Legends Never Die

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Two decades after a low-budget film turned Washington Square skaters into international celebrities, the kids from "Kids" struggle with lost lives, distant friendships, and the fine art of growing up.

August 1990, St. Marks Place. Priscilla Forsyth, one month shy of her fourteenth birthday and just home from summer camp, straddles one of the two lion statues guarding the downward staircase to the apartment building her family has owned since 1975. Naturally blonde Liza and dyed blonde Margaret idle with her. It’s hot out, and Priscilla is becoming more curious about the world beyond her sidewalk.

An energetic kid with a scrawny but chiseled build named Harold Hunter rides up on his BMX bike. “I’ve never seen blonde people in New York” before, he tells the girls, giggling. He was from the Campos Plaza Housing Projects nearby–a different world, to be sure, although he’d obviously seen blonde girls before.

“That was his little excuse to start talking to us,” Priscilla recalls. “Harold was known for that.” The superlatives, the tall tales and jokes, the genuinely amicable first encounters–anyone who knew him knew that was Harold.

A month later, Priscilla and her friends were meandering downtown drinking forties, celebrating her birthday. They passed the Astor Place cube, a favored location for New York City’s premiere skateboard crew at the time. Priscilla and her girlfriends exchanged numbers with the skaters, and joined them the next day at the Brooklyn Banks, a world-renowned skateboarding mecca underneath the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge–that is, until the city shut it down a few years ago to use as storage space for bridge restoration.

When the girls arrived at the Banks, they met Harold and his friends, an infamous crew of amateur and professional skateboarders who rode alongside moving taxicabs and jumped off building and museum steps. Wherever they went throughout the city, the boys rode with a gutsy and fluid style. “It looked like art on a skateboard,” says Peter Bici, a skater and close friend of Harold’s. “It was a combination of New York City and the movement of streets and constant continuity of the city’s energy.” The kids loved each other like family, and didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought of them. “We were minding our own business,” says Peter. “We don’t bother you. You don’t bother us. We all had each other’s backs.” It was an era when skateboarding wasn’t cool. If they heard wheels coming down the street, they’d run after them.

When Harold saw the girls, invited by his other friends, he made sure everyone knew he met them first. Priscilla says this now, twenty-three years later, imitating Harold in the nasal, raspy voice his loved ones mimic when telling Harold stories; the impersonation brings a comical lightness to the forefront, just like Harold always did.

Harold started regularly coming to the Forsyths’ for dinner. He became Priscilla’s surrogate brother. “Families didn’t adopt Harold, he adopted families,” says Priscilla’s sister Jessica.

Priscilla, now thirty-six, and Jessica, thirty-nine, with a black father from Grenada and a white mother from the Cleveland suburbs, went to the prestigious Hunter College Elementary and High Schools, commuting each weekday to the Upper East Side. But it was in the East Village where they met the skater crew, and Harold started bringing his friends over to the the house too. Soon enough, the Forsyths’ apartment on St. Marks Place became another stomping ground, a clubhouse of sorts for this group of “lost boys.” Many, like Harold, hailed from broken homes.

*  *  *

When the 1995 film Kids, written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clark, was released, Newsweek called it “astonishing”; Janet Maslin of the New York Times said it was “a wake-up call to the modern world.” The Motion Picture Association of America initially branded the film with an NC-17 rating; upstart film producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein created a new distribution company to release it unrated into theaters.

In his July 28, 1995, review, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “Most kids are not like those in Kids, and never will be, I hope. But some are, and they represent a failure of home, school, church and society. They could have been raised in a zoo, educated only to the base instincts.”

Leo Fitzpatrick, who played the infamous prepubescent lothario Telly. (Photos by Jonathan Weiskopf)
Leo Fitzpatrick, who played the infamous prepubescent lothario Telly. (Photos by Jonathan Weiskopf)

The main character of Telly, played by Leo Fitzpatrick, is a scrawny, cocky kid on a perpetual hunt to seduce young New York City virgins; he and his sidekick Casper, a hyperactive foul-mouthed slice of authenticity played by Justin Pierce, traverse the city from sunup to sundown to complete their quest. Meanwhile, in an apartment somewhere, un-chaperoned teen girls wax poetic about sex. Two girls–Jennie, played by Chloë Sevigny, and Ruby, played by Rosario Dawson–go for AIDS tests; Jennie comes up HIV positive. She’s only had sex once, with Telly, and she sets out on her own hunt to find him. The boys meet up with their skater friends in Washington Square Park, some boys and girls break into a closed pool and go swimming, Jennie takes drugs at a nightclub, and they all end up at a house party where four little kids shoved side by side on a couch pass a joint back and forth.Telly screws his second virgin of the day just as Jennie arrives at the party to find Telly still inside his conquest. She passes out herself and is raped by Casper. The next morning, Casper wakes up naked on a couch and says directly to the camera, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”

Justin Pierce aka Casper (Photo courtesy Gunars Elmuts)
Justin Pierce aka Casper (Photo courtesy Gunars Elmuts)

Kids came from the minds of Korine, a skate kid from Tennessee whose grandmother lived in Queens and hung out with Harold and his friends, and Clark, already known for his gritty, sexualized youth photography. (Clark had started photographing the crew in the early 1990s.) It was the first film for both, and the camera barely leaves the kids, none of whom were actors at the time; all were plucked from Harold’s skater crew and elsewhere downtown.

Those of us who watched Kids as adolescents, growing up in an era before iPhones, Facebook, and Tiger Moms, had our minds blown from wherever we were watching–whether it was the Angelika Film Center on the Lower East Side or our parents’ Midwestern basements. We were captivated by the entirely unsupervised teens smoking blunts, drinking forties, hooking up, running amok and reckless through the New York City streets. Simultaneously, the driving storyline highlighted the terror of HIV and AIDS, which was at its apex in the mid-nineties.

Justin Pierce, who played Casper, took his life in July 2000, the first of several tragedies for the kids. Harold, who played himself in the film and is best remembered for swinging his dick around in the pool scene—he was that kid who wasn’t afraid, who radiated a magnetic and infectious energy both on and off screen—is gone too. He died in February 2006 from a drug-induced heart attack.

"I just want to keep Justin and Harold alive with these stories." Peter Bici
“I just want to keep Justin and Harold alive with these stories.” Peter Bici

The film grossed millions and deeply impacted the lives and careers of all involved. Korine, who just released his newest film Spring Breakers, went on to artistic claim and fame. Clark continues making films and controversial photography, but Kids remains by far his most well-known project. Several kids went on to successful acting careers, most notably Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson. Zoo York, the skate brand created in 1993 and home base for many in the crew, blew up overnight. New York skaters went from mini-celebrities in the extreme sport world to global notoriety; while on a Zoo York skate tour, Harold was recognized by film fans as far away as Japan.

In a coffee shop on the Lower East Side this spring, Peter Bici, a pro skateboarding legend who appeared in the film, tells me it’s not about him–the film, the interview, this article. Now a New York City fireman with a wife and daughter, Peter speaks with a thick, classic New York accent as tears well up in his eyes. “It’s about Harold and Justin,” he says. “I just want to keep Justin and Harold alive with these stories. It’s not about me, really. It’s not. It’s about them. That’s why I’m here. They still live on.”

*   *   *

The kids were a crew of about sixteen, maybe forty if the outer circle was around. The core clique was all in Kids, with roles ranging from starring to un-credited. Their surrogate parents were Rodney Smith, Eli Morgan Gesner and Adam Schatz, the then twenty-something founders of Zoo York. Previously, Rodney had founded SHUT, the first local brand to design boards that could withhold the blow of curbs, rails, and jumps to accommodate the changing face of New York skating. Zoo York’s Meatpacking District headquarters was their clubhouse, and Eli, a club promoter, was the crew’s link to New York nightlife—he developed the skating ramp inside the infamous Tunnel nightclub.

(left to right) Rodney Smith, Eli Morgan Gesner and Adam Schatz in front of the SHUT Skateboards shop on Orchard Street.
(left to right) Rodney Smith, Eli Morgan Gesner and Adam Schatz in front of the SHUT Skateboards shop on Orchard Street.

“We’d go to the Tunnel every Friday night or Saturday night,” says Jefferson Pang, forty-one, who is widely recognized as the first New York City skater to make it as a pro, and whose own Zoo York deck model was featured on the film’s poster, clutched by Harold. “It was crazy because there’d be a line down the entire street and we’d go up to the front with our skateboards and they’d just let us right in. It was insane.”

This was not California, and they skated everywhere in all sorts of harsh winter weather. They ollied over fallen trashcans, launched over sidewalk curbs, and jumped over cars. Every ledge was a right angle to master, every subway tunnel ramp was fair game.

“Our generation, we were the ones that really changed the whole game in skateboarding,” says Alex Corporan, forty. “A group of kids, black, white, Hispanic from every race, all together.”

“I was a black dude from the Bronx who listened to punk music as a result of skateboarding, but I come from a hip-hop background,” says Mike Hernandez, now forty-two. “I was an anomaly. It wasn’t about color for us. Not at all. Our common ground was skateboarding and getting high. Kind of living for the moment, not looking about what’s coming around the corner.

“We came from fucked up backgrounds, you know what I mean?” he continues. “Straight up, like New York City kids. Our bond together was skateboarding. But skateboarding wasn’t cool. We were like a band of outsiders.”

*   *   *

“The way Kids happened,” says Jefferson, “it was all just kind of organic because Harmony was hanging out with us for years and he was just like some quirky kid from Nashville, Tennessee.”

Korine came to New York to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for film, living for a time at Harold’s apartment in the projects—the two had met while Harold was skateboarding in Tennessee—before moving to his grandmother’s home in Queens. Harold was his introduction to the crew.

Then, one day, after both Korine and Clark had been hanging around the kids, “Harmony’s like, ‘We’re going to be making a movie together,’” says Jefferson. “And then he was like, ‘It’s gonna’ be about you guys.’ I was like, ‘What? Who’s gonna’ watch a movie about us?’”

“Harmony didn’t create this mysterious subculture of skateboarders in New York City,” says Jefferson. “That was our lives. Minus the whole virgin hunter part of it.” Telly’s virgin hunter character, popping cherries from morning to night, was hyperbolized for the film, fictional material Korine added to make it more “Hollywood.” “[Harmony] was kind of there when we were hanging out at Washington Square Park or Astor,” says Jefferson, but he doesn’t recall him joining them on “skate missions.”

There is some debate over how perfectly Korine and Clark captured the kids’ lives. Hamilton Harris, a music producer and writer, whose hands and lips became the close-up montage of a blunt-rolling tutorial in the film’s infamous Washington Square Park scene says, “Kids was an outside perspective because the author is not Hamilton, or Peter Bici, or Justin, or Harold. So it’s told from the outside. As the years went on, [the film] became the catalyst for the skater who’s grungy, who’s got problems at home. What was never explained, in my opinion, is what creates that.”

*   *   *

Korine, nineteen at the time, and Clark, then over fifty, wrangled the troops from the skate clique, supplementing them with more non-actors from Washington Square Park and the club scene, and across downtown—including Chloë Sevigny, from tony Darien, Connecticut, who had been hanging out with the crew in Washington Square Park for years. They plucked a then fifteen-year-old Rosario Dawson from her stoop in the East Village. Vibe magazine was shooting a commercial on her block, and her father told her to go downstairs to get discovered. Korine heard her laughing loudly at a strange man who looked like Jesus, walked over and told her, “You’re exactly what I wrote.”

Rosario’s father rode her on his bike handlebars to the auditions, downtown on Broadway. When it came down to Rosario and another girl for the part of Ruby, Harold, who she knew from the East Village, was the deciding factor–he told Korine and Clark to go with his neighbor.

Jon “Jonny Boy” Abrahams, a club kid from TriBeCa, was originally cast as a random guy in the club scene making out with two girls. Then, while at a summer program in Vermont, Jonny got a call from Clark. A bigger part had opened up–Steven Cales, a member of the skater crew who was scripted to play himself, had been arrested for armed robbery.

“We were kind of harsh on [Jonny] because we knew it was supposed to be Steven,” says Jefferson. “Because then Harold, Justin, and Steven would have been the big guys in the movie.”

“Most of the kids in the movie were the skater kids,” Jonny says. “Everybody knows each other, because it’s a pretty small community of kids back then in downtown Manhattan. I wasn’t like best friends with these guys at all. I think that they were a little pissed off that, like, ‘who’s this fucking club kid that got our friend’s part now that he went to jail’? I definitely had to work for their affection, a little bit.”

And of course, Harold was his “in,” because Harold was everyone’s in. “Harold Hunter was the diplomat of downtown,” says Jonny. “He was able to navigate through all those cliques and make connections that way, which wasn’t an easy thing to do in that age.”

“Harold, he was seriously the one connector to everybody,” says Leo Fitzpatrick, the skater who portrayed Telly. “He really never judged anybody. He didn’t give a shit where you were from, what you looked like. He was like an ambassador for New York skateboarding.”

Harold even taught his own family to look beyond race, says his brother Ronald Hunter, who notes that Justin was the first white guy Harold ever brought home to the projects. “That’s why I love my brother,” says Ronald. “He taught me a lot about diversifying.”

*   *   *

Kids filmed in the summer of 1994. “None of us knew what the fuck we were doing,” Jonny says. “Like, none of us understood continuity in film or any of that stuff. Anytime they cut we would just walk off and smoke weed and drink forties.”

Jefferson Pang
Jefferson Pang

Justin, who lived with Jefferson on the Upper West Side during filming, was a good-looking skater kid from a rough home with a massive spirit, an explosive personality and an ability to get a little reckless when drunk. Jefferson made sure Justin showed up on set every day.

“I think at the end of the day, this was more like summer camp than making a film for a lot of us,” says Leo. As an outsider from New Jersey, Leo didn’t fully mesh with everyone immediately. “I was kind of more like a narc,” he says. “Where they’re like, ‘How the fuck did this guy get in?’”

The Forsyths’ apartment building was part of the set, as a stand-in for Telly’s house, and while Jessica didn’t want to be on camera, Priscilla was one of the girls at the beginning jabbering about sex and boys. Everyone else who was “in” appeared in the notorious Washington Square Park scene, sitting side-by-side in a massive clump, skateboards in hand. In that scene, Casper, played by Justin, skates off and accidentally knocks a bystander, credited as “Hoodlum.” Casper apologizes, the Hoodlum says, “Watch where the fuck you skatin’ at.” A scuffle ensues, Harold runs over and hits Hoodlum on the head with a skateboard, the other kids catapult from the fountain ledge, and everyone beats the shit out of Hoodlum. To punctuate the massacre, Casper swings the bottom of a skateboard into Hoodlum’s face as a shirtless Peter Bici holds him up, Hoodlum’s mouth gapping open with head cocked forward, eyes shut. Telly hocks a loogie, spits it onto Hoodlum’s left temple, and Casper leans down to say, “Now get in my way, bitch!” The crew cackles; adults cringed.

The kids say the film was accurate, except for the most fantastical stuff. There’s no denying they weren’t sober during filming. Even the scene with Javier Nunez, at fourteen, by far the youngest of the skate crew, and three other little kids mashed on a couch smoking a joint and pontificating about god and life—that too was real. The virgin hunter, the AIDS plotline, and the rape scene at the end were fictional.

“But overall, that’s exactly what it was like,” says Jonny. “You ran around the fucking streets of New York. The city was just crazy at that time and things were different with kids. It’s certainly not like that anymore. I think that Kids is probably, to me, the last time you see New York City for what it was on film. That is to me a seminal moment in New York history because right after that came the complete gentrification of Manhattan.”

Kids immortalizes a moment in New York City when worlds collided–“the end of lawless New York,” Eli says–before skateboarding was hip, before Giuliani cleaned up, suited up, and wealthy-ed up Manhattan.

“I don’t think anyone else could have ever made that movie,” says Leo. “If you made that movie a year before or after it was made, it wouldn’t be the same movie. Everything just clicked in a very kind of natural way.”

“It’s almost like Kids was the dying breath of the old New York,” says Jessica.

“None of us had any idea what was gonna happen with this movie,” says Jonny. The film screened at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and at Sundance, and Justin Pierce won an Independent Spirit Award for best debut performance. Chloë went on to a wildly successful film career, including an Academy Award nomination, and Rosario Dawson has built a successful Hollywood career as well. Jonny has acted in dozens of films and television shows and also DJs in Los Angeles.

“This movie literally changed the course of my life,” Rosario said.

Yet, while the film became a rite of passage for all of us outsiders watching with dropped jaws across the country, not everyone on the inside felt the same.

“I remember shortly after that, they had a screening for all of us–everybody that was in it–and, like, I thought it was the worst movie I ever saw,” says Jonny. “Everyone seems like they’re acting and it just seems really bad. It had no effect on me whatsoever.”

“I didn’t watch the movie for five years,” Jonny says. “And then one night it was on television, and I watched it. By the end I was, like, almost in tears. Like, it affected me so much. I don’t know if it’s because I had to grow a little bit and gain a little bit more of an adult perspective on how wild it was to be a kid then or what, but like, it’s a powerful, powerful, powerful movie. They don’t make movies like that very often.”

If it was surreal to see themselves on screen, exposed to the rest of the world, for Leo it was “kind of traumatic.” He just wanted to keep being a skater; now he was something else. He moved to London, where he could be anonymous, and then Los Angeles, doing odd jobs, refusing to act despite industry efforts to help him capitalize on his Kids acclaim. He moved back to New York at twenty-one and eventually started acting again, though he didn’t comfortably settle in to the profession until his recurring role on The Wire in the early 2000s. “I had to grow up and find a level of comfort within myself to say that acting isn’t so lame,” he says.

“The things that I was seeing on the outside manifest after the movie Kids–it made me introvert,” says Hamilton. “I knew I wasn’t ready to do things at the time Justin did or at the time Harold did.”

More than anyone else from the skate clique, the film thrust Harold and Justin into the Hollywood spotlight, and the duo was hungry for fame and eager to act. Justin moved to Los Angeles and devoted himself to acting while still skating as a hobby. Harold skated professionally and toured the world with Zoo York, alongside Peter and Jefferson and several more of the kids, but took full advantage of his movie fame. People recognized him worldwide, and when they didn’t, “Yo, you ever see that movie Kids?” became his signature line.

“Everybody wanted a piece of him,” says Jessica. “Everyone wanted to claim him as their own.”

Before Kids, it always took ages to walk anywhere with Harold around New York City. He knew everybody—from grandmothers to punk rockers to squatters and beyond, but the movie took it to new heights. “People liked my brother before Kids,” says Ronald. “After Kids, it just got worse. It just got so ridiculous.”

*   *   *

Harold grew up with Ronald and younger brother Michael in the Campos Plaza Housing Projects. Their mother passed away when they were kids. Their grandmother raised them until she passed when Ronald was sixteen, and he assumed guardianship of his brothers.

Ronald Hunter
Ronald Hunter

On an April afternoon this year, Ronald sat on a bench in the middle of the housing project wearing a Yankee’s cap with a barcode sticker underneath the rim, high top loafers, khakis, a red collared jersey shirt with blue stripes and a thick, orange vest with a hood. His six-year-old son sat wide-eyed and patient to his right. Ronald pointed to their apartment–fifth floor, front of the building, with several fabrics and blankets hanging out of the window.

Ronald, his wife, and their two kids—the six-year-old and a four-year-old daughter—live in Elmhurst, Queens, and Ronald works as a technician for an insurance company. They moved out of the East Village shortly after Ronald found Harold dead in their home. “I come back here when I feel homesick,” he says.

Priscilla says Harold didn’t drink or smoke pot extensively growing up–the joke was that he didn’t need to because he was so naturally high. “But after the movie came out, then he started partying with all kinds of people,” she says. “I guess that’s what people want from you and they want to hang out with you and they buy you drinks and they give you drugs. And I think also there’s an element of insecurity that came along with the awesome feeling of being loved and I can only imagine that he needed it more.”

Young Harold getting into a taxi. (Archival photo courtesy Gunars Elmuts)
Young Harold getting into a taxi. (Archival photo courtesy Gunars Elmuts)

Harold, while in a handful of other films, kept skating professionally for Zoo York and touring worldwide, which contributed to his burgeoning fame from Kids. He remained intrinsically tight with the clique, and of course Justin. Harold loved Justin, and would visit him out in L.A. In the five years following Kids, Justin always seemed to be on the precipice of something big, appearing in over a dozen films and TV shows, but his success was supplemented by a lust for partying. In the summer of 2000, Alex visited to join him at the premiere of the film King of the Jungle. While his acting career was beginning to boost, Justin had been coping with personal problems. A week later, Justin flew to Las Vegas for the premiere of Next Friday, in which he played the character Roach. He killed himself in his hotel room.

It is viscerally clear how much Justin’s death impacted the crew. “The fact that it was a suicide is such a difficult thing to deal with,” says Priscilla, who, while a teacher in Compton, lived across the street from Justin and his wife in Los Angeles. “Justin was an amazingly wonderful person, but he also suffered from a lot of emotional pain in his life.”

A year later, over the July 4th holiday in 2001, the crew experienced another loss: Keenan Milton, who had moved to Los Angeles as a pro-skater before Kids, but remained part of the family. Keenan accidentally drowned in a pool at a party. The back-to-back deaths devastated the clique; Justin’s especially was a particular blow to Harold.

“Harold was loving and wanted to make people happy. But he also was frustrated and angry and upset,” says Jessica. “And insecure and all of the range of emotions.”

“[Harold’s] like a brother to me,” says Jefferson. “We’d always be fighting, but I would kill someone for him. We’ve traveled the world together and it’s always been like I kind of have to be his handler and bring him down to reality and put him in check because he always wanted to have as much fun as possible. And it was always at his expense. He was never conscious of anything he was putting in his body. The way he ate, or his lifestyle. But that was the thing about Harold, he was such a free spirit. He lived every moment to the fullest. To the last day, he was still being Harold. We always were concerned: what’s Harold gonna’ be like as an adult? Even though when he passed away he was technically an adult, he was still being Harold.”

Ronald says towards the end, Harold was preoccupied with how fame and notoriety affected him. “It’s like a sponge that won’t expand even if you soak it in water,” he says. It wasn’t just partying. His life didn’t only belong to him. Isn’t that what we always do to celebrities?

“He was insecure. And he was jealous,” says Priscilla. “And he struggled just like everybody struggles with emotions. Sometimes he handled it well, and sometimes he did not handle it so well. He was a human, he was definitely not a saint. I think that’s important.”

Jefferson, Priscilla, Ronald, and others who knew Harold, switch between past and present tense when talking about him, as if he’s still here, as if no one will ever say goodbye.

It was the final, gut-wrenching blow for everyone, the third in a horrific series of tragedies, of lost boys completely lost. Less than twenty-four hours after seeing many of his skateboarding brethren at an event where everyone remembers him smiling, full of life, Harold was dead.

“It was hard to say goodbye,” says Priscilla. “It was also just so impossible to accept.”

There was a three-day wake, followed by a Saturday funeral. Hundreds from myriad walks of life came to pay homage to a downtown legend. His casket was on skateboards. “It’s like we were burying a rock star, pretty much,” says Alex.

“I’ve never been to a funeral like the one I saw of his,” says Rosario. “Three days of people coming from all around the world…I hope that he felt all that love we all showed in his passing.”

“There was this little kid,” remembers Peter. “He was young. Must have been like ten or eleven years old. This Spanish kid. And he had a skateboard. He was crying. I said, ‘Why you crying, bro?’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna miss Harold.’” Peter starts tearing up, crying himself, now whispering. “He says, ‘I’m gonna miss Harold.’ This kid’s fucking ten years old. To affect a ten-year-old kid. To be nice to a ten-year-old kid?

“It’s tough. I love the guy. I miss him very much.”

Peter says it was “a real wake-up call” when guys started dying. Everyone uses the same term, “wake-up call,” as if the term is inherent to Harold and Justin reveries. Rosario says it’s still a wake-up call; it caused Mike to look deeply inside himself and reevaluate his life. The way Kids was a wake up call for teenagers nationwide regarding drugs and sex and AIDS, these deaths–of the real kids– awakened the community, no matter how difficult it still is to think about.

Every time one of the guys starts to talk about Justin or Harold, it’s as if they have to fast forward to the moment they can laugh, the moment of comic release, the moment after the phone calls telling of tragedy and the funerals and memorials. Everyone is hesitant to speak about both deaths, especially Justin’s, but they’ll talk for hours about how funny and kind and giving Harold was.

“Harold wanted to make people happy,” says Priscilla. “That’s part of why he makes all the jokes is cause he wants to make people laugh, he wants to make people happy, he wants to give people what they want.”

“He was brilliant. He loved. He gave,” says Rosario. “I think about Justin. I think about Harold often. It reminds me to be grateful. To be present to a lot of the amazing things. It all keeps changing. And who knows what it can all change into it. It happens very quickly.”

*   *   *

“After he passed away, New York wasn’t the same,” Peter says. “You go out with Harold, Harold would make you laugh. There wasn’t one time when we went out when we did not have a sincere laugh together. So I lost that. And Justin was different. Justin was more quiet. He had the heart of a lion. He wasn’t scared of nobody. He was a small guy. He wasn’t a big dude. But he wasn’t scared of nobody. They each had their own thing that was beautiful about them.”

“You think about Kids, you think about Casper and Harold,” says Peter. “Right? You think about Harold swinging his dick in the pool. You think about crazy-ass Casper with the forty.”

Mike Hernandez
Mike Hernandez

“In a fucked-up way, Kids contributed to Harold dying and Justin dying because you gotta’ realize, these are kids from fucked-up backgrounds,” Mike says. “And a person like Harold–a quintessential clown, like twenty-four-seven ‘The Harold Show,’ and everyone that was around him, like laughing–you couldn’t turn him off.”

“Granted, there’s going to be causalities,” Mike continues. “I know this. But obviously, there’s nothing that we could have done to prevent it. We weren’t supposed to be each other’s guidance counselors or social workers. We were there for each other, through skateboarding, but we kind of had to muddle through our own issues and demons on our own. We were in the water together swimming. But there wasn’t a life raft. So, eventually, we kind of had to learn to swim well, breaststroke, sidestroke, or whatever, to try to get to the mainland. Try to find a ship, whatever the case may be. Some niggas didn’t realize how they could swim so they just fucking drowned. Some niggas found land, some niggas found a ship.”

*   *   *

Jessica Forsyth holds a PhD in counseling psychology and is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University’s School of Medicine. In her spare time she volunteers as director of programs for the Harold Hunter Foundation, which she, her sister, and several other friends founded within months of Harold’s death. Jessica smiles often, gently, and speaks with an aware patience.

Jessica Forsyth
Jessica Forsyth

The Foundation’s mission is to “use skateboarding as a vehicle to provide inner-city youth with valuable life experiences that nurture individual creativity, resourcefulness and the development of life skills.” In addition, Jessica says they’re “trying to provide some sort of support for New York City skateboarders, I mean, really so that nobody has to end up like Justin or Harold…or Keenan.”

She remembers thinking, as early as Justin’s funeral, “somebody needs to save these kids.”

“The kids who are skaters today, they have some similarities to those guys,” she says. “These kids are nowhere near as rough in terms of what they’re dealing with. They’re not sort of skaters by necessity. It’s by choice. But I also think there’s something about skateboarding as a community that really does take care of each other and teach kids to be sort of entrepreneurial and independent. That’s really the same as it always has been. Skateboarding was so amazing for Harold and we wanted to bring these kinds of opportunities to kids like Harold.”

The sparse Harold Hunter Foundation office is in an apartment in the Forsyths’ building on St. Marks Place–a loft bed, a vacant kitchen, a gorgeous view of a sprawling backyard, a coat rack, a tiled bathroom, a framed Kids poster leaning against the wall, and a desk from which Jessica manages the organization.

The Foundation sends kids to Woodward, a residential action sports camp in Pennsylvania where Harold had gone and loved as “heaven on earth,” says Jessica, returning as a professional skateboarder to work with kids. This past winter, they sent a handful of young skaters to the Dominican Republic on tour. Foundation intern Wade Yates, twenty-three, says he was deeply touched by all of the skateboarding youth they met in the DR. “I mean, the whole country needs help, but definitely the skaters are hurting a lot,” he says.

“I think it’s amazing what we have been able to accomplish given what little we have and how hard it is to get anything done,” says Priscilla, a board member. “So that’s really exciting and good. I feel like Harold’s legacy deserves even more and is worthy of so much more. And I just hope that we can keep this thing alive long enough to the day where it can really be something big.”

*   *   *

Despite the tragedies, the rest of the kids, now adults, remain deeply impacted by their experience making the film.

“It definitely changed my life,” Leo says. “I’m sure everybody will say that.” Leo still acts, most recently in The Heart, She Holler, but skipped Sundance earlier this year–even though he was in two festival films–to attend an art fair in Los Angeles. He spends weekends at his art gallery, Home Alone 2. He has no desire for fame, and hopes to make a solid living as an obscure actor. “It took my whole life to figure out why I’m acting,” he says. “That is what from Kids to today was all about.”

In 2001, Zoo York partnered with Eckō unltd, the very successful urban lifestyle clothing company. Eli and Adam stayed on as consultants for a few years, but by 2005, they were all gone, and the crew’s original “surrogate parents” came back together to relaunch SHUT Skates and pay homage to the New York City skateboarding history they helped create.

After skating professionally for the original Zoo York team and becoming team manager in the late 90s and early 2000s, Jefferson is now the sales director for skateboarding at DC Shoes. He has a wife and two kids. He doesn’t skate much anymore, or go out and meet the boys.

“As a father now, to think about what we were doing during that film, and my kids doing that at that age–I would lose my mind,” says Jefferson. “But to us, at that time in New York City, it was completely normal. Now, young kids are so much more sheltered. We’re in a different time.”

“I loved all my skater friends, I loved these guys,” says Mike, who now works as a New York City fireman. “These guys were my family. And the city was our fucking playground.”

“It’s different,” says Peter, speaking of his own life as a fireman. “It’s different,” he repeats two more times, with a slow, steady, vulnerable decrescendo. “I have new friends now.” Pause. “But, the bond that we had back then will never be the same as, I don’t know, anything I’ll probably experience.” Another pause. “It’s just different. We have each other’s backs at work. But it’s a different feeling. We had more in common back then. We were all the outcasts looking out for each other.”

“The movie itself doesn’t really mean much to me,” says Priscilla. “But I still do think the experience itself was a pretty remarkable experience for us to have. I find it more kind of fascinating that anyone cared about it. I can get it to some degree, but it is difficult to think of it as something more than just us being silly. Us sort of melodramatically being ourselves.” She laughs.

*   *   *

On Harold Hunter’s birthday, April 2, over a dozen people post variations of the phrase “Legends Never Die” on Harold’s Facebook wall (an account Jessica maintains), with a total of fifty-five comments, 422 likes and twenty-three shares. At a Soho bar that afternoon, Alex tells me the phrase is something Harold used to say all the time.

“About himself?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Alex says with a huge smile.

“He would always say that,” says Priscilla. “But he would also say, ‘Keenan is a legend. Justin is a legend.’ It was about the people he loved.”

“Harold made everyone feel like their best friend within ten seconds,” Alex says. “That was what was special about Harold. Like everyone, all around the world. You ask everyone, they’re like, ‘oh, Harold’s my best friend.’ They probably hung out with him for a week. That’s the kind of energy Harold had. There’s never gonna’ be anyone in the world that could ever do that again. At least in my living presence there won’t be anyone like Harold.”

*   *   *

“It was meeting Harold in front of my house when I was thirteen and becoming very close friends with him and him essentially becoming part of our family, that was my first real glimpse into how different growing up in poverty was, particularly in terms of educational opportunities,” says Priscilla, who has dark curly hair, thick tortoiseshell glasses, and glistening skin. She works full-time for a non-profit organization working towards educational equity.

Priscilla observed life through a particular lens growing up biracial, especially with regard to Harold. “He grew up about five or six blocks away from me,” she says. “We had similar interests, similar senses of humor, liked to do the same things. But because my mom made it her business to try to find us the best possible school in the city and we traveled far outside of our neighborhood to go, I experienced something very different than he did.”

Harold directly inspired her career, including her application to the teaching job in Compton. “I have a hard time imagining who I would be if it weren’t for Harold,” she says.

Priscilla, her husband, and their two children live in the top apartment of the family’s building. Photographs of Harold line the molding of the walls, inching up to the ceiling. Her children’s drawings are spread across the kitchen table, and she holds several thin Crayola markers while she shares stories about growing up with the kids and her memories of Justin and Harold.

While leaving her apartment, I can hear the television from her parents’ apartment downstairs. Generations stacked upon generations with a legacy of a lost boy lingering in the middle, a clubhouse holding on to a moment in time, a kitchen that was once a movie set. Outside, the two lion statues are fading into something amorphous. A tree winds up the side of the building–rooted, but growing upwards.

The sound of small wheels pound against the adjacent sidewalk. “Still to this day when I hear someone skating down the street,” says Rosario, “I turn around because I think it’s Harold.”

I twist my head. It’s a woman dragging a rolling suitcase.

No skateboard. No grip tape. No lost boys. The kids are all grown up now. Two are immortalized, deeply missed, profoundly loved, and gone far too soon; though their laughter no longer ricochets through the streets of New York City, they, too, have been found.

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

Read “The Reveal”: On Narratively Shorts, lost sleep, seventy-six pages of notes, and meeting the KIDS heart-to-heart.  

And check out the first print edition of Narratively featuring exclusive interviews with members of the “Kids” cast and more interesting behind-the-scenes content.

* *

Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate. She hosts the YouTube series “Body Empowerment” and performs spoken word poetry at colleges and schools nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @cerothstein.

Jonathan Weiskopf is a visual artist living in Brooklyn. His first book, For Some Time Now: Performance Poets of New York City, was self published in April 2012. Find him on twitter @jsweiskopf.

When Young Muslims Want to Stop Masturbating, They Turn to Reddit

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Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.

This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”

Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.

This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”

“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”

Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”

Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.

On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”

“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.

While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.

“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”

“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”

Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.

Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”

It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.

“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”

Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”

“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”

In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”

“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”

His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.

To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”

A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.

He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”

How Cleaning Out My Hoarder Mother-in-Law’s Junk Caused My Own Marriage to Crumble

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As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.

There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.

I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.

The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.

“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”

And now we’re here.

The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.

I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.

I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.

Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?

“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.

In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.

“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.

Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.

Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.

I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.

Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.

“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.

I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”

“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”

I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.

I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.

It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.

The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.

Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.

I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.

At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.

Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.

“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.

But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.

Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.

I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.

When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.

I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.

Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.

Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.

The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.

I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth

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When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.

It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.

“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.

“For methamphetamine.”

Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.

“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.

The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.

The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.

When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.

So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”

Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.

I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.

My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.

“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.

I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.

The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.

My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.

“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.

“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”

I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.

“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.

Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.

On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”

The author's pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)
The author’s pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)

In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.

Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.

* * *

When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.

“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”

Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.

Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.

Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”

On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.

“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”

He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.

“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.

spot-1

A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?

As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.

We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.

Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.

The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.

Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.

I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.

spot-2The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.

Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.

He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.

My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.

* * *

Maggie Downs Answers Your Questions: For more on what really happened at the hospital, read a Q&A with the author on Narratively’s Facebook page.

Maggie Downs is a writer, mother, and adventurer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Today.com, and Racked, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.

Cornelia Li is an illustrator based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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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