The Long-Distancers

“She thought I was being insensitive,” says Cem, 30, about his girlfriend, Julie. “But for me, after the first couple weeks, I felt like the drama was over. I wanted to talk about what was going on in the world and in Afghanistan. We had completely different opinions. For the first time, I felt real distance between us.”

Cem (names have been changed), who is Turkish and a nonpracticing Muslim, and Julie, 28, an all-American beauty with a button nose, met at a Rotary Club party near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when they were teenagers. He was an exchange student at a school near hers; she was planning to study in France, so her father made her go to the function. “I’m sure he’s regretted it ever since,” she says, laughing.

Julie and I are in a sushi joint on LaGuardia Place, and though she’s shy, she seems eager to be out on a Saturday night. She and Cem have been together for the past twelve years, but they’ve lived in different countries or cities for seven of them. Though they settled down in an apartment together in the Village three years ago – he worked on Wall Street and she was a medical student at NYU – this spring he took a commodities job in London while she stayed to complete her studies.

When Julie tells me how often they’ve been separated, I feel skeptical. Whenever I hear about a long-distance couple, my first reaction is, “What’s the point of being together if you can’t be together?”

“We have different friends and different interests,” she says. “Being apart is the long-term version of going out with your friends instead of each other on a Saturday night.”

“But what about the physical aspect? Do you have to resort to phone sex?”

She shakes her head. “Phone sex works much better when you’re in the same time zone,” she says ruefully. “If he gets home from work and calls me, I’m in school. When I get home, it’s the middle of the night – and generally speaking, when you wake people up in the middle of the night, phone sex doesn’t work too well.” She pauses. “After September 11, I wasn’t in the mood for phone sex anyway.”

Though she missed Cem as soon as he moved to London – so much that she bought a cat – she didn’t really feel the distance until after the attacks. When she talked on the phone with Cem, she told him how depressed she was, but he kept expecting her to bounce back. “After the first few days, he wanted to talk about other things,” she recalls, “and I was totally unable to do that. He would tell me about his soccer team winning and I would say, ‘I can’t have a conversation with you about soccer.’ “

“I wanted to get Julie out of her depression,” Cem tells me when I call him in London. “I was trying to say, ‘There are other things going on in the world. Don’t be so introverted.’ “

When he wasn’t talking about soccer, he would talk politics. That didn’t go over too well, either. One night, he suggested that the attacks were a result of U.S. foreign policy. Julie went ballistic. “I told him, ‘The people in the building didn’t die because they had bad foreign policy!’ ” she remembers.

“Her reaction was more in the heart, and mine was in the head,” Cem explains. “I thought talking about the political side would let her see it from a different angle.”

The conversations got worse as the days went on. Part of the strain came from the fact that they – like many other couples – were playing roles they weren’t used to. Cem, who was always the more emotional one, found himself expected to be a pillar of comfort, which he didn’t know how to do. “I’m more up and down than she is,” he says. “I could cry if my soccer team loses.” Julie, the rational one, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and didn’t want to be alone.

Another bone of contention was Julie’s renewed sense of pride in her American heritage. Because she had traveled so often and had a foreign boyfriend, she always considered herself a citizen of the world. After the attacks, she had a revelation: “I felt much more accepting of who I was, of my small-town American roots. I felt like this is a good place, and why does everyone in the world insist on thinking it’s all bad?” On Cem’s end, though neither he nor his parents are religious, he says he feels “closer to Muslims whenever there’s a conflict. I see the attacks as the have-nots finding a way to get a sense of power. But,” he insists, “my criticism of the American system was the same before the event as it was after.”

“We always thought it didn’t matter where you were from; it just mattered who you are now,” Julie says. “I found myself thinking, ‘What if it does matter?’ “

In October, she went to London to see Cem. On the flight over, she was nervous, certain they would have to have a difficult conversation. It never came. She had pinned a red-white-and-blue ribbon to her bag, and though she’s sure it would have been a problem if she had mentioned it on the phone, Cem didn’t give her a hard time when he saw it. “As soon as we were in the same place,” she recalls, “I wasn’t so crazy frantic, and he wasn’t so boom-boom rational. It made me realize we weren’t changed fundamentally, and things were going to get better.”

“You mean you had great sex?”

She blushes and laughs. “We always had a good sex life anyway, so it would be pretty hard to have a better one than we did before. It was less of a physical thing and more of a mental thing.”

Cem thinks the relationship got better in part because she got out of the city: “When she got less depressed, I wasn’t so much of the enemy, and when she was out of New York, she wasn’t the person she’d been before. Whatever caused us to have problems disappeared, and I just saw the old Julie with whom I was madly in love and whom I had missed.” They both agree that although they were used to being apart, in this case the only way they could feel close again was to be together.

Cem is thinking about coming back to New York earlier than he’d planned – this spring as opposed to next. He says September 11 made him realize that there’s no point in traveling around and taking it for granted that she’ll always be there when he returns. It seems the long-distance couple is about to turn conventional.

“I feel ready to just be with her,” Cem says. “My romantic life was always settled down. What I needed to solve was a physical settling-down. I want to be in one place with the person I love, without looking for another place.”

The Long-Distancers