We lived in the ethereal shadow of the Divine Lorraine only for a year, but it stands out in my head, still as bright as the neon lights dancing underneath its towering signage. An abandoned, graffitied, majestic husk of a hotel, it dominated the skyline where we lived at 15th and Fairmount. In particular, I remember the way the setting sun illuminated it from behind, oranges and pinks seeming to emanate from the building like a halo. My future husband and I began to build our relationship under the spell of this iconic Philadelphian landmark. Then and now, the image of the Divine Lorraine is a sense memory calling to mind the magic that is a fledgling relationship.
We’d met at the end of June at the former Grape Street Pub in Manayunk. He was in the band. I was watching the band. During a break, he offered me an Altoid. I quoted Chuck Palahniuk. We were immediately infatuated with one another. But then, in early August, I had to leave for graduate school, a Ph.D. in my far future and my new boyfriend (hopefully not) in the past.
He was in Philadelphia, playing bass for a rock band, writing solo pieces on the piano, and otherwise immersing himself in music. I was at the University of Illinois, an accelerated Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Distance does not make the heart grow fonder. Homesick, miserable, and increasingly unmotivated as time went on, I missed viscerally what was waiting for me in Philadelphia: My boyfriend, his rescue Doberman named Max, an elderly cat, and a cocoon of unconditional love without the pressures of academia.
Despite wanting to succeed, unceasing loneliness wore away at my resolve to finish the degree. My physical and emotional health suffered. I burned out. I dropped out of the program, packed my car, and headed to Philly. I didn’t exactly show up unannounced on his doorstep with all my belongings and my cat; I gave him at least twenty-four hours notice that I’d be showing up on his doorstep with all my belongings and my cat.
Some hidden corner of my subconscious remembers his concerns that we hadn’t been together long enough (about six weeks before I left for school, to be precise), that we’d break up if we moved in together too soon (we’ve been together for eleven years now, by the way), that the cats wouldn’t get along (they didn’t).
I, however, was too caught up in the flurry of discarding my current life and driving fourteen hours straight to share those concerns. So with my cat and everything I owned, I moved in with my first real boyfriend. I decided upon entering his tiny apartment, a clichéd bachelor pad covered in animal fur, that I would just hope for ‘happily ever after.’ I dumped all of my metaphorical eggs (and the literal ones, too, I suppose, given that we now have a son) into the fragile basket of a relationship that had existed for less than two months. Blind optimism, it seems to me in retrospect.
The truth is, we started living together before we knew each other. I was young enough that our seven-year age difference seemed insurmountable. He was cynical enough that he didn’t see the point of legal matrimony. We disagreed about a number of fundamental issues and ideas. We were taking an immeasurable risk.
I’d arrived in the dead of winter. The Divine Lorraine greeted me, a beacon of beauty in what was then a less-than-charming neighborhood. My car was broken into within a week of my arrival. After dark, I couldn’t walk around outside without Max, his Doberman. It was an alien environment, and my naiveté was immediately apparent. The sight of the Divine Lorraine, steps away, offered me a sense of comfort and wonder in a sea of anonymous strangers and unfamiliar sights. It towered above the cacophony of street noise and angry voices, above the homeless
men on the corners and the litter in the gutters. It was haunting, and lovely, and made me glad to be outside in its presence.
My boyfriend and I joked about it, christening it the “Divine Shannon Lorraine.” I suspect the name we share is a large part of my fascination with the structure. But the rest is due to my fondness for a dark, eerie, Tim Burton-esque beauty. It’s easy to imagine a time when the hotel must have stood proudly, windows like glass eyes watching over old-time Philadelphia. Back in late 2005 when I moved to the city, however, it was a glimmer of its former self.
We started walking around at night together, passing by the Divine Lorraine on our way in and out, two insomniacs with a dog in tow. Part of it was the pull of the building, part of it was the thrill of the dark, and part of it was the sheer joy that comes from falling in love with someone for the very first time.
We learned about one another slowly, taking longer and longer walks around the neighborhood. I came to realize, as I’m still coming to realize every day, the depth of his character and his capacity for kindness. I learned that he is empathetic to a fault, practically a musical savant, someone protective of those he loves and those in need. I heard about his effusive Jewish family, his band, his former cats. I learned who he truly is with the Divine Lorraine as our sentinel, standing guard.
After all the months apart, a relationship birthed of phone calls and letter writing, it was surreal to be in one another’s presence, to have as much of the other as we could possibly want. The Doberman wasn’t even necessary as we started walking longer distances, to neighborhoods with trees and window boxes and silent statuesque houses. Our conversations were all over the spectrum, ranging from our hopes to our phobias, never following the same path twice. We talked about anything and everything, posing endless questions and thought experiments.
He would ask, “What’s your favorite movie?”
I would say, “Probably A Clockwork Orange. What’s your favorite movie?”
“If you were on a deserted island and could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
“When would I ever possibly be in that situation?”
“Just answer the question.”
“I don’t know, probably ice cream.”
“Wow, did you see that bat?!”
“I know! I saw it!”
Those nights around the melancholy old hotel marked the learning curve of our relationship. Through our walks and talks, we stumbled through painful baggage, but also discovered our shared sense of humor. Looking back, my sheer innocence shocks me. When I’d moved in, we were, essentially, strangers.
In the shadow of the Divine Lorraine, we began our life together. We’ve been through euphoric highs and rock-bottom
lows. As the Doberman sadly passed on less than a year after those urban midnight hikes, we’ve since acquired more cats, in addition to the baby. We’ve stressed about making ends meet. We’ve had health scares and stretches of unemployment, but we’ve somehow, miraculously, managed to stay as enamored with one another at the end of the day as we were in those early months.
Even with all the memories of our nights together crowding my skull, I still remember, quite distinctly, my favorite one from very early on. It was a cold spell in February 2006. Me being perpetually freezing, I was cloaked in layers and a down coat, my hands shoved into his pocket, exhaling clouds of smoke as my breath met the frigid air. We were walking by the Divine Lorraine in a peculiar silence most unlike Philadelphia. We had the dog walking contentedly next to us and Wawa coffee and no iPhones to distract us while in the other’s presence.
It was very, very late, the kind of stillness that can only be experienced while the rest of the world is asleep. The moon was very nearly full, either waxing or waning; I tried to be mindful and present, to take a visual photograph of the moment, to remember how it felt to be loved on a beautiful night in (what I was slowly starting to view as) a beautiful city.
Against the silhouette of the derelict edifice, he looked at me, and I knew suddenly what was about to happen seconds before he spoke. He took a deep breath, and then validated my decision to uproot my life, forego my Ph.D., and take this huge gamble with three short words.
“I love you.”
Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her soul mate, their son, and several spoiled cats. She works for a non-profit organization in Center City while attempting to author the Next Great American Novel. Her interests include writing, theater, ballet, and philosophy, and she harbors an unhealthy obsession with Mt. Everest, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the summer Olympics. Shannon’s goals are to eventually pay her way out of debt with her writing, to raise a child who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and to acquire even more cats. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Philadelphia City Paper, WHYY’s Speak Easy, the Metropolis literary magazine, and the elephant journal.