A Place to Rest

Exploring the convoluted and costly business of where to spend an afterlife in New York City.

If you want to make someone immediately uncomfortable, ask what he plans to do with his body, when his heart has stopped beating and his flesh has gone cold.

A few months ago, I received an envelope from the Pinelawn Memorial Park and Garden Mausoleum in Farmingdale, New York. Inside was a free booklet titled, “Let’s Face It Now” and a letter that explained how taking charge of your death—though the word “death” was never mentioned—offers a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. I’m 31 years old. Other than mild asthma and the occasional cold, I am healthy. So I was unnerved and even offended that Pinelawn had targeted me as a potential customer.

But maybe the Pinelawn folks had chosen the right person after all. As an incurable procrastinator, one of the things that frightens me most about death is that I won’t be prepared. Death is not accommodating. Don’t I get one phone call? A final meal? One more paragraph in the novel I’m reading? I may never know how it ends.

What’s worse, I might not have achieved my legacy yet—a house with a backyard, grandchildren, a Pulitzer. And as the letter from Pinelawn reminded me, living in a city of eight million people, on the moment of my passing there just might not be room for me. With so many other variables out of my control, I decided it was time I found a place to rest when I’m dead. Feeling very adult—31 is not that young—as well as a touch morbid, I took the train to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in search of a place to begin my afterlife.

*   *   *

As the name Green-Wood suggests, the cemetery boasts lush grasses and hundred-year-old trees. Rustic signs indicating different paths—Blossom, Berry and Birch—curl around so many hills. On the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, I joined the “Eminent Irish Tour.” Green-Wood offers tours most Sunday afternoons and every Wednesday. At one stop, Ruth Edebohls, our tour guide, shared the story of a scrappy Irish immigrant who went from rags to riches, and at another she spoke of a courtesan, Lola Montez, who was famous for her seductive Spanish spider dance. Her admirers included Andre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.

As we stepped sideways up certain inclines, Edebohls, who has been giving tours for the last fifteen years, explained that her “clomping” was due to two hip replacements and a knee replacement. Clearly, these two hours were a labor of love.

While I listened to her stories of the dead, I was also looking at the newer graves, taking notes on location, and searching for open space. I was looking for my place to rest.

*   *   *

America’s first pioneers kept burial simple—people were interred where they died. Friends of the deceased were unlikely to return to the spot and didn’t want to draw any strangers’ attention to it, so they left the grave unmarked. In time, people began marking the burial spot with wooden slabs carved with the initials of the deceased. In the 1700s, as frontier homes transformed into farming estates, isolated graves became clusters of graves, which were shared with neighbors. Then, for some families, churchyards replaced farm burial. As villages grew into bustling cities, church graveyards became more crowded, and less pleasant to visit; both factors led to the development of today’s rural cemeteries.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick
The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick

Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, predating both Central and Prospect Parks. It was built upon the terminal moraine—the rocky debris deposited by glaciers that stretches from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Queens. Rural cemeteries, like Green-Wood at the time, served not only as burial grounds but as garden retreats, following the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts and Père Lachaise in Paris. In addition to the wealthy deceased residents, its gentle hills, glacial ponds and stunning view of  New York Harbor drew strollers, picnickers, and in the 1850s attracted as many as half-a-million tourists a year. Charles Dickens and the King of Hawaii were among them. As a U.S. travel destination in the 19th century, it was perhaps second only to Niagara Falls, says Jeff Richman, who authored a book about the culture and history of Green-Wood.

Easily one of the finest cemeteries in New York, securing a spot there in advance could cost between $12,000 and $22,000 today. In recent years, the cemetery has reclaimed old paths and a handful of ponds to create more space for graves; however, in ten years, there might not be any lots left to sell.

Edebohls, who has honey blonde hair, favors movie star make-up, and has a love for anything Victorian, is comfortable talking about death, even her own. “It’s just a matter of temperament,” she told me when we met a few weeks after her tour. She believes the dead watch over us. A medium once told Edebohls she could see spirits in the trees along every stretch of her walking tour. Edebohls was delighted.

On a pleasant Tuesday morning, she and I stopped at an open patch of grass, on a hill, backed by a copse of firs. This was the spot Edebohls has chosen for herself and her ex-husband. “It’s hard for a lot of people to understand why I’m so happy to have my burial spot,” she said. But she and her ex-husband are both glad to have that part of their future, or fate, settled. While they aren’t romantically involved, Edebohls said they’ve reconnected “spiritually” and now speak everyday.

A single grave generally holds two to three people. Coffins are stacked one on top of another with two to three feet of dirt in between. Edebohls, whose ex-husband is ten years older, expects she will be on top, but “you never know,” she said.

Edebohls’ pink cheeks sparkled beneath her sunglasses as she spoke about her future neighbor, an Irish woman. “She died in 2007. She gets lots of visitors,” she said, seeming oddly pleased.

Like Edebohls, my mother, an Irish-born Roman Catholic, is unfazed by death—her own or anyone else’s. When she first began her job as a hospice nurse, I was nine. It made me think of death all the time. I spent weeks staring at the ceiling, afraid that I might fall asleep and not wake up. At night, I listed the names of those who had died: my babysitter; my grandfathers and two teenage boys from my town, Yardley Pennsylvania. The list grew. Whether I was praying or deliberately giving myself nightmares I still don’t know.

Reminders of my mother’s former patients were everywhere in our home: A photographer left her a framed picture of the ocean; a woman we called Granny had gifted her a nativity scene entirely made of corn husks; a collector of rare books had given me a favorite novel. These keepsakes haunted me. It wasn’t until I was older, until I had lost friends myself, that I realized how special it was to have that one item—a T-shirt, a mix tape, a photograph—to remember them by.

*   *   *

I returned to Green-Wood several times, allowing myself to get lost inside, dwarfed and distracted by the elegant statues and the bedroom-sized mausoleums. I looked at the graves, read the epitaphs, slid cards to one side so I could better see a photograph. People left more than flowers. They left bracelets, pinwheels, balloons, prayer flags, paperweights, teddy bears, Barbie dolls and tiny bottles of liquor. In front of one headstone—engraved with an image of a young man in a backwards baseball cap—sat a giant birthday cake made of artificial flowers. The banner read “Happy Birthday in Heaven” and the card “love your heartbroken mother.”  As strange as I felt and as troubled as I might have looked to anyone who saw me, I was encouraged by something Edebohls had said about the dead appreciating their visitors. I counted the stones left by others—a Jewish tradition that has been adopted by other faiths—and sat in the chapel.

Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery
Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery

From the outside, the chapel in Green-Wood is an exquisite triple-domed terra cotta masterpiece. While it was designed by the same firm that built Grand Central, Warren and Wetmore, the chapel is more understated, more delicate, as if the building itself understood the need for restraint. Still, I envision a couple taking wedding photos on the front steps and I’m not wrong. The space is also available for weddings, book talks and gallery exhibits. Once emptied of people, it lends itself to quiet reflection.

I left through the main gates, passing under striking domes, Gothic spires, flying buttresses and a scene of Jesus and his apostles carved from stone. On the grey day I first visited, these gates were ominous, begging for a clash of thunder and spooky disembodied laughter. Gut on a bright spring day the scene is stunning, in just the opposite way—filled with bird song and squirrels, flowering gardens and towering oaks. I wished for more time there.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, I walk through a more modest entrance at The Cemetery of the Evergreens, which straddles Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens. This time, I’m not alone.

“It’s Cemetery of the Evergreens. That is its legal name, not The Evergreens Cemetery,” Allan Smith, a former architect and local historian, tells me for the third time. Smith has written a book about one cemetery and helped restore another. I ignore both the brochure and the website, because the name matters to Smith and because it really does sound nicer. Smith, now in his early seventies, has been visiting this cemetery since the late 1940s. He carries a green bookbag and wears a sullen expression like a scolded eight-year-old boy. He’s not the type to force a smile to ease the strain of a conversation, but he isn’t unfriendly. And when he talks about cemeteries, he gets excited.

Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens

In the early 1800s, Smith explains, New York experienced a burial crisis. The population had nearly tripled and in addition to overcrowding, people worried about the spread of diseases such as smallpox. The water table was rising, or at least residents believed it was.

“They thought corpses were mixing with the water,” Smith says. Internments were banned in lower Manhattan, and in 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed. This allowed investors to build commercial cemeteries in the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The Cemetery of the Evergreens was built two years later.

This talk of corpses mixing with water reminded me of the Sundays I spent as an altar server in our small-town church in Pennsylvania, braiding the tassels on my robe, and staring at a bronze plaque that hung between two stained glass windows and paid the following tribute: “Gwendolyn, daughter of Charles and Mary Spong, who died at sea April 27, 1903. Age nine months.”

I wondered whether Gwendolyn was buried under the church, or in the yard? Or if her parents had been pressured by other passengers to leave her body at sea. I pictured a swaddled Gwen, released from her mother’s hands, falling through strata of water, growing darker and colder. Batted about by sharks and dolphins, Gwen becomes an offering for the starfish, sea anemones and eyeless creatures who don’t even realize how dark it is on the ocean floor. At this point, a lay reader would nudge me and point with his chin to the cushions that needed to be laid at the altar gate or at the ushers waiting for communion plates. My daydream was over.

When Smith visited the Cemetery of the Evergreens as a teenager, families came for more than funerals. On weekends, they would promenade in their finery down Bushwick Avenue, which at the time was dotted with mansions—Brooklyn’s own Park Avenue. From there, they’d enter the cemetery.

“This is Brewer’s Row,” Smith says, leading me down a path just inside the cemetery gates, one plot named Hickory Knoll and another called simply The Lawn. These little white houses—some ornate, others simple Art Deco blocks with clean straight lines—are the resting places of some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents. The mausoleums line either side of an inclined driveway that curves to the right. Smith then points to a few short marble columns. He explains that a severed column symbolizes a life cut short, as does a broken flower bud or branch. A sculpture of a lamb or an angel often sits at the grave of a young child, representing innocence and purity.

Half of the lots in the Cemetery of the Evergeens are given names like Whispering Grove; the rest are Biblical, like Mount of Olives and Nazareth. Even though the Cemetery of the Evergreens is non-sectarian and non-denominational, groups tend to self-segregate. In an area populated by Chinese graves, families leave paper money and incense, as well as oranges and other food —all things some Chinese believe the dead will need on their journey to the afterlife.

When we reach a plot called Ascension, Smith crouches down before his maternal grandparents’ stone, picks up a tulip pot knocked on its side by the wind, and turns it upright, placing some stones inside. “Very few people visit. I can tell you,” he says. He repeats this process in North Mead, for his great-grandparents, his paternal grandparents and his parents. Along the way, we see only security guards and landscapers drive by. I ask Smith if he ever gets lonely visiting the cemetery.

“That’s why I’m thankful when that green truck goes by,” he says referring to the landscaping and maintenance workers that pass every half-hour or so and wave.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade
The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade

Unless you have a deed, a legal document to show you are related to another family member already buried here, you cannot reserve a plot at the Cemetery of the Evergreens. There isn’t room. The lots are first-come, first-served. Even if I wanted to be buried in this cemetery, I wouldn’t be allowed in.

Smith’s own burial is a matter of logistics. He will either lie with his parents or his grandparents, wherever there is still space, and as a result he won’t need his own headstone. It seems sad to me that Smith, a former architect, won’t get to design his own. As we sit on the L train, having left the cemetery behind, he cranes his neck and draws a grave for himself on the back of the cemetery map. If he weren’t planning to stay in one of the family graves, this is the headstone he would have chosen. It was a simple long rectangle within another slightly smaller rectangle and the name ‘ALLAN BOECHER SMITH’ in all capital letters. “Deep chiseled letters,” he says.

I don’t want Smith to be buried in this flat, desolate graveyard. It’s far too quiet. Of all of the cemeteries I’d visited, the Cemetery of the Evergreens felt the most like a cemetery—sad. While walking through it, even with Smith beside me, everything seemed too still. The graves felt forgotten. I would never expect to have even monthly visitors, but to know that just a few strangers might walk by occasionally would be a comfort. I crossed the Cemetery of the Evergreens off my list.

*   *   *

One Saturday morning in April, I visit Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. There are at least six cars parked along the drive and several more pass as I walk. The graves are packed more tightly here than at Green-Wood or Cemetery of the Evergreens. The newer headstones are set closer to the driveway in rows, while the older graves lean against each other in the shadow of tall trees and shrubs. Smith had told me on my last visit that cemeteries often leave empty space at their front entrances, for aesthetic reasons. Cypress Hills ignores this convention.

Anthony Desmond, the office manager and family services counselor at Cypress Hills, sits behind his desk in a dark-wood-paneled office. He is thirty-something and bald with sympathetic eyes and a warm smile—which can’t hurt in his line of work. His customers are generally older—much older than me. “Some people feel like if they come in and prearrange for their burial then they’re going to die the next day,” he says.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is situated near East New York, a neighborhood known for high crime and violence. “It keeps us busy,” says Desmond. “Though not in the way that we would prefer.” Desmond went to law enforcement school, where he began training as a police officer, then changed his mind and joined his father in the family business. But his training has been useful; on at least three occasions he has helped catch criminals who had sought asylum in the cemetery.

Because most of his customers live in the surrounding community, Desmond and his family try to engage them with activities unrelated to death care. Last year, they invited a high school marching band to perform on Memorial Day and this past Christmas more than 200 children came to see Santa. The kids were excited about the free gifts and didn’t seem bothered by the tombstones.

After comparing prices for urns and graves—a single burial lot at Cypress Hills costs between $5,000 and $8,000 and an urn costs around $300—I ask Desmond if working with so many grieving families depresses him. He says being able to help people makes him feel good. If a family is struggling Desmond will share a little of his own grief. While they walk through the cemetery he’ll point to the grave of his sister, who died five years ago. “You never fully heal,” he says. “You just try to let them know that things are going to get better.”

When I ask Desmond about his own arrangements, he pauses and for the first time looks uneasy. He says he tries not to think about them. “I would rather just be cremated and left with my family on the mantle. That’s fine by me. After I’m dead it doesn’t really make a difference.”

Desmond has a point. I could have my ashes scattered by the creek in my hometown or flushed down the toilet. I could squeeze into a burial plot at Cypress Hill or spend my life saving up for a $250,000 mausoleum in Green-Wood. And what would it matter?

I walk the grounds at Cypress Hills as a grandmother, mother and son gather beside a lawn pump, collecting water for one grave’s flowers. Across the driveway, an old man kisses his fingers lightly, then bends down, touching his hand to a headstone. While the graves may be crowded, at least there are more visitors. Perhaps it’s a consolation for them to see each other, to know that their pain is shared.

*   *   *

I meet Allan Smith again, when he and his co-author, Stephen Duer, present their book on Cypress Hills Cemetery to a gathering of New York’s death care professionals in Park Slope. At the reading, I discuss my research with Duer, casually listing the cemeteries I’ve visited.

“You have to go to Woodlawn,” he says. The man is adamant. The mausoleums at Green-Wood, he continues, are a joke compared to Woodlawn.

So, on a Tuesday morning, I meet Susan Olsen, the official historian for Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. She wears a cheery pink shirt under a black blazer but she isn’t happy. Her eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction, which she admits is making her grumpy. “Let’s get this over with,” she says, leading me to a tiny room inside the administrative building at the cemetery’s front entrance.  “I’ve got the History Channel coming this afternoon.”

She explains to me what makes Woodlawn unique—lists its selling points since I am, after all, a prospective client. It all comes down to  history, architecture and artistry, Olsen says. And then our conversation takes a detour as she explains the history of embalming. “The best advertising for embalming was Abraham Lincoln’s death,” she tells me. After Lincoln died, his body was taken on a two-week funeral tour before reaching Springfield, Illinois. It was viewed by strangers at every stop along the way. Until that point, embalming was considered experimental, but after that it caught on quickly. Soldiers who died in battle could now be transported for miles on trains and then buried with their families.

Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery
Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery

At the same time, the role of undertaker developed into that of funeral director. Instead of having to clean house and invite all of your guests over, Olsen explains, people would send them to funeral parlors. “For those who were rich, it made them look good, and if they were poor, it made them look even better.” Olsen is a born storyteller; she feigns apathy, but the more she talks the clearer it becomes that death care actually matters to her.

Asked what her own final wishes are, Olsen waves away the question. “Oh I don’t care,” she says. “Cremation, I guess.”

Olsen gives me an audio guide, a sleek black device that looks like a TV remote, and circles the most critical spots on the tour map: the graves of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and a few more that she thinks will interest me.

There are 1,300 mausoleums in Woodlawn. “Possibly, more than any other cemetery in the country besides New Orleans,” says a voice from the audio player, not Olsen’s. And they are magnificent. The tallest is seventy feet tall and detailed with cherubs, flames and gargoyles. Many are the size of small chapels.

In any direction I look there are also sculptures—hundreds of them—usually of women with long hair in flowing robes with flower petals between their fingers. Alongside these graceful figures are statues of children and angels.

Woodlawn prides itself on “beauty before permanence,” allowing stones that other cemeteries forbid, such as white marble and limestone, because they erode more quickly in harsh weather. Up close, some of the faces of the sculptures appear to be melting; other sculptures are missing fingers and limbs; one is headless. A privately contracted gardener tells me a groundskeeper who was drunk one night knocked the head off with a shovel.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, bizarre tragedies were usually well documented on the deceased’s gravestone. At Woodlawn, fifteen-year-old George Spencer Millet’s stone reads:

“Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan life building.”

At the Cemetery of the Evergreens, another monument describes how two sets of brothers died playing marbles when a gas tank exploded beside them.

Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

If Green-Wood is a park, then Woodlawn is a sculpture garden. In a way, the statues and mausoleums at Woodlawn are stunning, something to ogle, and admire, but this art was man-made and quickly eroding. What felt special about Green-Wood wasn’t the monuments but the atmosphere. True, the chapel and entrance are breathtaking, but it was the winding paths, the hills and the layers upon layers of branches a hundred years away that held me there. On a warm, clear day, it’s paradise. And on a grey afternoon, that cemetery wrapped its sadness around me, making it hard to leave.

*   *   *

On a Thursday afternoon, I stop at a monument store called Century Memorials, on Fifth Avenue not far from Green-Wood, to ask about epitaphs. With its white siding and antiquated lettering, it looks like a post office from a country-western film. I peek in the door, half expecting to see a man in spurs, with a bandanna covering his mouth and nose. Instead, I find an older woman wearing a necklace that says “Grandma.” She smiles up at me from beneath blue eye shadow and painted eyebrows, invites me to sit and introduces herself as Monica Hakola. A banner celebrating the store’s 150th anniversary hangs from the ceiling. “It’s old,” she says. The office explodes with papers, files and pictures of gravestones. I ask her when epitaphs became so generic—so many graves repeat the same thing; “Beloved wife,” “Beloved Husband,” “Beloved Son”—and if she has seen any special ones. “Let’s ask John,” Hakola says. “JOHN!!” A man seated in a cubicle just behind the front desk, John Hakola unfolds himself from his chair and steps to his full height, around six-foot-three. He is nearly seventy with weary blue eyes, but still handsome. He seems less enthused about visitors than Mrs. Hakola, but he is willing to accommodate me to please his wife.

I ask John if he remembers seeing any epitaphs that were memorable. “Memorable or oddball?” he asks.

This wasn’t the first time I’d posed the question; I just hadn’t found an answer. Anthony Desmond of Cypress Hills had told me that his favorite epitaph belonged to Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except on the impact it has on other’s lives.”  When I asked Olsen why she thought the final expressions on gravestones have gotten less creative, she answered flatly, “Because people have gotten less creative.”

“I know the one you’re thinking of,” says Monica Hakola. She rifles through a few files in a drawer, then hands me a photograph. “This one’s a real comedian,” she says.

The grey stone in the photo belongs to a man named Alfred. The top line reads, “It’s been a wonderful life.” Below that is his name, birth date and death date. Hakola points out that there is still space for two more names. And below the space, in small capital letters, Alfred closes with, “I love you all. Thanks for coming.” Even though I know Hakola called Alfred a comedian ironically, I still picture an old man standing behind a microphone, with a gleam in his eye, saying those last words before taking a bow. It was perfect.

*   *   *

By now, I was leaning towards both a grave and an epitaph, but there were still aspects of ground burial that needed to be resolved. So I asked Melissa Conrad, a friend and PhD candidate in biology at New York University, about decomposition. She told me that “while you’re alive, multiple mechanisms prevent your cells from breaking down.” But when your heart stops beating, your blood isn’t circulating or being cleaned. This causes a chemical change in those cells that are used to receiving clean blood, and these protective mechanisms fail. This chemical change triggers the release of enzymes, which cheat the body by breaking apart high-energy bonds and stealing from its energy stores.

Opportunistic feeders like worms, bacteria, fungus and even starfish—if you’re a body in water, like poor Gwendolyn Spong—speed up this process.  They’re called detritivores. “In the end what you have are the simple building blocks that become available again,” Conrad says. Simply put, the molecules that make up your body are ready to take a different form.

A species of flies called phoridae, but commonly known as  coffin flies, are an eighth of an inch long, brown or grey and drawn to moist, decaying material. They are picky eaters, I learn. Given the choice between steak and potatoes, they will choose the steak. I’m made queasy by the image of tiny monsters devouring my hair, skin and nails, and then laying eggs so their offspring can continue the process.  Cremation starts to look more attractive than before.

Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

I return to Green-Wood to explore its crematorium. Santos Rivera, who works in sales, leads me through a room with a small raised garden and two cushioned backless benches. It could be the waiting room at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side, if not for the glass cupboards lined with lidded ornamental vases made of stone, onyx, marble and colored glass. Others hold boxes of cast iron, engraved with names, dates and, frequently, Chinese symbols. Each shelf is lit from above.

Rivera leads me outside the main building to the Tranquility Garden, where the sound of rushing water conjures images of a spa. Urns can also be buried here. Rivera points out a small flat plaque in the grass. Somewhere under the dirt sit two urns. “One on the right and one on the left,” he says tapping a shiny black shoe in each spot.

Just beyond the grass, water swirls in a lily pond. Bamboo plants point skyward in giant pots on either side of a narrow path, which forms an asterisk with other paths crossing the pond. Each path leads to a single glass house, known as a columbarium, and together they form a semi-circle around the pond. Inside the houses are more waiting rooms, and more urns.

We return to the main building and I follow Rivera in his blue dress shirt and shiny shoes. He walks me past a chapel that looks like a giant home theater, with several sofa chairs that curve in view of a lectern. Families often hold a committal service in the chapel, before sending the casket to the crematorium. Services last only fifteen minutes, Rivera told me. “Otherwise, there’s a wait.”

In the back room, two empty biers—moveable frames used to transport caskets—wait in front of vast stainless steel cabinets. The biers look like hospital stretchers, only sturdier and missing the mattresses. The newer ones have built-in scales, so that bodies can be weighed and moved at once. The steel cabinets, I realize, are the ovens.

Two thousand degrees Fahrenheit is the right temperature at which to burn a body. “You put your heaviest bodies on in the morning,” says Rivera. Otherwise, the retorts, the ovens where bodies are sent, are overworked and will break down. Unlike the old models, which workers ran by hand, the newer models, Phoenixes, have timers, buttons to preheat and a light to indicate when the machine has cooled down. “I used to think of it as opening up the doors to hell,” Rivera admits. Now, he  sees things more practically. “Cremations are just a quick way to get ashes,” he says.

While bodies take two hours to be cremated, the retort needs another hour to cool down.  “Then you open it up and take out the handles,” says Rivera, referring to the knobs and bars used by pallbearers to carry coffins.  “Sometimes you get a fancy casket that might have a spring mattress in there, or you could get a cardboard box.”

When the brass and metal bits have been removed, an employee will sweep the ashes into a tray, where they cool for another half-hour. The remains, including larger bone fragments, are poured into a pulverizer, the size of a regular blender. It takes only a few seconds to reduce bone to ash, Rivera told me. The ashes are poured into a black bin, the size of a small book, lined with a plastic bag, and then finally into the urn. Depending on the receptacle, the whole process can last between four and five hours.

The final product, which comprises the corpse and the coffin, weighs between seven and twelve pounds. Sifting, the process of separating the ashes from the wood, used to be standard procedure, but it wasn’t foolproof. “In that process, you would lose some of the remains. So it was outlawed. Now, you give it all back,” says Rivera.

The demand for Rivera’s  services has doubled in the last decade, from 1,200 to nearly 2,500 cremations annually. Green-Wood is building a second chapel and another waiting room.  “This way we can handle two services at once,” he says.

The reason for cremation’s popularity is likely financial. The average funeral costs around $5,000, including a casket. Cremation generally costs around $350. A niche for an urn can cost as little as $700, whereas the average plot for a single burial at Green-Wood is $15,000.

In Green-Wood, a premium spot, which allows for a larger tombstone and plantings, is approximately $22,000, but a private mausoleum can cost as much as $300,000.  This sounds expensive until you compare it to Forest Hills Cemetery in California, where a family mausoleum with an ocean view costs more than $825,000.

Every funeral home has a closet full of unclaimed remains, or cremains, usually inside urns. Rivera confirmed this. “They are required by law to wait 120 days,” he said. Afterward, the homes are legally allowed to dispose of the remains, but they seldom do. Sometimes the families never come back. “They didn’t have a place to put them or couldn’t afford them, ”he says.

As elegant as the urns look, the concept of being made to fit into a smooth square box or vase seems too delicate, too sanitary. I don’t want to be kept like a china dish under an artificial light.

In Rivera’s office I notice a row of scattering urns sitting above his shelves, each one painted differently—with clouds, an American flag, army camouflage or a field of sunflowers. They work like salt shakers, letting a little ash out at a time. I picture my brother and sister, with their future children, and maybe mine, shaking out ashes over a favorite field by a creek back home in Pennsylvania.

Before I leave, Rivera hands me a few brochures about cremation. One is titled, “Explaining Cremation to a Child.” The image on the front shows two models in matching blue sweaters and khakis, looking up at a young girl who is for no apparent reason sitting in a window—which, upon closer examination, is not actually a window, but still has an ethereal light behind it. The brochure reads, “In explaining cremation to your child avoid words that may have a frightening connotation such as ‘fire’ and ‘burn.’” A few paragraphs later it adds, “Be sure to point out that a dead body feels no pain.”  Out of context, the brochure is laughable, but the concept of a parent having to rely on a brochure to explain death, and what happens to dead bodies, is less so.

*   *   *

While the prospect of worms and phoridae flies recycling my flesh still disgusts me, I’m less excited about cremation after seeing the pulverizer. I don’t want to be blended. And as charming as scattering your ashes seems, it’s also very final. Once you’re scattered, you’re gone. Forever.

Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

But not every part of death care has to be so unromantic. Women who work in the funerary business have a less than conventional approach to dying. Ruth Edebohls, the tour guide at Green-Wood, has thought about the dress she’ll be buried in. It’s a long-sleeved turtleneck and it’s velvet. “That would be perfect if it were in the winter,” she said. Although it doesn’t have a zipper, she added, and might be difficult to pull over a corpse. Angela Ragusa, a 21-year-old who grew up in the memorial business, said she wants “something plain” for her gravestone. She chose a black stone with rosary beads on top; even though it’s less natural, it’s trendier. “Everyone wants the black,” she said.

I’ve wrestled with the nightmare of decay, the grotesque sucking of flies and tunneling of worms and the gnawing of rodents, and decided it’s still preferable to cremation. There is something clean, even spiritual, about burial that’s missing from the very sterile and modern process of cremation. Through burial, you are intimately, inextricably part of nature, with a community both living and dead. To me, it’s a way of forever belonging.

I’ve decided I’ll wear a short-sleeved navy dress at my funeral, and earrings that are small and timeless. Choosing an epitaph was much harder. For the moment, I think a quote from Albert Schweitzer comes closest to expressing what I’ve learned in 31 years.  “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” Put simply, people need other people. It’s both a thank you to friends and strangers and a reminder.

A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens
A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens

As for my grave, I chose Green-Wood. I found a spot up a series of winding roads and under a canopy of oaks and maples. It’s far enough from civilization to be peaceful, but it’s $22,000—a premium lot. This is my dream plot. Ten years from now it seems possible, but when I ask about the feasibility of my claiming it, I’m told that Green-Wood could actually fill up in five years, not ten. (I’m assured this is not the case with its urn gardens.) So it seems I’ll need a fallback plan.

Fortunately, I know another place that does have room. Half a mile inside the dreary brown gates and packed front lawn of Cypress Hills Cemetery, I leave the driveway and follow a path that’s cracked and partially embedded in the earth. I eventually abandon that path and cross through a field of graves and up a hill. This cemetery is much more exposed than Green-Wood, with fewer serpentine paths, smaller hills, and none of the man-made ponds and fountains, but it, too, has peaceful corners.

I’m drawn up the hill by a massive, sprawling tree, an elm or an oak, I can’t be sure. Beneath its tremendous shadow stands a brownstone obelisk topped with a cloaked urn; beside it a limestone statue of a woman holding lilies with her one remaining arm.

I look out over the graves in the field below, imagining them through the seasons, speckled with leaves in the fall, draped in snow in the winter and then swirling with muddy puddles in spring. I picture them crisp with dew in the morning, beads of water glistening across epitaphs, and I imagine how cold the air is on a winter night.

Of course, there are crickets, cicadas and birds. A cemetery is never fully quiet. The tree leaves rustle like seashells under water. In the distance, I can hear the purr of cars on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I sit down and lean my back against my tree—no tour guides, no visitors, no strangers in sight. It’s just me, alone in my sanctuary.

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.