For nearly four years, one of my best friends and I lived largely separate lives. From August 26, 2011, to February 27, 2015, we lived thousands of miles apart—our friendship confined largely to text message conversations, punctuated by brief periods together IRL. I grew accustomed to her absence. It took a long time and it hurt, but, eventually, my life without her became simply my life. We remained close, at a distance.
Once characterized by free, almost obscenely open communication (profanity laced arguments and graphic accounts of sexual exploits constituted a large portion of our conversations), our relationship now passed through the filters of glowing panes of glass, through military secrecy agreements, and at times, through an assumption that we were being surveilled. While I have been going to school and working in the photo industry, she has been faithfully carrying out the responsibilities of an “international liaison officer” in the Israeli Defense Forces. What these responsibilities are I do not know. I cannot know. She cannot tell me. I know that she left the United States already speaking five languages. I know that she apparently turned out to be quite talented with an M-16. I know that women’s uniforms have fewer pockets and a less practical cut than the men’s uniforms, which she was court-martialed for wearing. And I know that army food is shit. But I know little of the everyday content of her life in Israel. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll call her Sh.
When Sh first left, we shared two goodbyes. First was the lengthy hug, the lingering in the doorway, the final glance as I walked to my car before finally driving down her long gravel driveway. And then, some six hours later , came the digital departure.
8/26/11, 5:16 PM: Sh: We’re going to eat dinner and then check in for our flight. My mom says it’s time to turn my phone off. She doesn’t want me texting during dinner. I love you so much, Jonah. I’ll skype as soon as I can. Good luck with moving day. Try not to have so much fun that you forget me by the third day 😛
The final text message she sent me before she returned to the United States was strikingly similar to the one she sent before she first left.
2/22/15, 7:21 AM: Sh: Turning my Israeli phone off now…I love you and will see you soon
She turns off the phone as someone would turn off a lamp when exiting a room. These messages mark movement between spaces in a very real sense but they also indicate an exit from a certain relational and communicative space and an entrance into a different one. The digital space, a sort of ether between us, was the only space we could both enter and occupy during her absence.
Sh twice came home to visit: first in the summer of 2012 for ten days and again in the winter of 2013-2014 for four weeks. I visited Israel with a “Birthright” tour group for two weeks in January 2013, and we spent a total of about 24 hours together. Although I stayed in Jerusalem on my own for a third week after Birthright, Sh was drafted into the army just days after I first arrived in Israel. We were luckier than we thought we would be: four straight years apart became three-and-a-half years broken up by brief visits. Her visits home and my one visit to Israel are treasured gifts , but they have not been without their strangeness.
New Years Eve 2014, Sh was in New York. It was an opportunity to celebrate, but it was also an opportunity to show her my world. A major part of that world had been M. My relationship with M had actually begun with me telling her about Sh. We were classmates. It was March of 2012. M, working on a project, was looking to interview someone who was “in love with someone who is not their lover.” Eighteen, lonely, and still very much in pain over my best friend’s absence, I volunteered. We met at a soba restaurant on Delancey Street and talked and talked until we were the only patrons left and the hostess asked us to leave. We walked together to the subway and talked for another hour or two as train after train came and went. A few weeks later, I was waking up in her bed.
We had a strange and tumultuous relationship that went on in various forms for about a year, until spring of 2013. Despite its momentary highs, our relationship soured and left me feeling increasingly isolated as time passed. I wanted desperately for someone to really understand what I was experiencing with M. I had done my best to explain things to Sh, to recount stories, at times sending screenshot after screenshot of text conversations between M and me. But this was exhausting and time consuming and not sustainable. If maintaining a relationship with Sh at a distance was hard, conveying to her the continually changing nature of my relationship with M was harder still.
2/6/13, 4:40:54 PM: Sh: In some ways I feel that A and M exist in some dream world because I never met her and you never met him. I have this need to pull the two halves of my life together before one of them vanishes
2/6/13, 4:41:35 PM: Sh: I’m sorry if was the wrong thing to say now. I just felt like I needed to express it to you
2/6/13, 4:42:29 PM: Jonah: No it’s fine. And I think it’s more important that I meet A. I think you and M would get along incredibly well in some ways and incredibly poorly in others
Her feeling that our respective S.O.s existed in a sort of dream world was right on. The entirety of each of our lives was a dream world to the other. Either one of us could have fabricated our whole lives and the other wouldn’t have been any the wiser. To each other, our lives existed only as stories we told.
I too had long wanted Sh and M to meet. I told them, and told myself, that this was because I believed they would really hit it off. But really, I think I wanted them to meet because I believed it would legitimize or validate things that to Sh existed only as stories. It would make me feel less alone.
On New Years Eve, we got drunk and I got too drunk. Sh and I made our way from an East Village party to a friend’s family’s apartment in Tribeca. Her family was, of course, absent. We raced the clock and lost, scrambling to find her building as midnight passed. We rendezvoused with M on the street outside. It must’ve been a month since I’d seen her. She greeted me with a kiss and I responded in kind.
And so, for the remainder of the night, I mostly neglected Sh, instead drinking wine from the bottle and desperately chasing M’s affection as if to prove to Sh that all I had told her or attempted to tell her about was real; as if to say “see how fucked up this was?” Distance creates a sort of rift in time. Sh met M nearly one year after M was most part of my life. Closing this rift required a sort of performance, a reenactment of the past.
10/9/13, 2:59:45 PM: Jonah: r u high
10/9/13, 3:00:10 PM: Sh: I wish!
10/10/13, 12:52:12 PM: Jonah: <image omitted>
10/10/13, 12:52:38 PM: Jonah: (Not Tryna look sad, just made a weird face cuz I was trying to take a selfie as inconspicuously as possible
10/10/13, 4:49:18 PM: Sh: Awesome hat
10/10/13, 4:56:02 PM: Jonah: It’s M’s
10/10/13, 4:56:35 PM: Sh: Do you still spend a lot of time with her? Or is she not there?
10/10/13, 4:58:34 PM: Jonah: Haha, that’s a lot of what I want to tell you about when we skype
10/10/13, 4:58:59 PM: Sh: Ahhhhhh. I understand. Sort of.
10/10/13, 6:32:32 PM: Jonah: It’s nothing I don’t know, exciting or anything. Just related to why I’ve been bummed the past few days
We often postponed like this, lacking the energy to express complex parts of our lives via text. Our text message conversations always seemed to be in anticipation of the next visit. Complicated explanations, long stories, feelings too hard to articulate through a touchscreen, everything with weight was put off until we’d meet again. Sometimes we would text simply to say things like: “Ugh! Only four more months!” “Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m going to see you in two weeks!” “I’ll explain when you’re home!” We actually Skyped no more than eight or nine times over the course of her stay in Israel. The time difference combined with our own busy and at times unpredictable schedules made it logistically difficult.
While I faced the challenge of recounting my life via text, Sh often didn’t have that option. She simply wasn’t allowed to tell me about significant parts of her life. When I would provide a detailed (if banal) account of my life, Sh’s omissions and oblique replies became particularly stark.
2/17/13, 3:46:28 AM: Sh: Jesus fucking christ Israelis are so mean! What the fuck!!?!
2/17/13, 9:57:09 AM: Jonah: ??
2/17/13, 11:00:53 AM: Sh: A fucking bus driver hung up on me today because he, and I’m quoting now, “didn’t have the energy to listen to me talking.”
2/17/13, 11:07:51 AM: Jonah: Whaat the fuck
2/17/13, 11:08:02 AM: Jonah: Why were you on the phone with a bus driver
2/17/13, 11:08:21 AM: Sh: Army stuff
2/17/13, 11:08:28 AM: Sh: I’m not allowed to explain
Based on a search of our transcript, this was the first time she told me that she couldn’t tell me. I remember wondering, Why on earth can’t she tell me about a conversation with a bus driver? Such restrictions would only grow as she progressed in the military.
3/20/13, 4:07:21 AM: Sh: I’ll look at it in a few min. when I’m on the way to tel aviv
3/20/13, 4:07:51 AM: Jonah: Ooh what’re you up to now? / whatre you do in the vivs
3/20/13, 4:08:54 AM: Sh: Hahaha the vivs. They asked me to pass a higher security level- which is huge cause I’m already at a really high level. I have to go take a security exam
3/20/13, 4:09:27 AM: Jonah: wtf. this shits insane. Is your job changing?
3/20/13, 4:10:09 AM: Jonah: And is it an exam about like, how to handle classified documents and how to decide what sort of info can and cannot be shared?
3/20/13, 4:11:38 AM: Sh: No I’ll just be given more stuff to do/more responsibilities…and the exam is a thorough review of every person I’ve ever had contact with in my life, every place I’ve been, every everything. They’re making sure they can trust me and that I’m not secretly friends with any Arab spies.
3/20/13, 4:12:08 AM: Jonah: oops. Don’t mention me.
3/20/13, 4:12:47 AM: Jonah: also thats intense. Are you gonna have to put like, K [name redacted]? AD [name redacted]? P [name redacted]? What are you telling them about me?
3/20/13, 4:12:48 AM: Sh: Hahah I’ll be sure not to
3/20/13, 4:12:52 AM: Jonah: I’m so vain
3/20/13, 4:13:19 AM: Sh: How is your spy work going, by the way? I have to tell them about you because I still talk to you.
3/20/13, 4:13:29 AM: Sh: You’re not vain- I would ask too
3/20/13, 4:15:03 AM: Jonah: It’s going so well! I found out there is this country right next to my country called Israel, idk, they seem chill. But I’ve gotta do more spying to be sure
3/20/13, 4:15:10 AM: Jonah: and what will you have to say about me?
3/20/13, 4:16:57 AM: Sh: Everything. When we started being friends, what our relationship is, how often we speak, where you live, who your parents are, what my relationship with them is, etc.
I remember being perversely excited by all this . My mind ran wild, imagining what sort of covert operations might require such security measures. But still I thought, if she was really involved in anything so sensitive, would she even be able to tell me this much? It’s strange to think that they (whoever “they” are) have so much information about me when I know nothing of them, much less what my friend was doing for them. A lifelong 007 devotee, I reveled in even this presumed brush with the world of espionage.
I was thinking over ramen the other day that when someone goes far away, you sort of put your friendship into cryogenic storage. It can be viewed through glass, referenced, perhaps even simulated, and it ostensibly remains intact. But this is a stale experience. And the world it reenters after it is thawed, when that person returns, is not the world from whence it came. Can a relationship develop and evolve when carried out at a distance via text message? Or is it condemned to remain in a sort of holding pattern? Text messaging allowed us to communicate in the most literal sense but it could not contain all the new developments in our lives, and changes in ourselves. There are no stakes at a distance. They are perpetually postponed. Instead, communication becomes performative. You “act” as you would have before you were apart. Your friendship becomes a continual reenactment of the place you left it rather than a reflection of where you are now.