Nathaniel sits outside the workshop, the whoosh of passing cars providing a soft bed of sound for the words he’s about to try out.
“I want you to be my wife.”
His eyes are closed. Perhaps shutting out one sense will help him focus on getting the words in the right arrangement.
“I want you to be my wife, okay?”
The click of the workshop door opening behind him momentarily distracts him. As his girlfriend Krysta maneuvers out, a crutch under each arm and a Styrofoam cup in hand, Nathaniel regains his concentration and lowers his eyelids again.
“I want you to be my wife, honey.”
The last word breaks, dipping instinctively into an husky, resonant register. As she shuffles up to him, he wakes from his trance and beams a luminous smile.
The young couple, who would later get engaged in 2015 under a brilliant blue sky, fell for each other at a ranch for the developmentally disabled, the Los Angeles Residential Community, in California. There photographer Isadora Kosofsky captured these scenes for her upcoming short film about the development of romantic relationships among residents. Her photo series, which focuses on Krysta and Nathaniel, and an older couple, Debbie and Barry, is called “Love the One You’re With.”
(Kosofsky does not state the last names of Krysta, Nathaniel, Debbie and Barry as part of an agreement with their parents.)
The raw relationships that Kosofsky captures are complex, much like mainstream relationships. They can fall prey to jealousy. They love spending time together but still value solitude. They get upset when they feel like they aren’t being listened to. They provide support emotionally, and if their partner has limitations, physically, too.
“It’s probably a deeper, more profound love than a lot of us [have],” said Deanna, Debbie’s mother. Debbie and Barry have been together now for nearly 31 years.
Deanna remembers when Debbie developed her first crushes as a young adult. “I think it had to be maybe a male therapist. … She knew from the time that she was 18, 19, 20, who the handsome men were,” she laughed.
Debbie and Barry met shortly after at a day-care program, where she immediately took a liking to him because he didn’t squeeze her tightly like a previous love interest, Donald. Soon they were passing notes back and forth.
But with the progression of the relationship came hard questions about what would be standard milestones in a normal relationship. Five or six years into Barry and Debbie’s relationship, Deanna was walking with Debbie in a mall when they passed a boutique with baby clothes hanging in the window. Gazing into the glass, Debbie suddenly said, “I would like to have a baby.”
When they got home, Deanna had to explain to Debbie the extent of her disabilities and why she wouldn’t be able to take care of a baby. Debbie listened intently and silently, and at the end said, “Okay.” That was the first and last time they spoke of it.
“We’re lovers, but I don’t make love to her,” Barry told Kosofsky. “Putting my arms around her is making love to her.”
Despite the challenges, Debbie and Barry’s relationship has gradually deepened and matured. They both seem to display an innate understanding that their relationship is different and work around it.
So of course when Barry’s mother moved him to the Los Angeles Residential Community eight years ago, Debbie followed. Now they live in adjoining villas. Though they are not legally married, they are deeply committed, and Deanna says she can’t imagine them deciding to separate.
After two years of witnessing one romance bloom and another deepen, Kosofsky said she has adjusted her own approach to love. “Working with them has made me completely reevaluate my value system,” Kosofsky said, “because Debbie and Barry have no fear of showing sensitivity or vulnerability, and I wanted to reveal that purity of emotion and also adopt it. Honestly, I would like to be like them in my relationships.”
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