For the first year and a half of our relationship, my girlfriend and I were living apart. Like, apart. To see each other, we took it in turns to undertake a journey involving eight hours and four forms of public transportation, including a plane. I lived in an isolated city with dreadful railway links. She lived, and I am not exaggerating, on a small island in the middle of the sea on the other side of the country that counted as international on all mobile networks.
At the time, we both had long-term commitments that meant neither of us could move or spend that much time away from our towns. If this had happened in an age without whatsapp or email, I have genuinely no idea what we would have done. Gone a bit wrong, probably. Tried increasingly hard to invent a reliable method of teleportation, definitely.
But I’m glad we did long distance because the only other option was not to be together, and we were… bad at that. While it wasn’t financially or practically possible for us to see each other that often, what we could do is send near-constant emails or messages or photos of stuffed toys sat in weird places outside charity shops (I lived in a very odd place). And in a lot of those emails, one of us would say, “Tell me a story.”
It could be any story. Sometimes it would be about us (“tell me a story about if we lived together”) and sometimes it would not be (“tell me a story about a CAT THAT HAS A NICE DAY”) but it would always be one of us, writing something for the other one, because stories were what we could give.
A note: when I say “story”, I don’t mean “beautifully constructed prose with narrative arcs and flawless craftsmanship”. I mean something that looks like this:
“OKAY so imagine if we lived together and we woke up and it was morning and the light was coming in through the dreadful thin curtains and we were going to go back to sleep but THE CURTAINS so after a bit of wantonly denying the obvious (the curtains would not become better if we just wished harder) one of us (you) would go get us both coffee after excessive sad eyes from the other one (me) and then we would have coffee in bed all snuggly and we wouldn’t have to miss each other because we’d be right there <3333”
I have genuinely hundreds of emails like this and every single one of them, from the sappiest to the silliest, make me smile every single time I reread them.
Flash forward a couple of years and L and I are in essentially a No Distance relationship, in that we live together and have increasing numbers of half-asleep kicking fights over the duvet. (I steal it in my sleep. For some reason, she objects.) This is, in so many ways, much better, from the big things – security, location, not feeling like an overlookable drop in a sea of more geographically accessible people – to the incredibly tiny – I get to do small everyday things with her, like pull ridiculous faces just to make her laugh.
Now, revoltingly sappy things like the above story actually happen in our actual lives (only we have Learned from Past Mistakes and have incredibly good thick curtains and are no longer woken up by the searing morning light of the day star) but it’s still part of our couple idiolect to say, “Tell me a story,” and for a story to be told. It’s a point of trust. An I love you.
There’s a whole other point to be made here about how writing for yourself, for the things you need, is such a revelatory and wonderful thing. It’s kind of wonderful, I think, to trust the people you love with what you want – and to treat yourself like a person you love. And stories can be an amazing part of how you express that.
In all honesty, that’s part of our friendship group as a whole, although those stories tend to be decidedly less… grossly sentimental and specific. It’s a sign of affection that we want to tell each other what we need to hear right then to feel better, or just to scratch the itch of really wanting a particular story to exist and being unable to find it anywhere for love nor money. It’s one of my favourite things about my friends, this storytelling thing. It’s one of my favourite things that people do.
Because, the thing is: it’s such an honest point of intimacy to say, “This is something I want.” It’s such a sign of love to give someone what they want. It’s such an honest point of trust to hand over that finished product, that word-wrapped bundle of narrative and throat-sore emotion scraped up together from late nights and private heartbeats, and say, “I made it for you.”
So what can I say?
I’m sad, tell me a story.
I miss you, tell me a story.
I love you. Let me tell you a story.