Lights and Signs

This is the story of the very early days with Nathaniel, the man who would become my husband. Happy Birthday, my love.

Center Camp Love, taken many Burning Mans ago


The laboratory smelled like scorch, like perpetual burning – and not some gentle campfire with well-behaved, seasoned oak logs, nor a tame, propane fireplace. Depending on what compounds and reagents we worked with, the room smelled like white-hot nail polish remover, smoldering tires, or arson in a laundry mat.

The lab was on the top floor of one of Texas A&M-Galveston’s classroom buildings. Outside the windows I could see our merchant marine training vessel, the USTS Texas Clipper, docked until summer when she would usher 200 cadets on a life-altering, ocean-going adventure. Across the Galveston Ship Channel I could see the gargantuan yellow hulk of the sulfur pile and two oil derricks, spider-armed freaks of nature, still and silent until they were towed to sea to do their dirty, dirty work. A determined brute of a tug boat shoved a barge against the tide and the green waters chopped and waved. The sun shone down and I smiled because my heart was full, as warm and open as the hot blue sky.

Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig, by Katie Haughland Bowen, flickr Creative Commons

Galveston isn’t a large island, only three miles across, and so it was easy for me to imagine the garage apartment a few blocks from the beach with the luminous white bed I’d find myself in as soon as class was done.

I was good at Organic Chemistry Lab. I could titrate. I had no problem wearing goofy eye protection, cranking up a Bunsen burner, creating ice water baths, or lowering my eyes to the level of the lab bench to find a meniscus. If a reaction would not take off I was expert at slipping a rod inside the test tube and scratching it against the glass to get the experiment started. I never had to borrow someone else’s results because my own trial had failed.

“Be hyper-diligent with this one,” our professor had told us. “You must heat the mixture gently. It should take at least 10 minutes to come to a boil. If you heat it all at once, it will catch on fire and explode.”

Swirl, I told myself, swirl, don’t stop, as the blue flame nosed my round-bottomed flask. I was ready to pull it away if the heat got too raucous and uncontrolled.

But what I really wanted was to turn up the fire. I wanted the liquid to boil and crackle. I wanted to see a chemical explosion. And so I held the flask steady in the blue-hot-glow and moved my head far out of the way. I levered open the channel to the gas to feed the flame fat.

Image 3469, by ydylg, flickr Creative Commons

Inside the sturdy glass the reaction blackened like a storm cloud. The liquid turned into something more, like a living creature, and it shook and crackled with a crazy, charred energy. Huh, I thought, too curious to be alarmed. And then the contents of the flask exploded.

Thirty minutes later (there was no reason for me to stay in the lab) I had made my way back to the white room where my lover waited for me. I bounced up and down with tingly glee as I described the burning liquid sludge that shot up the long neck of the flask, travelling through the air, a straight, fiery shot that went up and up until…

“It expanded before it hit the ceiling tiles,” Nathaniel said, “and burned a perfect circle above your head.”

“Like a smoke ring,” I said, “made of something black and toxic.”

My lab mates and I had marveled at my art work, staring at the fresh scar on the smoking ceiling. There had been one other mark identical to mine, older, that we’d noticed early in the semester and always joked about. It was nice to know its history. And it had felt good to set something on fire, to mis-perform an experiment that would leave a mark until they replaced the ceiling tiles.

Nathaniel took my hand in his and brought it to his talented lips. “I did that, too,” he told me, “I couldn’t help myself. The other burn-ring on the ceiling is mine.”

He kissed my fingers, turned my hand in his, and kissed my palm. I felt sparks, chemistry, and a sweet, burning heat, something else I could not deny, even though I was philosophically opposed to marriage and I ended relationships after two months. If we were reagents, compounds, this particular mixing was a reaction I wanted to feed.

The Bridge

Sea Aggies on the Water, by Barbosaur, flickr Creative Commons

Chemical arson was not our only congruence. Nathaniel was the only one to pass my lights-on-the-bridge test.

The bridge in question connected Galveston to Pelican Island, where less than 1,000 students attended our tiny marine studies branch of Texas A&M. Pelican Island had started out as a marshy spit of land adjacent to Galveston, then failed miserably as an industrial area after the viaduct was opened in 1958. On a busy day the island was desolate. Other than TAMUG there was a scrubby little city park with a memorial to Texans who lost their lives in World War II, lots of marshy beach you could only reach by Jeep, and an unmarked dolphin graveyard where the Marine Mammal Stranding Network buried corpses after necropsies.

We called our humble campus and its island environs Pelicatraz, and when the drawbridge was up (due to malfunction, repairs, an imminent hurricane, or to allow ships to pass up the channel to Houston) you could not leave except by boat.

But when you left Pelicatraz at night, once your vehicle was crossing over the ocean, if you looked out your window in just the right spot you could see the lights on the nearby land pulsing through regular breaks in the bridge’s railing. Those little hiccups of light were like a cartoon heartbeat flashing in time with the thump-thump of tires on asphalt.

Causeway, Dan Thibodeaux, flickr Creative Commons

Port lights, ship lights, street lights, lights on oil derricks flowed together as they flashed a few times a second (depending on how fast you drove). That animated movie of lights mesmerized me. I never grew tired of it or took it for granted. The first few people I showed it to looked at me as if I’d grown a third eye, and so mostly I kept it to myself.

If you were worth the risk, I might show you my lights. It was a test that I did not hand out to many. Hardly anyone seemed to give it more than a “oh, yeah, check that out.”

In four (and a half) years at TAMUG, I only met one other human being who saw those lights on his own, without me having to show him where to look – Nathaniel.

Love at First Feel

My screenshot of the Galveston Graduate Student Association photo of a green sea turtle released by TAMUG

I could tell you a hundred other stories – the electrical shock of attraction the first time we (accidentally) touched. How we were just-friends for over a year because I was too young and too feminist and he was engaged to someone back home. How we dissected dead dolphins together and rode his motorcycle so exclusively his car quit working. How I had an aversion to Chinese food that I got over just in time for our first date. How difficult it was for me to call him my boyfriend, a word I hated, and to accept drawer space in his off-campus apartment. How we negotiated a Texas-to-New York City relationship without Skype or cell phones. How he proposed and why we decided to take each other’s names.

But a loving partnership is about more than these easy romantic moments. Marriage is about mirroring each other, sharpening or honing each other, looking for opportunities to explore who you are and who you want to be. On top of the joy, the bliss, the transcendence and the divine union, marriage is about bravery, discomfort, adventure, learning, and change. For me, I should add. These are what marriage is about for me.

Marriage is also about sleeping contentedly next to a perspective alien from yours. And so I am going to tell you about the first time we met.

One Event, Two Stories – That’s Love

Barely -doctored screen shot I made from the website I link to below

The dorm room was chilly but musty, the a/c unit wheezing out cold air and dripping water onto the linoleum with its own Texas rhythm. I was trying to look cooler than I felt in front of my friends and a boy I was sort of dating, half propped up, half splayed out on one of the beds in the boys’ dorm room. It was neatly made, and on the wall above it was the Rolling Stones logo, huge, slick, in full color, the tongue and teeth leering at me from the cement block wall.

And then looming above me, as if he appeared from nowhere, my friend’s roommate said to me: “You’re sitting on my bed.” He was tall and somehow different from other students I’d met. He wore glasses and a kind of adult responsibility that attracted some people and put off others. I recognized him from around campus the way you do when you go to school with only 800 people. And because I felt like I was trespassing and wanted to make up for it I complimented him on the giant mural on the wall.

“I didn’t paint it,” he said, “it was already there when I moved in.”

For nearly 25 years, Nathaniel and I have teased each other about this moment. I maintain he was a little snooty, condescending even. He says he didn’t want to take credit for a work of art that someone else had created.

It would be easy to hunker down with stubborn, squared shoulders and proclaim that I’m right. But memory is subjective and I’ve moved into a place where I understand that two people telling two different stories about the same event can both be right.

And who knows – maybe he could sense that there on his bed was a tricky stranger who would inspire him, challenge him, and create a life with him wholly different than anything he had so far imagined. Maybe that made him a little awkward.

Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder, an inferiority complex it would take 20 years to heal, and that made me hypersensitive to criticism or censure that wasn’t there. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Of this I am certain: without this gorgeous love, this deep, abiding partnership, I would not be the kind of person able to question and analyze my young motives and perceptions. Without the duality of its safe-snug-support and its fire-in-a-crucible nature, I might not be as smart, as honest, and as capable.

Marriages crack and break when they constrain a soul and stop it from growing. Marriages can be an excuse to stay the same person in the very same place. A marriage can give you someone else to blame perpetually for you own stasis, unhappiness, and inability to act.

Or a marriage can inspire you to regularly take out your soul and look at it in the hottest, brightest light. Find the bare patches, see where it glimmers, and weave a brand new ensemble, with someone to keep you company as you stand there naked.

Dusty Kiss, taken by our neighbors at sunset


4 Replies to “Lights and Signs”

  1. I love that the other ring on the ceiling was Nathaniel’s! I am happy that somehow your Dad and I raised a daughter brave/insane enough to put a ring on the ceiling- being as careful as possible in the process.
    I remember the first time you called home and said you had met a guy- I knew he was “the one”! Just something in your voice that traveled through the phone; sometimes mother’s just know….
    And I love you both. I love that the man you love thinks of me as another mother and that he makes it easy to cherish that love.

  2. You two are important touchstones for me. Your love and ways of living make visible many of my own dreams, so thank you so much for sharing!

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