How to Survive an SDR (Short – Distance Relationship)

Week 3, squatting in Munich. I am a Brit, officially abroad! My escape from Boris’s floundering attempt to quash Covid-19, is documented here:

This is also week 3 of trialling the “short-distance relationship.” Normally, my partner and I live 1400Km apart — he in South Germany, I in the UK. Following the easing of lockdown, we decided I would make the journey to move in with him for a while.

On arrival, it was an unexpected surprise to find he wasn’t pixelated, and that the words he spoke seemed to align with his mouth movements — a bizarre and refreshing concept. He’s sitting a metre away; touch is still a novelty.

Back home, I’m a humanities student. With six contact hours on a busy week, I spend a typical working day in a ketchup-flecked dressing gown, a sort of Jackson Pollock of home brand baked beans, occasionally sheltering a canned sausage in a pocket or sleeve, if I’ve had an indulgent shopping spree. The day is punctuated with reality TV or inflating a two-man dinghy in the front room, to avoid confronting a woefully ambitious essay title.

Having your partner in a different country is a lifestyle choice, I realised yesterday, while watching Valentin use a shoehorn to put on a brogue. I pondered this alien and very adult performance, wondering whether I’d let things slide a little in my finals year, whether I had inadvertently become an “Assi” — the German approximation of “a bit of a bum.”

Valentin and I are different. He buys organic, owns nail clippers, squeezes fruits before purchase like a responsible buyer and repairs items rather than adding them to a list entitled, “On reaching rock bottom.” (So far, I have amassed three shoe boxes of socks that wait, primed for a 24-hour period of ferocious darning.) It takes living a short-distance relationship to magnify these differences.

Being a woman is a complicated and fiddly thing to be. I’ve never felt completely competent at it, growing up androgynous for fear of getting the feminine bit wrong. Suddenly, I found myself wishing I’d practised a bit more. On closing the distance between us, I’d closed a window of convenience, the golden hour before our scheduled Skype call, to cast off the coat of technicoloured bean juice and transform myself — Rachael, adapted for socially acceptable viewing.

This seems like a good time to mention that I was blessed with an “All or Nothing” mentality, a sort of perfectionism built on the shared foundation of obsessive behaviour and clandestine slobbery.  I’m still looking for the tick box…

I think often people assume perfectionism is something good. I moan of hours spent drafting a text message on a piece of paper and friends roll eyeballs, banish it to the pile of “non-problems” such as, “I just can’t seem to put on any weight” or, “I don’t have enough credits this semester.” I think I’d agree, if being a perfectionist really did make you perfect. The trouble is, it doesn’t, just frequently disappointed and quite frankly, covered in beans.

Moving in with my partner was like being stripped naked and stood under fluorescent lighting. I could no longer incubate the relationship, nurture it on Skype, time together scheduled in and carefully distanced from the version of myself that gets cramp from writing a paragraph 37 times and then downs 2 pints of milk (albeit a spectacular and volcanic show.) This was real.

I’m not proud to admit that in the first few weeks I became someone else. I bought a John Freda product. Yes, I was a stylist now. I brushed my hair, rather than leaving in the bullet-like samurai warrior protuberance. This was war, the obsessive battling of frizz, exploding eyebrows, sweat, blood, leg hair and morning breath, in amazement that the human body could be so disarmingly uncooperative.

Getting ready in the morning had become a farce. With the grim-faced determination of an infantryman who knows what awaits him, I would trudge into the bathroom, sack of toiletries across my back. I would be gone for an indefinite period of time, before emerging from a cloud of steam, bloody, red-raw and smelling of cremated hair.

This was disconcerting; I’d never pegged myself as a vain person and if I was, I hadn’t associated preening with panic. It was just part of the “all” mentality, projecting what I thought was the best version of myself — a version that started the day like this:

A fluttering eyelid, no great clump of sleepy/sandy shit gunking them together. I drift serenely from the pillow, do not fall into the bag I am living out of, trip on a slipper or unwashed cornucopia of pants. I make for the wardrobe, simply throwing together a couple of items I happen to come across — the first things my hands touch. They are all clean. I have discovered these designer pieces in a charity shop. They are made of recycled tin cans and look good. The proceeds from which, funded a panda mating program in an underdeveloped Chinese province. I didn’t try them on at the time, on account of being late for a volunteering commitment at a local skatepark regeneration project.

I waft into the kitchen to nibble a breath of Melon. I read the newspaper through it because I can; It’s in German. I don’t dribble it down my chin like Denethor II. I drink cucumber water (it’s good for the skin), then slide a quick comb through my hair before realizing there is simply nothing more to do.

Three weeks in and I’ve accepted that this melon-eating goddess lives in the apartment next door. I’ve also accepted that this is undeniably not the best version of anybody.

Eating out, I no longer investigate the faces of other women, deconstruct the way they appear, succumb to some depraved fascination in their plucking and tweaking regimes. I no longer wonder whether I’m doing this right. I accept that my partner and I shop at different supermarkets, that I like trashy American sitcoms that shamelessly rehash storylines from Frasier and Friends, that I learn my German from comics, that I eat melon, like anyone eats melon, like the hungry caterpillar.

It has taken almost a month, but I accept the real version:

I crack open a gritty eyelid, my face a truly remarkable hue, not unlike the backside of a baboon. I crawl to the end of the sheets, somehow amass my partner’s ultimate frisbee around my ankle and execute a shaky landing into the open suitcase — 9.6!

I am a slob. I do not brush my teeth. I eat jam, lots of it. I wear the same t-shirt as yesterday and get to work obsessively on some project before I even finish changing.

I am ogre, Chewbacca, cavewoman — the one whose loin cloth has an unfortunate hole in the crotch…

I’m learning not to mind, when I wake, and he turns to me, sees it all up close.

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