By: Damon Ferrell Marbut
You could have told me anything about relationships when I was in graduate school, anything about how they function or operate, and I generally would not have listened. Love? I was all in because I saw it as some sort of universal right of every person. Not in so much of an idealistic way like some of my academic colleagues freely admitted, but in terms of energy and light and an overall persevering manner of living under some bright and pulsating canopy of love. You could have told me (and many people did tell me) that I was full of shit, while many others said I was correct in ignoring the stuff of relationships and honing in more specifically on love. Friends serve as testing ground for love and relationships, making it arguably easier when it comes to the relationship, the love-of-one’s-life sort of situation.
But you never did tell me much about the little stuff. The important stuff.
The first seventy-five percent of my relationship with Mitchell, to date, was spent attempting to train one another on the journalistic obligations of our own telling: who I am, what I’m about, when I’m at my best and worst, where I place you most often (head or heart), why I’m difficult vs. why you perceive me as difficult, and how we see all this lasting the both of us a happy lifetime. You’ve all been through some form of it, or go through it still. I remember even in my mid-twenties, how I said I couldn’t wait to be sixty years-old. Not to wish my life away, but to know more than I knew then. The desire has changed, and it’s fair to say none of you warned me I’d decide differently in the future. So for that I tell you thanks for letting me figure out how good, no, how invigorating the process itself is of learning personal definition of “relationship” for myself and with another.
With Mitchell, the way I see it is our relationship began its test of time at the grocery store. When I still lived in the French Quarter, I’d spend my days off at his house (where we both now live) uptown in Riverbend. While I’d take a cab or the streetcar, once there we usually walked everywhere or occasionally rode bikes to the market at Claiborne and Carrollton. Let’s step back a moment and realize that prior to this shift in life momentum, I was a boozy bartender/writer working off Bourbon Street. I walked the neighborhood for common wares but drank too much and too often to ride a bike without expediting my own death. Mitchell was different. He smoked pot, rode his bike everywhere and spent time dancing in a studio down the street from his house, working fine dining and doing shows from Riverbend to the Bywater. I’m stating all this quickly so you’ll understand that not much changed since I was in your classrooms. Well, not until Mitchell and I became a couple. The point is my life was about observation and destruction in bars and not enveloped by a healing practice of exercise on some goddamn bike with recyclable bags sweating my way to fresh produce. It just wasn’t me. But I fell in love with Mitchell early on, and much of my brain recognized I needed to at least consider this change of lifestyle. The relationship would call for it.
You’ll meet Mitchell the next time we ride through Mobile and I decide to tour him across our campus. And no matter what he tells you to the contrary, this is exactly how it all used to go down, from the beginning until maybe the eighteen or twenty month mark:
“I’ll go ahead and get a list started.”
“Ok.” He’d answer. And it wasn’t a flat “ok.” It was an I-can-hear-the-shoulder-shrug-in-your-voice “ok.” Infuriating.
“I mean, we don’t have to. I just don’t want to forget anything.”
“I usually just get the staples. Bagels, avocado, pasta, orange juice, eggs. That’s really it.”
“I’m staying here the next three nights so I thought we’d get more.”
“Ok, buddy.” He’d say, slipping his arm through grocery bag straps near the front door. I’d take my bike and walk it behind his, just for him to tell me to go ahead, that he was waiting for me. “Get whatever you want.”
Let’s back this up another quick moment. I was raised in a mad house of structure, where most things were planned. Finish breakfast by 6:40 ‘cuz that’ll give you just enough time to get your uniforms on if you don’t fight over the bathroom for twenty minutes. Even the most spontaneous things I experienced in childhood came from my mother’s suggestions. Well, kids. We’ve got the whole day to ourselves to just do nothing if we feel like it. Just let the day take you where the wind’s blowing. Did I mess that saying up? Honey, why don’t you help your sister fold laundry then ya’ll go take a nap while I watch my Sunday movies?
So with that neurosis as foundation, the last thing I needed or thought I needed from a partner was indecipherable code. What does he mean by this?
We’d get to the store, not a large one at that, and it was like a gunshot had been fired and greyhounds were down the lanes. Mitchell became a blur. Two ambrosia apples? Check. Bananas? Ok! Avocados are hit or miss, so I’ll get two. Everything bagels. Yes! Blackberry preserves? I might be low. I didn’t check. Oops. Yogurt by the eggs just past the whole milk for coffee. Boom. Done and done! Where’s Damon? Oh, I’m sure he’ll get coffee. I think I heard him say something about adding it to his list. Where is that boy? Oh well. Time to check out. To each her own! Guess I’m gonna go unchain my bike outside and wait.
Meanwhile I’m walking back and forth down the longest back stretch of the store, from frozen vegan “cheese” bites to farm-raised catfish, waving a couscous box at the ghost of my future husband. After checking out, in mild panic (not because I feared him kidnapped, but rather, that
I’d gone over my allotted time and therefore lost out on some unspoken and un-promised prize) I’d trot out toward the corner of the store after barely avoiding body-checking an unsuspecting elderly woman reaching for a cart by the front door, only to see Mitchell with his foot resting on a pedal of his bike, the chain we used to secure both vehicles to the outdoor rack then around his waist, thumbing around on his cell phone. He’d look up at me from behind sunglasses.
“Buddy!” I’d exclaim, breathless and joyful and curious and a little concerned. “Where’d you go?”
And before I could get to him, he’d shrug. “What? I’m done. Just waiting out here for you to finish making friends with all the cashiers.”
A couple times a guy is friendly with strangers. It’s in my Alabama blood. Unlike his. A boy from Los Angeles, and I learned this as we went along, takes a little more time to get used to a Southern sense of diplomacy when it comes to exchanging goodwill with fellow humans. In Mitchell’s defense, I did go long-winded (according to his social calculus) a few times, but I was never in a rush when I was uptown spending my off days with him. How was I to know my patience in listening to the woman at the register ranting about her shithead of a boyfriend was detrimental to my pending pasta dinner and movie with Mitchell? There’s no manual for mindreading. You just pick it up at some point or you don’t. But you have to laugh about it as it goes along or it all falls to pieces. But Mitchell, for a long, long time, shook his head in disbelief more than nodded with understanding laughter.
So then I took it. For months and months I went on with the stress of it. I kept with it, I maintained it, I took on redemption as my challenge each and every time we went to the store when I’d visit, suggesting and hinting best I could that maybe we could go slower, maybe we could not rush. Maybe we could bring a list and walk together. Sometimes he’d say “ok” with his stock ambiguity and then, once there, I could hear the “Psyche yo mind!” game from childhood roar into my ears when I’d turn to discuss the lovely merits of a Pink Lady apple and whoosh! he’d already have turned two corners, funneling mixed nuts and raisins into a plastic container from a bulk bin and cursing because he couldn’t find their marker to put the sale number on its lid.
“Did you get the asparagus, babe?” I’d ask, leaping over the public strangling of him in which I longed to engage.
“No.” He’d say, not looking at me before walking off toward a shelf of coconut water. “I thought you were gonna get it.”
So I’d go back to get the asparagus, only to find him six aisles over and ready to check out.
“I got us a red bell pepper while I was over there.”
“Why?” Mitchell would ask. “I already got one. I thought I told you.”
“You didn’t. That’s why I thought we’d go over the list together.”
“Well.” Shrugging his shoulders at that point just meant, at my boiling point, that he preferred I go fuck myself sideways with a two-liter of soda. He would always shrug his shoulders when my soul cried out for him not to do it. “Then I guess we’ll have two. Unless you wanna take yours back.”
Now, clearly, Mitchell and I are fine and managed to surmount this. Turns out, as much as it stressed me out to follow him up and down side streets to and from the store, it stressed him out to be jammed into that tightly packed market when it was busy when he simply knew what he wanted and didn’t feel compelled to nose around romantically like we were in fucking Venice. And apparently what I wanted from the whole trip was to go slowly, in his stress space, because I was terrified on both sides of being there. It seems we’re a pair of assholes, but joining forces as a couple brings into light those idiosyncrasies we otherwise would have just gone on considering to be normal.
And these days we do make a list. I always carry it, but we walk the list out together. I leap out at him from behind a magazine stand or rack of flip-flops, kiss him on the back and shoulders as he tucks inward and defends himself against the onslaught before saying, “Look at you being affectionate in public.” But again I go back, only this time to you, mentors. When we sat around the workshop rooms and everything was on table and on the line, when hearts were stirring and honesty was frightening in thought and speech and writing and craft and future schooling and education and scholasticism, when we told stories about our lives in poetry and spoke of personal history as objectively as we could muster, when we lit each other’s cigarettes and cried a time or two and stormed down hallways and said nasty things about one another in heated moments, when we talked about love and relationships and the future of either, where the hell were you when talking about the goddamn little things?
You were in the best position I can imagine, as teachers. You got out of our ways. You certainly got out of mine. True signs of brilliance in instruction, to know when silence in a moment can guarantee at least a decade of understanding. It’s with you that I learned to shut my mouth, in turn. Sometimes I’d try, with friends, to be quiet but give that knowing look, which is silly and pretentious and begs to meet inquiry so the knowledge can suddenly spill forth in a perceived rush of good intention. But now I get the silence. It’s as simple as that. Now I know at least that much.
A terrific sign of our evolution as a couple manifested itself recently. For the longest time, when my first novel was coming out and I was writing a bunch of articles on publishing and some individual poems were publishing with reviews and presses, I was the least adventurous man of New Orleans you’d ever meet. And I could tell it bothered Mitchell to the threshold of strangling me I’d once neared regarding him years back at the market. If I had to work at four in the
afternoon and I woke at eleven, I’d basically eat a late breakfast and stumble about the house, maybe do light stretches, maybe go for a bike ride but never, ever, was I willing to leave for errands with him because I didn’t want to be in a rush back to the house to get ready for work at a job I likely wouldn’t keep longer than six months. I’d still not found that ideal job I could write my books around, so when it came to a day of wanting to write being interrupted by the realities of needed income, I’d bid him adieu and pout alone until time to head to work. I’ve since gotten over this attitude as well.
But this recent enlightenment.
I’d started a new job at a café nearly four miles from our home. I rode my bike there several days a week. I was happy there, as the food was good, the chef/owner was a good man and his people (soon to become my people) were good workers with kind dispositions I’d not come across so generally in New Orleans in my four years of residence at that point. I was working one late morning before I had to be in at five. I think I was working on formatting notes from my editor concerning a book being published in Canada. Mitchell approached me as I sat on the couch.
“You wanna go to look for furniture with me if I promise to have you home by three?”
“I’m not taking a shower.”
“I love you even when you stink. See you at the car?”
We took to Airline Highway and stopped at several stores. The treasure was a dining room table, chairs for it, and a sofa for a family property around the corner from our house. We’d guaranteed “furnished” for the place and were up against a deadline, all of this around his traveling to Paris twice for a show with his dance company and me trying to sell a novel while doing the poetry collection with my Canadian editor who plucked my old work from obscurity when no American editor wanted it. It’s like everyone met me in this country when I was in graduate school and said, Not that prick.
I don’t remember the names of these places. I do know Mitchell was serious, never in need of my opinion on such matters, but glad I was there for conversation/moral support/arms for lifting if needed. Nothing took. We threw in the towel. I tested him with a threat: There’s a BBQ place across the street if you wanna buy me lunch. We found an antique store with old men, old Southern men like I was back home with the country side of my family, sitting outside, no, settin’, saying How ya’ll are? as we entered the building. I followed Mitchell around the place, up a set of stairs into a swelter where we both lost interest, walked back down to be greeted by several employees in the back who said, Let us know if we can hep with anythin’, and we said we were just browsing.
Mitchell sprung it on me, then. We went to a leather store. I thought he was kidding.
“No, honey. I’ve been thinking about building us a head board for the bed and I’ve thought maybe doing a leather binding would be cool.”
It was June-hot and almost awful out. We went in to look around. While I was interpreting Mitchell’s motives for being there, we were pulled into this unexpected conversation with the store manager. All I remember is talks of hides, and then colors, and we were suddenly sprinting around this warehouse space, and all this goddamn talk. Mitchell was disarmed but oddly on his game and the woman who ran the place was running everywhere, all over, screaming about cows and saying, Oh, that’s a great piece as she shook them out straight on to the floor, and there was Mitchell claiming to spot water marks, and she agreed, and then she tugged us off into another corner, and out of nowhere my husband whispers into my ear as he’s passing me to chase her, I’m so sorry! as I wonder who this man is and what he’s done with my Mitchell but dazzle me with all the shit he’s got crammed in his head he’s yet to share with me. He’s hanging with her at this point. He knows her language and I’m reminded he’s traveled the world and worked in theaters I’ve never smelled or felt or read about.
“Now that’s what I was thinking!” He whispered to me as she lugged two hides over her shoulder and trekked toward the front counter. Her co-worker was a strange man on his knees two aisles over, only yelling out once to the conversation to scream about pain pills. Mitchell pointed at three cow hide patterns draping over a metal rack. “I was gonna go all western at home with that fuzzy shit!” And then he tickled my balls through my shorts as I looked for cameras and pushed him toward the front.
Two-hundred and fifty dollars later we’re back in the car, catching our breaths. We suddenly owned two old night stands, sold to us by a man who said, They call me the Special Man. Keep ya head above wata, main! and an off-turquoise cow hide coupled with a seven-foot stretch of beige. Mitchell will correct my interpretation of these colors, so when you meet him in Alabama, you can believe him on this.
“So.” Mitchell put our car in reverse as we left the Salvation Army. “Where do you want me to take you to lunch?”
I melted. Years of that shoulder shrug, and all my unmentioned resistance and bullshit, all of my training against his training—the endless marathon of love—and he still offered lunch.
“You don’t have to buy me lunch, baby. I’m not even hungry right now. I’m just glad to be out in the world with you.”
When I was in graduate school, and when you were teaching me, I was so mad and didn’t realize it. During orientation I remember I was asked to repeat my purpose in the program, and I said I was forced to go to business school, so a writing program was for me. And from that, you gave me room, an occasional editor position, a plant to piss in, and you let me be vulgar and loud as the reach of my self-defining came through. So here’s the weird thing. What you let me be, and what you encouraged by your silence, is what made this. This Damon. The student of yours who, one day, might be taught in a workshop for being the stuff of our relationship(s) that mattered way before the rest.
(Damon is the author of the coming-of-age novel Awake in the Mad World and the upcoming poetry collection, Little Human Accidents, which releases in September. He also has a novel under review for contract with a publisher, a fiction book based here in New Orleans where he lives.)