Thomas and Dustin

September 6th, 2010

I met Thomas and Dustin at a trendy restaurant inside the Seattle Art Museum, which Thomas carefully selected. He told me he had a vision for the setting of our interview. He wanted a place with clean design and lots of white. Later, he would reveal that everything was exactly as he imagined, and he was so happy.

Thomas and Dustin Love Story

And though I, too, was happy, I had no idea what to imagine when sitting down with the gregarious, yet surprisingly grounded, couple. We all share a mutual friend, but never spent any real time with each other. From a distance, I took note of how handsome the pair was, and how stylishly they dressed. They went to wine bars and brunch on top of mountains. They lived in a loft. I don’t know what kind of relationships I think cosmopolitan couples have, but I guess I inferred that there is a certain level of superficiality that matches the outer life they enjoy together. I blame Millionaire Matchmaker for that false assumption. Thomas and Dustin are solid gold, for sure, but not the kind you find in a bank. The kind you find under your feet. The foundation.

An illustration of the strength of their foundation comes from the fact that, when they speak, they give each other space to use their own words but manage to stay on the same page, proving they’re actually hearing the other person. Thomas would say something, Dustin would add to the story, and then pass it back to Thomas to complete the thought. It was entirely spontaneous, but almost artfully choreographed. They are clearly individuals, with their own opinions and identities, yet when they come together, they engage in this lovely dance with one another that makes them appear to be a unified whole. And they are. But they’ve got something figured out that most people never come to understand: the importance of balance. They do not lose themselves in each other. Instead, they dance on the same stage, far enough apart to be two dancers, but close enough to feel the same vibration beneath their feet. The vibration that can only come from two people dancing the same dance.

And so, to honor their dance, I’m going to let them tell their own story.

Curtain, stage left…

D: Right before I met Thomas, I created a rule for myself that I was not going to date anyone under 25 because everyone that age was either crazy or needed a parental figure of some sort. He just turned 26 when we met. I didn’t like him at first.

T: I thought he was trouble. I was dating someone at the time, but our friend Dana got us together. He was having an art party.

D: No, that’s not right. I was taking my dog to the dog beach and Dana said Thomas has a dog and would love to go to the beach with me because he didn’t like to get his car dirty. I told her to tell Thomas to meet me at my house and we’d go together. I think he thought I was mentally off when we first met. I was a little socially awkward at the time.

T: He was a different person than the usual people in Tampa. He doesn’t have this very sunshine view of everything. Has a little bit of dark and twisted in him, which interested me. What interested me the most, though, was that he was an artist. I found that fascinating. A lot of his views come from the ideas he fabricates when he does his artwork. He has a different view of everything, and I found that really refreshing.

D: You thought all that when I first opened the door? I started to like Thomas that day at the beach. He came prepared with sandwiches and snacks for both the dog and himself. He also brought extra food and water for me and my dog, Suzy.

T: I also had towels and umbrellas.

D: I thought, “This guy is a real catch.” That’s when Suzy fell in love with you, too. She thought, “Usually, dad makes me drink out of the hose before we leave.” Well, that, and I thought he had nice legs.

T: At that time, things weren’t working well with my ex.

D: I had just turned 30.

T: A month and a half later, when he found out from a mutual friend I had broken up with my ex, I got a call from him.

D: The first thing I told him on our date was, “Let’s just get one thing out of the way. I am not a real estate agent.”

T: I never understood what he meant by that.

D: It was crazy for me to think someone who dated a real estate agent would date a crazy artist like me. His ex was like superman to me. I was going to drum and bass shows. I was successful, but in a different way.

T: That’s just what I needed, though.

D: I didn’t have to live up to being a real estate agent.

T: We were honest from the get go. We put everything out there and said, “This is who I am.”

D: We didn’t have the same circles. We would have these amazing dinners and afterwards, we’d go our separate ways. We took it really slow. Didn’t move in together until 2 years later.

T: We were individuals. We collaborated on a lot of things, but still had our own sets of interests. He did his art, I did my dancing, and we came together in the middle. We didn’t feel obligated to always hang out with each other. You can never lose yourself in a relationship. You always have to have that individuality.

D: Put us into a party and we don’t sit next to each other. We like to travel the room separately, then meet back up.

T: In this relationship we are individuals, but people still know us as a couple. When you go from relationship to relationship and think about what failed or what you wish could’ve been different, you start using that for the next one and don’t repeat the same mistakes.

D: You have to learn to love yourself so you can love others.

T: When we first started dating, he liked the fact that I had opinions. We don’t always have to agree on the same things.

D: Which makes it great. Sometimes.

T: I didn’t fall in love with him because he agrees with me all the time.

D: You like my OCD.

T: I like that if I need a different idea, I can always go to him for a different perspective. I like that it’s not always rosy. I always felt that if you don’t have a little disagreement in the relationship, then there was no more spark. We fight all the time. There are some times I want to throw something at his head.

D: Sometimes I look at him and think, “I’m done with you.” I think I have a mental breakup once a week. But we always have to give each other a kiss every night before we go sleep. You can’t stay mad after that.

T: That’s a rule of mine. Never go to sleep mad. He’ll sometimes give up on the conversation, but I won’t. It’s better to get it out of the way, so in the morning, all the pressure and stress is lifted.

D: I have certain triggers for moods. So if I’m unhappy, I really have to look at what’s making me unhappy and usually it’s something I have to change within myself. The relationship is solid, so if something needs to change, it’s me. I need to be alone and have time to create. Sometimes I’ll get mad at Thomas for stupid things, and usually it’s because I haven’t created in awhile and I’m projecting on him rather than changing my actions.

T: I’ve definitely learned to have more patience. Not everyone is as open as I am. I tell people how I’m feeling at any given moment, and some people need to analyze first. I expect Dustin to tell me everything, but sometimes he doesn’t want to release any information because he processes first, and I don’t understand that. I have to tell myself to back off sometimes when I expect him to tell me what he’s thinking.

D: A lot of times he tells me I’m just hungry. He’s usually right.

T: Sometimes you have to ask someone, “When this comes up again, what would you like me to do?”

D: I like brutal honesty. Sometimes Thomas just tells me to just get over it.

T: Dustin is often blunt, but you have to remind yourself that it’s coming from a good place. Like some of the comments he makes on my cooking. They’re not cherry-flavored comments. Sometimes I get a little mad because I’ve put my heart into it. But he’ll give suggestions, like to put a little less cilantro in it because it overtakes the flavor.

D: We’re foodies. We don’t compliment food just to compliment it.

T: That’s who he is, and it’s what I like about him. He told our friend her corn was cold. And it was.

D: I’m a little bit darker and you’re a little bit lighter. You’re like a living gummy bear.

T: I’m like sunshine.

D: I’m like sunset.

T: That is what makes our relationship so good. We’re not complete opposites, but opposite enough to appreciate each other.

D: We both come from a lot of divorces and failed relationships. I’ve learned some really basic rules from other people’s unhappy relationships: Always be truthful, always communicate and always respect each other. If you don’t want to do any of those, you shouldn’t be in a relationship.

T: A lot of things we’ve noticed with others is that they’re full steam ahead and don’t really take time to evaluate. We took it slowly. I didn’t even let my shoes live at his place for one and a half years.

D: It’s been five years, and we just got a joint checking account.

T: We took our time making decisions.

D: After time, more of a partnership/relationship started to develop. Thomas is great at organizing and I’m not. There are certain roles we’re really good at, and we let each other shine.

T: He’s great at decorating and home projects that I couldn’t even fathom doing. The most unique thing I love about him is he can look at anything and make it into something functional, whereas I’d look at it and just see a paperweight.

D: But we can get 15 of them, string them together, and we’ve got a paperweight chandelier!

T: We’re not on a plan. We don’t have to meet certain checkpoints at a certain time. We’re just letting things flow the way they are.

D: We exchanged rings two years ago. It was just like a promise – a promise for tomorrow. No super formal commitment stuff. Plus, I kind of wanted jewelry.

T: When I look at it, I’m always thinking of him. But today we were eating crawfish. I had to take mine off.

T: When you’re in a relationship, you have to ask yourself, “Is this person worth staying in a relationship for? Is it worth all this heartache for the next day?” Every day I think about it, and the answer is always yes. I’m so glad to be in this relationship with him. He’s been a really big support for me and has helped me go for things I wouldn’t have otherwise gone for. He encourages me.

D: When I first met Thomas, the first thing I liked were his legs.

T: I had perfect teeth, too.

D: But I also liked that he inspires greatness in everybody. It’s effortless. If you’re having a bad day, it’s nice having Rainbow Brite sitting next to you.

T: OMG, he’s got all these nicknames for me. Another important thing is you always have to make the other person feel beautiful and always compliment them, but don’t lie.

D: You can never get too comfortable. You need to keep dating. And wooing.

T: I let him know when he’s wearing something he shouldn’t. Like those pants.

D: You doubted the polyester.

T: He’s gotten really great compliments on those tight, brown polyester pants.

D: They look really good with my boots.

T: Humor’s another thing. If I couldn’t laugh with him at least two or three times a day, I don’t know how we’d survive. Many of my past relationships were so one-sided. I like to talk.

D: About more things than your workout routine.

T: Yeah, or the chicken I ate that day.

Right before we leave the restaurant, Thomas pulls out his phone and there’s a picture of Dustin’s eyes on it.

T: He’s watching me all day.

D: That’s just because you can’t change your wallpaper!

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Helgi and Kate

August 30th, 2010

Helgi and Kate Love Story

It was love at first height.

That’s how Helgi tells the story, at least.

He says he spotted her first – mostly because it was hard not to spot her, but that’s the part that drew him to her in the first place. Kate is a tall woman. Model tall, with a movie star smile, porcelain features and skin most women would die to have. Helgi is basketball tall, with rugged good looks and an accent to boot. All of these superficial markers are evident immediately upon meeting the couple. What isn’t evident, however, is how perfectly they fit together when it comes to the fundamental stuff. Like how well their personalities complement each other. How kind they both are. How passionate they are about gardening, travel, animals and the outdoors. How close they both are with their families. How they make each other laugh. How they motivate each other and believe in and support each other’s dreams. That’s the kind of stuff height alone can never reveal.

Of course, all of that would take time to come clear. For now, on this night in November of 2003, when they first met, they would notice each other’s eyes. And, of course, the bad makeup job.

That’s what Kate remembers, at least.

“He was wearing a black leather jacket and bright red stage makeup, pancaked on his face,” she says, shaking her head.

It was a Day of the Dead party, held the day after Halloween, and everyone had to dress up. Kate came as a southern belle, in a shiny green dress with lots of lace.

Helgi tried to come as a demon, but, as he so aptly explains, “Couldn’t find any stupid horns, so I just looked constipated.”

Debutante meets constipated demon. Kate meets Helgi.

Kind of like the southern version of Cinderella, Kate showed up in her shiny blue dress right at the stroke of midnight.

Her take on how they met: “I walked in. He saw me first, and I guess he was following me around. I looked around for someone to dance with, and there’s this tall guy, and I was excited, so I did the head nod to ask him to dance. He says he did the head nod to me. I remember we talked about art. I thought, ‘This guy’s nice, but it isn’t gonna last.’ I remember at one point in the evening, I was in the bathroom, trying to get all his red face paint off my dress from when we were dancing. There were all these strangers in the bathroom, trying to get the red off with Kleenex. Later, while standing in line for beer, I somehow put myself down, because I’m so tall. And Helgi immediately speaks up and says something like, ‘I love tall women. I think you’re beautiful.’ My friend Sarah decided right that second she could go home, and I’d be fine. He would take care of me. The next day, we went to brunch. He’s still wearing this leather jacket from the 80s. And he had on really tight, skinny pants. I thought, ‘What the hell is he wearing? I don’t know if I can go out with him.’ He hated the food, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’”

His take: “I was not having a lot of fun at the party, but enjoying the music. Kate walks in. I noticed her because she’s tall. I told my friend, ‘I want her.’ I walked over to her with the intention of giving her the head nod. I’m shy around women. I’ve always been shy — and retarded. We danced for 3 or 4 hours. And with the red paint, well, I guess I put my mark on her. We had a horrible brunch the next day.”

So, to recap: Red face paint all over her dress and cheeks, a dated leather jacket AND a bad brunch experience. Most people would just go their separate ways, but not the demon and the southern belle. Helgi called the next day, and that was pretty much that.

After an inseparable courtship, it became obvious to both of them that a solid commitment was close on the horizon. But then there was the septic tank.

Kate recounts the “crappy” nature of Helgi’s proposal: “We had both discussed marriage a lot. We had talked about, if you were to propose, what would you want it to look like? Helgi said he thinks it’s hoakey to do it in a restaurant in front of people. I said I didn’t care, but as long as it’s not on a climbing trip. And when it’s a good moment. So we went on this trip in Northeast Oregon in the Blue Mountains. It was an enchanted place filled with wildflowers. But very remote. No toilets. I hadn’t showered for four days. We’re talking about how we want to get land someday and build a house with a toilet, and a septic system, and we can’t live with a latrine. And I’m talking about the specifics of septic systems, and then he says, ‘Do you wanna get married?’ Based on the parameters I’d given him, I can’t think of a worse place to propose. But I said yes. We drove to the supermarket, which was 60 miles away, so I could call my sister and my mom. We sat on the back of his truck, which he called the turkey truck. There was no ring, no knee, and I was smelly.”

Helgi’s retort: “Women were always attracted to the turkey truck because it made sounds like a turkey.”

I suppose humor is key when septic systems are involved. But then there was the matter of the wedding. A big affair was planned, then, one-and-a-half months before the wedding, Helgi was laid off from his job. So in the last minute, everything was moved around and the couple wed at Kate’s parents’ house.

Here’s a clue about what the rest of your life together will look like if you have no money, your wedding crumbles before your eyes and you have to fly by the seat of your pants, but you end up laughing about it: pretty sweet.

Kate says she looked like a flamenco dancer in her dress. She asked her mom’s friend Corky to become a minister just to officiate the wedding. Helgi’s friend played the fiddle. Someone read an Icelandic poem. Kate’s mom’s friends catered the food, which included gluten-free wedding cake and cream puffs. Kate and Helgi giggled all the way through.

“We were so happy and just having fun,” Kate recalls. “I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.”

You might say that’s a personal statement of hers that has remained consistent throughout their lives together. It’s interesting, though, considering the amount of struggles they’ve had. Most people would get really stressed out and fight and maybe even break up. But the hard stuff is what has always kept their relationship strong.

Like when two really tall people lived together in Kate’s 350 square-foot apartment. Or when Helgi went back to school to finish his Bachelor’s degree for two years and they had just one income. And how, because of this, they had to wait THREE years to take their honeymoon. Things were great by this time, though, as Helgi had a job, and they spent a lovely month in Thailand. But when they got back, they quickly discovered that Helgi’s company folded without word to any of its employees. Including Helgi.

What couple could weather such uncertainty?

Guess who?

“Twice now, we’ve gone through rough patches financially,” Helgi notes, “and we now know how to handle things. If something happens, I feel like we can deal with it.”

Kate says she noticed that when things get really bad, she learned that she could be very supportive. She admits that, before, she didn’t think she was the sort of person who would be that way. In fact, she says she would’ve left 50 times in the first two years to get a breather from it all, had it not been for something Helgi said to her long ago.

“Helgi told me he always stayed friends with his ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife,” she recalls. “But he said he loved me so much that if we ever broke up, he could never stay in touch with me because he couldn’t take it. So when things get rough, and I want to leave, I think about how he would never talk to me, and know I’d be a wreck.

“He makes me feel loved. He doesn’t fight. Even with the financial difficulties, I have absolute and complete faith in him. He would never even look at another woman. He tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and I think he means it. That makes me cry, because I always needed that. It makes me feel alive.”

On the day after their wedding, Helgi left Kate a note that read, “Happy first day of marriage. I love you.”

Even if there was no note, it is completely obvious to me that these are two people who definitely want to be together. Not because they’re tall. Or they share similar beliefs about septic systems. Because they’re one of those couples you read about in books or see in movies, but don’t think are real because you secretly believe people just don’t stick it out like this in real life.

But I’ve met Kate and Helgi. They’re as real as can be. In the mornings, Helgi imitates the Cookie Monster while they’re having breakfast, and Kate records him singing, “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me,” on her Iphone.

For Kate and Helgi, C is for commitment, and it’s pretty darned sweet.

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Denise and Ryan

August 23rd, 2010

Denise and Ryan

They were playing ping pong in a bar – he paddling furiously and jumping around the table as if engaged in a serious battle, and she calmly standing in one place, neatly moving her paddle from side to side without much of a fuss.

From a distance, it looked almost as if she was disinterested, and he the clear master of the game. In five minutes, it was all over. They walked back to their seats without a word.

“Who won?” I asked.

“I did,” she said, calmly.

She was neither delighted nor upset, and he didn’t appear terribly dejected, nor did he look surprised. It seemed, almost, that this had happened before. Or, perhaps, it happened all the time.

When I asked her later, she verified that I was correct in my assumption.

“Ryan is very dramatic,” she said, taking a sip of her soda. “But I play the game.”

After knowing Denise for nearly two years, I can see this is true. Only the game she refers to isn’t really a game at all. It’s her life. And she plays it well.

But then, so does he. Together, the two make one amazing team.

They met at summer camp when they were 12. She was the shy bookworm and he was the gregarious charmer every girl pined after. One look and she was hooked. But she was not about to vie for his attention. For the next two years, she’d watch countless girls at camp write, “I love Ryan” on the bathroom walls. One girl even slept with a photo of Ryan next to her bed. “Don’t you think Ryan and I make a great couple?” she cooed, gliding her fingers across the frame. All the while, quiet and steady Denise was secretly fuming inside.

By the time Denise and Ryan were 14, they started spending a lot more time together. In fact, it appeared they might actually be an item. Once, after Bible study, Ryan knocked on Denise’s cabin door. It was late. She was brushing her teeth. He stood at her doorstep, the moon a halo over his head, staring nervously at his feet. And then it happened. He dove forward, planting a tiny kiss on her cheek, then ran off, into the night, without a word. You might say that was the day he kissed his fate.

The next day, he had an important choice to make. Junior high pandemonium had set in, and the girls at camp were descending like vultures.

“He’s so charming and outgoing, so every girl automatically assumes he’s in love with them,” Denise says, noting that it’s an issue even today. “His personality is part of what I love about him, and I don’t blame others for loving those same parts of him. But I had to let him know it was not okay with me to flirt with every girl around. Not if he wanted me.”

And so, at 14, Denise did what most women never learn to do – she refused to compromise her principles just to appease someone of the opposite sex. She respected herself far too much. It was either her all the way, or none of her.

And he chose all of her. From that moment forward, at the age of 14, he chose her. And he never looked back.

Their love was never simple, however.  There were challenges early on. It was difficult enough when they lived two hours apart in Maine, but when he moved to Florida to live with his mom, the relationship was flailing out of control.

Then there was the marriage. They were both in college, and lived off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the first few years.

When they decided to move across the country from Maine to Seattle, they had to fit their entire lives in the back of a Jeep. They stopped along the way. She took pictures. They camped. She wanted to rip his head off at times. They were grumpy and tired. She had no job lined up. They had only a few hundred dollars in their bank account.

They were so young.

But here they are. They are older, but for them, the struggle isn’t close to being over. They are barely into their mid-20s. There is growth yet to be done, and mistakes to be made. But not even that reality fazes them. They will do what they always do – face whatever shows up together.

When most 20-somethings are still learning how to balance a checkbook, they are learning how to balance each other. While their peers are partying and hooking up with random people, they are holding hands in church, and baking cookies, which they hand out to the homeless on cold nights.

There is a quiet confidence to their love. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered. I look at them both, and I know, with certainty, that they’re going to make it. And somehow, this makes me really happy. It’s some of the clearest evidence I’ve ever seen that a truly solid relationship can withstand all the bumps in the road, all the growing pains, all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and all the states between Maine and Seattle, so long as the people in it are committed to the same things.

Denise and Ryan certainly are.

When I ask Ryan how he knew, all those years ago, that Denise was it, he admits he didn’t know that. Not in the beginning, at least.

“She was all in at 14,” he remarks, “and I was easily distracted by female attention. I think once I got over the female attention part of it, I realized that Denise loved ME (every bit of me), and I loved Denise (every bit of Denise). After my hiatus of flirtation and cheesy relationships, I chose to commit to the woman I could see building a life with. She makes me a better person and encourages my personal growth as a human. I think I realized this at a certain point and it drove my desire to commit. She woke me up through her honesty (and sassiness!). I think it was instinctual because of how she regards me.”

That honesty (and sassiness!) is perhaps their saving grace. Because they’re vocal about their feelings, and air out their laundry on the spot, they have developed successful coping mechanisms people twice their age have often failed to master.

“It was tricky getting married with no money, while still in college, so we basically had to learn life skills together,” Ryan admits. “I think the fact that we don’t harbor things helped us to learn to be there for each other. The first year we were married was no picnic, but I am thankful it was hard. It gave our relationship character and strength. Do we still want to rip each other’s heads off from time to time? Yes. But that is the beauty of relationship. You take the good and the bad.”

He takes it with great appreciation. How could he not? He knows about evolution. He knows that what happens between the ages of 14 and 24 is only a tiny window into what happens in a lifetime. And he’s so darned excited to watch the story unfold.

Like the part about how he finds himself loving things about Denise he didn’t even realize before. And how she’s so kind and giving, and basically how he doesn’t have enough time to tell me all the things he loves about this woman.

And so I tell him to stop. That I’ve heard just about enough. And I have. Because now my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. And I have a newfound appreciation for love stories. And I want to write more. And so I begin.

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