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Remains of the Day
Comments () | Published November 28, 2012

Courtney Watson was at first relieved to discover that her husband wasn’t obsessed with sex. But as time went on, “not obsessed” turned into not interested, which turned into anxiety attacks when the topic was even broached.

“I thought, ‘Oh, he’s being respectful.’ And after a few months, I started asking him, “How come you’re not voraciously after me?’ And he said, ‘You know, I’ve definitely had this problem in a few of my previous relationships. I think it’s because I’m from such a religious family.’

“His family literally speaks in tongues and dances with snakes. They’re serious about their Christianity, and being gay was not an option. And me, coming from a very not-religious family, I just accepted that was what was going on for him.”

But Courtney eventually put two and two together. “It was the most slow-dawning process on the planet. I’m a pretty intelligent person in some ways, but you would think I was next to brain-dead in this situation. I was so close to the situation, and I didn’t want to see.”

Still, Courtney was not ready to give up. “Everything else worked. He was still my best friend—so generous, so thoughtful.

“We just had that gay problem. My best friend is gay, my mom is gay, I am surrounded by the gay community. And I began to wonder if that was part of his choosing of me.”

Around 2007, as Courtney pushed her husband toward therapy, he pushed back in another direction.

“Find a lover, find a lover,” he told his wife.

For Courtney it was a nonstarter. “I’m not the kind of person who can really do that,” she says. “It’s just not the way I was built.”

In what would amount to an intermediate step, Courtney began chatting with people online. Discussion forums about cats led to discussion groups about cheap travel. And that’s how she found Alberto, who lived in Italy.

“Before I ever flirted with Alberto, I had a discussion with Stephen and I said, ‘I’d love to start with this person.’ And Stephen was very enthusiastic about it. It was a way for him to be off the hook.”

That’s how Courtney Watson—whose wedding to Stephen Miller I photographed back in 2003—ended up moving to a far-off land, remarrying, and having a baby girl, whom she named Alessandra. Yet she still didn’t give up on the man she had spent the last eight years with.

“I was living in Italy, and Stephen was really excited about Alessandra being born. He was looking to be a parenting figure in her life. We got a house, and it had a bedroom just for Stephen.

Courtney got a call from Stephen. “I need you, Courtney,” he cried. “Come home.”

“I had my husband, and I had my gay husband. I loved Stephen. I do love him—I always will. As far as Alberto and I were concerned, Stephen was family and we were going to be there for him. He was on the precipice of this life-changing declaration and discovery, and there was nobody in his life to support him through it.”

When Alessandra was around five months old, Courtney and Alberto, now settled in Italy, got a call from Stephen. He was sobbing. “I need you, Courtney,” he cried. “I need you to come home.”

“It was like a chant,” she recalls. “ ‘I’d rather be dead than gay. Help me, Courtney. I think I’m gay. Oh, God, what if I’m gay?’ He cried for half an hour. ‘Please don’t let me be gay, please don’t let me be gay.’ We cried together.”

Courtney and Alberto scraped together the money to fly back to America. Finally, after all these years, she would get the closure she sought. And Stephen would get the freedom he needed.

At least that’s what she thought.

In the days before Courtney’s trip home, the first since she’d remarried, Stephen continued to seek her help. “I’m terrified,” he told her. “All I do is fantasize about men.”

Stephen also hinted that he’d been spending time with an old friend of Courtney’s, a straight woman. “She’s really great,” he said. “And I sorta told her what was going on.”

At first Courtney was relieved: “I’m thrilled that he told somebody else as a support.” But when Stephen added, “I told her I sorta might be bisexual,” Courtney called him on it: “I said, ‘But Stephen, you’re not. Every relationship you’ve ever had with a woman ended because you’re not into that.’

“And he said, ‘But if I get it right this time, if I really, really try harder this time, maybe I can hide for another ten years, maybe for the rest of my life.’ ”

Courtney was irate: “Stephen, you can’t do that to her! She’s a good person. And you can’t do that to yourself. He said, ‘I know—I’m just really glad you’re coming.’ I thought that was the end of it.”

So they flew back to America: the wife who never was but who never stopped caring, the new Italian husband whom Stephen had encouraged Courtney to flirt with in the first place, and their five-month-old daughter.

But when they arrived, expecting to help Stephen through the process of coming out, he was nowhere to be found.

“He disappeared for three weeks,” Courtney says. “He doesn’t answer his phone. And I go to a party to see everyone and say, ‘Yay, here’s our new baby, here’s my new husband,’ and everyone is really weird about it.”

Stephen was supposed to be the one to explain to their family and friends why Courtney had left him, moved to Italy, and remarried—to tell everyone that he had encouraged her new relationship because he was gay.

But he hadn’t said anything.

“I kept my mouth shut for too long,” Courtney says. “I looked like I really wronged him. I looked like I just up and left the best man in the world.”

I have one question, I tell Courtney. The woman he said he had been spending time with—is she the woman he’s now dating?

“That’s the woman he’s now married to.”

“I can’t imagine ever doing it the same way,” Stephanie Roma-Brown is telling me. “I can’t imagine asking all my same friends to come together to watch me profess my love for someone the same way. I’ve already done that, and unfortunately it didn’t work out. I’m sure I wouldn’t rush right back into marriage, but I would want some sort of commitment from the other person. I don’t know how you work that out. Maybe there’s a simple way—it’s words and it’s a certain kind of love, but I can just never see myself sending out invitations to a wedding in the same way I did when I was 29.

“Maybe you hire a personal chef and everybody’s in your house and they’re in their socks and you’re having great wine. And he sits at one end of the table and you sit at the other and you stand up and you thank everyone for coming and you say this is a special night because XYZ. Or maybe it’s on the beach and everyone’s been swimming all day and you’re sandy and salty and you have somebody bring up a cooler of drinks, and you just sort of sit there and look across at each other. It doesn’t have to be all dressed up.

“You want to know what’s amazing?” Stephanie says. “How much you love someone and talk about things like how you’re going to raise your kids and how we’re going to spend the rest of our lives together. And which silverware we’re going to buy and what dinners we’re going to cook together and where we’re going to travel. And then you can end up really disliking them so much and having such strong feelings that are completely opposite.

“Then you step back when the anger sort of settles down and you say, ‘Okay, I love this person—I probably still do love him in some sort of way, and we have these beautiful children together and we’re going to be together forever.’ There hasn’t been one day since Stewart and I were separated that we haven’t talked. E-mails, cell phone, texting, telephone. There’s no losing this person—they’re there with you forever. However lightly or seriously you took the decision to marry that person, it is forever.”

A few weeks later, I ask Stewart if he feels the same way. “Now’s probably not a great time to ask me that,” he says. “When did you talk to her—a couple of weeks ago, right? Basically things have gotten pretty ugly now. We still e-mail about the kids, but we don’t talk anymore.

“We saw each other at the swim meet last night, and we didn’t say a word to each other. Right now I don’t really want to say anything to her.”

“Both of them were like therapy for me,” Julie Kluge says of her two children. We’re now watching Ethan’s soccer practice, an hour and a park removed from his sister’s. “They were the only way to get past all of it. They don’t let you feel bad for yourself when you want to.

“Emilie was a gift from God. She never even knew him, but she’s a continuation of him. She has no idea who he is other than what she hears from me and the rest of her family. She’s like—him. That’s what I have left.”

For Ethan it’s more complicated.

“He remembers a little bit. He’ll say, ‘If Dad was here, he would be my soccer coach, right? If Dad was here, he’d throw balls to me and swim with me in the pool, right?’ If you say to him, ‘Boy, you don’t miss a bit, Ethan—you can hear things from a mile away,’ he’ll say, ‘Oh, well, I get that from my dad.’ ”

Do they ever ask to see pictures?

“Ethan asks more than Emilie, because he’s a boy or he’s older or he knows him in some way. There seems to be a bigger void for him. He constantly tries to find connections, always trying to find a link back.”

Of course, Ethan has soccer. “Soccer was Bob’s thing,” Julie says. “He would watch any game—he’d go to Europe to watch games. He was one of those freaky people who, before it was even popular here, would go find these bizarre places to watch European soccer games.”

Though it’s taken some time, her attention has slowly turned back toward her own needs.

“It’s not easy,” she says. “When you date someone when you’re 42, you’re not really as flexible as you were when you were 22. You know what you like and what you don’t. I’m not willing to take ‘He’s good enough.’

“I’m just hoping, basically, that someone’s going to fall from the sky. And land in front of me. Or on top of me. Or on top of my car. But so far that hasn’t happened.”

Ethan’s practice is over. Even from afar, he looks dejected.

Julie Kluge walks out to meet her son as Emilie dances not far behind. Ethan, certain the coach disallowed a goal to even things out a bit among the less skilled players, is on the verge of tears. He walks slowly, his mother’s arm around him.

“Eeth, ya gotta shake these things off,” Julie says as we hop into their SUV and head to dinner. “There are going to be lots more disappointments.”

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  • Erich

    Loved reading this! My wife and I were pretty poor when we got married. Her dress was purchased from a local discount store, my "tux" was simply a nice jacket I'd had since high school. We were married with about 60 other couples on the bank of the beautiful San Antonio Riverwalk. One of my sisters, a shutterbug herself, took pictures of us on that day. While some of the pictures she's taken of things make me question whether or not the shutter button works her photos of that day in particular are some of my absolute favorites.Being a graphics designed I immediately requested the raws and keep them stored digitally. It's my hope to one day have them properly printed and framed.

    Thank you for this excellent set of stories.

  • Kate in New Hampshire

    I found my way here after hearing you on Word of Mouth. Thank you - I really enjoyed the piece & agree with others - a book, coffee table sized with your photos and the true stories, not the bridal industrial complex version.

  • Damon

    My wife and I are the last couple who Matt talks about. We were chased around by security who thought we were taking engagement photos, our officient from Craigslist and our friends and family all met us like a flashmob at the Bishop's Garden. Including dinner we spent $150 on the wedding and haven't looked back. But I would recommend doing some photography because it's just fun to have some photos to cherish. Having Matt give us, for free, a couple of candid shots is really special to us.

  • Christina L

    Powerfully beautiful story! Thank you for sharing such a deep raw look at life beyond the wedding day.

  • What a great story! I'd love to know the stories of the couples I've photographed. We talk about fleeting moments, but the single day in the life of a marriage even if it is the first day is a fleeting moment by definition. The first of hopefully 10,000 days.

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 11/28/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles