It was a Sunday—March 2, 2008—when Stephanie Roma-Brown, the bride who wore French cuffs, noticed that her husband seemed to be taking an awfully long shower. She was vacuuming, preparing for friends who were coming for brunch.
“I thought, ‘Dammit, why is he in the shower? I didn’t get to shower.’ ”
But annoyance turned to panic when she found Stewart in the bathroom, confused, wearing a shirt, no pants, and one sock. “He couldn’t stand up,” Stephanie says. “He was completely incoherent.”
At the hospital, the news wasn’t promising: “They found a big mass on the back of his head, and they said, ‘It’s either a tumor or an aneurysm. And we hope for your sake it’s a tumor.’ ” Stewart was sent to Washington Hospital Center for evaluation.
“The next morning was a Monday,” Stephanie recalls, “and they said, ‘We’ve gotten all the results. He has a brain aneurysm, and we’re going to operate tomorrow.’ ”
“There’s a 50-percent chance that he lives,” says Stephanie, tears streaming down her face. “They say, ‘We don’t usually allow children up here, but you should probably call them.’ I’ll never forget watching them walk down the hallway and leave. They may never see him again. I was okay for me, but they have no idea about the severity of this. They’re laughing. Daddy’s in a wheelchair. The doctors are like, ‘They have to leave now.’ ”
Everyone reacts to stress differently. Stephanie remembers thinking about the mundane.
“I had no idea who our mortgage was with, how much our mortgage was, where our savings accounts were. I knew nothing. Who our cable provider was. Nothing.”
The next morning, as her husband was being prepped, she recalls being bewildered by a haircut: “They were going to shave only half of it! And I was like, ‘If you’re gonna shave half his curly black hair, could you please just shave the other half? He’s gonna look ridiculous.’ ”
Stephanie can still remember the picture I took of her and her husband-to-be sitting in those big chairs on the altar at St. Ignatius, wearing that dress with the French cuffs. Stewart’s memory is pretty good, too, considering he’s survived an aneurysm. He wants to talk chairs, but for a moment I’m thrown off.
I ask what wedding photographs stand out. “The one of us up in the chairs,” he starts, but then I realize we’re talking about different chairs. “Whatever dance that was—the Jewish dance. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t know what it’s called—the hora? My Jewish buddies got us up in chairs. They lifted my parents up, her parents up. It was great. Awesome!”
I’m glad to hear such fond recollections. Like Stephanie, he can picture the photos in his head: one of him and his best friends doing shots of bourbon; one of Stephanie and her best friend, Michelle, and her sister, Nicole. “The one I really liked,” he says, “was us walking around the reflecting pool at Oxon Hill Manor.” I smile. I still can see myself running up this little hill to try and get the composition right on that.
I asked Stephanie whether things were great for a long time after her wedding, and she corrected me—she said things were good. Stewart’s assessment is more upbeat, though he acknowledges that things went south some time after their two boys started growing up. He and Stephanie officially separated on January 21, 2011.
“My aneurysm was in 2008. That was four years ago, eight years into our marriage. I think we were separating, going our own ways, growing apart. Once the kids were born and once they started getting a bit older, out of diapers, she just started looking for other things to do. I was more happy with the kids than with her. Being a dad was more fulfilling to me than being a husband.” He pauses. “This is all kind of retrospective.”
Stephanie told me basically the same thing. For her, the realization coincided with her husband’s surgery, that night when she should have been worrying about life and death but somehow ended up fixated on the revelation that her husband was a smoker: “ ‘A pack, pack and a half a day,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know that.”
“I don’t recall that,” Stewart says. “I don’t know what my answer was. I was smoking six months on, four months off, six months back on. She says she doesn’t recall ever noticing it on me, but that’s not true. Once every two months, she’d smell it on my breath and ask me if I smoked. And I’d always lie and say no. And then we’d move on.”
Does he see it as a metaphor as Stephanie does, a sign of increasing distance?
“We had grown apart. Did the aneurysm have something to do with it? I think that definitely had something to do with our separation. I had become more drawn away from things.”
“When you go in to see a marriage counselor,” Stephanie told me, “she says, ‘Take five minutes and write down what it is that attracted you to your mate, what made you fall in love, or what was really interesting.’ I wrote down things like he’s really different than me, he came from a different family, he grew up in a different way, and he lived all over the world. That he was sort of an enigma that I needed to figure out. That he went to boarding school and did all these things I never did. And he was cute and tall and had dark hair. That he was sweet and shy.
“So after she has you go through this exercise, the therapist says, ‘What’s the problem between you two?’ And everything you wrote down is the problem.”
As warning signs go, having one of your mother’s friends—whose husband had come out of the closet years earlier—whisper in your ear before your wedding, “Courtney, you know you’re marrying a gay man, right?” is up there.
On a brutally hot summer day nine years ago, I photographed Courtney Watson looking into an ornately framed mirror. Family tradition going back generations dictated that this photograph be made, even if it was a good deal stiffer than my documentary sensibility preferred. But I was happy to oblige. Courtney, the bride, was so easygoing about everything else.
“I must have been in denial—he courted me in a way only a fabulous gay man could. ”
I hadn’t thought much about Courtney or her wedding until recently, when an e-mail popped into my in-box, a request for a family portrait. “You photographed my wedding in 2003,” she wrote. “They are the most beautiful photos, and I love them. My ex came out of the closet to me a few years back, and sadly all the beautiful photos came down off the walls of my family’s homes.”
Courtney Watson now knows she spent the first few years of her marriage sleepwalking past the signs others were seeing. That friend who pulled her aside on her wedding day? Courtney laughed the comment off. “Oh, no, we get that a lot,” she told her.
“Stephen and I were never legally married,” she tells me when we connect by phone a few weeks after her e-mail.
Seconds ago, she was talking about the joy of seeing her husband finally get to be the center of attention on their wedding day (“I don’t think I’d ever seen Stephen so happy—it was so great to see the day dawn on him”) and the hysterics of almost exposing her breast during the processional when she had a wardrobe malfunction.
“Wait,” I say. “Go back. You guys didn’t actually . . . get married?”
In the 14 years since I began shooting weddings, couples occasionally have told me after the fact that they’d gotten married at the courthouse a week or two before, or sometimes after, the actual event, usually due to some logistical matter. But I’m not sure anyone has ever told me the wedding I shot never turned into a marriage.
Either way, the issue gets trumped quickly.
Stephen Miller and Courtney Watson—their names and some other details have been changed for this article—met in 1999 on a group date at a diner. They instantly bonded and became best friends. “He was beautifully dressed,” says Courtney. “He was talking about how Frank Sinatra was his favorite, about black-and-white films. I must have been in denial—he courted me in a way that only a fabulous gay man could.”
Four years later, the two decided to tie the knot. Kind of.
“I sort of view marriage as this insane declaration that people make. Two people in love is an insane state of affairs—then declaring in front of everyone that you’re going to remain in that insane, impeccable, one-love state for the rest of your life.”
Courtney thought of her mother, who didn’t have the option in 2003 of doing what her daughter was about to do.
“My mom is gay. Stephen and I didn’t sign the legal document because my mom couldn’t get married to the person who was her partner. It was almost an act of defiance. I view her commitment as no different from what our commitment would be: We’re a couple and we’re committed to each other and that’s it.”
Getting married also would have jeopardized Courtney’s student loans. So she and Stephen decided not to sign on the dotted line.
“But we had already set the ball rolling on the party. I didn’t really care about the paperwork part—it’s the declaration.”
And have a party they did. Stephen got to be the star, their families had fun, and two of their friends became engaged at the reception. But like Stephanie and Stewart Brown, they got tripped up by one little detail.
Courtney’s e-mail had already tipped me off that she was now living overseas with another man.
“Stephen and I weren’t legally married,” she tells me. “Thank God! We had our ceremony in 2003, but we never had a defined ending. It wasn’t until 2009 that we finally decided we had to declare publicly that we weren’t together.”
And why did you finally have to do that?
“Because I was pregnant with my current husband’s baby,” Courtney says, laughing. “We had a timeline that was no longer going to work with the rest of the world for Stephen to come out on his own terms.”