LONG DISTANCE LOVE
Till Life Do Us Part
Within two months Preston was living in Atlanta with a Rooms To Go bedroom set, his computer and not a thing on the walls. It happened that fast. No more helping his father expand his dental practice. He was roaming rural Forsyth County, "sitting on the porch, talking to Farmer John" and wondering whether a supermarket or a movieplex might want to occupy the farmer's fields.
Rebecca had worried that he would meet someone else. But Preston knew better. "She's a steal," he would say later. "The love of my life."
Maybe it was his instinct to close a deal that made him do an impetuous and unexpected thing not three weeks after he moved away.
He called Rebecca's younger sister Rachel and asked her to pack a suitcase for Rebecca with lots of cold-weather clothes. All he told Rebecca was that they were going on a trip somewhere.
Then he visited Rebecca's parents to ask their permission to marry her.
Next thing Rebecca knows, she's at Tampa International boarding a flight for Denver and the Breckenridge ski resort beyond. At the top of the Continental Divide, Preston pretended to be fishing for lip balm and came out with the ring.
"The only thing that would make this weekend more perfect is if you would spend the rest of your life with me," he said.
Two days later they returned to their respective cities, elated. But Rebecca also felt a twinge of the anticlimax as she set about planning the wedding without her fiance by her side.
To have and to put on hold
Preston's six months in Atlanta became a year.
"He could never really tell me when he'd be back," Rebecca said. "If I wanted to stay with this relationship, I knew I'd just have to deal with that."
Preston came back to town periodically for engagement parties and the premarital counseling with the Rev. Chris Thompson at St. Thomas Episcopal. "The distance is only in miles," he told them. But don't forget to phone, he said.
The mothers, well, the mothers had motherly concerns.
Elaine Hearn knew something about young couples and separations: Her father did not see her until she was more than a year old because he was serving in World War II. She asked Preston during the engagement, "Is this really going to work?"
"We've talked about it," she remembers him saying. "We have goals together and we're going to work at our goals just like you and Dad did."
At first, Rebecca's mother, Donna, was skeptical of the arrangement too. But, she said, "I gave my approval to Preston as a person."
Two hundred and fifty people were invited to the wedding. Rebecca wore her mother's wedding gown with the high lace collar. It fit perfectly. The dry cleaner was able to remove a 29-year-old chicken a la king stain from the front.
That night they stayed at the Renaissance Vinoy hotel.
Monday, they flew to St. Lucia.
One day they went scuba diving.
Another day, they fished.
Monday, they flew back.
They spent one night in the St. Petersburg bungalow Preston had bought before they were married.
Tuesday, Preston climbed in his Jeep Grand Cherokee, which still has a Florida tag, and headed back up I-75. As Rebecca did a load of laundry and wrote thank-you notes, Preston fiddled with the loose gold band on his finger. It looked about a mile wide.
Back to the grindstone, he thought to himself, justifying the distance he was putting between him and his new bride. Now I'm married. Now I've got to support my wife.
No, I miss you more
Preston pays the mortgage. Rebecca pays the utilities. They both chip in to the house checking account. When Preston leaves a message, it's his own voice he hears on the answering machine greeting.
Still, to this day -- 33 months since they began dating, 141/2 months since they were engaged, 73 days since they were wed -- the longest they have spent together under one roof is 10 days. It happened over the holidays.
"Pretty hairy," Rebecca said.
There was the whole housecleaning thing.
Preston, who calls himself "a clean freak," would never sweep the floor, for example, before tackling the dust built up on the ceiling fan.
Rebecca acknowledged that given the volume of falling dust, doing it in the reverse order probably wasn't the best idea.
They did a load of laundry, but there was an incident.
"I turned something pink," she said. "He told me I could never do his laundry again."
Preston returned to Atlanta before the two ever got a chance to cook for each other.
Now Rebecca is decorating the house. Preston has been as involved as someone can be by phone.
"I called him and told him that I wanted to paint the living room taupe," she said.
It's sort of a coffee color, she explained to him.
"You can do whatever you want," he said, "just leave the bedroom white."
"Well, I had just painted the bedroom a deep burgundy," Rebecca said.
This does not resemble the life her parents lead.
"I look at them, they get up at the crack of dawn, make coffee, make breakfast, read the paper together," she said. "You still feel like a bachelorette. You're still cooking for one."
There are times when Rebecca, who is not a needy person, needs something more than a faraway voice on the phone. Sometimes she tells Preston she misses him. He'll say, "I miss you, too."
"No, I really miss you," she'll say.
It might perplex some people to see such a young couple skip the "for better" part of their marriage and go straight to the "for worse" part. These should be the days -- before the children arrive -- of overwhelming self-indulgence, the days and nights when a thousand intimacies are banked for future years.
So what does it say about society that we can live this way? Do we value marriage less because we value something else more? Or is it that Rebecca and Preston, in their very modern way, embody the tradition of eternal devotion? Sure, being together now would be great, they say, but the costs would be too high. Preston sacrifices his dream, Rebecca abandons the support of her family. Their sacrifice, they say, will be rewarded.
"The times you are together it's so wonderful," Rebecca said, "you know it was meant to be. You appreciate the little bits of normalcy, like eating breakfast together, or going to the store together and buying toothpaste."
What's true love? Yearning for the day when you can push a cart side by side down Aisle 7.
A big-screen romance
You cut your hair. That was the first thing Preston said when Rebecca stepped off the plane in Atlanta on that Thursday night in January.
She noticed a detail, too: He was wearing a gold ring, but it was not his wedding ring. He'd lost it overboard on New Year's Day fishing off Palm Beach.
"I wondered if it was an omen," she said. Then, brightening: "I'm going to get him another one for Valentine's. This one will be about a size smaller."
The next morning, Preston took Rebecca to pick up the 1994 BMW he had just bought her. She hadn't heard anything about it until three days before. Now she was holding the keys to a forest green 740 il with self-adjusting rearview mirrors, CD changer in the trunk and individual climate control -- the last one being perhaps the perfect option for this couple.
"What do you think?" he asked her.
"Honey, it's wonderful," she said.
"You like it?"
Then they went to visit Preston's grandmother in southern Georgia.
Sunday, Preston drove back to Atlanta.
Rebecca drove the BMW back to St. Petersburg, where new plates in sets of eight are stacked on the living room shelves, where rows of wine glasses that have never held wine look just like they did in the store, where brand-new picture frames stand empty, waiting to hold bits of history.
They don't know when Preston's coming home.
There's hope for the future, though. Videoconferencing. Preston's father gave them special cameras to hook to their computers.
"The screen's only this big now," Preston said, making a circle the size of a beer coaster. "A year from now, it'll be full screen."