Mark and Russell on their first trip abroad as a couple in the summer of 2011 at the Gundel Restaurant in Budapest, Hungary’s City Park

Share This


Russell and I take turns being the statue or the bendy car wash man. When we travel, I stubbornly luxuriate over a long lunch, take a dip in the hotel pool, or book a massage. Russell scurries through whatever city or historic site we visit, soaking in every possible detail between breakfast and dinner while I drag my aching feet some distance behind him, my face scrunched into a scowl, past the allure of a patisserie, a park bench, a vending machine.

“You can swim at home! Don’t you have a membership to Massage Envy?” he’ll say.

“This is different. This pool is in Cape Town! That masseuse is South African!” Sometimes even I don’t understand my own logic, but I stand firm in its grasp.

When we’re at home though, I’m the one maniacally flailing my arms on Saturday mornings while Russell stoically and silently reads his favorite political blog, often not emerging from his upstairs study until midafternoon. By then, the toilets are scrubbed, cat litter emptied, phone calls made across nine time zones, a hymn or two played on the piano just a bit too fast, because Saturday only lasts so long. God help us if we’re hosting dinner guests. In my world, the groceries would already be in the fridge, the main course calmly awaiting reheating.

Russell is okay with a grocery run (to the inevitable three or four stores) at 3 p.m. before a 7 o’clock dinner.

Because of our wildly varying paces, I was looking forward to a different kind of trip we’d planned for our tenth anniversary this spring. We were set to cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, which would, I thought, provide a balance of structure and freedom. We got tips from friends who cross regularly, down to requesting the precise bank of cabin numbers on a specific deck. Not too rocky, not too close to the laundry. Our dinner seating would be at 8:30 p.m. I knew I’d spend some time in the onboard spa while Russell found something else to do, perhaps tracking our progress on a map. While I love water and steam baths, Russell prefers to be cool and dry. He says it’s his English heritage, and it really does suit his temperament. Freedom for us both.

But our fantasies of donning suits, ties, and cufflinks for dinner and promising our tablemates we would stay in touch with them, attending plays, lectures, and gazing at the night sky in the onboard planetarium fizzled as May 2020 approached. With the outbreak of coronavirus on cruise ships around the globe, Cunard finally called off our sailing. With our Atlanta lockdown came a double curfew when protests and riots forced the mayor to close our streets early each night. Even our new routine of hour-long walks through our neighborhood was curtailed. For two men so used to going wherever and whenever we wanted, we felt caged. So, instead of dining aboard the QM2 for our anniversary, we shuffled into our dining room and feasted on leftover meatloaf.

To stave off the effects of the food we love, we used to run at the gym at Emory University, where Russell had gone to college. In rare good weather, we’d run on the outdoor track, but often we’d take comfort in the indoor field house to escape the humidity or errant pole vaulters. The indoor track is on a mezzanine high above the basketball courts, up near the ceiling of the field house. Way up there from the roof hang the flags of various universities in Emory’s athletic league: NYU, Washington University, Brandeis.

When we first got together, I had assumed that running with Russell would be like running with anybody else I’d ever run with, that it’d be part exercise, part social event. My high school friend Cara and I held up the rear on our many runs through our school’s neighborhood. Our group was called Running Club, and we used our precious oxygen on chatting and laughing rather than propulsion.

But running with Russell was, I would soon discover, an exercise in solitude. Despite my years running cross country and track, and despite what I thought would be an advantage of being twelve years younger, not only were we not running together, I was actually lapped.


Not only was I miffed, I felt alone up there, running in circles around a tightly knit, socially engaged game of basketball, trying to find Russell behind one of the flags. Oh, he’s at NYU now. Now he’s under Case Western. I was still stuck at Washington University. I could never catch up to him, and I felt that I never would.

As our relationship evolved, as I got my sea legs, I stopped minding as much. I found that I enjoyed the semi-solitude of running by myself, knowing that Russell was somewhere over there near Brandeis. I focused on my own running, my own breath. I would run as much or as little as I wanted. Later I would discover the pool in a separate part of the gym and swim laps on my own, learning that I prefer swimming to running anyway. Since Russell doesn’t like the water, he would not lap me here.

This year, the gym closed, of course, so our exercise has shifted. Neither of us runs on pavement, so we’ve taken up walking through our neighborhood, mostly late at night when fewer people are out. We take unofficial turns deciding on the route. We comment on houses we’ve never seen or streets we’ve never taken. We stopped and visited our neighbor the pharmacist while he gardened. We chatted with my college friends down the street, including their children whom I’ve known their whole lives, and talked about virtual school. One night we visited the Queen Mary 2 experts who live an hour by foot from us. We showed up in the dark and compared quarantine stories from the sidewalk while they stayed safely in their yard. We speculated when it might be safe again to sail.

We waved them goodnight and trudged back home in the dark, full.

In those early days of being together, our nighttime ritual was also not what I had envisioned or expected. Even before I moved in with Russell, I’d eagerly head to bed, thinking that he would soon join me. Instead, he lingered over Solitaire or sometimes Facebook Messenger in a nearby room, his clacking keyboard continually announcing a connection with someone else. I finally figured out to take a book with me. After moving in, this ritual continued and my technology evolved, so my own custom was—and has been—to watch a show with my headphones on, cocooned in my own little world. Breaking Bad, Ozark, The Sopranos, all too violent for Russell’s taste, transported me for a while to a place I enjoyed on my own. Most nights I’ll end up asleep before Russell comes to bed, but on the rare occasion that I’m still riveted to whatever story that has me absorbed and Russell comes to bed before I finish the show, I secretly wish I had just another 20 minutes to myself.

Where our mood, pace, and partnership coalesce whether home or abroad is at the dinner table. At dinnertime around the globe, I often catch myself in disbelief over my good fortune in spending every day on Earth with Russell. It is over a meal when the day comes into better focus, when we talk about what we’ve seen or read, often independently; a time when the wine flows, and I once again am so grateful that I said yes to meeting him for a date ten years ago at Symphony Hall in Atlanta. The music started then, and it has yet to stop, except for an occasional half-beat of silence in which we take it all in.

But right from the start our relationship began on the premise that we were quite literally in the same place at the same time in a rare, providential moment of synchronicity. Our online connection began over our mutual love of travel. That was clear from both our profiles. His red hair, boyish grin, and razor wit attracted me. No doubt I made a Dorian Gray joke—“you must have a painting in the attic”—because I never would have known that he was twelve years my senior. So, over our first glass of wine before that first symphony, the topic naturally turned to my years abroad in Budapest. Russell mentioned that he’d been there on a solo trip through what I still consider “my” corner of Europe: Vienna, Prague, Krakow, Budapest. He’d stayed at the Pest Marriott right across from Castle Hill in September 2005. A sign on the castle read “Bor Fesztival,” and as a well-versed oenophile, Russell knew that that meant he was in for some good Hungarian wine.

Alone, he crossed the Danube and headed up the hill.

As he told me this at Symphony Hall, my eyebrows must have raised as I did the mental math. September 2005. Wine festival. Castle Hill. That’s right after I had flown from Budapest to Atlanta after my grandmother died. I was in Georgia for a week, mourning with my family and helping empty her closets. Clicking my heels, I was suddenly back in my Pest apartment, facing another school year, and grieving my grandmother, whose transatlantic phone calls I already missed. Knowing I needed a distraction, a friend called: “Let’s go to the wine festival. Up by the castle.”

It was a warm, beautiful evening high up there on the banks of the Danube. My friends and I imbibed much local wine from our sample-size glasses. I found myself lifted, lighter. I remember a lot of laughter and thinking we were exactly the kind of Americans I purported to loathe, loud and obnoxious.

I had no idea, of course, who else was unwittingly sharing this moment with me. Had we stood in line together for a sip of Bull’s Blood or Tokaji? Or even smiled at each other and commented on the weather? Had he seen me with my rambunctious group of friends and turned the other way?

Who knows? We’ll never piece those details together. But five years later I would learn over a glass of wine at the Atlanta Symphony Hall that a handsome, generous redhead with a devilish grin, razor wit, and insatiable wanderlust had been right there in my moment of grief and homesickness, waiting for me to turn around and open my eyes and ears, catching his tempo, to what would become our wild, dizzying counterpoint.