I Am Rocky Balboa

How a boy named Mike Kunda grew up to become the ultimate Italian Stallion.

February 4, 1979 was a day that fundamentally changed Mike Kunda.

CBS aired “Rocky,” marking the Oscar-winning film’s television premiere just weeks before the sequel hit theaters. Kunda, then eleven, huddled around a TV set in his family’s Scranton, Pa., home and watched as rough-and-tumble Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa trained for his title shot against heavily favored champ Apollo Creed.

The scene that struck home with Kunda wasn’t when gruff manager Mickey chides, “You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder,” or when Rocky tinkers with unconventional training tactics like chugging egg yolks and punching frozen slabs of beef in a meat locker. It was when Rocky, who works as a debt collector for a sleazy loan shark, refuses to carry out an order from his boss to break a delinquent customer’s thumbs. His boss, Gazzo, scolds him, and the boss’s bodyguard taunts Rocky, calling him a “meatbag.” Deflated, Rocky yells after them, “I shoulda broke your thumbs!”

“That’s where I was hit with Rocky,” Kunda says. “He gets rejected by his own peers. He’s left to that sad music, walking down the street, bouncing the ball. I said, ‘This is a moment for me.’”

In the three decades since, five more “Rocky” movies have been released, cumulatively grossing upwards of $1 billion worldwide. Movie watchers around the globe have embraced Sylvester Stallone’s title character as the consummate underdog. It’s a particularly passionate fan base, but Kunda might be the most committed and dedicated fan of them all.

Kunda, now forty-five, estimates that he’s seen Rocky flicks 600 times all the way through—and that doesn’t include the countless occasions he’s watched snippets to draw inspiration during a challenging personal moment. Not surprisingly, the repetition has made him a walking encyclopedia of facts and dialogues about all things “Rocky”—from where Rocky’s pet turtles, Cuff and Link, are now (the pet store has been condemned but its owner still has the turtles), to fleeting décor details, like the fact that an incongruous hunting rifle is briefly shown mysteriously hanging on a wall inside Rocky’s apartment.

Kunda and his wife even spent years figuring out where in Philadelphia the individual movie scenes were filmed and mapping them out. They did this in the 1990s, well before Google Maps and smartphones made such a task a simpler pursuit. “We’d take a picture from the TV, get it developed, look around the neighborhood, trying to find the steeple, driving up and down looking for it,” Kunda says. “Once, my wife and I spent fifteen hours driving around.”

Beyond mere trivia, Kunda has managed to cultivate a professional life in which he is Rocky. Winning a high-profile Rocky look-alike contest in Philadelphia in 2006 persuaded him to make a career out of impersonating his idol. So far he has 300 gigs under his wannabe heavyweight championship belt, and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

*   *   *

Kunda is half-Italian with a brown mane of hair, sunken eyes and the muscular build of his hero. Stallone might have a half-inch on Kunda and slightly broader shoulders. However, with a practiced downward curl of his lip, a makeup-derived left black eye and a few deep-throated “Yo Adrians,” the resemblance is remarkable.

Kunda as "Rocky Balboa."
Kunda as “Rocky Balboa.”

This is no accident. Kunda has been playing Rocky since childhood. Not long after watching the movie he began to dress the part, sporting a leather jacket, Chuck Taylor sneakers and a fedora given to him by his grandfather. The perpetual costume didn’t exactly win him friends.

Bullying is a constant theme of his self-published memoir “Cue the Rocky Music.” Classmates “enjoyed the sport of chasing me,” he wrote in the book, a predicament that wasn’t helped by his full-throttle embrace of the onscreen persona. Other kids made fun of the Rocky costume, tried to steal his fedora and taunted, “Yo, I’m Rocky! I suck at sports but I think I’m Rocky!” Kunda tried learning how to fight and play football to fit in better and defend himself. Neither quite cut it.

“I was a beating waiting to happen,” he explains. “I should have hung a sign on my neck that read, ‘Unaware fool. Please help me.’”

In his teenage years, there was a brief period when Kunda ceased his Rocky role-playing, growing out his hair to embody another Stallone construct, Rambo. Before long, though, he was back to Balboa as a sort of security blanket-meets-tribute.

“You have to imagine, it was the ’80s and there weren’t a lot of people dressing like movie characters. They were wearing MC Hammer pants, and that was never my thing. I was never one to follow trends, I had no style,” he says. “But Rocky was this armor that I had with the coat and the hat…To me, I just wanted to pretend to be Rocky. I didn’t want to be in school. I had to be there, so I thought, ‘Let me just bring this to life.’”

In early adulthood Kunda went from one job to another, hating them all: cop, parking garage attendant, a lengthy stint as manager of an optical company. All told, he estimates he has been fired from about twenty-five jobs—not because he wasn’t a hard worker, but because he “just didn’t want to be there.” Kunda says he was lost, unsure how to be happy.

That all changed in 2006 when friends coaxed him into entering Philadelphia’s national search for a Rocky doppelganger, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the original film. Contestants paraded in front of a crowd of thousands for the chance at prize money and tickets to the premiere of the sixth movie in the series, “Rocky Balboa.” During the final round of the competition Kunda got up on stage and improvised Rocky-esque answers to questions from a panel of judges, who crowned him the winner.

Kunda took the victory as a quirky honor and figured he’d soon go back to his boring life. The contest win, however, gave him exposure. Soon a children’s camp came calling, asking for Kunda to don his Rocky uniform and do a meet-and-greet with campers. It was his first paid gig as Stallone’s fictional boxer.

Chris Wiseman, a fellow “Rocky” superfan, quickly stepped in as his manager. The two met at the Victor Café, a real-life Italian eatery that was turned into “Adrian’s” for “Rocky Balboa.” Wiseman and Kunda independently befriended the restaurant owners, aware that filming would begin shortly, each wanting to dine there before production. While waiting for their tables at the bar one night, Kunda and Wiseman got to talking and became fast friends.

Kunda with Chris Wiseman and another friend at Victor Café in Philadelphia.
Kunda with Chris Wiseman and another friend at Victor Café in Philadelphia.

Wiseman runs an entertainment company focused heavily on musicians and had never represented a celebrity impersonator. Still, he thought Kunda had a knack for emulating Balboa and, on a handshake, agreed to represent him.

“He has all the mannerisms to a tee,” Wiseman says. “I said, ‘Listen, if you’re interested, I’d like to help you. I think you can do more with this. Not only can it be profitable but it could make you enjoy Rocky even more.’ The fact that we’re both legitimate Rocky nuts, not casual fans, certainly helped.”

In that moment, Rocky went from a passion to a profession.

*   *   *

In Wiseman’s mind, what makes Kunda a special impersonator is a combination of attention to detail and his commitment to the role.

“It’s not just how he looks. It’s when he starts to move, the inflection in his voice, the mannerisms. All of that combined makes him the most accurate Rocky in the world,” Wiseman says. “He pays attention to the exact style of zipper Rocky wears. It makes him special.”

Kunda even managed to track down the store in California that supplied Stallone’s fedora in “Rocky Balboa.” Sometimes, he’ll wear the gray sweatsuit that the fighter wore on his training runs. Pulling this look together took five years of scouring eBay for just the right 1950s-era sweats with the particular waistband.

Mike Kunda, in character as Rocky, leads a tour of “Rocky Balboa” filming locations.

“I put grease on it like Rocky. It’s a ratted, tatted sweatsuit just like his,” Kunda says. “I want to be as close and authentic as possible.”

For a gig as Rocky, Kunda’s main responsibility is usually to work the room, whether a cramped restaurant or a cavernous convention center. Clients usually want him to talk, pose for photos, and stay in the moment as the character.

“Sometimes they want to put you in a headlock or wear the hat,” he says. “With cellphone cameras and social media they’ll often direct you, ‘Come over here, say something to my wife, to my sister.’ You gotta be witty and quick and sharp.”

Over time this has meant less quoting passages from the movie and more putting decades of “Rocky” expertise into what he calls a “mental blender with my own personality” in order to utter responses that the character might give in a specific situation.

“If some guy’s name is Paulie, I’ll go into Paulie schtick. If a girl looks like Talia Shire I’ll go into a bit about Adrian. It’s one of those things where you don’t know what to expect so you roll with it,” Kunda says. “If you can just get people to buy that there’s a type of Rocky-ism, a Rocky essence, that’s my job, and I’ve done it.”

About thirty percent of the gigs take place on the famed steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Rocky runs up in the first, second, third and sixth movies in the series. Kunda is often asked to meet up with a busload of tourists in front of the museum and then make his way up the seventy-two steps with them.

Kunda gazing out a window at Victor Café. His largest crowd was a performance for 60,000 people.
Kunda gazing out a window at Victor Café. His largest crowd was a performance for 60,000 people.

“The problem is it never works out that way,” Kunda says, explaining that random passersby find themselves compelled to join in the fun. “It’s a national pastime,” he says. “If you look anything like Rocky and you’re affecting that vibe, people are going to start to gravitate to you. I’m being paid to be with this tour group, but there may be 300 people starting to go over to me. So that gets crazy.”

To date, Kunda’s largest audience was 60,000 people during a citywide mini-marathon held two years ago.

“They had a big bandstand and wanted me to get on the stage and address the crowd,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had ever done that. I wasn’t prepared, so I riffed on running and sneakers and about the Chuck Taylors that were around in the ’70s and how they sucked. The next thing I know I had the whole crowd doing calisthenics, like Balboa aerobics. It worked.”

Other gigs can be as simple as a backyard barbecue where a number of the attendees happen to be Rocky aficionados. Kunda gets a paycheck as well as a hot dog and a beer while he banters with partygoers in a more laid-back setting.

Kunda banters with locals and tourists in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team once hired Kunda to drive up to New York City with a Ben Franklin impersonator, go to the NHL’s main office, knock on the league president’s door and tell him that Philadelphia really wanted to host the All-Star Game.

“We walked through office cubicles saying ‘Hey yo, where’s the boss?’” Kunda recalls. When they reached the president’s office, “he just slaps his knees and goes, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe this.’ I tell him what the deal is. Ben opens up the parchment and reads off ‘We declare’ and goes into a Ben Franklin speech. For a number of other reasons Philly didn’t get the game, but the guy loved us.”

One key to success he’s learned is to stay away from exorbitantly long gigs. Although Kunda’s voice is similar to Rocky Balboa’s deep baritone, he does have to drop it a bit lower, which is something he can’t maintain indefinitely.

He now has enough Rocky gigs to financially support himself without having to hold other jobs. His wife, Sue, is employed as a manager at the same optical company which Kunda used to work for, and the couple, who have been together for twenty-five years, don’t have children. They live in Camp Hill, Pa., a suburb of Harrisburg, and travel back and forth to Philadelphia for Rocky-related business.

*   *   *

Kunda’s attachment to the Rocky character runs several layers deep, but the films’ recurring theme of redemption has always been a hook.

“The core thing is believing in yourself and trying. It’s cliché and we hear it all the time. But how many people really do believe in themselves?” he says. “Here we watch Rocky fail on screen and we feel for him because he got up and did it again. Maybe you’re not the best in the world. But you can be the best in your own life. That’s what I’m all about.”

Kunda at Victor Café.
Kunda at Victor Café.

There’s a parallel between the struggles Rocky endures to win his battles in and out of the ring and the arduous process that was behind making the movies bearing his name. Stallone, many forget, was an unknown when he wrote the script for the first movie and began shopping the project around Hollywood. Studios wanted to use the film as a vehicle for a more established actor, but he fought to play the lead himself. The overall budget was just over $1 million.

“People, a lot of times, don’t take it seriously because there are six films, but Rocky was the original independent film,” says filmmaker Jim Toscano. “It was low-budget and yet it’s got everything—it’s a boxing movie, a love story and a little bit of a mob/mafia story.”

That it was a Rocky-like story for Stallone to get the film made only heightens the movie’s appeal for Toscano, who is now producing a documentary about Kunda’s work as a Rocky impersonator. The two met on the street in downtown Philadelphia while trying to catch a glimpse of the filming of “Rocky Balboa” and bonded over their shared fandom since.

“I can’t remember not knowing who Rocky was. It was a part of growing up in my house,” says Toscano, who is from Detroit. “I’ve appreciated it because it’s an underdog story, and that’s my favorite kind of story.”

Even though he’s seen the movies 600-plus times, Kunda says he still gets something new from each viewing, and the film’s theme of never giving up and doing what you love inspires him to keep going with his impersonation business.

“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to not accept me, call me a phony, say that I am no good as a Rocky impersonator,” he says. “And that’s when I start to think, ‘You know, I’ll show you. I am going to bring my best game, and you’re going to love my interpretation of the character.’”

He’s also made his wife a fan in her own right, which brings a new kind of joy. But he says the biggest perk of emulating Balboa is hearing about others’ affinity for Rocky.

“I like hearing their stories,” Kunda says. “I get to see Rocky all over again but through their eyes.”

*   *   *

A few years ago Kunda began hosting an annual movie tour, based on the maps that he and his wife made two decades ago. For four or five hours he shuttles fans to the different sites, always in character as the Italian Stallion and pointing out lesser-known tidbits about the movies along the way, culminating with dinner at the Victor Café.

Kunda has also started offering one-on-one guided tours. Those who have taken him up on the offer have all been foreigners. There was a Greek boxer who brought his wife to Philadelphia as part of their honeymoon, a plumber from England who releases doves at weddings, and a guard at the Vatican who found Kunda on YouTube and requested a personalized tour.

The fedora that serves as part of Kunda's "Rocky" act.
The fedora that serves as part of Kunda’s “Rocky” act.

He now does two or three tours a month and hopes to grow this part of his impersonator business even more. He is in the process of securing a van and painting it with a fedora-inspired logo designed by his niece.

Kunda insists he is proud to be a “one-trick pony” who will only ever personify Rocky.

“All the time, people ask, ‘How long are you going to do this?’ I’ve been Rocky for seven years. Every year I double my business,” he says. “Stallone made ‘Rocky Balboa’ at sixty. If I can do this into my mid-fifties, another ten years, I would consider that very successful.”

*   *   *

Dena Levitz is a D.C.-based writer and digital media strategist. She’s also pursuing a Master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University. You can follow her on Twitter @thatsledes.

Shira Yudkoff is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia who specializes in portraits and multimedia projects. Follow her on instagram to see her street shots @shirayudkoff.

 

 

Waging War On Rats in Sub-Antarctic South Georgia

A team of ambitious ecologists is trying to rid these freezing South Atlantic islands of vermin to save their rarest bird. But are they attempting the impossible?

This story originally appeared in Avaunt, an award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1,500 kilometers away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000 meters above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost 200 years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp.

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one meter a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. Ninety-nine percent wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165 kilometers long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tons of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony.

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometer of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

* * *

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The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

His Biggest Hit Sold More Copies Than Any of the Beatles’. So Why Haven’t You Heard of Him?

In a life bookended by tragedy, Prince Nico Mbarga poured joy into his music, including the most popular song in African history. But his own story has never been told — until now.

Twenty years ago the man who recorded one of the most successful songs of all time was thrown off a motorbike by a car in Calabar, Nigeria. He hit his head on the road and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay for two weeks, in and out of consciousness, but deteriorating all the time. On June 24, 1997, Prince Nico Mbarga was pronounced dead.

“Sweet Mother,” his 1976 one-hit wonder, had sold at least thirteen million copies across the African continent – more than The Beatles’ bestseller “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But no global media outlet thought to cover the life and death of the artist behind Africa’s most popular song.

 

Today, the only internet accounts of his life reach around four paragraphs and bookend Mbarga’s career with two big political events of the time: the Biafran War in 1967 that saw him, at 17, flee across the border to Cameroon, where he mastered the guitar; and the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983, with his band’s Cameroonian members among the two million West Africans forced to leave the country.

Politics, however, rarely frames lives quite so neatly.

Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.

Twenty years after his death, this is the obituary that never was.

* * *

The first place Mbarga knew, the town of Ikom was the last stop on my journey. In a modest bungalow there I met Esame, his widow, and Ojong, his best friend, on a warm evening on the cusp of the wet season. On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.

The son of a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Nico Mbarga was born in nearby Abakaliki on April 8, 1950, but grew up in Ikom. In the 1950s it was little more than a series of administrative buildings, houses and farms clumped around Cross River, surrounded by tropical rainforest, right on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon. Ojong remembers early mornings with young Nico on the river, fishing for tilapia and catfish, and days spent in the shade of the forests, setting traps for birds. Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated. The only way goods such as bicycles and sewing machines made their way to the village was by lighters on the river from Calabar, more than 100 miles to the south. But even in rural Ikom, all the flux of being in a British colony in Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and the trappings of modernity it entailed – had its effect.

The Cross River in Ikom, Nigeria, the town where Mbarga grew up.

Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time). More exciting for Nico though, his music-loving father bought a Phillips radio. For if anything was to capture the mood of the new country emerging in Nigeria’s faraway and growing cities, it was the highlife music he could now hear from home. From Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver,” to EC Arinze’s “Saturday Night,” to Rex Lawson’s “Yellow Sisi,” highlife was a music of young men in big towns, marveling at cars, dancing at nightclubs, chasing single women. There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too. From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own. Highlife took western instruments – the trumpets and saxophones of big jazz bands – and set them to local, offbeat rhythms. It was a genre well-suited to a country preparing for independence, and its optimistic sound was to suffuse all the music young Nico would go on to create. (Even his later song “Oh Death,” with the opening line “Oh death, everybody hates you,” is impossibly cheery.)

His father, from a long line of xylophone players, taught him the instrument, a handheld version with metal tines plucked by the thumbs. But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark. “It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong recalls.

Nico Mbarga’s best friend Ojong, left, and Mbarga’s widow, Esame, right.

Despite the celebratory mood of the country, however, Nico’s childhood was not easy. His father died of a sudden illness, and the family he left behind – his wife, three sons and a daughter – became reliant on Nico’s mother, a peasant farmer. They downsized, becoming tenants in a compound in the middle of the village, and though Ojong remembers a mother dearly trying her best – caregiver with one hand, breadwinner the other – things were difficult. As a teenager, Nico tried to do his bit, playing sets in nearby small villages, but there was little money in it.

Thus when the Biafran War broke out in 1967, Nico Mbarga wasn’t so much fleeing for his safety – the rest of his family stayed in Ikom – as pursuing his ambitions in music. The civil war put a sharp stop to eastern Nigeria’s vibrant music scene, but the hotel gig economy was still running over the border.

In Mamfe, Cameroon, he met Lucy, who today lives in a half-built mansion ringed by palm trees on the outskirts of Ikom. I had been slightly nervous about meeting Lucy myself, remembering my first call back in London with Esame, Mbarga’s wife: “And I’ve been told about someone called Lucy as well, who is that?”

“Oh that is his concubine,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I will take you to her.” My worries were eased by their laughing and hugging as they greeted each other. Then a smiling Lucy recounted the moment 50 years ago that she met Nico Mbarga: a charming, handsome, if slightly short and dirt-poor 17-year-old. “As I first see him, I love him, eh? Even my mother did no gree, she said, ‘He’s a small boy, he don’t have money,’ but I said, ‘No, that boy is my choice.’”

Indeed, despite the objections of her parents, and their own struggles to buy even “a money for pot” to boil water, she would soon have the first of her two children with Mbarga.

Working as a “band boy” for a Congolese cover group in Mamfe, carrying instruments for concerts at hotels in nearby towns, Mbarga came to learn and love Congolese rumba. With its staccato guitar, spontaneous spoken asides and high-pitched harmonies, it had the whole continent dancing the soukous and the kara-kara. Mbarga, always dedicated, taught himself the conga, the drums, the bass and, most importantly, the finger-picking style of Congolese electric guitar.

When the three hard years of the Biafran War came to an end, he looked to launch his career back in Nigeria. After one failed border-crossing by road, in which Lucy and Mbarga were arrested by officials and sent to prison for three days for not having passports, they successfully made it across a second time, going “the bush way” in 1970. They came to Onitsha, a trading town on the banks of the Niger River, with at its center one of the largest markets on the continent. And while the money this brought has always attracted writers and musicians – today there are shops stacked high with thousands of albums in paper covers, posters for studio rentals everywhere, and music filling the air – the 1970s was Onitsha’s heyday, fuelled by Nigeria’s petrol boom and the good mood of people just relieved to get on with their lives again. It was, as Chinua Achebe wrote, “the esoteric region from which creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself,” and the home of some of Nigeria’s great highlife musicians.

“We loved the place,” Lucy almost shouts. “From there, God blessed him.”

Lucy, Nico Mbarga’s first love.

Mbarga thrived. He formed his group, Rocafil Jazz, signed a contract to play every Sunday at Onitsha’s Plaza Hotel, and began to mix with stars like Stephen Osadebe and Bobby Benson. Then, in 1973 he was picked up by EMI and recorded his first hit “I No Go Marry My Papa,” about a daughter disagreeing with her parents over the choice of her husband, surely inspired by Mbarga’s brush with Lucy’s parents. It sold reasonably well – “I did not know that I would make such an amount in my life,” Mbarga said of the modest success – and in it you can hear the beginnings of something, a mix of influences, that would come to define his music.

Odion Iruoje, then a producer at EMI, recalls working with a 23-year-old Mbarga “who knew what he wanted,” very able at “directing his boys.” By all accounts the non-smoking, non-drinking Mbarga, who studied law on the side in Onitsha, was a man of real self-possession.

He was not to be deterred, therefore, by the stalling of his career after his first single. Mbarga was dropped by EMI for failing to create any other commercial hits. Instead, around 1974, tired of “I love you, you love me, my baby,” he wrote “Sweet Mother.”

It was a love song from a son to a mother that, in its old-fashioned way, never actually once says “I love you.” Instead, it’s a grateful son praising what his mother did for him as a child: drying his tears, putting him to bed, feeding him, praying when he’s ill:

When I dey hungry my mother go run up and down / she dey find me something when I go chop oh! / Sweet Mother a-aah / Sweet Mother oh-e-oh!

And if “Sweet Mother” was dedicated to all mothers and the things they do for children, it was inspired by the loving sacrifices Mbarga saw his own mother, a widowed farmer, make after his father died. The lyrics began, “Sweet Mother, I no go forget you, for dey suffer wey you suffer for me.”

Mbarga sent a tape to Odion Iruoje at EMI, who remembers hearing the song for the first time and knowing that “it was the magic.” On the agreed date for recording, however, Odion had to fly to London to record at Abbey Road, and some other EMI officials told Mbarga that the song was “too childish” for them to record. Affronted, Mbarga did not come back. So it was only two years later when the small, Onitsha-based producer Rogers All Stars heard “Sweet Mother” at the Plaza Hotel, that the song found a label to release it.

Rogers All Stars is now in his 80s, slightly frail and very soft-spoken, still working in his Onitsha studio with which he now shares his name. And though his memories sometimes come to him in a slight haze, he still clearly recalls the day Nico Mbarga came to the producer’s house uninvited early one morning to introduce himself. They bonded over Rogers’s collection of Congolese records, and Mbarga invited the older man to come see him one day at the hotel. “I could see he was a star,” Rogers says.

For six months Mbarga – now calling himself Prince Nico Mbarga – Rocafil and Rogers All Stars worked on “Sweet Mother,” rehearsing daily from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. It was, says Rocafil rhythm guitarist, Cameroonian Jean Duclair, “real every day work,” as they made change after change, turning it from a gentle “cha cha cha” to a more upbeat highlife sound, adding little dance breaks, and crafting a song marked more and more by the drive of Mbarga’s Congolese-style finger-picking lead guitar.

Finally satisfied, the band travelled across the country to record, and after a heavy night in a Lagos hotel, with all but Mbarga drinking and smoking, recorded it live at Decca Studios – hung over for sure, but they had practiced so much it hardly mattered.

It took a few months to really take off. Nigerian radio host Benson Idonije rates the fact that it eventually did as one of his finest achievements. At the time, he explains from his house in Lagos, he had just launched Radio Nigeria Two, the country’s FM station. After shows he would often drop into bars to wind down the night. On one of these evenings in late ’77, he remembers, there was a song released by an obscure label from Onitsha, that got everyone up to dance. With an inkling that his audience might like the song’s message, he found it, undiscovered, in Radio Nigeria’s gramophone library, and played it that evening. “I started getting calls from everywhere,” he says. From then on, for months nearly every request Radio Nigeria received was for “Sweet Mother.”

“You have hit jackpot,” Jean Duclair remembers being told by their producer, with the record suddenly selling out in the shops. On a 20-seater Mercedes bus bought by Rogers, Mbarga and his band toured the country, up north during the wet season, down south when the rains stopped. And though culturally Nigeria can be a divided place, Jean remembers Nigerians everywhere demanding “Sweet Mother” – “it was like a national anthem.”

Album artwork. (Courtesy Mbarga’s producer, Rogers All Stars)

Soon they were touring all across West Africa – Togo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso – and even as far east as Kenya. As Jean Duclair recalls, the band members were scared to leave the plane when they saw the crowds waiting for them at airports, wearing Rocafil Jazz t-shirts, screaming Mbarga’s name.

And what was the reason for its success? Certainly, with its Congolese guitar-picking, its West African highlife beat and its pidgin lyrics, “Sweet Mother” had something for people all over.

Yet even beyond that, perhaps what it really caught was differing shades of Africa at the time. For, by the 1970s, these were societies that – after the profound changes wrought first by colonialism, then by the liberation movements that challenged it, and finally by the mixed records of those same movements once in power – had reason to feel both excited and uneasy at the new continent these encounters had created. It was a creative tension at the heart of “Sweet Mother.” In its style, with its hybrid English and its electric guitars calling its listeners to dance, it was unquestionably modern; but in its content, with its heartfelt praise for the nurturing role of mothers, “Sweet Mother” nodded to a more traditional life. It was a contradiction that Mbarga embodied himself. He was a man who would later, in “Green Revolution,” bemoan the flight of the sons and daughters of the land for the lure of the city – singing, “let’s go farming, and be self-sufficient!” – while he himself performed on stage in Nigeria’s biggest towns in his famous three-inch platform shoes. As his best friend Ojong would say, “He’s a blender.”

Or perhaps it was just a great tune.

Regardless, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz were completely unprepared for the popularity of “Sweet Mother.” While numerous online reports of Mbarga’s career have Rocafil Jazz falling apart when, in 1983, Nigeria’s President Shagari ordered the country’s two million undocumented migrants to leave – amongst them Rocafil’s Cameroonian musicians – no former band member I spoke with recognized that story. Instead, it was something much more mundane: money. On its release, they were a local band that practiced in a small compound in Onitsha, playing Sunday gigs at the Plaza Hotel with instruments that Rogers All Stars himself had bought for them, and with no contracts in place. It was always an issue with the potential to cause problems. After a loss-making and slightly demoralizing tour to London in ’79 – playing at venues like St. Pancras Town Hall and the African Centre to half-empty European crowds – the members of Rocafil Jazz complained to Mbarga that they were underpaid.

Mbarga was, according to Jean Duclair, unwilling to give an inch, and the mood soured. Before a scheduled trip to Japan, unable to agree on their percentages, Rocafil disbanded. Though they later re-formed, changed members, re-formed and disbanded again, the band never quite gained the same momentum – there was even an actual physical altercation, broken up by the police, after a New Year’s Eve hotel show in 1980. Meanwhile, convinced that Rogers All Stars hadn’t given him his share of the royalties, Mbarga unsuccessfully took his producer to court. (Everyone did eventually reconcile – Rogers refers to Mbarga as “like a son.”)

In the end, not much of the money made from “Sweet Mother” ever made it back to any of them. Royalty payments were limited by the hundreds of pirate recordings of the song, as economies across the continent began to suffer and record stores started to make their money by dubbing cassettes.

No one involved with “Sweet Mother” is now living a life that would suggest they were behind one of the top twenty bestselling songs in history. Mbarga’s family live in a pleasant but modest bungalow in Ikom; his former band members like Jean Duclair still struggle to raise funds for their musical projects; and his old producer, Rogers All Stars, though he owns a four-story building in Onitsha, admitted to many mistakes in trying to protect “Sweet Mother” from piracy. “You can see,” he says in his dusty office, exaggerating slightly in a room that still dwarfs his fragile frame, “you can see how poor we are.”

With the money he did receive from “Sweet Mother,” Mbarga moved back to Ikom, built and managed the Sweet Mother Hotel – where he would perform every Sunday – and married a local girl, Esame, the daughter of the owner of the only petrol station in town. He also built the house where she still lives today.

The former Sweet Mother Hotel in Ikom.

Lucy and their two children also moved to Ikom. Indeed, while Mbarga eulogized about mothers on stage, he did not quite show so much respect to the mothers of his own children. “His only weakness was temptation,” says Rogers. For alongside Esame, his wife, and Lucy, his first love, he had numerous other lovers. Even a track on his first album,
“Christiana,” two songs after “Sweet Mother,” is about a girl he was courting in Onitsha. It was an attitude he alluded to in “Sweet Mother” itself, asking before one of its many instrumental breaks: “You fit get another wife / you fit get another husband / but you fit get another mother? No!” Not that, when pressed on it all these years later, neither Lucy nor Esame seem to mind that much.

And if Mbarga disappeared from the music scene, it was not through lack of trying. Esame recalls that he would sing, play air guitar and compose songs even when they were eating. He would go on to produce 17 albums and records after “Sweet Mother,” all with the same highlife beat and Congolese style guitar. In fact, he didn’t even rate “Sweet Mother” as one of his best songs, preferring “Simplicity” instead.

But while the lives of some artists darken as the fame fades, there is no such twist here. Mbarga lived a satisfied life, caring for his own mother, supporting his two “wives” and spoiling his children with gifts. He was, on the accounts of both Lucy and Esame, a loving father, “too sweet” to punish his kids, always willing to dance with them. “He lived a happy life,” Esame says.

It was Mbarga’s desire to carry on his music that saw his end in Calabar 20 years ago. If his childhood witnessed the enthusiasm of early independence, his death seemed a cruel symbol of what the impoverished Nigeria of the 1990s had become. After a ten-year hiatus, the original band was back together for a 50-state tour of the U.S. and Mbarga was on his way to pick up visas. His car ran out of fuel – a scandalously common occurrence in one of the world’s largest oil exporters – so he hopped on an okada (motorbike taxi) to complete the journey and, once in Calabar, was thrown off by a car. In the hospital for two weeks, visited by his band members, his friends, his children and his first love Lucy – who held his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness – he died with Esame at his side. Back home in Ikom, his elderly mother fell down when she heard the news, and did not get back up. She died too shortly afterwards.

It was a fitting end for the two of them. Mbarga never forgot all that his mother did for him when he was a boy – leaving their home every day before dawn to work on a rented plot, growing bananas and yams, trying to raise four children – and he spent his life paying her back for it. She was, by all accounts, delighted with “Sweet Mother,” his timeless dedication to her. When Rocafil Jazz were in Onitsha, she would come down every month to watch them practice, dancing with a broom in her hand, and inviting them all back to Ikom so she could feed them up. As she aged, he took care of her, as Lucy remembers, refusing to eat until she had, and talking to her morning and night. After all, he did say in his bestseller, “If you forget your mother, you’ve lost your life.”

* * *

As I traveled throughout Nigeria, I noticed Nico Mbarga moving from a human being who had lived here on earth to, on a small scale, an icon in the making. The things he touched and made in life were slowly fading away: the Ikom compound where he grew up with his mother had been knocked down, leaving just an empty plot; the multitrack records of his “Sweet Mother” studio session in Lagos had long been thrown away; his Sweet Mother hotel, under different ownership now, was completely rundown.

In their place, in Ikom, Mbarga is newly remembered by a statue erected early this year. It’s a golden Mbarga in his platform shoes, standing his guitar on a plinth, looking out over the traffic of “Mbarga Junction.” Nearby, shaded by Ikom’s many red-blossomed African tulip trees, is Sweet Mother Road. And if it is sad in a sense – Lucy cried the day the statue was put up, as if it were final confirmation of his death – it does at least constitute a well-earned recognition for Mbarga at last.

Which leaves just one final question: Why have Mbarga and “Sweet Mother” been so ignored elsewhere? While the continent’s cultural contributions are generally marginalized, some African music does make it outside, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeats, to Ali Farka Toure’s Malian blues, to Ethiopia’s otherworldly-sounding jazz. The music that makes it to western ears is usually tough and cool, if not explicitly political, reflective of what many perceive must be a dark political mood.

Yet none of this music, brilliant and rich as it is, has proved as popular with Africans themselves as Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz’s ten-minute ode to mothers. It is played at weddings, as newlywed brides about to leave their homes for the first time dance with their mums to say thank you, at birthday parties celebrating the long lives of family grandmothers, and at Mother’s Day church services, the only secular song amongst the hymns, with worshippers swinging in the aisles adding their own “hallelujah!” to Mbarga’s lyrics. The “Sweet Mother” ideal, the all-consuming mother, not eating until her children are fed, not sleeping until they sleep, crying when they are sick, might be a little conservative, but it has deep cultural roots.

The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote that discovering the jubilance of Congolese rumba in the 1980s – a time of impoverishment, of brutal wars, of cruel leaders – taught him to look beyond the mere facts of political life. In Africa, he argued, “music has always been a celebration of the ineradicability of life.” More than anything, it was the genre that articulated “the practice of joy before death.” In the west perhaps, we have only wanted to hear music from the continent about the facts; in its joyful way, “Sweet Mother” captured something else: the suffering, the love, the human relationships between those facts.

Maybe we should listen harder.

* * *

For more on the story of Prince Nico’s life and legendary hit from Sami Kent, listen to the BBC radio documentary, Sweet Mother, here.

 

 

The Secrets in My Mother’s Nightstand

When I was little, nothing made me feel closer to Mom than rifling through her prized possessions.

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Sophia Wiedeman is a comic book artist currently drawing and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of The Lettuce Girl and Born, Not Raised, which was recently included in the Society of Illustrators 2016 Comic and Cartoon Art Annual. Follow her on Instagram: @sophiadrawsdaily.

 

 

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.”

* * *

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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