when I tried to plead my case. “It’s been a year. I’ve been mad at you, I’ve been sad, and at this point we’re fine. I’m fine.” He hugged me, just the way I remembered. “But thanks,” he followed up. I kissed him hard on the mouth.
Early the next morning, as we lay groggy in his college-owned twin XL bed, intertwined in a manner I’d soon come to see as regular, we called our little romp “closure”. To this day, that’s still my favorite part of the story.
Two weeks later he came down to visit and we officially decided to give it another go. We were different now — he far more assertive and I a bit less broken — and this time, we vowed to let in that element of depth that I’d avoided in our first attempt. Strengths and weaknesses, fears and doubts, we promised to lay them all out on the table and also not to run at the first sign of trouble. It took a bit of getting used to, but if we were going to do this, we had to do it right.
Unfortunately, Alex had just started his senior year at Dartmouth and I was still in New York, so for the first few weeks we weren’t sure exactly how to proceed. Texting incessantly, we tried to navigate our rekindled relationship, but it wasn’t going as easily as we’d hoped.
Is everything alright?, he messaged me one morning in August, waking me in my Williamsburg apartment.
Totally, I responded halfheartedly, why do you ask?
Because I know you, he replied, and you’ve been off the past couple days. One word answers, long gaps between texts, this is how you ended things a year ago. And I’ve thought about breaking it off first, before you had your chance, but you promised me you wouldn’t back out when things got hard and I’m holding you to that. I care about you Steve, and I want to figure this out.
I want to figure it out too, I answered, misty-eyed all of a sudden, I’m just scared is all. I miss you and you’re so damn far away.
I miss you too, he said, and I knew he meant it. So come visit this weekend.
But what about after that? I asked. I’m still here and you’re still there and I’ll still miss you all the time.
We’ll make it work, he promised, and somehow I knew we would.
So began what we affectionately refer to as the commuting phase of our relationship. That is, every other weekend, I’d make my way to Hanover, desperate for the intimacy that we lacked when we were apart. Riding the 5pm Friday bus up from New York to New Hampshire, I’d fidget and squirm for the entire five-hour trip, itching to throw my arms around him when we arrived. Upon finding him waiting, a smile broad across his face, the worries and fears and tensions of the week would drain like rainwater into a grate the moment that we touched.
These weekends, we’d spend most of our time at home, seeking comfort in the ways that we weren’t able to at a distance. Kisses and hugs and limbs intertwined, dancing and cooking and napping on the couch; whatever our everyday existence couldn’t afford us, we’d squeeze into these brief but rejuvenating days. Then Sunday nights would come, Monday mornings if I didn’t have early meetings, and I’d find myself back in my seat on the bus, content and at ease, all the while counting the days until my next trip up.
In between meetings, our relationship took place largely over Skype. Calling each night at eleven, give or take an hour or so depending on obligations, we’d chat for hours to hold us over. He’d tell me about his friends, his classes, silly little daily happenstances, and I’d tell him stories from the office, describe pieces I’d written, nights out on the town. We’d rant and laugh and sometimes cry, but the important thing is that we’d talk. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement but it was all we had, and with a bit of fine tuning, it sustained us. After all, it only needed to be temporary; our long-distance period would be over after he graduated.
That dream took a tailspin when Alex got the job out West. Of course, I supported him, showering him with encouragement and praise, but just below the surface I was rattled, my hopes of his moving to New York with me after Dartmouth suddenly dashed. Not ready to give up just yet, however, I began researching a few job prospects of my own; if he wouldn’t move with me to New York, then I could maybe move with him to San Francisco, especially if it made sense career-wise. Alex beamed at the prospect. One lead was looking particularly promising when the email came in that I’d landed the interview at GQ.
That afternoon on the couch in May, we nervously tried to plan for every contingency. Alex understood that if I got the GQ job I had to take it, even if the San Francisco opportunity also panned out, even though that meant us being apart again. And so two questions continued to arise. Would we ever find ourselves in the same place both physically and emotionally? And if not, could a transcontinental romance work? We both had our doubts.
Just over a week later I found myself walking the docks by my apartment in Brooklyn, wondering aloud again what our future had in store. The GQ meeting had gone without a hitch, as had an interview with the job in California, and I was waiting now to hear back from them both. It was a stormy day in Brooklyn, the humidity ready to break into a heavy downpour, and I decided then and there to have chat with the powers that be.
“Hey… God,” I muttered, feeling instantly ridiculous. “Actually, I’m not entirely sure you’re there, so there’s a good chance I’m just talking to myself here. And if you do exist, you probably have bigger problems than my little relationship drama (see: climate change, racial violence, North Korea). But if you do have the time, I’d love for you to reach out, just this once, and let me know what to do. I’m feeling a little lost, and like I said, I know you’re busy, but I just figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.” I peered out over the East River, noting the dark clouds swirling above, the wind beginning to pick up.
Right then, my cellphone began to vibrate in the pocket of my sweater. On its screen, a number I didn’t recognize. No fucking way.
“Hello?” I answered hesitantly, wondering what the Man Upstairs might sound like over the phone.
“Hello, Stephen?” a voice answered, a bit more nasal than I’d anticipated, “This is Nick from Unionmade in San Francisco. I have some good news.”
The next morning, GQ got back to me, respectfully rejecting my candidacy and solidifying my decision to head to the West Coast. Three weeks later, Alex and I made the move to San Francisco within two days of each other. The timing could not have been more perfect; we celebrated our first anniversary within two days of settling in.
This summer, Alex is in the process of applying to medical school. As I write this, he’s got two interviews scheduled on opposite ends of the country; who knows where we’ll be at this point next year. But with our luck, we’ll be able to make it work.
We always have, after all.