By Ellen McCarthy -
In 1978, a 25-year-old man mailed a Walter Rinder poem to a 23-year-old guy he'd known only briefly.
"Whatever your needs are, I will try to fulfill them," the poem read.
"If you are lonely and need me, I will be there," it promised.
The younger man, Robb Mapou, had stopped in Atlanta earlier that year to visit friends and check out a doctoral program at Emory University. Mike Zufall had been living in the city for a few months after escaping a small town in Indiana that felt stifling to a young gay man.
Late on Jan. 14, each made their way to Backstreet, a popular gay disco. Mapou's friends had wandered off, so he was alone in the club when he noticed the tall guy in jeans standing next to him.
"Would you like to dance?" Mapou asked.
"I was just about to ask you," Zufall responded.
They danced all night and hung out for the rest of the weekend before Mapou returned to suburban Maryland, where he'd grown up and gone to college.
Zufall didn't have a home phone and neither man had much money to pay for long-distance calls, so they wrote letters discussing their daily lives and thoughts on relationships. Zufall, who hadn't been out of the closet long, was wary of commitment but thought the Rinder poem expressed his ideals of what love could be.
Once Mapou was accepted into a psychology program at Emory University, he arranged another visit to Atlanta in April and stayed with Zufall, who was working as a hotel desk clerk. When Mapou returned to Maryland after the cozy weekend, the letters started coming more frequently, sometimes every day.
The next month Mapou opened a package from Zufall containing a blue, hand-sewn shirt and a record of the Barry Manilow song "I Can't Smile Without You." In the accompanying letter, Zufall had written words neither had said before: "I love you."
Mapou moved to Atlanta permanently that August; soon, the pair were spending every night together. Zufall's resistance to commitment began to fall away.
"Whenever we got together it just felt right," he says. "There was no hesitation at all."
The following March they decided to move in together, but were careful to rent a two-bedroom apartment, concerned that a disapproving landlord might evict them if he knew they were a couple. Their comfortable life together - Mapou studying, Zufall gardening and playing the organ between shifts at the hotel - was marred by occasional harassment.
"We were out, but I didn't go around broadcasting it," Zufall says. "And to this day it's difficult for me to show public affection because of our experiences."
By the time Mapou graduated in 1984, both men were ready for a change of scenery. They relocated to Boston, where Mapou spent four years developing his speciality in neuropsychology while Zufall worked as a cook, often holding two jobs at a time to help pay the bills.
In the late 1980s, they made their way to Maryland, eventually landing in Silver Spring. Mapou joined a private practice, working with patients who have learning disabilities. Zufall set up a one-man cleaning service and then a dog-walking business. They adopted three dogs and settled into what's become a sacred tradition: long nightly dinners with candlelight, good wine and classical music.
"Our basic values and living styles are the same," Mapou, now 55, says. But he also thinks it's their differences that have helped the relationship last for more than three decades. He is chatty and sometimes anxious; Zufall, 58, is quiet and laid-back. And Zufall's willingness to take care of their home, Mapou adds, "has made it possible for me to do what I do" in his career, which includes a fair amount of travel.
"He's always there when I need him," Mapou says, his voice cracking. "That's why I can't imagine being without him."
Neither was interested in a wedding or commitment ceremony that wouldn't have legal ramifications. "Why bother?" Zufall says. But when same-sex marriage became legal in Washington, they became hopeful that Maryland would soon follow suit, and decided to quietly tie the knot.
On Jan. 14, the 33rd anniversary of the day they met, the two were married in a private ceremony at the home of friends. Only four witnesses looked on as they clasped hands, in matching tuxedos with red carnations, to exchange vows.
Mapou read from the Rinder poem Zufall had sent so many years before.
"I will give you as much love as I can," he said. "If you will show me how to give more, then I will give more.
"If you receive all I can give, then my love is endless and fulfilled."