In 1979, I would have had to work three hours to afford the jacket at the thrift store, but I just knew I had to have that blue 1950s Mexican jacket with embroidery depicting a man leaning against a cactus.
It was that $8 jacket that changed the trajectory of my life. Later in our relationship, Gusmano described how he would see me walking on Colorado Boulevard and he’d make a quick U-turn. But I’d be gone, most likely disappearing into a bus because walking and buses were my mode of transportation at the time.
I was 21 years old, living with a French chef in Pasadena, ending a relationship with an Armenian musician from Lebanon, and dating a Greek Caltech physicist who had a live-in girlfriend. It was a time of self-exploration. I knew that I did not want to get married and have children. Nor did I want a 9-to-5 job in an office. I worked part-time at the Rialto Theatre where I could see old movies for free and hang with like-minded creative types.
I was working the ticket booth when this bolt-of-energy of a man with long curly hair and intense eyes came running toward me shouting, “I found you! I finally found you!” And then began what might be called the courting stage.
For about two months, he brought me flowers and food and gave me compliments, trying to draw me out with questions about my ancestry and invitations to his studio. I asked my friends at the theater if they knew him, and yes, they knew him as the “crazy Italian photographer.” Finally he asked me if I would be interested in accompanying him to the opening of his exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I had demurred from his previous invitations because I was not attracted to his looks, but with an invitation to an exhibit at LACMA by the artist himself, well, of course I was interested.
But I was still not completely interested enough. Actually, I was with the Greek physicist early that week when the photographer called me to confirm our date. The Greek physicist had asked who I was talking to and when I told him it was “a crazy Italian photographer” who was having a show at LACMA, he became excited and pulled out my copy of the L.A. Weekly. There was an article about this photographer’s show.
Still, on the actual date of the opening, I was having second thoughts and mentioned this to my sister by commenting on the photographer’s looks. The men I had been dating tended toward the strikingly handsome type, and the Italian photographer was not. My sister admonished me for being so shallow and shamed me into hurrying home and getting ready for my date.
I had bought a dress at the same thrift store, a 1930s blue-and-white floral lace dress that fit me perfectly. When he knocked at the door, I realized that I was still reluctant to go out with somebody who seemed so strange in my eyes. He was like nobody else I knew, as if he had no tether.
Finally, I opened the door, still barefoot and with my hair wet, and I asked him to choose a pair of shoes for me to wear that evening. He selected a pair with thin black straps and clear wedges that made it appear as if I was walking on tippy toes. On the drive to LACMA, he did not immediately turn on the radio. Instead he showed that he really was interested in who I was by asking me direct questions about myself.
When I finally saw his photographs, I fell in love. They were huge black-and-white images of people from East Los Angeles, and he captured them as if they were film stars.
One image especially caught my attention; it was of a group of women preening themselves in a nightclub bathroom. How did he manage to get that shot as if he were the mirror? That was his magic. He reflected back to his subjects their noble humanity.
The rest of our date was the beginning of our life together. He took me to a French restaurant where I ate crepes Suzette for the first time, and we talked until we noticed that the waiters had stacked the chairs on the tables and were waiting for us to leave. He then took me to his studio, which was painted all white with pink neon lights. I stayed the night, and we were together almost every day thereafter for the next few months.
On our following dates, he took me to Madame Wong’s in Chinatown and the Atomic Cafe in Little Tokyo. Back then we were usually broke, and with downtown L.A. being empty on the weekends, we’d explore the streets as if they were our own private movie lot. Since then, we have explored the world outside Los Angeles, but L.A. remains our home.
Forty-four years later, we are still together, married and have a son who has chosen the creative path and lives in Paris. Gusmano, my crazy Italian photographer, now has Alzheimer’s and has forgotten much of the beautiful life he made with me, but we are navigating this last chapter together. Now it’s my turn to be the mirror for him.
The author is a librarian for the city of Pasadena at the La Pintoresca Branch Library and lives with her husband, two cats and a dog in South Pasadena. She’s on Instagram: @rosachezzy
L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.
This story originally appeared on LATimes