Nearly all seventeen species of penguins are intensely colonial, gathering in “great teeming masses” to court one another. To win a female’s affection, males swing their heads side to side or raise their flippers or throw their beaks to the sky to carol their best trills and squawks. Some gentoo penguins even scoop up pebbles with their beaks and present them to their prospective partner—a gift that, if deemed sufficient by the female, may be used to make a nest for the pair.
In sixth grade, I drew hearts with pencils in my books, sometimes so eagerly that I would break through the page. I stayed up at night to read about the brushing fingertips in the Room of Requirement and the first kisses in the alleys of Adarlan and the awkward first glances across rugged church basements.
I still remember the drive to The Observatory. I wore blue floral and sneakers—nice but not-caring at the same time. I had only just met you two days prior. I still remember the guitar strings and the bent legs in the back of the car, that balcony and those heels I wore to dinner, images I wanted to fold up like book pages and store in my pockets. A love story, finally mine.
We walk along the lake’s circumference and its green is something I want to inject into my hippocampus and remember, too. I reach for your hand hesitantly, as I am still afraid of being too forward, even after more than a year of knowing your calluses. We don’t get much practice with this shameless expression of affection. We watch as two Syracuse students jump into the green, grinning.
“What if we went in?” I joke. I’m in pink shorts and running shoes.
“You really want to?” you ask, although you know I do but struggle with assertiveness.
And then we find an inlet and I am barefoot on soil. I really wasn’t eager for a swim but for a memory, a whiff of spontaneity to savor as one, for once. I am chest-deep in my shorts, and want to taste the blues and the soft seaweed shrubbing that tickles the bottoms of my toes. Your slimy hands in mine, we tread water together, sipping in small bits of air.
Once a female penguin lays her egg, the two stare at it for an hour, trembling. But in late May, female penguins leave the colony to hunt, while the males stay behind to incubate the egg with their feet. Researcher Jean-Baptiste Thiebot tracked the activity of ten penguin couples in 2015, which revealed the hundreds of kilometers that distanced each pair for the majority of the year.
I used to think our unconventionality was wrong. I wanted the dorm room sleepovers and the friends in common, what everyone else seemed to have. I wanted proximity and not our FaceTime calls that glitch as they bridge the 305.5 miles between our two colleges; I wanted your tapping right leg and my fidgeting fingers—body language that can’t be sensed over screen. Your brown eyes I could see but not feel.
One night in Providence you reluctantly agreed to watch Bachelor in Paradise with me, and we huddled together on my suite’s couch. I draped my arm over your shoulders and you leaned into me, your knees to your chest, grinning with just your lips.
We didn’t end up watching much. Instead, our conversation jumped from thing to thing like a grasshopper. We were giddy as we spoke of the Encinitas BJ’s and the Rubio’s and the Baked Bear—our childhoods that both took place along the Pacific, but somehow never overlapped; the Rancho Santa Fe avenues that we drove during the same April afternoons, in opposite directions. Sometimes I forget how much you feel like home.
I decided to make an apple pie that night, and kept returning to the couch to cup your cheeks with my palms as it cooked. By the time I took it out, the curvy edges of the pie crust were burnt brown, and the apples tinted a dark yellow. You still ate it with me.
Though unconventional, long-distance relationships are on the rise, with a 2017 census showing a 44% increase in couples living apart since 2000. A survey of more than 600 people found couples spanning distances of more than 12,000 miles—in one case, one partner lived in Santiago, Chile, and the other in Xi’an, China. Research has shown that long-distance couples tend to have the same or more satisfaction in their relationships than couples who are geographically close, and higher levels of dedication to their relationships and less feelings of being trapped.
Written correspondence is how lovers have historically found meaning in distance. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning are classics of this genre, elegantly revealing their minds and hearts in the love letters that floated between them. “[A]ll-so into me has it gone, and part of me has it become, this great living poetry of yours, not a flower of which but took root and grew,” Robert wrote in the first letter of their correspondence, in 1845. Jeff Hancock, a communication professor at Stanford University, describes letters as a means of conveying “powerful emotions and intimacy.” He says, “all you have is each other’s words, so you can really imagine the other person in the best possible light.”
I remember thinking of you as I watched Hamilton, as Alexander wrote letters to his distanced lover, Eliza, who describes Hamilton’s writing as something that “built [her] palaces out of paragraphs.” And I think that’s what we have learned to do for each other, not with letters, but with virtual gestures: the morning texts and the pictures you send to me, the voice recordings; the FaceTime calls when we are both a little drunk, but I just want to see your face. Indeed, email, instant messaging, and video chatting made it finally feasible for couples to exchange even the most “mundane information” that often “gets lost…in [the] letters of the past,” according to Jason Farman, a media scholar at the University of Maryland.
I try to remember conversations, because I don’t feel like we get enough of them. But I am starting to think that I will never get enough, that perhaps even with no distance, I would never get enough of you smiling at me when you wake up in the morning, or your embrace, or what it feels like to make you laugh, or dancing together, or brushing your hair back to kiss your forehead, or the flowers you give to me, that I press and preserve between glass.
I love our mundane.
When the female penguins return to the colony, it is October, nearly six months since the couple last saw each other. But among all 20 penguins studied by Thiebot, each pair came back together again, recognizing each other by their distinctive calls—within a crowd of over a thousand other penguins. I saw a video of penguin couples reuniting on the beach of Patagonia, and watched as each pair faced each other and shook their beaks back and forth, in joy. The two parents remain mates for life, so long as they can find each other.
The day we met, we sat in your car in a parking garage. You said you wanted to show me a song, one that you were sure I would like. I can still hear the guitar, its intricacies that made the hair on my arms stand up, although we don’t listen to it much anymore. The song is called “Penguins.”