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ESSAY: Love and Loss in Charlotte’s Restaurant Scene

Futo Buta owner Courtney Estes navigates grief through memories

Courtney Estes, who wrote this essay about navigating grief, poses for a photo with her late partner Michael Shortino
Courtney Estes (right) with Michael Shortino. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Estes)

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the city embellishes itself in shades of red and pink, celebrating love in its myriad of forms. Yet, for those of us who have experienced the profound loss of a partner, this holiday can evoke a complex array of emotions. Michael Shortino was my partner.

For the last decade, many in Charlotte have only known Michael as the creator of Futo Buta. To me, he was my person. To describe our connection, words would and should fall short. It was complex, multifaceted and filled with grace.

While others search for love and companionship on social apps, with the promise of a ring and baby, I was lucky and fully content to have found someone who was excited at the opportunity to carve our own path — one that led me to a person who loved all versions of me as I continued to evolve and change.

Our daily conversations centered around imagining new restaurant concepts and creating new dishes. Our favorite pastimes were dining, laughing and dreaming. Our restaurants were the backdrop of our lives, and Charlotte was the backdrop of our love.

The death of a partner leaves an indelible imprint on the heart, altering the terrain of one’s emotional landscape in ways that defy articulation. Grief is trauma. I would be lying if this story ends on a happy note. I am very much still in this process — a process that is not linear — and I often find myself circling back to ground zero (Grief Day Number One).

In the aftermath of Michael’s passing, being as close to our “stomping grounds” as possible was my only solace. Not just our home, but Charlotte as a whole.

I can remember every milestone, every fight, every crazy adventure and every location. Like when Michael first told me he loved me, 30 days into meeting each other, in my run-down mold infested apartment in Oakhurst; or the upstairs lounge of SouthPark’s Baku, where I first grabbed Michael for a sake-intoxicated makeout session before asking him to come home with me.

Then there’s the Motorhead show at The Fillmore, where he surprised me with tickets a month before Lemmy passed. There’s the patio of Futo Buta, where we snapped a selfie to remember the day we received the keys to our space — recollecting the group of guys that laughed at us earlier in the day for picking this location.

There’s the hidden meander of Little Sugar Creek at Freedom Park where we taught our dog, Otis, how to swim; the countless bars we bellied up to throughout the years to engage in cheeky conversations with our favorite bartenders; Pho Hoa on Central where we had our first date; and the since-demolished OG Common Market on Camden Road, where we nearly peed our pants, overjoyed at the sight of a Gandalf doppelganger singing songs about the universe on a ukulele. The list goes on…

In the quiet moments of grieving, memories become both a sanctuary and battleground. Like our first big fight, getting ready to carve into a prime rib sitting for dinner at Beef and Bottle. Or the chaos that ensued throughout countless spots around South End from operating restaurants during COVID.

Courtney Estes (right) with Michael Shortino. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Estes)

There’s the regrets, the possibility that if you chose another route, or had the introspection, would you have taken the same road, knowing the outcome? Did I do everything as best I could? Did I love the right way? Could I have loved him better?

A poignant reminder of a grieving love’s paradoxical nature — its capacity to both uplift and wound. Not only have I grappled with feelings of failure as a partner, but I swing like a pendulum from time to time to the other side with full acceptance of our love story… only to be met with sheer anger of how limited our 10 years together were.

If you are also dealing with grief, you know very well the emotion of envy. I now sit at coffee shops with disdain for others who are older than Michael was when he passed. Why do they get one more day, one more year? What makes them more deserving to be here?

The thoughts continue. Why does our love and loss have to be the example for others to appreciate their partner more? Why were we picked to be the reminder that it’s all temporary? I’m not ashamed of these thoughts.

As much as I welcome the physical spaces that remind me of our love story… I allow myself the willingness to embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. I give you permission to do the same. I have no regrets for being angry or feeling jealous; they are rooted in the expansiveness that is my love for Michael Shortino and the recoil of the car-crashing shock of his death.

This story and process is very much ongoing. In these last several months, confronting grief head-on, I confront the complexity of love itself — its ability to transcend boundaries and the confines of mortality. My person is no longer here, but my love for him, and the memories we created throughout Charlotte, still are. If I’m here to remember them, those locations still hold the echoes of our relationship.

I wish I could say I’m on the other-side and can lend you a road map for how you can navigate the loss of your partner. I can’t. But what I can leave you with is a small Valentine’s Day story that took place in Charlotte.

It starts with two people freshly in love. It’s February 2014 and the city has just had its biggest snowfall in several years. The couple just dug themselves out of the driveway with an IKEA bake tray and a spatula.

Everyone else in the neighborhood is hunkering down for the storm, but these two lovebirds insist on heading out to Elizabeth Billiards, where they’ll annoyingly play Steely Dan on the jukebox for hours, sipping on bourbon, playing pool, and eating bags of Doritos. They’ll most certainly annoy the seasoned bartender with an overwhelming amount of PDA, and they have no idea yet that they’re about to open a tiny ramen shop in a little sliver of South End.

They’re madly in love, and they’ll stay that way for quite some time.

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  1. Beautifully expressed and written. You will never stop missing him and sometimes as time goes by, you’ll miss him more. The loss will hit you in the gut years down the road, but signs will also come out of nowhere to make you smile. Allow yourself to fully and deeply grieve. Thank you for sharing your love story.

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