By Art Martori, Feb, 12, 2015.
About this time last year, a man walked into a bar.
His agenda didn’t include much beyond the after-work cocktail or two he regularly enjoyed there. Little did he know his signal for a drink, the subsequent small talk, the catching of the eye, they would all set into play a chemical reaction where the atoms are human souls and the energy, love.
“I stopped by for a normal happy hour drink. I was the first customer there,” remembers Jabowa Whitehead, now 44. “And then I saw Aaron.”
In early April, Whitehead and Aaron Marner are getting married. For some, their union might symbolize equality more than anything else. But when you take a closer look at what makes these two work, things emerge that apply universally. While the couple has a federal judge to thank for their legal marriage, it’s been good, old-fashioned chemistry and commitment that carried them here.
WE WERE JUST TALKING
Feb. 10 last year was Aaron’s first day bartending at Plazma, a low-key bar at 16th Street and Osborn Road. He casually struck up a conversation with a man he’d seen around once in a while. Aaron, now 30, doesn’t appear to be the most likely person to talk to strangers. But when his seemingly perpetual stoicism breaks, the broad smile is like sunlight shining through clouds.
“It’s totally not something I would even entertain,” says Aaron of dating customers. “The thing was, it was different. He was different. Demeanor. Personality. I didn’t quite get it at first that he was hitting on me. We were just talking.”
For Jabowa, who addresses the world with sincere brown eyes, a pat on the shoulder and an earnest reassurance, it wasn’t a pickup. He’d lost a considerable amount of weight, some 100 pounds, since he last saw Aaron. The athletic and physically fit bartender was genuinely interested in hearing about how it happened. And so they just started having a real conversation.
“I’ve never dated or hit on a bartender, because, oh, you’d expect that,” explains Jabowa. “But when the conversation started, you could tell Aaron was different. He was genuine. And honest. Sincere. He wasn’t flirtatious. It was just a genuine conversation.”
Both men had recently ended long-term relationships. For Jabowa, it was particularly significant, as he’d recently left a partnership of more than 16 years. Aaron, too, had done his share of dating. Both of them were at a place where a loving commitment almost seemed a foregone conclusion.
“Before I met him, my view on dating and with being with someone in general, was a little jaded,” Aaron says. I didn’t think that it was possible anymore. I didn’t think that anyone existed out there that could be what he is. I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t think that he was going to happen.”
WE’RE BOTH LEFT HANDED
Over the following months, they became inseparable. Like bonding ions, their differences in personality and lifestyle drew them closer together, while shared interests provided a solid foundation for enjoyment and growth.
Outwardly, this match might seem unlikely. Jabowa is a pastor at New Foundation Christian Fellowship and also works in corporate America. Aaron left his career in accounting and real estate to focus on painting, and bartending allows him the freedom to do that. There’s a 14-year age difference between them. Aaron is a lifetime athlete who follows sports, while Jabowa freely admits that he doesn’t know much about football.
“I’ve learned to broaden my horizons,” Jabowa admits. “He’s extremely into weightlifting and sports. The only thing I knew about sports before Aaron was the Seattle Seahawks are my team. And now I find myself watching and reading and following up.”
For example, Aaron, who’s competed at the high school and semi-professional levels, plays basketball and flag football for a couple of leagues within the LGBT community. Jabowa has learned more about those sports and attends games to support his partner.
“It’s that balance,” Aaron says. “It wasn’t his thing before, just like maybe church wasn’t my thing before, and now I’m there and involved. It’s just that in different aspects of our lives we find compromise.”
That’s not to say the couple differs in all aspects. They enjoy an active social life; folks know them by name at midtown-Phoenix haunts like Roscoes and Stacy’s @ Melrose. At home, too, time passes easily, often in a kind of Norman Rockwell-esque fashion, as they settle into their similarities.
“We both sing and I play the piano,” Jabowa explains. “So we’ll sit together and harmonize. We both have the same favorite color, blue. We’re both left handed.”
WE’RE JUST BEING TOGETHER
The dreaded crucible for any relationship is the introduction to friends and family, the wait with bated breath for a verdict. Will there be friction? Disapproval? Both Jabowa and Aaron come from large families. Jabowa has both adoptive and natural families back east, and Aaron, a Phoenix native, has a brood of siblings here. The couple was tested early on in the relationship, as family is a big part of both of their lives.
“I was with Aaron for two and a half months, and took him back to Virginia to meet my family,” Jabowa says. “They all loved him. Everyone treated him as family. I think when I took him home to meet my family and we were away from this comfort zone, that was it for me.”
Likewise, Aaron’s family was overjoyed to bring Jabowa into the fold. Their acceptance of his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue, explains Aaron, who grew up in West Phoenix and attended Washington High School. For his family, it was only the simple, universal joy that came from knowing a son and brother had discovered his life partner.
“They love him. They’re so happy we’re getting married,” Aaron says. “I know every family doesn’t experience that.”
Their circles of friends, too, naturally absorbed them, noticing the marked difference, the newfound happiness, that grew as the relationship progressed.
“All I ever heard from his friends was how happy he is,” Aaron remembers. “People are thanking me, and I’m just like, ‘We’re just being together.’”
IT FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME
And just being together is what it’s all about, right? Like a river in a time of dryness, as Bono once sang, a harbor in the tempest, a solid relationship is a safe place, a home for the soul. Jabowa and Aaron admit they’ve had their fights, but with those fights also came the discovery that it’s OK to disagree. They had arrived at a place where it was okay to be their own person, where the individuality that might have led to discord was the very thing that sparked love and passion in the first place.
“I’m a 44-year-old man, and I’ve just learned to express myself without getting angry,” Jabowa admits. “Without holding a grudge. Without having to walk away. If I love you, I love you. I don’t care. I’m not going anywhere. For the first time in my life, I feel like it’s okay to love me and it’s okay to stand up for myself. I can say I really enjoy who I am as a person.”
On the practical side, there exists the challenge of making a home despite such different lifestyles. As a bartender, Aaron often works late. Jabowa, meanwhile, deals with the 9-to-5 commitments of a pastor and corporate professional.
But for them, that’s only where opportunity presents itself. When Aaron comes home from a long shift at the bar, he finds a home-cooked meal waiting for him. And when Jabowa rises each morning, it’s to breakfast and freshly ironed clothes that his partner got up early to prepare.
Then, there are those three simple words that anyone longs to hear.
“He’s so different from anybody I ever dated,” Aaron smiles. “I never had anyone tell me like ten times a day, ‘I love you.’
“Some people say that and don’t really mean it, but every time we say it, it feels like the first time. It’s not just like saying something just to say it. I know he actually means it.”
When they get married in April, Aaron’s mother will give her son away.
Their union might represent those first tentative steps toward equality in an otherwise tight-fisted, conservative landscape. But maybe, it’s a tried-and-true story about two people reaching out across gaps in ages and lifestyles to form a meaningful connection. Maybe it’s a story about love conquering all.
“I never wanted to get married before. I just knew. I found a connection that was real,” Jabowa says. “I mean, c’mon… A pastor and a bartender? I mean, think about it. But it works so well.”