Queue the squeezebox and pop the champagne. This story of courtship gives us a reason to believe in mature romance.
Four years ago, one of my good friends gave me a copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album because my soul was tapping its feet with a listlessness I could not explain.
The weather was warm in the day and cool at night.
Thousands of young people were descending on Gare du Nord in Paris bearing bricks and iron bars. Tornados swept Oklahoma and Texas, as they always do during my birth month. The Iranian military was about to seize and hold captive 15 Royal Navy personnel, and the U.S. Congress formally passed a withdrawal date for troops in Iraq. Plenty was happening in the world, but I was looking backwards to a time fifteen years before I was born, trying to make sense of 1969, and of myself.
I had come to Paris, a city not my own, and yet, like the man said, you can’t go home again. I was caught. I couldn’t find my way around: the streets curved around hills and changed names and ended at walls. People didn’t speak to me in the grocery store line, and when they did talk to me, they so often asked where I was from. My hair was too big and my makeup too heavy and my very being felt wrong.
Like Didion, I listened to “Lay, Lady, Lay” incessantly in my apartment and waited for the winds to change.
One day a long-haired young man covered in paint and sawdust and smelling of cedar came out of a theatre storefront. He had strong hands, an easy smile and kind eyes, and I knew the moment I saw him that I wanted him as my very own, to have and to hold, forever and ever, amen.
Nothing about him made any sense. He was only four years older than me, yet his face showed centuries of age when he laughed. He could talk about every political election campaign back to Teddy Roosevelt, and every military campaign back to the Crusades. He never carried any money, but drove a car he’d paid for in cash. He’d spent three months driving around the United States because he could, sleeping with friends and in his car and in the homes of people he met in bars and once on a couch on the front lawn of a fraternity house in California.
He had a rambling old house in an even older neighborhood, where sunlight streamed across the hardwood floors in empty rooms. He could speak French fluently, and he had an educated cadence, but had sacked groceries on third shift and waited tables inveterately. He owned one set of sheets and eight coffee mugs, but only two cups: a beer stein, and a gigantic plastic cup from UDF. We ran into people he knew everywhere; we couldn’t go into a store or a restaurant or walk down the street without him running into someone he knew. Everyone called him Luke, but his driver’s license identified “Louis”.
We drank Scotch out of coffee mugs and smoked cigarettes in the pitch black darkness on the side porch at night. We built a theatre together during the day. We swapped short stories back and forth, earmarked in our favorite anthologies. He explained to me that the street system was laid out like a wagon-wheel, with spokes radiating outward from the river, and he taught me shortcuts for getting around, and the names of all the neighborhoods.
One night I smuggled a chocolate cheesecake brownie home in my purse and we ate it at 4am and washed it down with Katie O’Rear’s Malbec I’d been saving for a special occasion. We told stories of the worst productions we’d ever been part of.
“One time – and you won’t believe this – I was Casca in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max version of Julius Caesar,” I said, thinking I had just played my trump card. I had left my high heels sprawled like fallen soldiers on the floor, and now tucked my feet under me on the couch.
“Oh, Haley,” he said, unimpressed, dismissing my comment with a wave. “Everyone has played Casca in a post-apocalyptic Mad Mad version of Julius Caesar at some point.”
Eventually we spent a night apart because it seemed like a sensible thing to do. We had both agreed.
We slept like hell, and met for breakfast the next morning.
“The first thought I had when I came downstairs was, ‘She didn’t make coffee,’ followed by, ‘Oh, she’s not here.’ It was awful. Let’s agree never to do that again.”
We dated for six weeks before he came home one night, late, the evening before I was supposed to fly home to see my parents in Texas. I was in my nightgown sitting up in bed reading. (I’d spent the evening writing one and two-lined love notes, all private references like “Horse-drawn carriage pirates,” and stashing them in hidden locations around the house; we’d find them for months afterwards, in the freezer, behind the Scotch, taped to the bottom of the laundry basket.)
“Hey,” he said, and sat down on the edge of the bed by my feet. “I pulled up in the driveway tonight, and I could see the bedroom light was on. And then I came upstairs, and here you were, in bed, with the dogs, in your polka-dot nightgown, reading. And it occurred to me just now: I don’t ever want you to not be here. I want to come home to you always. So let’s just get married.”
I could sense the hesitancy in people’s voices when I told them. Some expressed speculation. At one point, a mutual friend approached us separately and told us we would only bring one another heartache. But love isn’t merely blind—it’s also deaf.
Back home in Texas, I told my parents at the airport. My father threatened to disinherit me, but my mother knew the look on my face when she saw it, and she took me home and gave me my great-grandmother’s wedding set.
We had the rings resized. On his way back from the jeweler, Luke (being an impetuous man) saw a 1930s bedroom set in an antique store. Having listened to me complain about the utter lack of any furniture in the bedroom for six weeks, he bought all three gigantic pieces then and there.
When I came home, he’d looped the engagement and wedding rings over the lingerie bureau key and set them on the vanity bench.
“It looked like you,” he said. “The wedding set may be from your mother, but this is an engagement set from me.”
For his twenty-seventh birthday, a month after we were engaged, I gave him an old-fashioned pocket-watch with his initials engraved on the front; it is still what he uses to tell time with when he runs shows.
We spent the summer traveling, visiting friends. Before our first trip together, he gave me Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves with the inscription, “The house is me. The house loves you.” And Danielewski was right: the first time I read it, I thought it was a horror novel. The second time I read it, I realized it was a love story. I have read it every year since we’ve met. It remains a love story still.
At Christmas, my mother sent me our ornaments from when I was a child, and he brought up his own from the basement, and we put records on the stereo and we decorated our tree and told stories about each thing we hung upon the branches. I sewed stockings for weeks during the day, like my mother had for years, painstakingly attaching sequins and hand-lettering our names on the front in stitched script. I concocted elaborate holiday cookies and pastries for Luke to bestow nightly on the members of the run crew. On Christmas Eve, we realized we’d each bought four times as many presents for the dogs as for each other.
We were married a year from the day we met. We officiated our own wedding, and staged it as a play, “A Marriage in Three Acts,” and including vaudevillian cue cards, and actors bios and advertisements for our two theaters in our wedding playbill.
Our fourth wedding anniversary was on March 22, and it becomes harder and harder with each year to rifle through my memory for snapshots before Luke. I have known him, and loved him, for the blink of an eye and a thousand years.
Photo provided by Haley B. Elkins
This article originally appeared, in different form, on haleyelkins.com