Episode 10: Far away… so close!
Letters Live is “A celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence.” Check them out here: Letters Live website. They create wonderful letter-reading events in the UK (only the UK, I think), but luckily for the rest of us elsewhere in the world, the videos are almost as good. Here are the ones I mention:
Sanjeev Bhaskar reads Napoleon’s letters to his wife Joséphine, played by Miriam Margolyes
Matt Berry reads a husband’s plea to his wife about their intimate relations
Gerald Durrell to Lee McGeorge – Read by Tom Hiddleston
This episode’s stories
Out of Sync by Linda
The Silence Said It All by Two
Part 3 by Mezza Arancia
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 10 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Far away, so close!
Let me tell you a story about my friend and ex-colleague. I’ll call her K, but she knows who she is.
Some years back K and I were teaching in a small campus, and it was often just the two of us. We were teaching teenagers who came to us with a bunch of serious problems and our main way of coping with stuff that could have reduced us to a blubbering mess was to laugh – a lot.
This week was strange because it was the first time K had been away from her partner since they’d been together, and it was also her first time ever on her own. So every morning I would ask her how she was doing, coping with this strange new experience. Did you sleep? What did you cook yourself last night? That kind of thing. On this particular morning I ask her how she is, and she says, “Great! I saw a baby horse being born! Look – I’ve got a picture of it to show you. So cute! A baby horse!” And she hands me her phone.
A brief sidebar here to explain that this was some years ago before smartphones were ubiquitous and this phone was a pre-smart one. Let’s call it a smartish phone. Not quite an iPhone or Android thing but you know, with aspirations to smartness. It had a touch screen, and take special note that this touch screen was very, very touchy.
So. K hands me her phone. And when I take it, I accidentally touch the screen. The phone responds by immediately scrolling to the previous picture, and I suddenly find myself face to face… well not exactly face to face. Let’s say that suddenly I was facing a rather impressive, let’s say upright and upstanding, example of manhood.
I looked at it for a moment. My eye may have twitched but I kept a straight face. I handed her the phone back.
“K, what’s this?”
She took the phone from my hand and looked. She also kept a straight face and said,
“That… is not a baby horse.”
Cue the sound of a record scratching.
That’s when we both started laughing, tears streaming down our faces. We were DYING. K kept shouting, “I can’t look at you! I can’t look at you!” because every time she did we just collapsed into more fits of laughter.
While all of this is going on, our manager, who only visited the campus like once a month, unannounced, picks that day to walk through the door.
“You’ve started early, ladies!” he says. “What’s so funny?”
I said, “Tell the man, K!”
Ahhh… yes. The same creative marketing thinking that combined chips and tennis ball cans to give us Pringles is the same creative marketing thinking that combined photography and cordless telephony to give us… baby horses.
But not just that. Unless you had an old cord phone in your bedroom, mobile phones have allowed us to pillow talk across the distance to far away loves and bring us close and create an atmosphere of intimacy that’s very much its own thing. Before Shane and I worked out how to combine our disparate lives, our intimate talk in respective bedrooms after putting kids to sleep was what sustained us during the long gaps when we couldn’t see each other. Sometimes the yearning was beyond painful – and that’s with us living just an hour away from each other.
Bigger distances mean bigger challenges, more yearning. Shane says that it was the pain of me going away for six weeks to Argentina with my sons that made him finally bite the bullet and get serious about us combining our lives together. Although I said yes, obviously, the distance didn’t hit me as hard, I think, because I’d had a little practice. One of the most important relationships of my life, with the man I often refer to as #1 because he was my first after my previous marriage, was long distance. One of us in New York, one of us in Melbourne, one at morning, one at night: the talk was long and arduous – not because of the subject matter but because of the hours we kept thanks to the time difference. One time #1 went to bed at 3am when he had a 7.00am start. He made coffee in the percolator, then poured the coffee into the water reservoir and made coffee with that coffee.
“I tell ya something,” he told me, “that cuppa coffee kicked my ass.”
Arse kickings are the price you pay. Often, there’s no choice – COVID and lockdowns have made long distance relationships even out of the shortest distance relationships.
But the phenomenon of the LDR isn’t exclusive to pandemics or technology. We devote TV shows to hysterical stories like, “I was engaged long distance to my boyfriend/girlfriend and then when we got married I discovered he/she was a girl/guy.” The hysteria implies that LDRs are a modern thing. As if displacement and immigration didn’t exist before; as if you couldn’t get engaged to someone your family in the old country set you up with; as if you couldn’t go to war or out to sea; as if bigamy didn’t exist. Any one of so, so many reasons that might keep couples apart.
Back then, if it wasn’t telephone, it was letters.
This week we’ve got into videos from Letters Live. Letters Live creates – according to their website – “events where remarkable letters are read by a diverse array of outstanding performers”. The vids are pretty awesome and I recommend them all, but this week a few of them have reminded me just how important letters have been to keep relationships going through time and distance. There’s Napoleon whingeing to Josephine that she doesn’t write him often enough. A man called Don listing the 329 reasons his wife gave him for not wanting to have sex. Gerald Durrell telling his love Lee McGeorge, in exquisite detail, how a minute with her is worth all the wonders in the world he’s seen.
Perhaps because we can revisit them, letters remind us that distance doesn’t make relationships any less real. Or the feelings less intense. Distance can even make them seem even more real, and the feelings more intense. Imagine sending love out like energy: how much oomph do you have to put behind it to make it through the distance?
The long-distance relationships in these three stories were very real. So was the pillow talk, and the impact it had. They all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
Paul and I were close friends in high school. So close, that people often thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend – there were so many in-jokes, so much sharing, so much laughter that could be construed as flirty. There may have been, I admit, a little vibe from me at first. When I met him, I developed a crush almost instantly – the floppy black hair and loping tall elegance of him, his intelligence and wit. And we had everything in common: music, movies, and most of all, writing. But he had a girlfriend and I put it out of my mind. So I got a boyfriend, because that’s what you do at that age. Then he and his girlfriend broke up. I inwardly rolled my eyes and broke up with my boyfriend and when I did Paul told me about the girl he was taking to the formal; they started going out after that. The same thing happened a couple more times so I took a hint from the universe: we just weren’t meant to be together.
But we remained close. Through high school, then university, then just life. We were married to other people, happily, for a long time. We weren’t couple friends while we were married, but the two of us touched base often, and although neither of us had any success writing, we still worked on never-ending fiction projects and sent chapters to each other. He was science fiction, I was fantasy.
One day, I received a phone call from Paul in the middle of the day: “She’s gone” he said, and burst into tears. His marriage of 10 years was over. It hadn’t been able to survive the stress and grief of unsuccessfully trying for a baby, over nearly eight years. He was devastated. So was I. They’d always seemed like a perfect couple to me, and of course I loved Paul; the last thing I wanted was to see him hurting like this.
I told my husband about it. He shook his head and tut-tutted. Such a shame, he said. “Are we OK?” I asked him. Of course, he said.
Six months later, Paul received a phone call in the middle of the day from me. My marriage of 7 years was over. It hadn’t been able to survive the stress of him banging one of the interns at work.
I was distraught. And I looked to Paul, who was six months further along, for guidance. He and I started touching base every night, talking on the phone in bed. Every day was a slog. We were both devastated but having to put a brave face on it. You have to when thanks to movies and TV people think two months is enough to get over the end of a long-term relationship. And it’s exhausting keeping that up, day after day. Only the two of us knew how we really felt.
So in bed we’d compare crappy days, cry to each other, suggest ways to make the next day better, and unload on each other as divorce settlements began tearing strips of skin off us. And slowly, slowly, we started to laugh once again. Sometimes bitterly; there’s some dark humour between people who go through this kind of thing. But eventually, genuine bitterness-free laughter. More and more often, we would wake up and not feel the weight of the day ahead crushing down on us. Life began to seem worth living again. And after about a year of this hell, I began to think that maybe my initial declaration of “I’ll never be with anyone ever again!” after my husband left might have been a bit too hasty. It was the start of Spring. I could see myself in a flowery dress, a big straw hat and a pair of espadrilles, walking hand in hand with someone special in some vineyard or esplanade. I asked Paul how he felt about dating again. He told me he’d been thinking about it for quite a few months. I was surprised he hadn’t mentioned it to me before, but thought perhaps it was because I wasn’t there yet – we’d been out of sync since we were 17, after all.
So here we were, ready to go dating again, but both of us terrified. Things had changed a lot since we were last out there. But I had the perfect solution.
“Hey! You know what we should do?” I said. “We should go on a double date! You ask someone, and I ask someone, and then we can just ease back into it, nice and gentle.”
He said, “Sure, sounds good.” He paused and then said, “Except… how about instead of a double date, it’s a single date?”
I was disappointed. OK, so we were both ready to date, but he was going to ditch me. Once more we were out of sync and it was the Year 12 formal all over again. But OK, whatever – I knew the cosmic rules of our particular game, even if the rules sucked. I told myself that I wasn’t jealous – it was just that he’d been with me, almost every night for a year, and I knew that whoever these new women were, they’d take him away.
I tried not to sound disappointed, and brought the doona up around my ears, which were suddenly thumping thanks to my irrationally hard heartbeat. “OK… No worries. It doesn’t have to be a double date. Is there someone you were thinking about asking out?”
Paul made this strangled sound.
“What?” I asked.
“You, you idiot,” he said. “I want to ask you out. A single date with you.”
And then I made the strangled sound.
He’s called me an idiot a few times over the past five years, lovingly, like on the anniversary of our first date, or whenever I express any doubt about our relationship. It’s not that I believe we’re doomed – it’s just that after all this time, I still can’t quite believe that we really are finally in sync.
I fell in love with his voice. The long-distance pillow talks I had with my ex were magical. He had an amazing laugh and I’d imagine him tilting his head when I heard it (he always tilted his head when he smiled). There was something carefree about him, a boyish mischief. I fell hard and fast. In the beginning of our relationship though, I felt like a bit of a nuisance. I was always the one initiating. But that changed as we grew closer. We’d talk for hours on the phone, sitting on our beds, late into the night. I never wanted to stop but I could only ignore my body’s need for sleep for so long. He’d gently urge me to go to bed. My timezone was hours ahead of his. It was one of the ways I knew he had fallen in love with me.
We got married. We didn’t move in together right away, for cultural reasons, so we were still long distance. We visited each other sometimes, but the nights we spent together didn’t involve much pillow talk. When we were far apart, we clung desperately to words to feel closer. At least that’s how I feel. But when we were together, we didn’t need words. Being together was enough and it was one hundred times more than that. There was so much magic in him being there, in the flesh, by my side. It was indescribable, ineffable, beyond words.
We had a few fights, and perhaps in a different reality, maybe with another man, things would have gone another way. With a man who would have worked as hard to stay by my side as I did to stay by his. But as time went by, I started to get that feeling again. Like I was a second thought. I hadn’t fully understood the red flags yet. The close-mindedness, the lack of willingness to compromise, the feeling that when there was a disagreement, he was judge and jury. I didn’t realize that it was anything more than miscommunication. He began pulling back as things got harder.
The fights continued on. I made some compromises for him, other times I’d propose a middle path where we’d both get a little of what we wanted. No dice. He couldn’t imagine a life different from what he envisioned. And that life only included making adjustments for his wife when it made him feel good.
When it was clear that talks, then fights, weren’t enough to rid me of my noncompliance, the punishments began. Given our long pillow talks, he happened upon the perfect one. The silent treatment.
It was agonizing. I went to work, came back, watched TV but didn’t pay attention to the screen. My mom noticed that the calls with my husband had come to an abrupt halt and she saw how I walked around the house. But what could I possibly tell her about my zombie state? There was no more pillow talk, only texts. Texts asking him to speak to me. Texts back telling me how he never should have married me, that there were people who were much more important to him than I was, sarcastic “have a nice day”s and incredulity that I hadn’t realized what I’d done wrong. Eventually this silent treatment ended (with an apology on my part once I deduced what had upset him, and a list of conditions that I’d have to meet if I wanted him to speak to me). But the abuse was there from then on. My ex was never harsh to me on the phone, though he could be cruel in other ways like gaslighting. But the true punishments? They were always written. Always texts .
I wanted to address his treatment of me but he didn’t like that. Once I gave him what he wanted (apologies and “we’ll do this your way”), he only saw further discussion as me dragging things on. My requests for kindness brought up the past and the past was, as he put it, “getting on my nerves.” We had another go which ended in him asking if we could put this chapter behind us . I texted him back that I’d think about it. A few days later, I sat on my bed, leaning back on one of my pillows. I called him. I knew he was also in the privacy of his room, on his bed, the one place there was to sit. I’m not 100% sure that he was lying back, his head resting on a pillow, but that’s always how I’ve imagined this conversation.
“I want a divorce,” I said.
There was a pause.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Then we spoke at once, but he stopped and urged me on.
“Yeah, what is it?” he said in a curious, and dare I say it, hopeful tone.
“You don’t understand my feelings. If you cared, you’d try to understand, but you don’t even care.”
“Okay,” he said, curious tone gone, a sentence or two of logistics and then we said goodbye and hung up.
The one-word response didn’t surprise me. I knew him better then to think that he’d fight for this relationship, but it still hurt. I wished he would fight for me though I knew he wouldn’t. I wished he would fix this even though I knew that the things he’d need to do to fix it weren’t things he was capable of.
It was painful to learn that this man wouldn’t be the love of my life, and I still grieve him on occasion. But in one way, he made it easy to let go. In the end, the silence said it all.
My love story begins with Noah’s comment on my Cyprus photos.
“Mate, you’re in Greece. Please tell me you’re checking out the ceramics there,” he wrote.
Noah and I were mates instead of lovers now but his comment was like that flutter in the heart you get when you remember an old love. But it wasn’t because of Noah. It was because of what he said about the ceramics.
Noah and I met at uni. We were both going to be artists, and as it turned out, ceramics artists. No, we didn’t recreate that infamous potters wheel scene in Ghost, but there is something about the tactile nature of the medium that definitely influenced our relationship in a powerful way. Plus, we were the strongest supporters and harshest critics of each other’s art.
When we finished uni, though, it was only art for one of us. Of my double degree, I chose to go with communications as a career, thinking it would fund my art. Or maybe it wasn’t that I was thinking it, more what I was telling myself. Because at the end of the day I just didn’t have the guts to be an artist. And soon after entering the corporate world ceramics became my hobby, and then it just became something I used to do. Noah became someone I used to be in love with.
But for him, ceramics was his art and he was going be an artist no matter what it took. It took a lot, for not many returns. He led a simple life, I thought. Too simple for me. But here so far away from home, left to my own devices by my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, with this stirring in my heart, surrounded by people who had so little and yet seemed to have so much, I began to wonder if the idea that Noah’s life was simple was just another story I had told myself.
Noah’s “simple” life gave him something I didn’t have holding down a 9-to-5 job: interesting hours. And that’s how I found myself in bed in Greece in the morning, and saw that Noah was awake and online at something like midnight or 1am back home. I buzzed him straight away.
“Hey!” he said. He sounded a little surprised but pleased to hear from me.
I said hi, but didn’t even know where to begin the conversation. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted from it, I think. I asked him what he was up to, he told me he was reading in bed. I asked him what the book was. I’d never heard of it so I asked him if it was any good, he said it was. It was pretty awkward.
“So, you’re still in Greece?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “And I still haven’t gone looking for any ceramics.”
That got him started.
“But it’s one of the cradles of the ceramic arts! How can you not?”
“I haven’t thought much about ceramics lately, I guess.”
And then he said the words that literally changed my life:
“Go looking for them. I bet you anything that if you do, you won’t be able to think of anything else.”
When he said these words, they didn’t seem life changing. They just seemed funny and I laughed.
“OK, OK,” said. “Tell me where to begin.”
“Are you serious?” he said. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. The way he asked me, with that intensity that back in uni made me want to strive for greater and greater mastery, meant was I serious about him telling me. I told him I was.
He asked me where I was, and he did a little Googling. He found a market nearby and then said, “Start here.” Then he asked me how much longer I was in Greece. I told him two weeks. He said, “I’ll ring you tomorrow.”
I got the call from him when I was in bed that night. He had a full two-week itinerary for me. He described each ceramics adventure so lusciously that the stirring in my heart became something awake and vibrant… and hungry. I was excited. I was falling in love again… with my first love. Not Noah. My art.
“You know I’d be there if I could afford it,” Noah said. “Do this for both of us.”
I put corporate me aside and did it the way Noah would – full on.
In those two weeks I went to museums and galleries. I got my hands dirty. I did a full weekend workshop where we did everything from digging the clay out of the hillside to firing our creations in the handmade wood-fired kiln. I bought so many amazing pieces that I had to mail them home separately. I met a fellow Aussie ceramicist whose grandparents had migrated to Melbourne from Greece; he was there to get back in touch with his roots and as much as his Greek family loved him, they didn’t understand what he was doing there throwing pots when he could have a good high-paying job back home.
Every morning and every night Noah and I would chat in bed, and I gave him a blow-by-blow description of everything, like describing it to a blind man. And I’d become like a blind woman whose most important sense is touch. The last thing I thought about before I fell asleep every night, exhausted after the hours I was keeping both doing ceramics and chatting to Noah, was of the feel of clay in my hands.
And I was describing the people, too. I don’t want to romanticise the fact that the Greek people are doing it tough, but I met so many people who just seemed so happy despite how rough things were, and maybe they were just putting on a show, but it didn’t seem like it to me. Even if they were, it got me thinking.
Maybe Noah’s life was simple, but it was rich. And I didn’t know if I wanted his life, but I wanted some of what he had.
Did I want my corporate job? Yes, I did. I liked it, I was good at it, and it gave me a really great living. Did I want my corporate life, though? Did I want everything it could buy me, the things it told me I should be striving for? I didn’t think so. If it had, would I have been so quick to accept my boyfriend’s invitation to go with him to Greece?
I met my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend in the airport on the way to our flight. We both had huge grins on our faces. We hugged not like lovers, but like very dear, long-lost friends. There was a lot left unsaid, but it was OK. We said it all with that hug, with the way we looked at each other. We both slept like logs on the flights home.
And that is the end of my story, except for the bit about what life is like for me now. It took me a few years all up and it was hard work, but I bought myself a small house in a country town known for its artists community. There I built a kiln and a studio. And I kept my job, but doing my sums I realised I could just work four days a week and have money to live on, as well as time left for my art. I have a long train trip when I go into the city for work, but it’s time I can spend sketching or reading. There’s less money, but more richness.
I think of my boyfriend’s mum often, of her smile in that photograph that should have made me nope the hell out of there, of everything she made happen for her sons (eventually it was both her sons) and for me in such a short time, and I wonder if she meant all this, all along. I’ve planted daylilies all around the studio, to remind me of her short relationship with her sons, and my own short relationship with one of them. Each flower lasts only one day, but each one helps make that day glorious.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Out of Sync by Linda
The Silence Said it All by Two, of the Ebbs and Flows podcast
Part 3 by Mezza Arancia
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode’s stories as much as I did – something tells me this won’t be the only time I cover long-distance relationships.
As ever, please subscribe, review, rate, and share. And send your stories in!
But for this episode, a special request. This season of Pillow Talking is 12 episodes long. During the break, however, I don’t want to leave you story-less! So here’s my request: what bonus episode would you like before the next season? Is there a story you’d like me to tell? Something else you’d like to hear? I’d love to hear your ideas. Send them through firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a direct message through the usual social media suspects.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, Ritual. Stories about the customs and observances that give our pillow talk shape and meaning.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.