By Nathan Eckman
You could blame it on the fact that my parents announced their divorce while I was at bootcamp. Or that every relationship I had witnessed thereafter seemed cursed by the Marine Corps and the distance it forced between loved ones. It’s important to note that I had lived most of my life single, and happily so. Whatever the reason, I had never wanted a relationship while I was in the Corps. That is, until January 2, 2014.
In a hallway of the Chicago-Midway Airport, a television read “1,200 flights cancelled.” Outside, the piling snow answered why. In line to rebook my ticket, I saw Emily for the first time. She was right in front of me; she seemed too cute to talk to. I looked for another person to kill the next hour in line with. Everyone else had already found their match. Fine, I thought, the hot blonde it is.
I waited for an opportune moment, but she wasn’t giving me a chance. No side eye. No look behind her to see what, or who, was standing next to her in line. For what felt like a few solid minutes I stood staring at this woman’s back, wondering how to break the ice without ruining my chances at a second minute of conversation. “So, do you like to backpack?” I asked.
I hadn’t finished my question before she answered, “yes.”
After four or five rounds of beers and 14 hours together filled with nonstop conversation about absolutely everything worth sharing with a trustworthy stranger, we boarded the same flight back to Columbus, Ohio at three in the morning. She invited me to stay on her futon for the night so this poor private first class didn’t have to pay for a last minute hotel—her words, not mine. The following morning my brother picked me up to drive me back to Akron, two hours away. He met her and just as quickly said goodbye. Rather, he wished her a good life. Emily and I followed his cue. Unbeknownst to us all at the time, the answer to that “good life” would mean a lifetime together for Emily and me.
Things moved quickly from there. Two weeks after we first met in the airport line we were dating, and another two weeks after that she was dressing me following surgery after the nurse assigned to me mistook us for something serious. After that I guess we were. By month three we openly talked about marrying one another. After 11 months of long distance dating, I proposed to her on the idyllic Laguna Beach. Seven months after that, weeks after I had returned from deployment, we were married.
I cherish our story. The happenstance. The serendipity of our coming to know each other. Those I tell the story to almost always call it a fairytale. Others say it’s like a movie. Some go so far as to say it was destined. That has complicated the perception of what I want people to see when they see us together. Because to Emily and me, our relationship is driven by the commitment we have demonstrated to one another when the Corps would have had us break apart.
Our relationship almost didn’t begin. After I returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina two days after she and I first met, my instinct was to stop talking with her, the same way I had with other female friends in the past whom I felt were becoming more than just that. But as I contemplated our end, I remembered her smile and the warmth it brought me, her long gaze during conversation that made me feel like the most important man in the world. Clearly, I was smitten. Smitten enough to know that with her I could make a relationship work while I was still in the Marines. But first, I needed to know that she could too.
Two weeks after Emily and I met in the airport, she drove 615 miles drive from Columbus, Ohio to Wilmington, North Carolina where I was stationed to visit me. Perhaps I was still skeptical of the idea of a relationship, because two days before she arrived I decided that weekend would be a test: By the end of that first weekend together we would either be in a relationship or we’d say goodbye—this time for good.
There’s no knowing if I would have followed through on the latter. A few hours after she got into town we walked to a coffee shop on the riverfront. There we sat on a couch along the back wall and for another couple of hours shared our hopes for the future as individuals and, as if it were a living thing with a pronoun but no name, our expectations for this potential relationship between us too. We left that coffee shop secure in one another as humans, protectors, partners, and friends. We had established that in our relationship the thoughts we share, more than the skin we touch, would measure our affection for one another. We prepared for the moments when the days would become weeks, and weeks months, since we would have seen each other last, so that the affection between us would not be contingent on our uncontrollable circumstances.
This didn’t insulate us from the burdens that came with living apart. But it did reveal something totally unexpected. As our relationship progressed I kept tallying the cost to make us work. And it felt bizarre. Not a single drive through the night that robbed me of sleep, or dollar I spent that I didn’t know I had left ever felt like sacrifice. These “costs” weren’t. This cost-benefit analysis I once referenced to ensure our genuine intentionality vanished. Because the cost-benefit analysis assumed there was something more valuable I could have invested in. I became sure that Emily had transcended all costs; she embodies value herself. No longer did it make sense to ask ‘is it worth it’ but rather ‘through my actions did I display just how much more she’s worth?’
Even as we fell more in love, we hardly saw each other some months. Most months we saw each other once. Under these circumstances the experiences Emily and I curated for ourselves were intense. We’d allow ourselves just four hours of sleep and spend our waking hours learning what it was like to live with one another. We were always on tour. Always trying something new. Even if it was something I had experienced before, her presence rewired what it meant to drink a coffee, hike a trail, or—as a matter of fact, yes—save some room for dessert. There was an absurdity to it all. Getting the jitters each time I saw Emily months into our relationship felt like I was living out some sort of celebrity-romance fantasy. I had fallen in love with a person I had come to know primarily through a screen. I loved seeing her face, pixel-frozen and all. But experiencing her within arm’s reach, within arm’s embrace, unfiltered, without lag or pixelation, those were the moments that made not just us, but life as well, come alive anew. Saturated by one another, we quickly discovered our compatibility would be long standing.
I knew this in part because of our shared vocabulary. Love, we both thought, wasn’t just a feeling but a host of actions, defined in the pages of First Corinthians, and demonstrated through our patience and kindness for one another. This same-mindedness stretched into our ideals of labels, gender roles, and our conception of emotions. However different Emily was—and is—from me, never have those differences felt like a concession. When we’d hang up knowing it’d be another two weeks—or maybe longer—before we would hear one another’s voices, peace pierced the sorrow and uncertainty that came with that distance. I never finished a call worried about our bond.
Most mornings now we wake up next to each other. The Marine Corps is in our past; but what it helped shape transformed both of our futures. Because as much as I hate to admit it, if not for the Marine Corps, I’m not sure we ever would have become husband and wife.
Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.