48 Hours on the Dark Side of Las Vegas

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Penthouse orgies fueled by pill-pushing hotel employees. A drug house stocked with sex slaves. Hidden homeless encampments underneath the casinos. A shockingly personal investigation shows the real Sin City is even seedier than you imagined.

There is a tension in the crowd, a sizzling silence as words and cheers cut short and all eyes focus on the same point, everyone holding their breath, every jaw and fist clenched like in the final moments before a fight, as if everyone is about to explode at once. More people are huddling around the table now, closer to the action, pushing against one another until there are no distinct bodies anymore but rather a single compacted entity made of suits and cleavages and spilled glasses, a wordless human volcano ready to erupt under the wary watch of the floor muscle, the entire casino going silent as the wheel spins and spins and spins.

“Black eleven,” the croupier announces as the ball stops in a jolt.

And the volcano goes off.

A deafening cry of victory immediately surges from the crowd’s collective throat. Strangers shout at the top of their lungs until their lungs are shut out of air. You can feel the heat being released like lava and undulating over the cheering people. You can feel it in the timeless night – or is it day? – and in the vodka-infused breaths, as heads go lighter when the chips totaling more than $250,000 get counted and pushed toward the winner.

“Vegas, baby!” someone yells.

Welcome to the world of high rollers.

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The winner is Hari Keng Joo, a stubby Malaysian entrepreneur in his thirties. Keng Joo spends a week in the gambling capital of the world every year. He was taught early that money was to be spent. His partnerships in several venture capital firms never contradicted his habits so far. “I’m just living the life, man,” he says, smiling and sipping on a glass of Macallan 1950 single malt whisky ordered from the MGM Grand’s reserve.

“I love to be here,” he adds. “It’s a special place. Dubai is nice, but Vegas is the real deal, you know? It’s like a playground for me!”

Like most of the forty million visitors who come to Las Vegas every year, Keng Joo is here to unwind and gamble. The resort he stays at is a cluster of curved glass buildings rising from the Strip in a silvery flare. The personnel from this 4,000-room hotel know him well. He has a reputation for being an extremely generous tipper and for throwing legendary multi-day events. “He parties hard,” explains his personal concierge host, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect his job. “One time we had to hire a whole team to clean his suite. The place was trashed to oblivion. Like, overturned mattresses, upside-down chairs, and glitter, glitter everywhere. God, the glitter.”

Keng Joo always books the same 2,000-square-foot, $5,000-a-night penthouse on the top floor. The management is happy to oblige, regularly comping him free services like a private airport hangar for his Gulfstream G450, or a Bentley Mulsanne every time he needs to go out. This morning, Keng Joo was treated to an assortment of Hermès shaving creams and foams in his private barber room. He relaxed in his sauna for an hour before putting on a grey Armani suit from the Winter 2015 collection, purchased directly from Giorgio Armani himself in Milan.

But for now, Keng Joo is celebrating his big win and doing awkward dance moves on the gaming floor. I gave up counting his losses after the first million, but his luck at roulette probably has him slightly ahead at last. “I don’t care if I win. It’s all about the thrill,” he says joyfully. “Stay close, I’ll show you around.”

I follow him to another high limit room, where a member of his entourage is playing blackjack. Impervious to the dealer’s cues to stand on a hard 17, his friend forfeits about four grand in the span of a minute.

Keng Joo suggests we go to the nearby Planet Hollywood for a drink, which everyone agrees is a great idea.

He doesn’t even think about cashing out.

* * *

The sky is bright orange from the setting sun. I cannot say how long I was inside the casino. Sewer stench has replaced the scent of cold tobacco. Older people amble leisurely on the shiny sidewalks, catching strip-club flyers given out by canvassers.

“Let’s do shots!” Keng Joo declares at Planet Hollywood’s bar, brandishing $100 bills to get the bartender’s attention.

Bruce Willis is in the lounge behind us, gently explaining to a college girl how to play craps. The girl’s eyes are locked onto him and she laughs nervously every time he shows her something new.

On the seat near mine, Ralph Molina, a hedge fund manager and an investor in some of Keng Joo’s ventures, is debating another guest on the value of entertainment.

“Our entire culture relies on it,” he concludes. “We’re a nation whose success is based on how hard we party. You thought it was freedom and family values? No, man. All we want is more parties. We gobble on self-gratification like dogs on their own shit.”

We soon head back to Keng Joo’s exclusive pool party where he talks in Malay with a short man in a tuxedo who I understand is his younger brother. The two of them are eating Wagyu sirloins the casino’s chef imports from the Liverpool Plains in Australia. A magnum of Champagne is opened at their side.

By the pool, an attractive UCLA biomedical physics student tries explaining circular dichroism and angular momentum to a perplexed man in swim shorts. An older woman in a flashy bikini complains that a local lady kicked her out of a blackjack game because she thought she was ruining the flow of cards. A man in swim shorts brags about the costly signature cocktails he had at the XS club.

“I drove a Lamborghini Gallardo today,” says a fraternity guy.

“I went for a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon,” says another.

“I killed it at poker and lost everything at baccarat,” replies a third.

The water smells like diluted alcohol.

The night is young.

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When the music gets too loud, I walk to the front desk to see Paul, a hotel employee I’ve been talking to for a few weeks. From waiter to group manager to special events assistant, Paul has worked almost every entry-level job at the resort. He knows a lot about the casino’s inner workings and asked that his full name not appear in this story for fear of reprisal from his employer.

This last day has been a handful for Paul. A couple was caught half-naked in an elevator. An elderly gambler soiled himself while playing slots and flung feces at a group of bachelorettes. A guest wouldn’t believe snorting cocaine in the reception area was illegal. A little-person prostitute was taken out by the police after performing oral sex on a client in a public bathroom.

“When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong,” he says. “I can have entire weeks going without a hitch, and then boom, shit happens all at once. At least it makes for good stories!”

Paul recounts an event from a month before, when a visitor from Sacramento was found dead in his room after losing his entire 401k, one end of his tie strung around his neck and the other attached to his bathroom’s door knob.

“Management obviously wants us to handle this kind of situation really carefully, but sometimes it’s hard to keep it under the radar. You can’t pretend the dead grandma sitting at the buffet with crab legs coming out of her mouth doesn’t exist. We actually have to deal with death pretty often. It’s like…anywhere else, I guess, just crazier.”

He describes how specialized cleaners are sometimes called to sanitize a room from blood and other bodily fluids, at times completely repainting or refurnishing it before the next three p.m. check-in. He mentions the thefts and the cheating that casinos have to deal with on a regular basis – up to 34 percent of gambling-related crimes being committed by staff. He tells me about the fragrances pumped through the air conditioning systems to cover the smoke odor. He depicts the “dildo bins” discarded every year during spring break when customers leave personal items behind after a few nights of kinky adventures. He brings up the sixty thousand pounds of shrimp eaten every day in the city. “It’s a shit show, but it’s a fun shit show,” he jokes.

After a few moments, a man from Keng Joo’s party comes up and slips a folded $50 bill on the counter. “Can you hook me up?” he asks nonchalantly.

Paul nods, swiftly puts the bill in his pocket and writes down the man’s room number. “Twenty minutes,” he replies.

The man nods and walks back to the elevators as if nothing happened. Paul informs a colleague he’ll take a smoke break, then heads to the garage where his car is parked with a small amount of illegal substances inside.

“Vegas, baby,” he winks at me when he comes back, carrying a CVS plastic bag filled with what I imagine to be MDMA and other club drugs.

Keng Joo texts me to say that the party will continue in his penthouse. “U dont want to miss this.”

* * *

There is something about marble bathrooms and haute couture silk cushions that insulates you from the rest of the world. From carefully selected flower bouquets to timeless Haviland Limoges porcelain tableware, everything in a luxury suite suggests instant fulfillment and blindness to the common struggles happening fifty stories below.

No broken cars here, no late phone calls from abusive boyfriends, no expensive power bills to worry about. Only the lush quietness of opulence.

“Let’s get this started!” Keng Joo exclaims, Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” playing loudly on the Harman Kardon sound system. People dance and clap, with the city glowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind them.

I notice the man who spoke to Paul in the lobby, holding a CVS plastic bag and talking to a busty blonde in a black dress.

A bedroom door opens, displaying a mass of tangled figures lumped together in the half-light. I see a big woman on all fours, surrounded by men. I see faces buried in slits and crevices, twisted in lustful rictuses, with tongues licking and fingers exploring wide-open bodies.

Keng Joo has downed an ecstasy pill and is now French-kissing a random girl on a couch while taking a selfie. Hors d’oeuvres are scattered on the floor.

The party is in full swing.

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I look for a familiar face and see Hazel, a 25-year-old escort who Paul introduced me to earlier in the week. Hazel doesn’t look different than any other woman around. No suggestive miniskirt, no overloaded makeup. Just a girl next door with a friendly smile and lovely brown eyes.

The personal entertainer agency she works for executes thorough background checks of her clients to ensure her transactions are secure. Hazel says it’s well worth the cut the agency takes. Safety and anonymity are extremely important to her, which is why she uses her escort alias instead of her birth name. Her company can cost upwards of $2,000 a night, although parties and special requests are more expensive. She says most clients simply want good-looking company and don’t ask for more than flirting.

“My clients are like boyfriends,” she explains. “There has to be some chemistry, otherwise nothing happens. I only have sex when I want to anyways. Most of the time it’s just a matter of doing conversation and being a nice person. I actually enjoy it.”

I ask her about how she came to do this for a living.

“I was broke and figured why not? I worked as a stripper for a while, and I quickly discovered I could make a whole lot more cash by myself. I get to meet interesting people from all over the world. I get to do stuff I wouldn’t have dreamed of. We all need dreams. The thing is, hustling is still illegal in Clark County so I have to be cautious. Street hookers have it worse, though… It’s easier for me. I don’t have to work in the open and risk getting busted by undercover cops.”

Tonight, Hazel has agreed to participate in group sex with some of the party’s guests. She offers me to follow her to the bedroom I caught a glimpse of earlier. “It’ll be interesting,” she assures me, merely requesting I keep a low profile when I’m with her.

In the bedroom, a gray-haired man approaches Hazel as she gets naked. The man calls himself John and is a regular customer.

“He’s a sweetheart on the surface but a real creep in bed,” Hazel will later say. John is married with two children and lives in California where he works as a sales VP. He’s confident enough to talk about ecological roof gardens and solar energy in the midst of an orgy, giving appreciative looks toward a couple playing with a translucent vibrator.

“Me and my wife are trying this open marriage thing,” John explains. “I know what this means. I just don’t have the time for a divorce. It’s not only about pleasure. It’s about control. About revenge. About getting what you want when you want. This is what they don’t tell you about cheating, or partying, or gambling. They tell you about the guilt, but the truth is that sinning feels good. I wasn’t tricked or forced to cheat on my wife. I just went from ‘this feels great’ to ‘why don’t I feel bad?’ to ‘why can’t I feel bad?’”

John and Hazel soon begin kissing and fumbling with each other. I stay in a corner, wishing my tequila glass was still full, my stomach twisted in discomfort.

Legs are knotting and hands are grabbing. Knees are scraping on the carpet.

“I like a girl who knows how to handle pain,” John says as he pulls Hazel’s hair down to make her squat in front of him.

I watch when she unzips him and puts him in her mouth. I watch when he rams into her, making her leap forward at each thrust of his hips. I listen to the wet noises and to the sound of the flesh bouncing and shaking.

And she never quits smiling.

There is something sad and sick about him that Hazel sure knows how to handle better than I do, because I have to close my eyes when his teeth leave a collar of bite marks on her neck, pushing deeper and deeper and making her red and sore.

“Suck your thumb,” he orders.

It’s about control.

I watch her close her lips around her thumb, letting out a long, grateful moan as John finishes on her face and down her chin.

She never quits smiling.

“What happens in Vegas…” she says.

About revenge.

* * *

“You look like shit,” Paul says when I arrive at the front desk a little past two a.m. There are still lots of people in the lobby. I couldn’t sleep for the world.

Paul needs to get a fresh stockpile of drugs. He sold almost everything he had in the last three hours. “I’m always too short when this guy’s in town,” he says about Keng Joo. “Whatever I have, it’s never enough.”

His supplier is already en route to pick him up and bring him to a North Las Vegas stash house where he will fill up with new stock.

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We head to the self-parking garage where we promptly hop into an old white Pontiac sedan waiting in a dark corner I assume is not monitored by surveillance teams. The man behind the wheel looks upset upon seeing me.

“He’s cool,” Paul reassures him.

“Skittles and water, huh?” the man chuckles after a moment of silence, alluding to the MDMA and GHB Paul asked him an hour earlier.

The man, a hairless heavyset guy named Angelo, says he is part of a local Norteño faction run by one of his cousins. The gang belongs to the Mexican cartel Nuestra Familia and specializes in drug distribution, prostitution and car theft, supplying a wide range of small-time dealers like Paul.

Ranked in the top ten of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods in 2010 with a violent crime rate 112 percent higher than the national average, North Las Vegas is no stranger to such criminal organizations, remaining an important drugs transshipment point in spite of law enforcement’s efforts.

Angelo does the speed limit all the way to the stash house, his car growling in the desert night. Most of the lots are vacant here, with churches and prayer centers every two hundred yards, scattered between cinderblock houses and parted-out cars.

“Tourists usually do uppers,” he explains. “Kids do spice [synthetic cannabis] and bath salts [synthetic cathinone]. Crack is almost only for natives. Black tar [a crude, unrefined opioid] and meth are more in demand now because they’re so cheap. People get fucked up on that shit, man.”

Balzar Avenue is far from the neon lights and the shows. No crowds in the streets, here. No bachelorette parties, no reality-TV celebrities in custom tailored suits, no sparkling wine tastings. Just wide streets with no lights on past dark and no shade after sunrise.

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The stash house is nondescript, surrounded by wire fencing like most in the area. Cemetery plastic flowers are scattered in the dirt. There is a minivan bench in the front yard. A dog barks, his chain lashing and clanking.

Angelo invites us to come in. The place is dimly lit and smells like pot smoke. People are crashed on futons, whispering about us. Two guys are playing Halo on an 85-inch flatscreen, emptying Red Bull cans one after another.

Virgin Mary statues are neatly displayed on a shelf and crucifixes are nailed to every wall. A picture of Christ is hanging in the kitchen where microwaved leftovers pile up in a trashcan. There is a gun on a counter.

I give Paul a worried look to which he responds with a shrug.

Angelo pops up from the kitchen with several bags of colorful pills. I recognize Ambien, Hydrocodone and Ritalin, all regularly used in pharm parties – when teens invite friends to ingest whatever they find in their medicine cabinets. “Last shipment got busted,” he says. “I’ll have more next month.”

Angelo lights a joint with Paul and explains why he’s a Norteño. “I do what I do because that’s how family works, you know what I’m saying? You gotta help your kind no matter what. It’s like animals. Don’t have no choice.”

He says the gang protected him when he was sent to the Southern Nevada Correctional Center on charges of battery and robbery, after getting caught on camera attacking a gas station attendant. He says five years behind bars was the price to pay to find a purpose.

Despite his robust sales, Angelo still lives in a standard-size house near the Air Force base, and drives a shitty Pontiac to deliver his produce to his dealers and wholesale purchasers. “I don’t get to keep everything I make,” he explains laughing. “Some part of the money goes to La Eñe [the cartel]. Another goes to my cousin and his associates. It’s like any other business.”

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Angelo decides I need to meet one of his cousin’s girls, a thirty-year-old laborer smuggled from the Mexican state of Chiapas whom he keeps inside the house and uses as he pleases in exchange for fake documents and the promise of a better life. He tells me that her food, clothing and medication are all taken care of, and that while she mainly does chores like cleaning and laundry, she’s sometimes asked to provide sexual favors to guests or partners.

Human trafficking through the Mexican-U.S. border is estimated to affect about 18,000 people annually, of which many will be exploited in prostitution rings or as modern-day slaves until they’ve repaid the “coyotes” who help them cross. Often they wind up in Las Vegas.

“Hope you’re ready for this, man. Te llegar a conocer el diablo tonight,” says Angelo, showing me the way to a room in the back of the house before immediately returning to his sofa with Paul. “You get to meet the devil tonight.”

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The devil lives in a red, red room in which water from a bubbling fish tank reflects on the walls like the marbled veins of a dead body. A fly is stuck on a tape ribbon dangling from a fan.

The devil appears, and it’s a tall and thin woman with scars on her stomach and high heels that sink into the carpeting at every step.

She disregards me and puts tar heroin into a square piece of tin foil, dull side up, lighting a flame underneath the foil and chasing the heroin until it burns liquid, using a pen tube as a straw to inhale the smoke rising from the oily substance.

She speaks in tongues on the unmade bed, reciting staccato syllables in a soaked trance, half-naked in the half-light, moving rhythmically, with growly sounds coming out of her mouth as she invites invisible men to quench their desires with her body.

She notices my look and smiles, and all I want is to get out of here and never come back. “No estoy aquí,” she tells me. “No estoy aquí,” with a grin widening on her face. “I am not here.”

I swear I can see the lights flicker.

I wait until she is asleep to leave. I try not to look over my shoulder when I go out of her red, red room.

I don’t see Angelo again that night.

The shadows are already growing long on the ceiling when Paul decides it’s time for us to go. I chug an energy drink and follow him to the nearest street corner where we wait for an Uber to pick us up. The morning is cool and dry.

The sky is already too bright.

* * *

The nine a.m. sun is burning my bloodshot eyes. I’m with Hazel, who is helping Deliah Brown – the big woman I briefly saw at Keng Joo’s sex party last night – across the valet area behind the hotel. Deliah works the streets for a Norteño branch similar to the one Angelo is part of. Unlike Hazel, she’s not used to participating in private events.

“Men want pretty skinny girls,” she says. “I ain’t none of that,” she declares, pinching a lump of her stomach fat. “Thankfully, everybody got a fetish nowadays!”

Walking visibly hurts her. She doesn’t say a word when Hazel tells her we will accompany her back to her place and make sure she’s okay.

Brown used to live with her ex-boyfriend and his abuela in Naked City, a once-seedy area of low-rent apartments in the shade of the Stratosphere Tower. She says she sneaked away when her ex started abusing her. Soon she had to turn tricks for a gang so she could have money and protection.

Today, she lives in a storm drainage tunnel, by the train tracks near Dean Martin Drive, a stone’s throw from the Rio Casino.

The tunnels, built in the 1970s to control runoff and protect the developing city from flash floods, are home to about five hundred homeless people, making them one of the largest skid rows in the U.S.

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“The population down there varies quite a bit,” journalist and advocate for the homeless Matthew O’Brien explained in a 2011 Huffington Post interview. “You have some teenagers living and hanging out, middle-aged men and Vietnam veterans. And people who came out to Vegas looking for the American dream … Instead, they’re living beneath the hotels and casinos that lured them out here in the first place.”

“My house is over there,” Brown says after Hazel parts ways. “It’s very dark but it’s okay,” she continues, leading me to the tunnel’s entrance. “It’s safe, don’t worry.”

The three hundred miles of underground channels stay cool and dry most of the time, proving a relatively sound place to stay until it rains.

“You learn to watch the weather,” explains Neil Whitfield, a forty-year-old recovering alcoholic living down here, near Brown. “Floods are rare, but when there’s a storm coming, you make a run for it. There’s no time to fool around. The water level will rise very fast in a matter of minutes,” he adds, raising his hand to the tunnel’s ceiling. “First year I was here, I waited too long and got out paddling on a mattress. People die every year. They get swept and get carried miles away from here. So you gotta be ready.”

Just like the communities living in New York’s Freedom Tunnel, the residents of the Las Vegas flood drains try to look after each other. Dozens ended up here after losing their properties during the 2008 economic crisis, when the city had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. They know the municipality won’t help, going as far as sending them across state lines to get rid of them. “It’s not ideal having a poverty problem when you’re the Entertainment Capital of the World,” Whitfield notes.

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We crouch in the dark, going further underground. Whitfield warns me about scorpions. The halo of our flashlight illuminates graffiti on the walls. Grocery carts and plastic chairs indicate the remnants of old camps.

“That’s Mike’s place,” Whitfield says, stopping in front of a blue tarp hanging from a clothing line. “Mike!” he calls, a scrawny man in a blue hoodie appearing from behind the tarp, a tablet computer in his hands.

Mike Mullen is a rod buster by trade, responsible for the installation of rebar on construction sites. The 8,400 jobs added by construction companies in 2015 benefitted him for a few months until he was let go because of lack of work.

Both Mullen and Whitfield gamble in local casinos to make ends meet and enjoy free treats. They know which slot machines have the best pay-off and the lowest variances. They know where to look for unused credits, which they call “silver mining.” They know which off-strip blackjack tables are the best.

“Machines at the El Cortez return 92 percent on average,” Mullen explains, showing me a tablet app he uses to write advanced formulas. “I use the standard deviation strategy to calculate which spin will be winning. It’s not that complicated. It’s a lot like counting cards, except it doesn’t get you kicked out of the casino,” he continues, stressing that blackjack, craps and video poker are still statistically the best ways to limit the house’s edge on the game.

The two men reminisce about a common friend who died of an overdose in the tunnels underneath the Mandalay Bay the year before. They poke fun at the brightly colored sweaters he wore and at his constant bickering with his imaginary dog.

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Whitfield then brings me to his house, a little deeper down the tunnel. Hoarded items are piled up neatly in what he describes as his living room. All his belongings are ready to be moved in case of a sudden flood. He owns a toaster oven and an electric cooler that he plugs into a portable power pack to cook and refrigerate his food. His floor is covered with rugs. Battery-powered LEDs allow him to read whenever he wants.

“That’s not much, but I’m kinda proud of it,” he says.

* * *

It’s late when we emerge to the fresh air. We join a group of tunnel residents sharing dinner together in the middle of the spillway where floodwater would later rush through during a historic spring storm. Deliah Brown is here, as is Christine Alvarez, Mullen’s sweetheart, fresh out of rehab, and a couple other people I haven’t met yet. We all sit down in a circle and enjoy Chinese take-out.

“I slept all day,” says a guy with a red baseball cap.

“I hustled a group of college girls for booze,” says another.

“I got punched in the face by a tourist,” says a third, pointing to a bad bruise on the top of his cheek.

We talk about how hard life can be for those in the margins of society.

“I just wish regular people would see we are not second-rate citizens,” explains Alvarez, a spirited woman wearing fake sapphire earrings. “If they saw what we do every day to survive, if they saw how strong we are, they would understand. A lot of us are more than decent folks.”

Someone applauds, nodding in approval.

“I know who I am,” Alvarez adds, looking straight at me. “And I know there’s a place for me somewhere. I know it.”

Whitfield lets out a chuckle.

“Most people only see what they want to see,” he replies. “They don’t wanna be reminded of the world around them. You can say they’re selfish, or greedy, but it’s hard to blame them. I mean…why would they be concerned by us?”

“In life, there’s the stuff you see, and then there’s the stuff you don’t,” he concludes. “And sometimes it’s better not to see everything.”

We both stand up and go walk in the night. A giant billboard illuminates the nearby highway overpass. Clay dust rises in spirals at each step we make.

Whitfield tells me how he found God in the desert three years ago and how it gave his life a new spark. He tells me how different silence in the desert is, how it doesn’t resemble anything else – tight and dense, a constant stream of void charged with a lingering feel of eternity, a purgatory stillness cleaning all and everything to the bone.

He tells me how sometimes, if the wind is right, he can hear the earth breathe. He shows me the crucifix tattooed on his neck.

“As you get older, you learn things, you know,” he says. “You learn to let go. Nothing you can do will change anything anyway. You learn to accept that.”

The wind is warm and comforting in the suburban night.

When we come back from our walk, I see Brown sitting still near her blanket and her rolling suitcase, looking at the sky.

“Can’t see no stars,” she says. “City’s too bright.”

Traffic goes by on the highway, the cars rushing through in a headlights blaze, leaving blurry red trails behind them.

Brown is comatose from the antidepressants she took earlier. Her words are slow and slurred. Her eyes are glassy, her face blank. “This ain’t real,” she says, still looking at the fake daylight radiating in the stricken sky.

* * *

Back on the Strip, a man in a Homer Simpson costume hands me a coupon for a free drink. He flips me the bird when I say I’m already drunk enough.

The shower I take isn’t enough to remove the dirt and the slime I feel covered with. My shampoo smells like wet wood and herbs.

I think of Hazel’s words: “We all need dreams.”

It’s a simple thing, really. And like all simple things, it’s also very complicated.

Las Vegas doesn’t want for fancy things, but its darker and bleaker side is a stark reminder that being human never was a clean business to begin with, and will always involve failing and losing, dealing with mud and blood and spit, and decaying into bones and teeth until we are one with dust.

A mirage built on a dream built on impossible hopes, Vegas is a confession that being human, that being alive, is a messy predicament we’ve grown to dislike. A shameful issue we cannot wait to replace with artificial cleanliness and pretend optimism.

* * *

“I gotcha, baby!” Keng Joo says to a friend, giving him a small handful of rainbow pills as we lie in a cabana by the side of the corded-off hotel pool. “That shit is awesome, trust me. You’ll never try anything else after that!”

I picture Paul soon getting a text message from someone in Keng Joo’s entourage, asking for more drugs. I picture him leaving his front desk for a quick trip to the parking lot. I picture Angelo in his North Las Vegas stash house, stroking the devil’s hair in a red, red room while one of his men is selling an ounce of something somewhere in a seedy part of town, perhaps by the freeway, the same freeway visitors will use to enter and leave the limits of Paradise, without end.

I picture Keng Joo and his guests dancing and splashing in the fluorescent water, sipping on extravagant drinks, the men eyeing bikini girls and the women yielding to chemical sex in lavish suites, gambling for more glitz and more brand names, all these people lusting, craving for more, begging for life to come back and whisper one last time to their ears, “I am not here.”

* * *

Check out our exclusive Facebook Q & A session with the writer of this eye-opening look at Sin City.

 

 

Emma Sulkowicz is More Than “That Mattress-Toting Sexual Assault Activist”

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She earned worldwide fame for her campus protest. Now this empowered 24-year-old is getting into S&M – and taking on the art-world establishment.

On the third floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building, a line of guests stretches down a cigarette ash-colored hallway. In an adjacent kitchen area, a captivating, gray-bearded man wearing a black suit and a white tie with WHITNEY printed in block letters splashes cold water on his face. Two younger guys congratulate him on his work this evening. They think they’ve witnessed the end of a performance piece starring the sharp-dressed man and Emma Sulkowicz, the 24-year-old artist most famous for protesting an alleged rape by lugging a mattress through the Columbia University campus for the duration of her senior year. But tonight’s work, conceived by Sulkowicz and titled The Ship is Sinking, is still going.

“Mr. Whitney,” as Sulkowicz refers to him in the piece that debuted last Saturday, is portrayed by the bearded man, an S&M film star known as “Master Avery,” whose Kink.com profile describes his body type as that of a “swimmer” and his cock girth as “thick.”

“So, what was that all about?” one of the guys asks Mr. Whitney, who a few minutes ago tied a bikini-clad, pink-haired Sulkowicz to a seven-foot slab of wood and raised her to the ceiling of the gallery one floor below, while verbally and physically assaulting her.

“Well,” Mr. Whitney begins casually. “I had to kick her ass a little. She’s lazy. I can’t have her thinking she can be an artist.”

The two guys don’t know what to say next. Mr. Whitney keeps the conversation going, asking, “Do you think I was hard enough on her?”

“Mr. Whitney” (left) chastising Emma Sulkowicz (right) during her performance art piece Saturday night in Manhattan. Sulkowicz, in character, is eager to show Mr. Whitney she “has what it takes to be an artist.”

A few days earlier, I sat with a friendly, nervous Sulkowicz at lunch and talked about her latest offering, part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s esteemed Independent Study Program. “At this point I’ve read enough theory and I’m confident enough in myself as an artist to know that I can only maintain an art practice if I’m doing stuff that’s kooky, wacky and fun,” she said, “and that’s why I’m really excited about this piece.” Revealing that she would be dressed in a bikini while hanging from the ceiling in the position of a female figurehead on a ship’s mast, she giggled, adding. “I’m definitely going to be the most naked person in the room.”

Sulkowicz’s carefree demeanor betrays the depth of thought and preparedness put into The Ship is Sinking. It’s inspired by a 1935 Bertolt Brecht essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” – in which Brecht compares the Great Depression-era United States to a sinking ship. In taking the abuse from “Mr. Whitney” in her piece, she is questioning her value as an artist while posing the question: “What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?”

During the performance, Mr. Whitney uses heavy-duty ropes to bind the submissive Sulkowicz, clad in spiky, sparkling heels. Drops of sweat trickle off the tip of his nose as he muscles the ropes around her over and over again. He burns her skin while she moans as the tightest of knots is executed. As he raises her off the ground, she maintains a show of stoicism; then Mr. Whitney goes back to perusing the financial section of The New York Times in a nearby chair.

“Mr. Whitney” – portrayed by S&M performer “Master Avery” – ties Sulkowicz up during her performance piece.

Sulkowicz says the piece is part observation on Donald Trump’s America and the place of art within it, part critique of the art establishment, and part personal exploration of her own boundaries as an artist.

“If our country is falling to pieces and you’re like, I’m going to make political art!, you’re just kind of weighing the ship down,” Sulkowicz says. “The only art that’s really going to fix things are going to happen outside the walls of the institution,” meaning, in this case, the Whitney.

Nevertheless, “Every one of the artists in the room that night asked to be a part of this structure, we all want to be bound to the institution,” she continues, referring to her peers in the program. “In spite of all this pain, we still want it.”

“Mr. Whitney” ties Sulkowicz to a seven-foot post that will be raised to the ceiling.

As Sulkowicz hangs several feet above the performance space’s floor – with pink tufts of pubic hair sprouting from the top of the bikini bottom and from her armpits – a woman pushes through the gallery goers. “Do you want me to get you down?” she asks Sulkowicz, looking up at her.

“No, it’s O.K.,” Sulkowicz says. “I have to show Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.” She’s repeated that phrase over and over tonight, even as friends greeted her upon arriving, not realizing that the performance had already begun.

“Excuse me!” Mr. Whitney shouts at the concerned woman, jumping out of his chair. “Is she bothering you?”

Quickly turning his attention to Sulkowicz, he says, “Did you say something bad about me?”

Sulkowicz playfully denies any wrongdoing, but Mr. Whitney’s not having it. He unbuckles his belt and removes it. The audience can guess what’s coming next.

Another woman in the crowd says, “Oh my god,” and Mr. Whitney smacks Sulkowicz’s rear end repeatedly with the belt. As pink welts rise on her right butt cheek, Mr. Whitney asks the crowd if they “think she can take it.” Some nod, one gives a thumbs up, and others remain stone-faced. The woman who offered to rescue Sulkowicz looks on, horrified.

Audience members look on as Sulkowicz continues her performance.

This isn’t the first time Sulkowicz has infused assault into her work. Weeks after graduating from Columbia – and famously walking her mattress across the stage to accept her diploma – she released Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, a video performance art piece in which she filmed herself engaged in a sexual encounter that turned violent from four different angles. She says that work, meant to display in raw detail just how seamlessly sex can turn into rape, was the first time she had to confront the particular ways in which she was harmed while being sexually assaulted in 2012. (The man she accused has denied any wrongdoing, and has repeatedly filed court actions charging Columbia with gender-based discrimination.) In the video, her co-actor strangles and sodomizes her, like she says her attacker did. “I was gearing up for the shoot date so much in my head and [thought] ‘these things trigger me, but on this day I’m just going to have to deal with it,’” she recalls. “This is the most corny thing ever, but art enabled me to face my fears.”

Sulkowicz says that for a long time if anyone touched her neck, she’d be triggered, and become upset. But in part because of Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, and the psychotherapy she’s engaged in for the past year, her neck is no longer off-limits.

Since graduating, Sulkowicz has offered commentary on the rape case through a collection of silkscreened images and newspaper clippings, and dressed up as a doctor and played the role of therapist to see how “art heals in ways that medicine can’t,” as she told The Daily Beast in January. She hopes to restage this collaboration with Master Avery in other venues, and is “always working on something” art related.

During the performance last weekend, after taking a few lashings from Mr. Whitney’s belt, Sulkowicz finally gives in and asks to be taken down.

“Oh, you’re giving up?” Mr. Whitney taunts. “O.K.,” he continues, lowering the wooden post. “I guess you don’t have what it takes to be an artist.”

A silent Sulkowicz lays on the carpet a good ten minutes while Mr. Whitney unties the knots wedding her to the wood. Once she can stand, Mr. Whitney returns to his newspaper.

The attendees offer Sulkowicz a mix of praise and condolences. One girl asks, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Sulkowicz says, undoing a knot. “But I’ve just got to get back up there and prove to Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.”

“What’s the bar for that?” the girl asks, oblivious that Sulkowicz has broken free of the wood post, but not yet of the confines of the piece. “How long do you have to stay up there?”

With a straight face, Sulkowicz stops toying with the rope, flips a wrist and says, “I mean, like, forever.”

The girl stares at her blankly.

An eager Sulkowicz attaches the wooden post to the makeshift pulley system hanging from the ceiling, approaches Mr. Whitney and pleads with him, again, to “make me an artist.”

“You know it’s going to hurt,” Mr. Whitney retorts.

“I know what it takes now,” she says, steadfast. “I know what to expect.”

Mr. Whitney goes to work again, but much more fiercely this time, grabbing Sulkowicz harder, tying the knots tighter, making her moan louder.

He moves quicker this time, once again positioning her like a figurehead atop the gallery. He pulls Sulkowicz’s hair, slaps her face, and invites an audience member to join – a heavyset dude, dressed in a black tee and torn black jeans, wearing some lipstick and face powder. He’s been here since the doors opened, and now he and Mr. Whitney are both slapping her ass.

As the clock strikes eight, the gallery’s lights go out, signaling the end of the performance. But Mr. Whitney continues the onslaught, pinching Sulkowicz’s nipples.

Onlookers fire up the flashlight function on their iPhones, once again illuminating the gallery corner.

“Mr. Whitney” continues his verbal assault on Sulkowicz as she hangs from the ceiling.

Shortly thereafter, Sulkowicz “gives up” again. Mr. Whitney takes her down and continuously chastises her as he unravels the knots.

“Ah, this is a waste of my time,” he suddenly ejects. Then, addressing the crowd says, “Why don’t you all untie her instead?”

Audience members untie Sulkowicz at the close of her performance.

Eight or so people surround Sulkowicz as she lies on the ground and pull at the ropes. In a couple minutes she’s free, and everyone applauds.

As the crowd thins, Sulkowicz and Master Avery embrace. With her eyes shut, she smiles widely.

 

 

This Graffiti Fanboy Steals Priceless Street Art Under the Cloak of Darkness

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On the prowl with the Thomas Crown of the New York City streets.

Tommy is a bit jumpy. The six-foot Queens, New York native, his closely cropped, dirty blonde hair covered by a black hoodie, just downed a Red Bull in his car. It’s well after midnight on a weekday and now he’s ordering a can of Coke with two extra-spicy chicken tacos from a food truck.

Tommy, who asked that his name be changed to protect him from retaliatory acts, knows this Bedford Avenue corner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not the ideal location to commit what many in the street art community consider a crime. The fire engine red food truck has a scrawling LED sign advertising its menu, and there’s light pouring onto the sidewalk from a bodega. But a police patrol car just sauntered past and continued down the block, so Tommy knows they won’t be back for a while. Plus, earlier, New York endured a three-hour downpour, softening the glue behind an indeterminable number of posters affixed to walls by some of the most respected street artists in the world. And directly across from the food truck is one wall with pieces by two of Tommy’s favorite artists sticking to it…at least for now.

As I place my own entrée order, Tommy takes two nimble steps back toward the wall, looks left, then right. He flips around and his fingers go to work on a poster signed in white stencil by the local street artist “SacSix.” Tommy has already claimed a few pieces by SacSix since he began hoarding street art a year ago.

The woman in the truck giggles as she watches Tommy, and I turn to see the outstretched arm of a dancing Mike Tyson being pulled off the brick. Wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, the body of Iron Mike is buckling its knees and striking an Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” pose. Tommy carries a box cutter and a heavy duty, pump-action spray bottle filled with water for assistance on these excursions. But because of the day’s rainfall he doesn’t need either of them now, and once Tyson is secured, Tommy starts on the eight-inch-tall Paris Hilton dancing in line next to him.

Hilton succumbs to Tommy even quicker than Tyson. “Normally it takes me five to ten minutes to take a piece down,” Tommy explains. “But on a great, rainy night they come off like butter and I almost feel guilty. It’s too easy.”

Tommy removes a work of street art posted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The gritty New York graffiti subculture of the ’70s and ’80s was effectively wiped away by the ’90s, due to the city enacting new aggressive train- and wall-cleaning policies. Since then, street art – the more elaborate and nuanced version of the medium – has infiltrated New York, and cities around the world. More recently, high-end galleries and auction houses have included street art among their offerings.

Michael Doyle, director of business development at Julien’s Auctions – a West Hollywood auction house that sells a wide variety of art – says street art, and its acceptance as a legitimate commodity, is here to stay. “It still has that rebel, fringe, controversial” side to it, he says, “but nonetheless we’ve seen a strong, steady increase in demand as well as prices.”

But because of the illegal nature of their work, street artists rarely see direct financial returns from their efforts – unless they’re formally commissioned. Like the London-based, world-famous Banksy, most street artists are anonymous, and the pieces that end up in public galleries and formal auctions are typically served up by lucky building owners who’ve had a noteworthy artist choose their wall as a canvass, or by an art dealer who brokered an agreement with such a building owner. Spray-painted walls targeted by respected street artists have been relinquished from buildings, and more elaborate installations have been plundered. In 2013, when Banksy embarked on a widely chronicled New York residency, he placed a Sphinx statue made of cinderblocks in Queens, and then disappeared as he always does. Soon, several men began to deconstruct the statue and load a truck with the blocks. The majority of Banksy’s Sphinx is now in the Keszler Gallery on Long Island, awaiting a buyer. Portions of its base, though, are in a storage unit rented by Tommy.

Such outcomes irk documentarian Colin Day, whose “Saving Banksy” chronicles the fate of a mural the artist painted in San Francisco. “It’s wrong if street art is removed for the intent of profit,” Day says, adding that, if someone does sell a piece taken from the street, they should at least try to track the artist down and give them a portion of the booty. He also feels it is important that a piece of street art placed on a wall remain on that same structure and, somehow, stay within the community the artist presented it.

A wheat paste poster attributed to SacSix in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Distinct from the ritzy galleries and auction houses, a street art black market has also developed on sites like eBay where authentication isn’t required. There are people who tour city streets, finding the right moments – and practicing the most efficient methods – to remove art.

But Tommy doesn’t consider himself a thief. He says he does not sell the artwork he confiscates from the streets, under any circumstances, and does not intend to do so. His collection is approaching four-dozen pieces, but he wishes to keep them all for himself, simply because he’s a fan.

Propped up next to the Sphinx slabs in Tommy’s storage room are works by New York street artists SacSix, Cost, Dee Dee, Dain and others, as well as the Frenchman known as Invader. There are stickers – some still on city street signs Tommy cut away, others carefully pulled off – and tile designs. Most of his collection is made up of posters known as “wheat pastes” because a flour-based glue is used to put them up.

“I know it looks selfish,” says Tommy, who works as a freelance graphic designer. “But I feel like I’m capturing a moment in a really artistic time. I wish I got my start sooner. It turned into a big hype thing, and now the big artists don’t want to put up wheat pastes because they know they’re going to be torn down and sold.”

* * *

An hour earlier, Tommy and I stood outside one of Brooklyn’s many fenced-in construction zones. On the far side of the plot, fixed to the wall of an as-yet demolished building, was one particular piece Tommy desperately wanted: a cutout poster of the iconic skull logo associated with the horror-punk band the Misfits, except the top half above the jawline more resembles the ’80s World Wrestling Federation star Andre The Giant. Tommy hypothesizes that the piece is by Shepard Fairey, who rose to prominence in the early ’90s by posting tons of stickers depicting Andre The Giant above the word OBEY, then in 2008 found worldwide fame for his Barack Obama HOPE poster.

“I’m going to ask permission [from the construction workers] to save it,” Tommy said, staring at the Misfits-Andre mash-up. He added that many nights he’s thought of breaking into the construction zone to retrieve the piece, but is afraid of being arrested for trespassing. “They’re going to put this building up in front of it and then it’s going to be gone,” Tommy said. “And that bothers me.”

“I’m saving it from its ultimate doom of getting defaced, and, probably, people are going to try and take it and they’re going to take it the wrong way,” he continued, insisting that most others would casually peel off small portions of the poster, possibly on a dry day. “Piece by piece it’s just going to start disappearing.”

Tommy shows off a New York City street sign he removed and the stickers by long-time street artist Cost that remain on the back.

SacSix doesn’t see Tommy’s actions as “saving” street art.

“There has been the occasion where I’ve seen a wheat paste that is essentially off and I’m taking it back to my apartment,” SacSix said during a recent phone interview. But then he added: “I would never go up to a piece that I know is securely wheat-pasted and try and tear it. If you have to wait for rainy days and you gotta go out there with blades and tools, that’s not really rescuing. That’s more stealing.”

He insists a “weathered” poster can be even more alluring than a freshly pasted one, and deserves to endure a complete lifecycle. “Colors fade, corners tear,” SacSix says. “Let it be beautiful in its decay.”

Not all street artists are so strongly against what Tommy does. Los Angeles-based Paige Smith – who goes by “A Common Name” and is best known for her “Urban Geode” street art project – says she quickly came to terms with the fact that people were going to claim her art for themselves. “I kind of consider people forces of nature on this planet. They destroy things; I expect it,” she says. “If anyone is walking through a forest and finds a gem or an arrowhead, they take it. I think it makes sense that they take it.”

Fellow Los Angeleno Illma Gore, a veteran street artist who is best known for her rather unflattering nude portrait of Donald Trump, says, “When you do something in street art, in the public domain, you’re giving it up; you’re saying, ‘This is for you. This is for the public.’” But Gore also feels that, financially, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a living artist, so there’s only a certain amount of art that street artists can give out for free.”

A piece of street art signed in stencil by local artist SacSix, now in Tommy’s possession.

Back at the Bedford Avenue wall across from the food truck, with Elvis-Tyson and -Hilton completely removed, Tommy eyes a neighboring two-by-four-foot poster attributed to Dee Dee. The haunting piece has a soft, pastel purple background with a flock of bats flying behind an Asian woman wearing green and yellow cat ears and a black ball gown. Tommy says he’s prized the poster for months after spotting it on a drive through the area, but the glue Dee Dee used has been too up to the task for peeling. As Tommy scurries to put the SacSix dancers in his car he says, “That Dee Dee is coming down tonight.”

“I appreciate the love for my work, it is very flattering,” Dee Dee wrote to me in an email. “However, it is placed in public for everyone and at a personal risk to myself. I would hope people would consider that.”

Tommy begins to peel off the Dee Dee poster, pulling the bottom corners up. Within seconds the artwork is his, rolled up into a ball and on its way to his car. Later we’ll find a dancing Mel Gibson piece by SacSix as well, and at home, Tommy will unravel them all and let them dry. Then he will mount and seal the pieces in frames.

Tommy takes down a piece by Dee Dee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A bit of a loner, Tommy says he works long hours in graphic design to make ends meet. He doesn’t show his art collection off much, but says he may commit some of the posters to the walls of a new workspace he’s renting. Of these late nights on street art hunts, he says, “This is the only excitement I have in my life right now.” Typically, he goes out looking for art by himself, though in the past his girlfriend joined, and even assisted him. (One time she videotaped Tommy taking a Sawzall drill to the side of a SoHo building in what would prove to be a jarringly loud and sheepish effort to procure a famous Invader mural depicting the Ramones, which had been whitewashed in paint.) However, he and his girlfriend recently broke up, and Tommy confesses that his obsession with street art may have cut into the time he should have been devoting to her.

Tommy admits to getting an adrenaline rush when he takes street art for himself, dating back to his very first heist. Though he says he’s been a fan of street art since the early ’00s, it wasn’t until May 2016, when Tommy noticed a fluorescent wheat paste posted on a door in Greenwich Village, that he began to build his collection.

“I went to take it,” Tommy recalls, “and some guy asked me not to because ‘some spots are hard to get.’” Tommy interpreted that to mean that busy intersections like that one are marked by law-bending street artists with great caution. Tommy says he respected the message, and let the piece stay put – for a few days. He returned with his girlfriend, placed a large wood board on the ground underneath the poster, and began peeling. Another man approached Tommy and asked him to stop. When Tommy refused, the man took his picture. Then, Tommy stuck the poster to the board, went home and noticed the piece was signed by the artist Dain. He Googled the name and saw scores of pictures of Dain’s work, all of which Tommy loved. “I was just happy to get a cool piece of street art,” Tommy says, “and then the next day the post went up on Instagram and I was devastated.”

The Instagram user @themuseumofurbanart posted the picture of Tommy removing the Dain piece and captioned it: “A thief caught in the act of steeling {sic}.” Liked by more than 1,200 Instagram users, the picture’s comments are overwhelmingly critical of Tommy. There’s a suggestion that Dain should hire a security detail to watch over his work. More than one user wrote “Boooo!”

“I don’t think so much of my work that I’m bothered by it,” Dain responds. On the one hand, he feels complimented when a guy like Tommy takes his work. Still, Dain does admit he would prefer to “get some life” out of a piece and see it remain where it was placed for a time. Should someone truly covet a poster that’s already on the street, so much that they’re willing to go through the trouble Tommy does to remove it, Dain offers: “Just contact me and I’ll try and give you a good price on a piece.”

Looking up through the rain at street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The top set of tiles is attributed to the French artist Invader, while a wheat paste by Cost occupies the space below it.

Tommy recognizes the thought and effort put into street art, and tries to absolve himself of personal guilt by surveying the work over some time before pulling it down. “If it’s new, I usually won’t take it,” Tommy says. He claims he’ll only remove a piece if it has been up for some time, and has already garnered some attention on social media.

Several of the artists interviewed for this article agreed that if their work has been posted to social media, they don’t mind as much if it’s removed, either by rain, a building owner, a city worker, or someone like Tommy. New York-based Hanksy – well known for his “Dump Trump” mural depicting Donald Trump in the form of a gigantic turd – says, “We live in this day and age where everyone has a pretty capable camera in their pocket, so now you can take a digital picture and have [your artwork] spread around the world in a second.”

Hanksy also says, though, that he understands why some, perhaps because they’re from the old school of graffiti writing, would object to premature removal of their work. “Back in the day you wanted a high-visibility spot and you wanted your work to run a long time to get eyes on it.” However, he points out that, today, “a piece can get taken down a day after you put it up, but if you have a nice, digital, colorized photo of it, then it lives forever.”

Prolific graffiti writer Adam Cost, whose work dates back to the late ’70s, firmly disagrees with that contemporary take. “When the focal point of being a street artist is getting a photo of your work and throwing it on social media as your exposure, that’s just not good,” says Cost. “Really, what comes into play is where your work is, the vibe it gives off [and] the way people are interacting with it in the public.” He adds that a photograph will never convey such aspects of the street art experience.

Tommy frequently uses a razor blade to cut through glue behind a street art poster. Here, he demonstrates his method of removing street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Dain says he’s consulted other artists, including Cost, on measures that can be taken to thwart thieves as best he can. They include avoiding posting on mailboxes – because when they get wet, the piece will slide right off it – as well as wood billboards, fences or doors that can be easily removed altogether. Dain also now refrains from signing his street art, which makes authentication far more challenging for black market sellers.

Cost says that when he’s on the streets he’ll place posters in higher, harder-to-reach places; use a stronger homemade glue; and “blanket” an area with numerous identical posters, so that if a fan takes one, plenty more will remain.

Tommy remembers once coming across nine Cost posters placed on a wall, all in a row. “To a person like me that’s like Christmas!” Tommy says. “I went one day with my work ladder. I sprayed them all and I just took them down, one by one. They’re all framed and they’re all sexy.”

Cost questions the sincerity of Tommy’s claim that he’ll never sell the artwork, postulating: “He’s gonna put his kids through college with this stuff, potentially.”

Getting upset, Cost says of people like Tommy: “They’re stealing a part of me, actually, and I didn’t give them authorization to that part of me.”

Still, he recognizes his work was never destined to be permanent, and a moment later he adds, calmly: “The only way you can have any solace with it is in the end you say, ‘well, at least my work is being preserved…for better or worse.’”

 

 

This “Old Guy With a Sign” Protests Trump Every Single Day

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Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.

Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”

For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.

“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”

McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.

“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”

Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.

“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”

When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.

“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”

McCray stands with his sign at his preferred intersection in Fort Worth.

McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.

“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”

While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.

Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”

“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

McCray waves at passersby.

McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.

“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”

McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.

“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

 

 

A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé

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After years of avoiding love, I found a match that seemed almost too perfect. We were practically walking down the aisle before I realized it really was too good to be true.

“So let me get this right. You’re Italian but you’re a resident of India.”

“Yes.”

“And your fiancé is Canadian. Resident of Canada.”

“Yes, but he lives in India.”

“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”

“Yes.”

“In Italy.”

“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”

“That doesn’t matter to us. It’s a parish matter, they take care of the paperwork. Did you discuss it with your Italian priest?”

“My parish is in Delhi because I am a resident here. Anyway yes, we have permission to have the ceremony in Italy. We still need the bishop’s permission for the mixed religion marriage, but that should arrive soon.”

“So all we need is a certificate that says your fiancé has never been married before. A nulla osta. And then we can process the documents.”

“See, that’s why I called. Canada doesn’t really have that certificate.”

“Did you check with the Canadian embassy in Rome?”

“Yeah. They say they have nothing to do with this.”

“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”

The lady at the Italian embassy in Delhi wasn’t able to help. She’d never seen this before. Our wedding was just like us: Unique, unconventional, and a little all over the place. It looked impossible. Four months from the day and nothing was confirmed.

“It’s not going to work. Nothing’s ready.” I called him in a panic as soon as he woke up, in Canada. In India, it was evening already.

Amore mio, that’s not true,” he replied. “Everything’s set. We’ll get the paperwork done.”

He was right. We had a venue, a fairytale-like villa on the Amalfi Coast. I had a dress — an expensive affair that looked just understated enough: When I tried it on I teared up immediately, surprising my cynical self at the belief that it was “the one.” The invites, designed by a talented friend, were about to be printed. Save the dates were sent — all our favorite people couldn’t wait to be there.

We had even received our certificate from the church after a two-day intensive course instructing us on how to start a good Catholic family. Not that we were going to be a Catholic family, but the course was compulsory to get married in a church —which I wanted, not for religious reasons but because I liked the tradition — and he had accepted to do, to please me. The course was on the outskirts of Delhi, and for two days we stayed in a nunnery with other couples, sleeping on different floors (the men upstairs, the women below) and attending classes on family values and conjugal duties. A foreign couple wasn’t the norm, and we were the center of attention — particularly when questions about sex came up and everyone assumed, despite our amused protesting, that we knew more about it than the teachers.

“So, where does sperm come from? Maybe you know?” I was asked.

“Nope. No idea.” I’d reply as the class burst in laughter. “Maybe he does?”

He looked at me smiling, shaking his head. “Why would I know? I don’t know!”

We were warned that the Holy Spirit was not going to attend the ceremony since we weren’t both Catholic, but then his being Jewish — as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, which was the case for other mixed-religion couples there — gained the staff’s sympathies. He was labeled “almost Christian.” We joked that we didn’t have money to feed the Holy Spirit anyway.

I needed to calm down. It was all working out.

But we did need the papers. And we didn’t know how to get them.

“Maybe it’s a sign? Maybe this wedding thing is a bad idea?” I whined. I was tired, and insufferable.

He laughed. “Aaaamore,” he started, in a sing-songy way. His funny accent on the few Italian words he knew would lighten up the darkest rooms of my soul. “Listen. Getting married is the best idea we’ve ever had and we’re going to do it. It’s all going to work out. I promise.”

* * *

He was so certain about us. He had been unfailingly so since our engagement, which caught me by total surprise. We had been living together for a couple of years in India — where I had followed him looking to start a career, and finally be with the man I loved — when he proposed.

Before moving in together, ours was the erratic, long-distance relationship of two people who never seemed to be in the same place. We met in Italy, fell in love and spent the summer of our lives on intense weeks together and long stretches apart: He worked on a photography project that took him to Alaska, Japan, Congo; I went to Kosovo, volunteering and looking for stories, then moved to Paris to complete a master’s. His work took him there, too, and we spent a couple blissful months together. For the first time since I could remember, I felt beautiful; I was loved and desired. We’d dress up and walk out in the middle of the night to have French onion soup in 24-hour restaurants. We shared a studio that was too small for one, let alone two plus too many cameras.

Before I’d met him I kept joking that “love is overrated.” But it wasn’t; It was perfect. When he had to go back to India, where he’d been living for years before moving to Italy, I worried it’d be the end.

It wasn’t. We spoke whenever we had a free minute. It was never enough. We were so different that our attachment was a mystery to both of us: I loved studying, he had hardly finished high school; I was all about manners and rules, he recognized none; I worried about everything, he never did. At times, our love for each other seemed to be the only thing we had in common.

And it was all we needed.

On spring break I went to see him in India. I landed, terrified and drenched in mosquito repellent, in the fog of Delhi’s February nights. In the arrival hall, he was waiting for me in the neon light, holding a sign, just like the hotel chauffeurs. It read: Amore Mio. My love.

Everything in India frightened me. The smell. The noises. The light, so different from anything I had seen before. Even the peacocks, flying on the rooftop terrace from the park nearby, were wonderful but so foreign. I followed him to Calcutta on assignment. In the teeming backstreets, electrifying and overwhelming, I looked upon poverty and dirt, equally horrified. Once I cried a whole night about not being able to afford anything better than a filthy guesthouse. I returned to Paris relieved.

We managed to meet wherever and whenever possible. In Paris, London, Italy. In New York — where we both thought we’d eventually end up. We spent Christmas together, my family now his. He had been estranged from his parents for many years, and while on my insistence he had resumed contact with them, it didn’t look like there was real hope of saving their relationship. They had been demanding and cruel to him in his teens, kicking him out of home before the end of high school, and still refused to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it. As someone who counted on her family for anything, it was impossible to even imagine how hard that must have been, so it filled my heart with joy hearing him call my mother “mamma.”

A year after my first visit, I moved to Delhi. I planned to stay a few months, but I began the adventure of a lifetime.

We got an apartment and decorated it with colorful fabrics. I struggled to keep the dust out of the house, struggled with everything that didn’t work, struggled with the scorching summer heat, struggled to get work. I struggled, struggled, struggled. I packed my bags at least twice, shouting at him that I was going back home. He’d been in India so long he could no longer remember the hardship of the beginning, and he was traveling so much for work that I was often on my own. I got mad at him — now that we could be together he was off to Africa or China or wherever, prey to a wanderlust I failed to understand.

All I wanted was for him to be around for me, because when he was, things were pretty wonderful. We had so much hunger for time together that nothing seemed trivial: We’d explore the city on his motorcycle, go on holidays to remote places, turn any and every bit of daily life into an adventure.

But a couple of weeks here and there were not enough. I felt like all I did was wait for him. Finally, shortly after he came back from a long trip to visit a dear, sick uncle, I broke down. I felt horrible — this trip was not for fun, how could I get mad about it? — but I just couldn’t help it. I told him we’d better split up, that he had no space for me in his life. I screamed, he screamed more, the neighbors came to check if I was O.K. In a country where women are common victims of domestic abuse, it was hard to believe that it was me who always raised her voice first. We resolved that we should part.

* * *

I was on my way to work, late and unspeakably sad, when I realized I did not want to leave him. I wanted to stay. I loved him, and our life.

I went back to our apartment. He was sitting on the couch, exhausted as I was from so much fighting. I hugged him, sat on his lap.

“I’m sorry. This was terrible,” I apologized. “I don’t want to go away. Never.”

“I don’t want you to go away either. I want to be with you forever.”

“Yes. Forever,” I said, and I meant it. Yet I was shocked when I saw in his eyes the resolution of a question I didn’t know he had in him, and I wasn’t ever expecting him to ask.

“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”

“What… You don’t… You don’t have to — I’m not going anywhere. You need to think this through.”

“But I have! I have. Look—” he reached for his backpack, me still sitting on his lap, and took out a small box. “I even have a ring! I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”

“Well this is pretty right,” I joked. “So how did he propose? Well, we had a massive fight and nearly broke up, but got engaged instead.”

“So. Will you marry me, amore mio?” He was serious.

He was ready.

It was a gorgeous ring, an Art Deco family heirloom — Canadian, as guilt-free as diamonds can come — and hard not to notice. People did notice: the excitement about our engagement was so genuine and overwhelming, everyone pointing to what a romantic story we had.

It was, indeed, the most romantic story I had ever heard.

* * *

It was all unbelievably sweet, yet I couldn’t shake the looming sensation that something was going to go wrong. It came out in my dreams. The fear of losing everything would turn into nightmares, and cropped up at every big step we took.

I loved him, and the unexpected certainty that he, too, truly loved me gave me a happiness so enormous it frightened me. My father had died too early for me to believe happy endings were possible, let alone feeling that I was destined for one.

I looked everywhere for signs of an impending disappointment. We had to leave our apartment, and our landlady insisted we owed her several months of rent. He was in charge of making the deposit but couldn’t find the receipts to show we had paid — that was enough to infuriate me. He was irresponsible, I said – how could he be ready to be a husband? We should call the whole thing off.

We looked for a new place, and I cried like a spoiled child when faced with the reality that his priorities were different from mine — he wanted to save money on rent, and on everything really, to be able to invest in his work. I saw myself as shallow and materialistic for wanting a place that was nice and comfortable. Again told him, “See? This is why we should not do it.”

I would cast doubts over us and our future, which I so wanted and so feared.

But for all my questions, he had answers. “It’s us, amore,” he’d tell me, his voice always so calm and kind. “I’m not letting you get out of this.” His certainty seemed to grow as mine withered, and the way he dealt with my actions, minimizing my fears, showed me time and again the depth of his love.

We finally found a place that worked and bought new furniture. We didn’t have much money — I worked as the editor of a small online publication and had been supporting both of us on my Indian salary while his work was slow. He had a few personal projects to pursue, and I was determined to help him see them through. His assignments had always been sporadic, but a day of his work often paid ten of mine, and something always came through when our funds were nearly gone.

But this time seemed different — I was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford the fairytale wedding that I, who had never actually thought I’d get married, discovered I wanted. My mother was covering most of the costs, but I insisted we at least pay for a few things: The flowers, the invites, the favors. As the weeks, then the months, went by, I grew worried we wouldn’t have enough.

One thought, in particular, made me panic. If he didn’t get any work soon, I’d even have to pay for his suit and his ticket to Italy for the wedding. I’d have to pay for my own bouquet. Something about the image of me buying myself my own wedding flowers was unbearable to me: Was this the life I was signing up for? What if he never actually had a breakthrough? I looked up what would happen if we divorced, if I had to pay him alimony.

I was disgusted by my own thoughts.

I hesitantly suggested he look for assignments from publications less prestigious than the ones he usually worked for. He was hurt, and saw that as a lack of belief in him, pointing out that he could have gotten work in Africa had he been free to move there, but I didn’t want to leave my job to follow him around — that had its costs.

But my faith in his talent was blind — it was destiny I didn’t trust.

* * *

We were over the rough patches, though, when the issue with the papers came up. It appeared we were in a bureaucratic loophole and none of the puzzled officials I contacted were able to figure our situation out.

“That’s why we’re so special,” he said. It was a fact.

He had gone to Canada to renew his visa — his trip home drained my account, but some work had finally come through for him and he was going to be paid soon. We were back on our early-days routine of long-distance phone calls. For the first time in our many goodbyes, I hadn’t cried when he left. As he told me that he’d be right back, his happiness was so visible it gave me goose bumps, and a newfound feeling of safety.

But then, when I tried to reach him the day he was meant to go see about our documents, I couldn’t get through to him. He would not pick up his phone. He was not online — which he almost obsessively always was. I emailed him. No reply.

Something was wrong.

Whether it was some sort of sixth sense or just my constant fear of the worst, I started to worry. I called the friend he usually stayed with, trying not to sound paranoid; after all, it had only been a few hours since I had heard from him. He was not home. As the night became morning in India, a day was passing in Canada. I called, and called, and laid awake waiting. Sleeping was out of the question.

Finally, I got a two-line email. He said he loved me. And that he needed space.

I was paralyzed.

The following days were a game of waiting. I checked my phone and my email compulsively. I stared at the screen to see if he was logging onto Skype. No sign of him. I told myself I should not try to contact him, that he needed to be left alone, though I did write to him that we could postpone the wedding if he wanted to, and that whatever problem there was we were going to work it through. I knew we could.

I blamed myself for having so many doubts. Had I ruined everything? I kept going to work to be around people, but I was numb.

As the date of his return trip approached, I tried to be calm and focus on the fact that I was about to see him again. We had never been out of contact this long, and I missed him terribly. I tried to be patient, but when I saw his name go online on Skype in the middle of another sleepless night, I couldn’t resist.

Amore mio,” I typed. “I am so happy you are coming back next week. We’ll make things right, I promise.”

“Yes,” he replied. “We have a lot of work to do but we can make things right. Things will be right.”

But he was not coming back. Not yet anyway. His birthday was coming up, and he didn’t want to spend it with me.

“I don’t want to resent you,” he typed.

He wasn’t going to discuss it further, but I convinced him that he owed me an explanation. He promised to get back online soon, and he did.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, sweetly, when I answered the video call. “I missed you.”

He looked beautiful, too, in his light blue collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves and messy hair.

He started explaining what was going through his head: He needed to be free to travel and work, and I wanted security — we were just too different, there’s no way it was going to work.

As he was speaking, gently, his words started losing meaning to me — it all became white noise, and I interrupted him.

“Oh my god,” I said. “You cheated on me.”

Something in his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he replied.

“No, not again,” I begged. I knew it was true, again.

I hadn’t thought about it for years — the memory of betrayal buried deep under the illusion of the most wonderful story that had ever happened to me. I had found out about his infidelities before I moved to India, when we lived apart. Infidelities and lies: a girlfriend hidden from me when we first got together, who he moved back in with after he left Paris; an older woman he had even thought he was in love with; adventures around the world as he traveled for work.

But we had worked through it all. He had begged me to stay with him when I found out, told me I was the love of his life and the last chance he had of having a happy life, of changing. He had blamed distance and so had I, and it had worked for years — so well, too well. I had worked so hard to get past his infidelities that I had actually forgotten about them — the truth, of the past and the present, felt heavy on my burning sternum.

“Yes, again,” he said, suddenly cold. There was something in him, something in his voice I could not recognize. He was a stranger.

“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I found her.”

I swear I heard my heart break.

He told me he’d just met her. A few days had been enough to know. He had given up thinking he could find the one. But there she was. They were going to travel together, see the world and be nomads, as he wanted. And she wanted. And I never did.

“I bet she dresses terribly,” I said, heart yolk leaking from my smashed chest, making an ugly mess already.

I became a monster; I could barely speak, filled with anger as I told him, shocking myself with the violence of my own words, hissing at him, shaking, that it was not true that he felt sorry — that he felt good and not sorry, that while fucking this woman he didn’t know, in and out and in and out of her, he did not think of me.

“You want to make me feel guilty because I am in love.”

He was moving in with her.

“Are you going to marry her?” I was crazy. It was crazy.

“We’re not planning to get married at the moment.” He was crazy, too.

The conversation lasted through the night, through bouts of anger, tears, words of love. At the end, I asked him if this was the first time that he’d be unfaithful since we’d been living together.

“No.”

“Is it because I was not enough?” Isn’t that what every rejected lover dreads?

“Yeah. I was always looking for something better.”

“Something or someone?” I couldn’t stop digging.

“Something, someone, I didn’t know. I thought it was as good as it got, with you. Now I know it wasn’t true.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am not in love with you. I don’t think I ever was.”

Outside, it was dawn. The sounds of India waking up were a loud sign the conversation had to end. We — “us” — had to end.

“I will miss you so much,” I muttered before I hung up. I wanted him desperately. But he was unrecognizable, someone else. Happiness and love were a dark force in his gaze. They were pulling him away from me, taking him some place frightening and far, a place my arms couldn’t stretch to.

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel anything other than terror. Who was he?

* * *

When I landed in Milan I was a ghost. I hadn’t eaten in days; I had no feelings other than sorrow. My sister picked me up from the airport, and as she hugged me, without saying a word, I cried. I cried when I saw my mother. My grandma was visiting — usually the simple sight of her would be enough to put me in a good mood, but I just kept crying, incapable of anything else.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was all I could say, whisper really. I was sorry I had trusted him, that I had followed him, that I had brought him home. I was sorry I was so embarrassingly heartbroken. I was sorry I messed up, sorry I failed, sorry about the embarrassment of a wedding to cancel. That he had not only lied to me, but to my family, caused me unbearable pain. I blamed it on myself — all of it.

I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.

I walked straight into my mother’s bed and laid there crying for days, getting up only to check my emails for signs of him, and sit at the table for lunch and dinner, unable to touch my food.

As I stared into my plate, the Italian mothers of my life — my own, and my mother’s — discussed me, and him, as if I weren’t there.

“She isn’t eating.”
“I can see that.”
“What are we going to do about this one?”
“I don’t know, I can’t force her.”
“Look at that. Not one bite.”
“I know, Ma. She doesn’t feel like it.”

My belligerent grandma had been through a lot — her father dying as a kid, the war as a teenager, her husband leaving her a widow in her early thirties, an earthquake destroying her home and her town in her late forties — far too much to concede to a romantic heartbreak.

“That guy had always been a bit strange,” she offered. “Remember how he stopped eating meat?” She had always treated his vegetarianism as an exotic disease.

When I finally had the strength to leave my bed, I started trying to put together the pieces. I was obsessed with understanding, and the more I obsessed, the more it all seemed terrifying.

I went back to Delhi, leaving behind a family worried sick about me, determined to save the salvageable: A job I loved in a country that was going to save my life.

My pain was enormous, kept alive and stinging by a succession of small new wounds.

I had to cancel the wedding, let all the guests know on my own, as he was far too busy with his new life to even tell his own family — who called me seeking explanations, unable to track him down.

* * *

In all of this, and despite my rational self, I still madly loved him. I hoped he would come back. Once I woke up convinced I heard him ring the bell in the middle of the night. It was a dream.

A recovering patient, I put one day in front of the other, waiting for my love to go away. Like a famous Italian poem says, it was like quitting a vice. Come smettere un vizio. It was a daily exercise in abstinence — from calling him, wanting him, loving him.

Before I knew it, it had been a month since I had last seen his face, on a computer screen. Then two, then a whole summer.

On August 26, when our wedding was meant to be, the sun was shining over the Amalfi Coast, but I spent the day in rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, on my own, hanging out with the monkeys at Pashupatinath Temple — the Temple of Shiva.

I was glad there was a god I could thank for destruction.

For a long time afterward, I was obsessed with this story. Obsessed with his lies. I uncovered countless more: about his family, his past, our relationship. The more I found out, the more the hurt gave way to relief.

I wrote to the woman he had left for me way back when — to let her know it didn’t work out with us. Somehow, I felt it was right for her to know, that I would have wanted to know, if I were her. She was understanding, forgiving, and helpful — knowing far too well what I was going through, she repeated to me countless times I had not lost someone worth keeping.

Years later, that’s what I told his wife, when it was she who wrote to me.

Read the Sequel: A Second Super Strange Love Story: I Was the Other Woman

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Annalisa Merelli is an Italian writer living in New York. She is a reporter with Quartz and tweets at @missanabeem.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” Follow her @AyunHalliday.