The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Lover

This week's "Modern Love" column in the Times made us cry. Oh, and so did "Vows."

I'm hard on "Modern Love," but that's partially because when it's good, it can be really good. This week's essay, "A Student of Intimacy, Step by Step," is a particularly poignant one. Matthew Parker is a middle-aged man who has spent most of his adult life in prison for drug-related offenses. He's gotten clean and become a full-time student, but finds romance a more difficult challenge.

When I got out of prison in 2002, I was narcotics-free for the first time since I was a teenager, and achingly lonely. Yet I had never had a normal relationship, and I was clueless about how to get myself into one. My 11 years of forced celibacy in prison and decades of drug use had left me inept when it came to women. I sometimes had junkie girlfriends, but junkies rarely find love because their love is the narcotic. Everything else is secondary.

Parker tries online dating, but finds women are put off by his troubled past. So he looks farther afield: a site that sets men up with women from Colombia.

My girlfriend, Gerenith, is barely five feet tall, and is thin and beautiful, with long, curly black hair and lightly freckled brown skin. She epitomizes the hustle of Cali. Working full time for a condominium complex, she also studies business administration and finance on weekends. I love it when I give her money — to pay for a meal, say — and she shortchanges me. I pretend not to notice because it reflects a survival instinct that I am quite familiar with. Gerenith lives on about $60 a week. From this she must pay her rent, tuition and all the things that provide a modicum of comfort in a third-world country. Every peso counts.

Gerenith, however, is a professional woman and fiercely proud: she has joined the site because she doesn't like the macho Columbian culture of mistresses; she won't tell Parker she loves him for months, and insists on taking the physical relationship slowly. And, when he suggests they marry so she can come to America, she is insulted: “'Marriage is much more than a legal document,' she said in her fast-flowing Spanish. 'It is a joining of our hearts. And how would I finish my education? Nothing is more important than our education'.”

While the relationship bears little resemblance to what we are used to, and we are left hoping for, rather than certain of, its unlikely success, there is an immediacy to the essay that's lacking in so many of the personal accounts we read: you're left in no doubt of his sincerity, of the compromises life demands, and of the power of loneliness and love. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but this week's featured wedding in the "Vows" column touched on some of the same issues of mid-life love, loneliness and the possibilities of the internet. The account of the wedding explains that Christina Welykyj had devoted her life to work and a father ill with Parkinson's disease. It was only after his death that she felt able to pursue a social life:

Following her father’s death in 2001, Ms. Welykyj went to Match.com, through which her colleagues had found spouses, and eHarmony.com, another dating site. Ms. Welykyj, who goes to Mass every Sunday, joined church groups and attended adult education classes and a speed dating event. Still, she dated only sporadically.

After several years, Ms. Welykyj meets special ed teacher Brian Ante on CatholicMatch.com. “You have kept the best wine until now," says the priest who officiates at their Ukrainian Catholic wedding. Two stories of people taking initiative and finding their particular happiness: What a lovely way to begin the week.

A Student Of Intimacy, Step By Step [NY Times]
Vows: Christina Welykyj And Brian Ante [NY Times]