Harping on a theme

So, my boyfriend has informed me that we (read ‘he’) are not having enough sex.

This may well be a common complaint, particularly among men. But what is normal? How much sex ‘should’ we be having? Three times a week? Twice a day? It was revealed to me recently by someone who shall remain nameless that they could happily do it three times a day! Well, I know for a fact this would be more than their partner has time for. Hell, I think she struggles to find the time to brush her teeth the recommended twice a day, let alone see to other – or rather, another’s – pressing needs. So, let’s forget normal. Normal’s not for the likes of us anyway. Not when you’re going long-distance.

Hence my frustration – quickly escalating to annoyance, down a notch to bewilderment, back up again to indignation, simmering into irony and humour, and finally into this: writing about it. Because while Renaissance poetry is infinitely more interesting – it really IS, believe me! – than the ins and outs of my relationship, I am not quite ready to let this one go.

We are 5,000 miles apart, of course our sex life is enduring a bit of a low. An all-time low. But to be honest, I still have slightly bigger concerns: like making it through the day without crying (failed today), eating three square meals (oops, failed) and managing a good two hours’ solid concentration on the PhD I’m supposed to be doing (oh, almost…not quite).

But I have made an important decision, one which makes my feelings of annoyance no less stark: I have decided to take a break from trying to run a PhD and a LDR at the same time and take myself back to Hong Kong to spend a few much-needed months in the company of my other (his better) half and give living with each other a whirl. And I was really happy with this. We were both really happy with this – this morning… What changed over the course of five hours, between one phone call and another?

5,000 miles, that’s what. 5,000 miles and 8 hours.

They have a habit, you see, of insert themselves between us: a great big Hall of Mirrors through which we – he standing at one end, I at the other – conduct our relationship. Did I say conduct? I meant, analyse. For invariably these days the conversation turns back upon ourselves: a solipsistic, doubt-ridden, distorted no man’s land of words – often empty, usually hypothetical, hypocritical, theoretical and hurtful – in which we are lost, stabbing around for each other in the dark (innuendo unintended) and finding only vaguely remembered images of our own creation. Sometimes ideal, at others their worst enemy.

And so I sympathise when my boyfriend suggests I paint him in less than flattering colours in my blogs. I quite concede that the Jonny peopling these pages isn’t always the amazingly generous, warm-hearted, humourous, intelligent and, it has to be admitted, sexy man I fell for two years ago. But to be honest, nor am I happy that he sees me as a barren, cold and unloving girlfriend who rejects his best advances at every turn. There is certainly an aspect of that – of my life now, here – but if it was in anyway what I wanted I wouldn’t be leaving it behind for warmer climates, yoga and him.

I am not wishing to say that either of us is right and the other wrong, but just make a plea to him, to god, to us – to anyone going through the same or even vaguely similar experience – to step back from the mirror, remember the person you fell in love with and the person they might become; to not hold them down to the image that you would like them to be, but to embrace them – from near or afar – for the person they are; to see them as another, beautiful, complex, polymorphically perverse individual who, god willing, will always surprise and delight you, sometimes frustrate and annoy you, but who is for better or worse their own person, the person you fell in love with precisely because they are the near opposite, not the mere semblance, of you. “A nearer nearness in affection” won from an appreciation of all our disparateness and distance.

And if that hasn’t convinced you. Here’s one made earlier by another much more eloquent than I.

‘Marryson’ By Dennis Scott

He never learned her, quite. Year after year
That territory, without seasons, shifted
under his eye. An hour he could be lost
in the walled anger of her quarried hurt
on turning, see cool water laughing where
the day before there were stones in her voice.
He charted. She made wilderness again.
Roads disappeared. The map was never true.
Wind brought him rain sometimes, tasting of sea –
and suddenly she would change the shape of shores
faultlessly calm. All, all was each day new;
the shadows of her love shortened or grew
like trees seen from an unexpected hill,
new country at each jaunty helpless journey.
So he accepted that geography, constantly strange.
Wondered. Stayed home increasingly to find
his way among the landscapes of her mind.

The elephant in the room is your absence

“But to what end serve exclamations, where there are no eares to receave the sound?” – Philip Sidney

Oh, it’s been something of a difficult week. In fact, it’s not been an easy couple of months. Jonny came, and went. We had a lovely week together at the beginning of December – well, lovely, except for the fact that almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong: from my train to King’s Cross being delayed, to his sister’s car derailing from too little, then too much, coolant; from our plans to hire a car crashing down on us when they failed to deliver an automatic (the only kind that J can drive), to storms that sent trees crashing onto the railway line, leaving us stranded 10 miles away from Stoke and another 70 odd from our destination, York; from being forced to give up the four-poster bed and tickets for Measure for Measure, to having to pay more than fair measure on four costly rides in Mr Burgess’ taxi, single-handedly making his Xmas come early.

But despite all these grievances, we kept our spirits strong, perhaps just relieved that this time when disaster struck it was a) of English proportions (high winds and train lines, as opposed to raging rivers and mountain roads) and b) we were together. And we did eventually make it to York, the four-poster and bath-tub, the chocolate shop and … Well, then it was time for J to take the train back to London and (with only minimal delay, but sufficient to suggest that it is he who is the cursed cause of all our travel woes) back to Hong Kong.

To say that his departure left me untouched would be untrue. A gaping hole where his presence had been opened up inside me, right in the pit of my stomach – one, I realised, that had been there all along, filled only with work, work and more work until he came and filled it and I could start to relax and breathe easy. But it was all a trick. Just as I started to unwind and bask in this new/re-found company – just as sleep came creeping out of exile to wrap me in its warm, steady arms  – he went and took it all with him, raging hot-water bottle thighs and all, and I was left sitting at my desk, panic-stricken for what to do next.

Work, of course, work and don’t eat, and learn to drive and go to yoga and fill your day with as many things as possible, make as many demands on yourself and your time as humanly possible until you don’t have time to think about him, talk to him, miss him.

Great plan, I thought, and it worked, for a while. I got back into work, got writing, got driving, got stressed and tired and thin. And then Christmas came, probably just in time, and saved me (a little) from myself.

For I wasn’t ready to press pause on my routine, my work, and if it hadn’t been for Christmas would have soldiered on. But campus life – just me and a few dozen Chinese students intent on burning the place down at 1am with their cooking – was lonely and I had been looking forward to Christmas, my first in three years, back home with Mum and the girls. (Well, I say girls, but my sisters are grown and one has a daughter of her own now. But still, all the more reason.) Xmas Eve with one sister, Christmas Day Eve with another, and their respective boyfriends. Some Frank, Etta and Perry… Audrey the cat. Nothing could be nicer.

And oh it was so good to see them all, especially the kitty who misses me about as much as I miss her. And I started knitting a scarf, very badly, and did absolutely no work for about a week and if I thought of York and uni at all, which I did, it was only with a vague sense of “oh, yes, well, that’ll be good, I’ll be ready for some work by then, my own space again, my own routine – bit of swimming, bit of yoga…” I had not anticipated the dread that would hit me as the taxi drove back into the desolate, winter-grey campus and  the loneliness sank in.

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day in and out of tears, questioning my self, my decision to return to studies, my life without Audrey, without Jonny, in short everything. My mother, who had come back with me for two very indulgent nights in the Cedar Grand Hotel (which I highly recommend for anyone wishing to run away from reality and enjoy a fabulous selection of mini-bar teas), was afraid to leave me.

“I hate to see you so sad,” she said, “and you do look sad” as my face crumpled once again – melted, like a waxwork stood too close to the fire. I felt truly depressed, such as I have not felt since…. probably last winter, in the lead up to yet another Christmas in Hong Kong without my family when I spent several days wandering around tinsel town crying down Skype to my mum.

Jonny, meanwhile, was having the time of his life at his cousin’s wedding in Melbourne, even further away in time and space than usual. It was, therefore, with much hesitation and regret that I wrote to him, describing my state of mind: I was giving it til March, if things weren’t any better by then I would quit the PhD. But at the time I feared I would not even make it til March. All I could do, and all I spent the whole of last week doing, was putting once foot in front of the other, take one meal at a time and trying to get through the day without crying.

But by the time Saturday rolled around – just two days ago – and I got to speak to Jonny, the tears were as ready as ever. “I just don’t know if I can do this,” I sobbed. “It hurts too much.” It wasn’t exactly intended to be a breaking-up conversation. I didn’t want, I said, to push him away, but in a way I needed to. “I just can’t keep missing you; I can’t allow myself to miss you. It’s not helping.”

Now, Jonny and I will be the first to admit we are about as different as chalk and cheese. Where he spent most of last term telling me how much he missed me, I spent most of last term making myself as busy as possible and, at least believing, that I did not miss him. To begin with I honestly didn’t, not in that heartachey-breakey way. Then, boom! Now I was missing him so much I marvelled at how he could possibly be dealing with this okay. How was it that his heart could not be breaking too? If he missed as much as he said he did, how could he not be trying every which way to reconfigure his life so that we could be together? I was already considering transferring my PhD back to Hong Kong, or giving it up altogether and returning to teach yoga – reaching the point where only two choices seemed open to me: break up or shake up. Make they like they do in the movies and jump on a plane to be together, or…

Well, pride was gonna hold me back from being the one to cave in first. Call it childish but if he’s not willing to move here, I’m not gonna move there. I mean, it’d be ridiculous and what about poor Audrey!? Then, at 5am this morning, I cracked. Seriously. I’ve always said that if I wanted to marry J – or anyone for that matter – I didn’t mind being the one to propose. I have no problem with that. But, fearing I might completely emasculate the poor boy, I gave him a heads up first. He flat out turned me down. After my initial annoyance – “typical! puts everything off, never gonna make an honest woman of me…” blah blah blah – I actually felt jubilant. I’ve never really been one for marriage: too expensive, too formal, too C/conservative. It’s not romantic, purely practical, as in the case of immigration and visas and, when you get that far down the track, houses and children. I was never gonna be in a rush, so why now all of a sudden? I was certainly scaring the hell out of Jonny, and quite rightly so.

The desire for something permanent, tangible, the need for some kind of assurance that all the heartache is not for nothing. Simple as. It’s almost as if we can bear, even enjoy, missing someone if we know we are going to see them again, soon. If there’s a date set we can look forward to it. If there is no date, if there is no end to the separation, the loneliness… Bleak. Depressing. I think I’d rather be single. At least then you can be on the look out, open to possibilities, free to perv on that cute guy in the pool, not hiding away behind your goggles, careless of how good or bad you look.

But then, I considered; while we are no longer young, our relationship is, and we are no where near being the people we want to be for each other. I certainly am not, not if the past week’s meltdown is anything to go by! So while being part is no fun, being married may be even worse. I mean, he does snore and I do hog the bed, and whether we can put up with that is still to be seen. Separate beds, in different timezones may not be conducive to our love life, but all things considered, couples survive – and break up over – worse. Some may even envy us!

So Jonny and I talked, and I think we are on the same page… It is never easy to tell from this distance. But getting back home this evening to find a letter from J inside a magazine I asked for, marking the page of the article I wrote about India, we are both drawn back to thinking the best of each other, to remembering our strengths – separate and shared.

We have been through a lot in the past six months, and if we thought being torn apart in India was something, going long-distance is a whole other odyssey. But if we survived that, I know we can survive this. The love he showed for me, the care he gave to my family during that time, reminds me of what is so special about him, what is worth holding on to and out for. I’m not sure if I would’ve got out of there without him, and though I still needed to come back home afterwards – home to England, home to my mum and sisters – just as I did in September for good, so I know that he is a part of that home, a welcome addition to my family any time and every time he wants to be. Until then, I vow to send him light and love, be a little less crazy in love, and look forward to better times ahead.