September 20, 2008

The Country Codes My Girlfriend And I Have Known

Some people do long distance relationships. Most don’t.

Some can’t spare the time or the effort. Others can’t be bothered. Some refuse because they think of the potential heartbreak the distance will cause: the time difference will compound the distance, the new social environment will open up possibilities that exclude you, or worse, what if they cheat — as we’re told they will, since that’s happened to all our friends who’ve tried?

Or in the words of male friends, in characteristic male bluntness: “What do you mean you need to travel hundreds of kilometres just to fuck?”

(Some people are worth it.)

Not too long ago the idea of having to travel any distance for anybody was a foreign concept, having secretly ruled out relationships with dates who professed to live in the wrong parts of my island, one that’s 42 kilometres long. Too far north? Too far east? Too far northeast? East, at all? No go.

One year on. I surprised myself, but I’ve been seriously dating somebody and have the phone bills to show for it. And it’s incredible.

My girlfriend and I possibly run through more country codes in a month than some people do in years. We’ve practiced to high art the art of putting the other person (and/or ourselves) into various modes of transportation on various continents. For over a year I’ve had a weekly ritual of rushing to get into buses, almost missing them each time, and missing several on different occasions. Or I’m sitting in my balcony tapping my foot awaiting the arrival of a small car after a long drive. More frequently, I’m counting the trees on the North-South Highway and predicting which billboard will come next in each state. Her entry in the address book on my phone has the four latest phone numbers from the most recent countries she’s in. I have in my head, a running list of the best international calling cards and how many minutes each one buys me to the country she’s in that week; my Jajah.com account perpetually refills itself . Our friends have stopped trying to keep up with where we are and turn to our blogs, Facebook and Twitter for hints. Between us, we… need a shared Google Calendar to keep track of our activities.

One thing I didn’t count on was dating someone who sleeps as deeply as I do, seeing as that this was an impossible feat and that my girlfriend strives to exceed my expectations in every imaginable way. This means we find ourselves springing out of bed at 5 am in Borneo one week, late as hell for our boat ride into the dense interiors, and two weeks later we’re jumping out of bed in a fancy room by Trafalgar Square, about to miss a flight to Barcelona. She’s the only person I’ve met who can dress and get ready faster than I can when we’re desperately trying to catch yet another mode of transportation, which is no small feat either. Before I’m out of bed I’m sliding into my clothes, putting on my watch, combing my hair. This woman beats me by two whole minutes. (Being a woman with a woman also means you can use toilets together at the same time, anywhere in the world.)

As recently as six years ago I was sneaking out of my house to go on dates. This past year made sneaking out of my country for lunch or dinner, or both, a fairly regular occurrence. I’d be having dinner with friends and then getting into buses to travel a few hundred kilometres northwards, then heading back the next morning to make it in time to get a book deal signed. The coming year might see that upgraded to the enterprise of sneaking out of continents. Not that we haven’t had any practice: I’ve put her into planes in random Spanish airports so she can fly back to London to fly back to Southeast Asia. Just last week I travelled 400 kilometres to drink a milkshake and a bottle of wine, took off for Jakarta that evening, and from a couch in Jakarta watched a live feed of her packing her life’s belongings to get ready to move to London — the next morning. I’m now packing my bags for my Middle Eastern adventure, and something about the idea of going on dates in any of the exotic locations in between us is rather enticing, particularly the one starting +90.

It all began with +65, and the hot, balmy night in my city. We were strangers with impossible situations, yet hardly a month later in +60 you were mine. Every other week since that one, somewhere between +65 and +60 i find myself wishing: if only half the state of Johor would disappear you would be so much closer to me. One week I’m punching +27 to call you in Stellenbosch, and the next you’re telling me silly jokes about St Francis from a +55 number from your hotel room in Porto Alegre. With a surprise 6 hours with you in Singapore since it’s supposedly partway between Brazil and South Africa, and since you do seem to like popping into my city to surprise me.

I squatted by toilets each night in +88 to talk to you on Skype, when trying to win your trust, continued the next week from +62, but it was the country codes I didn’t have to dial that did it for us. Not needing to dial a prefix means you are here. Not needing a country code means you are next to me. The country codes I haven’t had to dial made, and shaped, us; they were those times we were finally alone, those times we were going somewhere together, those times I was waiting for yet another delayed flight and you were by my side. It was those magical times in various parts of +66, in deserted islands or in bustling cities, between +66 and +60 in a cabin on a 15 hour ride, that we found each other’s place and pace in our lives. Other times, intoxicated with too much tuak, asleep with half the village in our bilik: you were always next to me, on that tilam in+6083. Then of course, cycling adventures in +34, after +33+44.

To put things into perspective the 10 000 kilometres between us means we you are only 20 times further from me than you usually are, and soon that will half to merely 5000. I can’t talk to you without shouting into a computer or pressing a million calling card digits followed by # followed by country code#city code#yournumber#, and you’re not here for dinner 95% of the time. Why this works, I think, is because the 5% of the time in which we are having dinner, in which there are no country codes needed, no matter where in the world dinner or conversation is for that particular date, we are a hundred and twenty percent about the big things. What life brings, what careers we build, the places we will travel to, and the future; our place, in all of this, the things we will do and places we will go together. Why this works is we actually end up doing these things, and going to these places, even when we least expect it. In the other 95% of the time I sometimes potter to my telephone forgetting I’ve run out of phone credit to call you at your latest prefix, but know anyway it doesn’t matter where we are or what you’re doing at that exact moment in time. Because when it’s time to get into planes it’s to come home to you.

Because this works, with or without a country code, and it’s one of those improbable things and combinations you never think of but that work out to be the best idea. Like chocolate and potato chips, peanut butter and ice cream, you and me. Us, the world, and all these possibilities.