Long-Distance Love, Sent Line by Line

He was from Punjab in India and spoke Punjabi. She was from Krakow, Poland, and spoke Polish. They met in Los Angeles and could communicate only in English. Months later, she left for Ann Arbor, Mich. He stayed. They decided to meet again in a few months. They could not call each other every day; that was too expensive for two graduate students. They could write letters every day, but they took too long. They could go their separate ways, but they didn't. They discovered e-mail.

Her department had only one computer. She could find just a few moments every day to write to him while other students waited to use the computer. Her messages had to be short.

He worked in a computer center with lots of computers, but students were always interrupting. His messages had to be short, too.

So they e-mailed short poems to each other. Being so far away from him, she wondered:

what if this is not

what we think it is?

what if

we are puppets in a play we

don't understand?

what if we know only

shadows of each other?

what if

after the play

someone will store us

in different boxes?

K.Z., Ann Arbor, 1989

They saw each other once every three months or so. In a few years, they got married in Ann Arbor. He went back to Los Angeles two days later; she had to study for her PhD exams anyway. So they kept saying goodbye. That winter was very cold in Michigan. And there was a big earthquake in Los Angeles. He wrote:

They live far from each other

She in the land of bitter cold

He in earthquake country

'How cold is the weather?' he telephones

'How was the earthquake?' she replies.

Surely there must be better ways to live.

M.S., Los Angeles, Jan. 21, 1994

She could only answer:

they live together

even when they are apart

two thousand miles

does not mean much anymore ...

Surely there must be better ways to live - some say

as long as they are together

they cannot think of any

K.Z., Ann Arbor, Jan. 21, 1994

Winters in Michigan are long. They seem to last forever, even when spring flowers are already in bloom in California. What else could she write to him but:

She eats breakfast by herself

lunch - also alone

And for dinner - one spoon, one plate

and one cup.

Why food tastes so bad -

she doesn't understand.

K.Z., Ann Arbor, Feb.18, 1994

They wanted to say a lot to each other. They talked on the phone. Sometimes they quarreled. Sometimes she cried. Still, the e-mail poems had a life of their own.

After he finished his studies - soon after the earthquake - he moved to Ann Arbor for a while, and they were together for the first time since they married. But he was teaching at the university, working 70 hours a week, leaving early in the morning and coming home past midnight. She worked on her thesis at night. During the day she was teaching, too. Again, they had only a few minutes a day to e-mail each other.

I am lonely, she wrote

everything feels cold, she said

He brought her

a warm cup of tea

and went upstairs

to work

K.Z., Ann Arbor, 1995

Then he got another job. He had to travel a lot. Sleep in hotels. Eat in restaurants. Drive on strange streets. He wrote:

You would have liked this restaurant.

Maybe you would have liked

a ride in the subway.

Or perhaps a walk near this park.

And later, the view from this hotel.

And I would never have known

the thirty-two channels on this TV.

M.S., Chicago, Feb. 3, 1997

Another time he wrote:

I am in Albany

Thinking whether or not

you would like this town.

How small does a town have to be

For two people

to get close to each other?

M.S., Albany, Aug. 3, 1997

She finished her studies. Eventually they traveled together, moving from one city to another. They loved London, liked Boston, lived in Texas, and settled in Chicago.

Again, he was leaving every week, while she was working in Chicago. And again, they had e-mail. Just before Christmas he went to Atlanta for a few weeks:

A suburb

of a big city

that is somewhere out there

in the drizzle and fog

Here

inexpensive food in a mall....

close to the hotel

where I think about you.

Here

in an Atlanta suburb

I think therefore I must be...

Here.

M.S., Atlanta, Dec. 10, 1997

She responded:

I know where I am.

I know the name of this street

and the number of my,

our, apartment

I know Channel 7 and 13

I know Channel 65 as well as 121

I know the programs that begin at midnight

and those that begin even later

I know that little shop on the corner

which is always open

even at three in the morning.

I know so many things

about this city,

about you,

about me...

why am I lost

in a place I know so well?

K.Z., Chicago, December 1997

They just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. They hope that they will spend the next Valentine's Day together, go for a walk holding hands like other couples, that he will give her a sentimental rose instead of sending her e-mail. And they still keep writing, because their poems talk to each other, too:

please come home - she writes

I am still here, you know

his letters are always so sweet

and he still writes a lot

K.Z., Chicago, January 1998

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