‘An ethical non-monogamous relationship’: Love, 2,654 miles apart

Finding love in a pandemic is hard – finding it on the other side of the United States in the middle of a pandemic is another thing. Alix Wall tells the story of Stephen Paskey and Sarah Lenz, long-distance lovers who did exactly that

Tuesday 11 May 2021 00:00
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<p>A global pandemic couldn’t stop long-distance lovers Stephen and Sarah from crossing the great divide and falling in love</p>

A global pandemic couldn’t stop long-distance lovers Stephen and Sarah from crossing the great divide and falling in love

In the summer of 2019, Stephen Paskey, 60, was on vacation, sitting in an Istanbul cafe, smoking a hookah. As much as he had hoped to meet a life partner by then, it just wasn’t happening. In a few years, he thought, he would retire and maybe move to South America.

Eight months later, back home in Buffalo, New York, he connected online with Sarah Lenz, 57. Given how well they clicked, both say that, under normal circumstances, they probably would have met within a day or two – but times were anything but normal. It was late March 2020, two weeks after the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. And then, of course, there was another obstacle: the 2,654 miles between them.

Lenz had recently moved from her home in Philadelphia across the country to Santa Rosa, California, to live with her father, Peter Dodge, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She changed the parameters on her OkCupid account to show the highest matches possible, regardless of geography. Paskey registered as a 99 per cent match.

Lenz already knew a thing or two about online dating. The first time she tried it was after the break up of her marriage – she and her former husband had been together for 30 years and had two children – and she felt she had nothing to lose. Embracing what she called “radical honesty”, she felt she would rather be upfront about who she was from the start. She followed that approach when she connected with Paskey.

“He, too, put some really vulnerable stuff in his profile,” she says.

“Sarah’s willingness and fearlessness in being honest is what brought us together,” adds Paskey.

Lenz, a graphic designer and artist, grew up in Berkeley, California, while Paskey, raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a lecturer in law, legal analysis, writing and research at the University at Buffalo School of Law. He spent more than a decade working in the Department of Justice, bringing to trial Nazi collaborators who came to the United States after the war. But he began his career working in desktop publishing and typesetting, the field in which Lenz also began her career.

Given the shutdown and the distance between them, there was plenty of time for long, rambling conversations on the phone or online. Paskey opened up about his two short-term marriages and other relationships, while Lenz had a more recent story to tell. She had met her husband when she was 17, and theirs was an open marriage. In 2013, she left him, taking a few years to be on her own as an adult for the first time. She then moved to Philadelphia, where her first grandchild was born. Urged by one of her sons to go on OkCupid, she met someone and fell in love. She and her new partner started living together in a polyamorous relationship until, in June 2019, he was diagnosed with metastasised colon cancer. Six weeks later, he died.

Lenz says that one of the last things he said to her was: “I’m not worried about you. You will find love again.”

She believes he not only gave her permission, but willed it to happen. Lenz flew back to Philadelphia for his memorial service in March 2020, only to turn right around and fly back. The service couldn’t be held because of Covid-19.

Lenz went on OkCupid for the second time after she returned. Within days of Paskey and Lenz connecting, they were talking and texting numerous times a day.

Given their mutual love of language, Lenz quickly fell for how Paskey expressed himself.

“And there’s a way we relate to the world that’s really similar,” she says.

He felt so familiar, and it was so comfortable, it was such a confirmation of what we already knew

But words were not the only way they used to expressed themselves long distance. They also have a fondness for emojis, and within weeks Paskey used them to tell Lenz he loved her.

About six weeks in, they began discussing the logistics of meeting in person. Since flying was not an option and Lenz needed to be with her father, Paskey calculated he could drive across the country between the end of the semester and the start of summer school, since he could teach remotely from anywhere.

The possibility that their online chemistry wouldn’t translate to real life was broached, but both sensed that this wouldn’t happen. In fact, a week before he left, Lenz told a friend: “I think I’m going to marry this man.”

In late May, he set out, with a hand-lettered sign in his back window that read: “Love or Bust, 2,654 miles.” Each day, he crossed out that number, going from 2,654 to 2,149 to 1,793 to 1,202 to 730 to 223, posting his progress on Facebook, until he met Lenz on 1 June in a park in Santa Rosa. Crossing out the last number fell to Lenz.

“He felt so familiar, and it was so comfortable,” she says. “It was such a confirmation of what we already knew.”

A few days later, they went away for the weekend, to Sea Ranch, an unincorporated community on the Sonoma coast, where her father had designed some of the homes.

“Sarah has this remarkable resilience, and I love the open and curious, engaged and joyful, nonjudgmental way she approaches her life, and thinking about her past, present and future,” Paskey says. “And how she can go from talking about rainbows and unicorns with her granddaughter to long conversations with me about how we experience time, or how language shapes our thoughts.”

Lenz echoes his sentiments: “I love him for his brilliant mind, and that he’s a total goofball.”

The night they returned, they were having dinner in Paskey’s trailer rental, when he told her he had a retirement account whose beneficiary needed updating. He asked Lenz if he could name her.

“I don’t want you to do that unless you’re going to marry me,” she said.

Even though Paskey hadn’t planned on proposing yet, he dropped to one knee.

With most of the state shut down because of the pandemic, there was little to do but take long walks. Nevertheless, Paskey soon began joining Lenz and her father for dinner.

Rather than simply accepting prevailing cultural norms and prescriptions for love and legal marriage, you stand together now to be explicit about your commitments to each other

After two months, Paskey returned to Buffalo. By now, Lenz’s father had moved into a memory-care facility. Soon after, it was Lenz’s turn to drive across country. When she entered Paskey’s house in Buffalo, she felt instantly at home.

On Paskey’s agenda was showing Lenz a spot in an industrial park that he could envision for their wedding. When they visited it, they saw a white stag. A close friend of Paskey’s lived nearby, and while deer are known to frequent the area, he had never seen the stag before.

“It felt like the magic of our relationship, so unexpected and precious, and once in a lifetime,” Lenz says.

They were married at 12:34 pm by Arann Harris, a Universal Life Church minister, on an overcast 3 April at the Sea Ranch Chapel, back in Sea Ranch on the Sonoma coast. The only witnesses were a photographer and a stuffed teddy bear containing the ashes of Lenz’s late partner. The partner, she said, “encouraged me to look, and there was Stephen”.

The couple have agreed to enter what they call an ethical non-monogamous relationship.

“Rather than simply accepting prevailing cultural norms and prescriptions for love and legal marriage, you stand together now to be explicit about your commitments to each other,” the minister told them. “You share the understanding that love is abundant, and every relationship is unique. You choose to build your relationship on love and respect rather than entitlement.”

During the ceremony, Harris read a number of emails from friends, “filling the space with the wishes of our communities,” as Lenz puts it.

“The pandemic has been exhausting in every way, and watching the two of them find each other, despite all the obstacles, both real and ridiculous, has brought me such delight, and delight to everyone I’ve told about them,” said Robyn Rime, one of Paskey’s close friends. “They’ve managed to transcend what’s going on in the world.”

© The New York Times

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