The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Monday, November 29, 2010

You say Goodbye, I say Hello

On top of the Duomo overlooking Florence, Italy in January of 2008
My heart is pounding, my legs aching, stomach churning, and my face is sticky with drying tears as I race along the corridor. Justin is in front of me, a backpacking bag on his back, backpack on his front, and two rolling-suitcases bumping along behind him. I, too, have a backpacking bag as well as backpack on the front, one roller-suitcase behind me. My feet pound on concrete and tile, fluorescent lights shine coldly on the sides of the corridor. I feel like I've been running for forever, like this is the hardest race I've ever run. But I can't stop. Not with two terminals to go. Not with my international flight to San Francisco leaving in 45 minutes.

We are in the Heathrow airport, and we have just finished two-weeks traveling through Italy and London. From here, we go our separate ways. He goes on to travel through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland before heading to South Africa for a year of studying engineering. I go back to the U.S. to continue my education in Boise.

We get to the ticket counter and they tell me I'm just in time; in five minutes they were going to start turning people away. However, I still have to get through security and to my gate. No time to waste.

We run around the corner and Justin is stopped by a man; passengers only beyond this point. I look at him with anguish as the dry tears are refreshed with new ones and I am dwindled to a sobbing, sniffling mess. We hug, I shake, we whisper into each others' ears, and we kiss one last time as I smear tears and snot all over both our faces. I was given two minutes to say goodbye to someone who would be gone a year. I had no idea when I would be able to kiss and hold the person I have loved more than anyone again, and it scared me. We let go and he stood and watched as I went through security, and waved with his entire arm as I had no choice but to continue on as fast as I could to find my departing gate.

Fast forward six months.

It is June, but it's hovering around 55 to 60 degrees outside, and the sun sits low in the sky readying to set as it has been at 6:00 P.M.. It is winter in South Africa, after all. I'm sitting in a tiny Volkswagen Rabbit, the car Justin rented for my visit, and I have hardly gotten used to the passenger seat on the left side of the vehicle. We are parked in the parking lot of the Cape Town Airport, and we are sitting in silence holding hands. The half-hour car ride from Stellenbosch was pretty quiet. I try to make a joke or say something light-hearted, and Justin is silent, turned away. "Hello? Are you going to say anything?" He turns and looks at me and tears are running down his face into his beard.

By the grace of my parents, they granted me an early graduation present-- a plane ticket to visit Justin. Before I left on my 36-hour trek to see him, we had spent six-months communicating via Skype, which meant grainy internet video with echoing robotic feedback, and specific hours for talking due to time differences. They were late night chats for me, early morning for him.

While the trip hadn't been all sunshine and roses (Justin was very sick while I was there, and I also invaded his tiny space), it had been two-weeks of adventure. Justin drove me through wine country, taught me how to rock climb, and we hiked through mountains and stood where the Indian Ocean crashed into the Atlantic. We let our hearts soften just enough to get used to the others company again, only to be ripped apart once more.

In the airport we stand once more at the axis that will separate us for an undetermined amount of time. The security is in front of us, only this time I don't have to run to catch the plane, I'm not running out of time for a goodbye. We have a half-hour to sit and stare at eachother, miserably counting down the minutes to our separation. The wait is worse than when we had no time to say goodbye at all.

"Someday, we won't have to do this anymore," I say. "There will be no more goodbyes."

On the airplane I look back at the building I just left Justin in, and I see a figure jumping frantically in the window. It's like a black stick figure, jumping like crazy and waving its arms all over the place. I realize it's my black stick figure, my boyfriend, and I wave out the small airplane window wondering if he can see me waving at all.

We have had more goodbyes since then. We said goodbye in the Boise Airport as I left for Spain for five months, after he'd only been back from South Africa for three weeks. We've spent weeks apart during work and study before living together. For the last year we've been lucky enough to only have to say goodbye for weekends apart or in the morning as we run to our respective duties. For a long time it was strange to say stuff like, "See you later this afternoon."

Some people look at us as this "power couple". To them we have this unbreakable bond of commitment that is so strong it's crossed the Atlantic--twice-- and held steadfast. I have been told how miraculous it is we are still together. Well, it is a miracle, because it was not easy.

A lot went into keeping us together. Stubbornness, mostly. Neither of us was willing to let go until we felt it was the right thing to do, and so far we haven't felt that way. But aside from that, a lot of our relationship could be understood in these goodbyes. We were saying goodbye over and over again for long periods of time, cursing the distance between us, aching for normalcy and the day when it would end. At the same time we knew we had to say goodbye because we were meant to do something else with our lives that the other person couldn't join us for. And that was okay. Because if we didn't separate for these vast amounts of time, we wouldn't have accomplished our personal goals. We wouldn't be who we are today. And honestly, I don't think we would have been able to look at the other person without resenting them for taking that away. We allowed eachother to do what we had to do, and I love Justin even more for it. Each goodbye was punctuated with a promise for a future together, and expressed with only the kind of love that will let you go because it trusts you will return.

This doesn't mean that the upcoming goodbye won't be just as painful-- don't think that for a minute. It is looming over my head, closing its cold grip on my stomach, and haunting my thoughts every spare, silent moment. What we've been through before will be chump change compared to this. A 27 month commitment in another country means a 27 month commitment overseas to the person I love back home. It's 20 more months than the longest time we spent apart. It is also far more likely that I won't have Skype, internet, or reliable mail. It is the scariest goodbye I will have to say to date.

I am so excited about the opportunity to join the Peace Corps, it probably sounds like leaving Justin behind is the last thing on my mind. That couldn't be further from the truth. It is one of the first things on my mind, which is why I don't talk about it. If I discussed it often, I would always be talking about the scariest part of leaving. Justin is so supportive, he is only positive about my steps towards joining the Peace Corps. To openly discuss how afraid I am to say goodbye would only rip the courage out from under my feet. We aren't in a relationship to dash eachothers' dreams, we want to foster and encourage them.

We aren't a super couple with magical commitment powers, and we aren't any stronger than anyone else. We just know goodbye isn't forever, and the power behind letting the person you love do what makes them happy. Sometimes that means going out on a limb and taking a big risk. Sometimes that means doing the scariest thing you could imagine. Isn't that what love is?