The first time I met Tom we were in the living room of the house I had just moved out of in Granada, Nicaragua. I had been in the country for about a month already, but had been in Granada volunteering with La Esperanza for only 2 weeks. The house had four bedrooms shared between 16 volunteers from all over the world. Living there was a great way to meet people, but my nerves were a bit frazzled by the party-like atmosphere and the ever-growing pile of dirty dishes in the sink. So as soon as the opportunity arose, I moved out to a smaller house a few blocks away.
Still, I returned to the house often to visit friends, and it was on one of these visits that I encountered Tom trudging through the living room with a large motorbike. He had to move it inside at night so it wouldn’t be stolen, and getting it up the steps into the house always caused a ruckus. He was a head taller than everyone else and wearing a motorcycle jacket. I knew exactly who he was – news of the motorbiking New Zealander had spread fast in our little volunteer community.
As time went on we found ourselves part of the same tight knit group of friends. Granada is a small town, and while we weren’t working in the same school, we continued to run into each other socially. We traveled together as part of a larger group of friends on the weekends, and spent many long rides crammed close on chicken buses – filling the little leftover space with passions shared and life stories. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love in the Central American heat.
We made plans to travel together after our volunteer commitments finished, and Tom met me in the States to spend the holidays with my family in Colorado. We had been together less than three months, and quietly I worried that these were risky moves we were making. What future could we possibly have together once Tom’s tourist visa was up?
Tom never wavered. He followed me to New York and helped me set up my new life as a graduate student there.
That winter was especially cold and wet. It was a dark contrast to the tropical sun we had first melted together under. Our previous travels and my quickly growing student debts left us penniless in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Tom filled his days searching desperately for a job that would sponsor him while I began classes. It should have been a very stressful time – and we were feeling the pressure. But we were also really, ridiculously happy. We had nothing and we had everything.
As summer approached so did the limitations of Tom’s stretched bank account. He needed a job and New York was seeming less and less a viable option. He had followed me around the country for five months by that point. Now he had to go home.
That was the worst day, the day he left. I still had a year of school to complete, a year of separation ahead of us. It seemed like an impossible amount of time. I couldn’t go to the airport with him – I was too nervous I’d be that girl in hysterics on the NYC subway. As soon as he left I found myself frantically tossing my laundry around the room to take to the machines in the basement. I couldn’t stand the scent he left in that tiny apartment. I know that’s a weird reaction. I think it had something to do with the looming possibility that while his scent lingered, Tom himself might never stand in the space again. It was torturous.
It turned out to be a beautiful, warm New York summer. I moved to a bigger apartment that had more natural light. While job hunting in New Zealand Tom had the flexibility to skype with me whenever my schedule allowed it, spending hours tutoring me in my math assignments and listening patiently to my endless stories of the kids I was working with at a science themed summer camp. Those first months went by quickly, and before we knew it I was in New Zealand for my school break, and we were traveling together again. We were more in love than ever.
3 months of long distance is nothing. It all seemed a piece of cake then. I was sure the year would be over before we knew it.
Tom got a job in Melbourne, and my school schedule began to get crazy. Things got intense in both of our professional lives. Our insane hours combined with the time difference made it more difficult to speak to each other daily. Sometimes we would go an entire week without a live conversation. Things got harder quickly. New York began to grate on me, I started getting physically ill often, I was experiencing weird visual disturbances. Graduate school was really, really hard – but being apart from Tom multiplied every difficulty. To say that I missed him doesn’t do the experience justice. I felt physically heavy, all the time, from the lack of his presence.
From 10,000 miles away, Tom talked me off the ledge on more than one occasion when I thought I wasn’t strong enough, smart enough, everything enough to survive. He believed in me and he believed in us. He held us together through the next 8 months. He flew 30 hours both ways to spend 5 days with my family over Thanksgiving. I convinced my professors to let me hand in my final projects online, and I returned to the southern hemisphere for a summer Christmas holiday. It seemed so unfair that the days we spent together passed so quickly when the days we spent apart dragged on forever. He took me to the airport in Melbourne on New Years Day, and that heavy sensation returned almost immediately. I felt as if someone was sitting on my chest for the entirety of the last 5 months.
And then, in May, came the day that Tom returned to New York for my graduation. We weren’t sure he was going to be able to get the time off for it. When I saw him round the corner in the airport I felt that I could breathe again for the first time in a long time.
You guys – I walked 500 miles across Spain with a horrible case of tendonitis. I completed my graduate course at Columbia in half the time my advisor suggested. I have traveled to foreign countries alone, gone 30 days without sugar, survived my time living in New York City as an HSP – but nothing, nothing I have survived or completed compares to what it felt like to be in a long, long distance relationship. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
And yet, I am so proud of us for doing it.
I was worried that a year apart would kill us – or at the very least slow the progression of our relationship. But actually, it made us stronger. Tom and I had to work really, really hard to be together. Now that we are together, it’s much harder to take that for granted. I walked briefly with a group of Germans on the Camino who used to chant on the uphills: No pain, no glory! Moving to Melbourne at the end of June I thought of them. It did feel glorious.
I have been in Melbourne with Tom for almost 7 months now – and the days have continued their cruel routine of flying by when we are together. We are happy. Stupidly happily. We remark on that all the time.
I knew Tom was probably going to propose in New Zealand. I hate surprises, I had gotten that much out of him. One night when my parents were staying with us in Melbourne just before Christmas, I came out of the bathroom to see them outside with Tom on the balcony. I knew exactly what was happening.
We spent Christmas Eve with both Tom’s parents and mine, touring Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula. Tom had something big and square in his pocket that he never pulled out. At the end of the day I couldn’t stand it anymore and demanded he show me the contents of his pocket. It was a camera. When I told him I thought it may have been a ring he laughed it off. I let my guard down for the night and figured that maybe I’d get something special under the tree the next morning.
We got home late that night, and there was still lots to do before the celebrations of the next day. I was tasked with cutting up fruit for the morning’s feast and set about it lazily. Tom went to do laundry and when his mom asked where he was a good while later I didn’t think anything of the long absence. I usually do the laundry at home, so it took very little imagination to think of him fighting with the washing machine for some time downstairs.
When he returned, he offered to finish cutting the fruit for me – which he did at record speed. Then he asked if anyone wanted to take a shot of rum with him. I thought it was a weird request of his family so late on Christmas Eve, but we were in a festive mood and so partook without much need for persuasion. The first time he asked if I wanted to go for a walk with him that night I told him probably not, it was late and a bit chilly. The second time he asked I relented and said okay.
When he wanted to get in the car to drive to our walking spot I had an inkling something was up.
By the time we reached the cliff edge, I knew.
It was an overcast night, but the clouds opened up to reveal one perfect patch of starry sky over the ocean just ahead. The wind had completely died. It was warm. As Tom wrapped his arms around me a shooting star darted across the sky. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Tom was fiddling with his phone. Apparently he had come here under the guise of ‘laundry’ to set up speakers in the bushes. They didn’t work. It didn’t matter. On my first visit to New Zealand in August of 2015 we had brought a CD compilation of Fleetwood Macs hits on our roadtrip. At some point during that trip Songbird became our song. Now Christine McVie’s voice was coming from Tom’s pocket.
With an amount of loving focus and conviction I will forever be honored by, Tom got down on one knee.
I can’t remember anything he said.
I said yes.