As conversational icebreakers in busy coffee shops go, Leo Schwartz's question had considerable promise: How does one re-fluff a feather pillow?
The problem was, the man who answered was Dan Maher, and he was not the guy Leo was after.
"Dan started talking and wouldn't stop," Leo remembers. "I just sat there and kept looking at him and wishing he'd shut up. It was all very annoying."
"I knew a lot about them, actually," Dan admits with a laugh. "You could take them to the dry cleaners and get them restuffed, or you could put them in the dryer with a damp towel and they would re-fluff."
The conversation, needless to say, went nowhere. That was just fine with Leo and Dan. Neither was interested in the other romantically 23 years ago, when the two were casual acquaintances in the same circle of pals at coffee shops in the Lakeview neighborhood. Leo thought Dan was too excitable, Dan felt no attraction. Still, they slowly became friends.
One day, Leo announced he had bought the complete set of videos for the "I, Claudius" television series. Did anyone want to watch it with him? Dan volunteered. Meeting at Leo's apartment that Saturday, the pair had dinner, watched "I, Claudius" and an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." They did it again the next Saturday and the next and the next and so on.
"I was more interested in 'I, Claudius' than I was in him," Dan says. "We weren't cuddling on the couch. We were having fun enjoying the geekiness of 'Star Trek.' "
But then their cozy weekly routine was interrupted. At the time, Leo was a musician working as a fundraiser for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He had promised to take a friend to a CSO concert one Saturday night.
"When we left the concert, I said, 'Something is missing in my life, and I think it's Dan,' " Leo says. "I realized I had a thing for him, that I cared deeply for him."
The realization surprised him; Dan hadn't been his "type."
"I called him up and told him I had a scary question to ask," Leo recalls. "I told him, 'I want to ask you out on a date before your dance card gets too full.' He told me his dance card was full because he wanted to go out with me."
Dan, you see, had discovered something important was missing that Saturday night as well: Leo. And he was just as surprised because Leo wasn't his type either.
The two planned their first official date. Then Leo got chickenpox and called to cancel. Dan, who had already had chickenpox, volunteered to come over and nurse Leo.
"I sent him out to the store to pick some things up. I gave him my debit card and my PIN number. Dan said that's when he knew I loved him," Leo says.
The two started spending more time together, including a weeklong trip to San Francisco that Dan still refers to as their "honeymoon." It's when they returned from California and found themselves uncomfortably alone in their respective apartments that they decided to move in together. A short while after that, Dan suggested they buy a place.
"We were together seven months, and he was a waiter and had no money," Leo says. "And I was going to use my inheritance and income from the CSO to buy a condo with a man I've been with for seven months?"
"That freaked Leo out," says Dan, totally deadpan. "But I had a friend who told me, 'Don't plan for a divorce.' And we never did."
Leo and Dan moved in together in Lakeview. They were wed in New York City on Aug. 12, 2011. They had talked about marriage for years with differing levels of interest.
"I thought it was silly," Dan says. "I thought if people hadn't figured it out, they weren't paying attention. I said let's wait until it means something."
That happened when Illinois passed a law that same-sex marriages performed in other states would be recognized as civil unions.
"My attitude was we were dotting our i's and crossing our t's," Dan says. "This was formalizing it for the rest of the world."
"It meant a lot for me, and I think it meant a lot to him as well," Leo adds. "We framed our marriage certificate and have it on the mantelpiece."
Dan, 52, went from being a waiter to a nurse specializing in geriatrics who works at Rush University Senior Care. Leo, 54, went on to own a boutique real estate brokerage in the neighborhood while continuing to build on his music background, becoming an award-winning composer of film, theater, concerts and jazz. His musical, "Under a Rainbow Flag," being staged by Pride Films and Plays at The Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, begins previews March 21 and is scheduled to continue its run through April 21.
"Under a Rainbow Flag," based on the true story of 91-year-old Jon Phillips, of Evanston, is a coming-out tale that begins during World War II in which love eventually triumphs. For Dan, this musical, like many of Leo's other projects, has special resonance because elements are drawn from their relationship, including issues Dan had with his own sexuality.
"I had my own little closet," Dan recalls. "I had difficulty at first acknowledging he was my partner. I've gotten a lot better at it. I never sat down with the family and told them that I was gay, but I made it clear to my family that they needed to invite him if they were thinking of inviting me."
As for Leo, Dan is his "best friend," the man who makes him feel comfortable.
"One thing about being with Dan, there's rarely a dull moment," Leo says. Perhaps, not surprisingly, given all that initial talk about pillow fluffing, Leo says there's rarely a quiet moment either.
"Oh, yeah, I haven't said a cross word to Dan in years because I wouldn't want to interrupt him," Leo adds. "He's like a little woodland friend, up in a tree chattering. But I like that."
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