Luck and Death on the Snowiest Night

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A scared young surgeon in Communist Romania faces the storm of his life when an angry midnight mob demands he save a newborn’s life.

The carriage in front of Eddy Marian rolled out of sight and into a ditch, felled during a risky turn by wind tearing through the forest. Moments later, a dissonant tumult of horses neighing and wood snapping — timed with a second gust stronger than the first — came from behind. A babel of curses in a tongue unfamiliar to Eddy filled the air.

With a yell like sonar, a stout, swarthy man holding the reins next to Eddy shouted to his compatriots. Calling back, they confirmed that their carriages had both overturned. There was no righting them: The snowdrifts might as well have been quicksand. Eddy turned in his seat to check on his charge: a jaundiced ghost of a woman, tied to a jury-rigged stretcher — a wooden ladder with hemp ropes. Her prematurely born child was swaddled in a jury-rigged backwoods incubator made of hot water bottles and old blankets.

The wooden ladder and incubator had been Eddy’s improvisation. Florica Lunga’s fellow Roma villagers had needed some way to carry her the twelve miles through a whited-out forest to the nearest town with horses and carriages to spare. Now two of the three carriages were disabled and the main road was still miles away. That the carriage bearing the patient and her baby remained upright was one of the night’s few small miracles.

The blizzard of 1985 would have probably made history — if anyone actually cared about Bacău County besides its impoverished residents. As a newly-minted medical school graduate who was born, raised and schooled in Bucharest, Romania’s capital, Eddy had arrived in this rural region of Romania just two months earlier. It was unfathomable to the twenty-five-year-old Eddy that most of his Roma countrymen continued to live like their ancestors. The Communist regime had so bungled the country’s agrarian economy that the Roma — a nomadic people more commonly (and derogatorily) know as gypsies — still relied on nineteenth-century technologies.

Hand-drawn plows, wooden carts and horses were used to work the land while Nicolae Ceaușescu, the mad dictator, exported all advanced machinery in order to satisfy his obsession with paying down Romania’s foreign debt. This same crackpot regime had forced a generation of doctors to spend their best years in villages far from friends and family. Forced to live in rural exile, many big-city Romanians looked down their noses at their rustic countrymen, even more so at the Roma living in the culture’s interstice, who were seen as a race of shiftless, yet cunning thieves and murderers.

The entire rescue party was caked with wet, heavy snow. Eddy was lucky to have been distributed a pair of rubber boots by the government a few years back. Although his Roma countrymen were not so lucky, they made do. The importance of keeping mother and child alive was their sufficient source of warmth.

The men who lost their rides to the snowdrifts dedicated their energies to hand-plowing snow from the path of Florica’s carriage while bickering about who to blame for the accident, an argument made worse by the fact that no one was actually at fault. Despite the macho name calling, there was a solidarity among Roma that didn’t exist in big towns. The Communist reset of Romania had deleted most of his countrymen’s compassion for one another. Eddy contemplated his traveling companions in silence, having never been exposed to a culture that was free of the taint of secret police informants that permeated so many interpersonal relationships.

When they finally arrived at the flat, wide plane of stark whiteness that had been a main road only hours before, their collective heart sunk: There was no ambulance waiting to take Florica and her son to safety.

Some in the group insisted on continuing in the sole functional carriage all the way to the hospital in Bacău, the nearest place that deserved to be called a town. Eddy refused: “Odds are that both mother and child will not make it if we go with the carriage, especially if it also rolls.”

Still, he admitted, “If we stay here and no one comes, we might all freeze.”

Abandoning the rescue of a sick woman and her newborn to save their own skin would be an unbearable dishonor to the men. The Roma’s only option was to stay put inside a miserable facsimile of a snow globe.

After an interminable silence, Eddy regretted that he hadn’t trusted the Roma enough to bring his watch.

* * *

In my North American-centric ignorance, I imagined Romania as a place bypassed by history and teeming with mist-draped castles. Eddy, amused by my skewed perceptions of his homeland, would fill the evenings with tales of the real Romania, the communist Romania, the totalitarian cult-of-personality Romania that was the closest thing to Stalin since…well, Stalin. His tales were the highlight of my biennial visits to Greece, and confirmed the wisdom of my cousin’s decision to marry him.

A month before the blizzard, Eddy had been in an auditorium in Bucharest with two dozen other students on a freezing December morning. A bored apparatchik read names aloud. Eddy squirmed in his seat, scarcely able to concentrate on the spectacle of his classmates being summoned to the stage, trudging across the fifteen feet as though wearing boots of clay.

One by one, students stood beside the podium and announced the name of the town where they would spend their medical residency. Most would be sent to a place he or she had only heard of for the first time a few days earlier, selected off a list of medically underserviced rural villages. They would fall behind their non-doctor friends, who were already getting married and navigating the corrupt system to secure an apartment big enough for the children they would eventually be forced to have (Romania had a strict prohibition on abortion and birth control). This was the Romanian definition of a medical residency.

Eddy didn’t do much homework; one shithole was as bad as the next, he figured. When he was called on by the well-fed functionary, he registered a small protest by calling out Bălcescu — one of the dozen nondescript villages named for a long-dead Romanian revolutionary — from his seat. What he didn’t know then is that on the outskirts of Bălcescu existed a Roma settlement, an oddity for a people who don’t typically stay in one place for long.

Eddy had begged his father, a well-known surgeon, to pull strings. The other students’ parents meddled, even though they didn’t have the top-notch marks that Eddy had. He wanted to be a scientist and contribute to the field of medicine. But that would be impossible if he lost precious time in the boonies. He felt worthy of a reprieve. His conniving peers, on the other hand, didn’t deserve to stay home. It wouldn’t be fair, Eddy protested.

His father, a famously stern and severe man, was too proud to ask the Communists for anything, and had his own definition of “fair.” He told his only son: “You are a doctor. You must accept your calling in whatever form. You must get used to practicing in any circumstances — even war.”

* * *

Deflated by a crush of self-pity, Eddy stared beyond the train window at the semi-perpetual grey of a Romanian January. Tomorrow would be the two-month anniversary of his arrival in Bălcescu and time was passing just as he feared back in that cold December auditorium: glacially. There was no one to relate to, and there was a depressing absence of phones. When someone wanted to see the doctor, they would just walk the distance to his door. But in the time he’d been there, no one had come to see him, as the provincial propensity to mistrust outsiders was in full bloom.

Despite the fact that the people of Bălcescu didn’t seem to want his help, he couldn’t help but feel a tug of worry as black clouds like an oil slick rolled towards the train. A sudden dump of of snow started to hide the pristine forests of Transylvania in a blizzard as fearsome as it was unforeseen. His destination, Bucharest, was still hours away. The city he had just left behind would be without a doctor during a freak storm guaranteed to leave disaster in its wake. The loneliness that propelled him on his visit home was no match for his sense of duty and his desire to prove himself. But it was not just altruism that made him disembark at the next stop for the first train heading back to Bălcescu.

Although he resented the Communists for mandating he relocate to the middle of nowhere, the thought of leaving a few thousand people without medical care made him justifiably anxious. If something happened in his absence, he would be accountable, and the Romanian Communists weren’t known for their understanding.

Only a few hours had passed since he left Bălcescu, but the landscape was unrecognizable. A meter of snow had redacted the roads. The flat topography of the valley was now dotted with freshly-fallen drifts as tall as houses. Although he arrived late at night with little notice, a dreary party official waited at Eddy’s home, looking shaken.

The official, Nicolai, informed Eddy that about a dozen men — all Roma — had arrived after his departure, demanding the aid of a village doctor. When Nicolai informed them Eddy had left on a vacation, they erupted in hysterics. The party functionary was shocked by the force and duration of their lamentations. Apparently, when a pregnant Roma experiences convulsions and goes into labor prematurely, you don’t stand in the way of the rescue party.

Eddy began to pack some belongings to accompany his journey with the agitated Roma back to their settlement. Eddy bristled at his assignment. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Bălcescu in the middle of a blizzard, especially when he didn’t seem to have much say in the matter. This wasn’t exactly the kind of heroic aid he’d imagined himself administering back in the modest comfort of the train. The Roma’s staccato knocks at the door cut Eddy’s protest short.

With supplies spilling from a leather case like the ones TV doctors brought on house calls, Eddy walked briskly towards the edge of town in silence with the rescue party. He was at a loss for a way to break the ice with the agitated men and wondered why they had parked so far from his house. The sight of a waiting vehicle was conspicuously absent. Instead, the men led him on foot to the perimeter of the village and into the darkness beyond.

Eddy’s sense of foreboding increased with each step. The Roma threw glares over their shoulders, grumbling about the effect that Eddy’s temporary absence might have on the patient’s odds of survival. Nicolai, in his desperation to deflect the group’s agitation, had neglected to mention that he had approved Eddy’s leave of absence.

Trudging through a snow-steeped forest like a P.O.W., he felt wordlessly compelled forward by the men marching around him: two in front and two behind. He asked them their names, and they each responded with the Romanian equivalent of “John Doe.” His paranoia about Romania’s most infamous underclass, combined with his ignorance of their identities or his destination, resulted in a sinister feeling. Eddy could hardly make out any of the men’s faces in the moonlight. He could never have found his way without them; therefore he couldn’t find a way home if… He hesitated to dwell on reasons for a hasty exit.

In the outlines of the dark, Eddy could make out the occasional house, the sightings becoming more frequent until it was obvious they’d reached some kind of permanent Roma settlement. Sepia peasants walked out of daguerreotype shacks to ogle the visitor; Eddy’s arrival quickly becoming the centerpiece of local gossip — second only to the dying woman to whom he was being escorted, having just given birth to her premature child.

The small mob swelled, and, lacking the fastidious insistence on personal space possessed by city folk, almost floated him to the sick woman’s door. The Roma poured in after him as though the one-room dwelling was their own. The only space left for Eddy was a path to the sickbed, which he traversed with a timid air of bonhomie. The sentiment wasn’t returned.

Two garishly dressed middle-aged women were the first to address him directly. As one ladled hot soup into a bowl, the other took Eddy’s jacket. They bade him sit and removed his shoes. Then the older woman motioned towards his pants and shirt. He looked down. Eddy had felt so out of his element that he failed to notice he was soaked head to toe from the blizzard. Everything except his underwear found a home on a railing near the fireplace.

Diagnosing a patient is stressful for a young doctor, but doing it in your underwear in front of two dozen gawking people looking over your shoulder while offering a constant stream of unsolicited advice is less than ideal. Eddy covered for his nervousness by working fast. “Where is her baby?” he asked the self-identified midwives.

As the nurse unwrapped the child, Eddy’s heart sank. Even with scant obstetrics training, it was obvious that this wasn’t a finished baby. And there was nothing he could do for a preemie, not without an incubator. But, the locals seemed not to understand the danger mother and child were in. From their comments, Eddy began to suspect that they believed his incompetence to be the main cause of Florina’s worsening condition. The young, naïve Eddy, raised on Roma-as-boogeyman myths, believed his fate to be intertwined with that of his patients. Suddenly tense, he simply nodded and took notes on a scrap of paper handed to him as requested, going through the motions of being in control of the situation.

The child could not be saved, not with medicine and not with hope. Florinca’s chances did not seem much better. In the candlelight, her skin had turned the color of old Plexiglass. The distinctive yellow hue also marred the whites of her eyes. She had the frame of a strong woman, and a face weathered beyond her years by her life lived in a medieval parenthetical to the modern world.

The only medicines Eddy had with him had been smuggled out of Bucharest’s central hospital by his father, who knew what technological privation awaited his son in the provinces. Even these meager supplies were rudimentary by the standards of the day and mostly consisted of pain-reducing meds, catheters, and disinfectant. Eddy’s experience was limited to stocked and ostensibly modern hospitals. It was like handing a computer scientist an abacus.

Each passing minute without a diagnosis was like sixty small failures to those in the room. The eyes of the crowd fixated on his every move. Eddy’s mind kept returning to one thing: only one aggressively indifferent Communist party official knew his whereabouts. Suddenly, someone grabbed Eddy’s arm. Florica spasmed wildly on the bed. Eddy was staring into the face of a massive seizure.

* * *

With the sun of the second day rising, two men brusquely entered the house and informed Eddy he was coming with them. A village down the road had a phone and he needed to lend his authority on a call placed to the local hospital. Horses wouldn’t do — they needed airpower to break the blizzard’s siege.

The newborn preserved despite the unblockable cold, but a trip in this weather would kill it. Preemies need constant warmth for their weak lungs and heart to stay functioning. Florica’s condition was perilous as well. A catheter had prevented sepsis, but she would need surgery to remove the gallstone that kept her from urinating.

The village with a phone was a two-hour walk through thigh-high snow. The silent and uneventful trudge gave Eddy his first uninterrupted time to think. He knew the hospital would balk at his request for a rescue helicopter but the Roma wouldn’t rest until all attempts were made, no matter how futile.

The psychic burden of his predicament, mixed with the lack of sleep, was like quaffing a leadership tonic. After the hospital’s operator snickered at Eddy’s request, first for a helicopter, then for something as basic as an ambulance, something snapped in him.

Returning to the settlement with only the flimsy promise that an ambulance would meet them at the main road, far from the Roma settlement, Eddy barked out his orders to those surrounding the struggling mother and child. Hot water bottles would keep the preemie warm for the duration of the trip. Florica would be affixed to a ladder. Horse and carriage would be needed, requiring a small detour to Bălcescu. Then, if there were no mishaps, it would still take sheer determination and a bucket of good fortune to get them to the waiting ambulance before he lost his first patient.

Now that there was a real (albeit slim) chance of saving mother and child, precious time passed all too quickly. The blizzard had let up by the time travel preparations were complete, which was seen as a fortuitous event by the group and buoyed moral. Carrying the makeshift stretcher, the party trudged slowly over level ground, making the journey in two hours of huffing and puffing. As slow-going as getting to Bălcescu was, the real challenge would be getting villagers, who possessed the deep-seated mistrust of Roma inherent to most Romanians, to loan their horses for Eddy’s cause.

The animals belonged to the village as communal property, giving everyone a say. Nicolai took the easy and cowardly position of letting the people decide, abdicating any ability to actually help. The villagers, not known for their high-minded ideals, balked at the idea that the Roma would be in charge of their precious few horses, horses that on a good day these same Roma might try to permanently borrow.

“Enough! You know me, I am your doctor. If the horses don’t come back, I will be responsible,” Eddy shouted, stunning both the villagers and the Roma with the exasperated altruism of his statement.

Those assembled looked at one another. He was their only doctor and now he was pleading for their horses on behalf of Roma. He must care. He must have heart. The gears of opportunism begin to turn in their heads. Perhaps they could benefit from his softness. Maybe they could demand his well-connected family back in Bucharest compensate them if the horses went missing. They nodded their consent.

Hours after the scene in Bălcescu, Eddy arrived at the main road, the last carriage buried beneath the rising snow. The pain medicine was used up. The hot water bottles were finally cooling. The wind carried the sound of soft whimpering across the white abyss. The only sound was that of snowfall. A look passed between the Roma that confirmed the unthinkable: they’d capitulated. They finally were ready to give up on the ambulance and on Florica.

Then, the snow around them began to glow. Headlights. A car.

* * *

Tired, cold, hungry, and feverish, Eddy slumped in the corner of a hospital waiting room in Bacău. The storm precluded travel back to Bălcescu and as soon as he was no longer of use, he became a shadow to the Roma. He was forced to linger with no money and no way home, as rootless as the Roma he had saved. Finally, a doctor who lived close to Bălcescu offered to bring him part way, if he maybe had a carton of cigarettes or some foreign currency? Nothing in Romania was free.

Eddy returned to Bălcescu with no horses or carriages (they would be retrieved after the storm) but with a story that made him a local celebrity and landed him in the local paper, painted by the press as an example of the typical selfless Communist hero. This was to his benefit, as he would be stuck in Bălcescu for ten more months until the Communist party capriciously assigned him to his next post.

Before his departure, the villagers gathered around and bid him farewell, thanking him for doling out aid and never expecting a bribe in return — something uncommon among doctors they had been sent before. It was unlikely Eddy’s replacement would share the same altruism.

Before leaving, Eddy spent his last day in Bălcescu returning to the Roma settlement for his first routine check-up of the boy he’d saved. Eddy found the Roma’s traditional mistrust of outsiders on blunt display. To this day his doesn’t know why they shunned him, unless they assumed the only possible reason for his return was the expectation of compensation. He was forbidden to approach Florica’s home and was told neither of his former patients needed his help. He never saw them again.

It was only through an agent of the Roma — who traveled between communities to trade for supplies — that Eddy heard the baby boy had made it through the first month of life and been granted a paper trail in Romania (the infant mortality rate was so high, birth certificates usually weren’t issued immediately) Even more surprising: Florica had named her child Eddy.

The elation wore off when the middleman, cognizant of Roma superstitions, divulged that the child was likely christened Eddy less out of gratitude for his efforts than in the hope that the name might bring good luck, as it had brought to its original bearer.

* * *

George Tzortzis is a freelance copywriter living in Brooklyn. Check him out at his seldomly updated website: georgetzortzis.org and follow him on twitter at @georgetzortzis.

Grant Reynolds lives in Chicago and his books include Comic Diorama, which was selected for Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2011, and Hypnotic Induction Technique, which was nominated for a 2012 Ignatz award. He’s currently working on the autobio series Don’t Try to Save Me. More at grantreynolds.com and grantreynolds.tumblr.com.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

A Second Super Strange True Love Story: I Was The Other Woman

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When I met my one true love, I was so enamored with him I overlooked the fact that he had left a jilted fiancée behind. I was in way too deep before I realized that I was headed for my own nightmare.

Note: Read the prequel to this story, “My Disappearing Fiancé.”

I was wearing a burning red fur coat I received from a world-famous ballerina. He was wearing a purple, green and yellow-dotted Muppets coat recently salvaged from storage. We had about ten minutes to buy two rings and arrive at our destination. We ducked into various trinket markets with heavy metal merchants, examined rings with snakes and inscriptions in foreign languages before realizing we were late to our own wedding. We ran off to Toronto City Hall, holding hands, ringless. It was the winter of 2011; we had just come back from the Middle East and were on our way to South America. On the second floor of City Hall, in a small room with empty chairs and two dear friends as witnesses, a vampire-like librarian who spoke in deep poetry married us beside a vase of plastic flowers. I was weeping with joy — and I was seven months pregnant.

* * *

In the beginning, it all happened so fast I could barely breathe. After a few intense days of being together, one night, at the back of a tiny basement apartment looking out at a linden tree cracking in the wind, I was told: “I waited my whole life to find you. I want to go with you.” There had been a longing in me since longing was a possibility: to run off with my love into the world, untethered, eyes wide open. And here it was, that longing materialized into a living creature. This man who wanted to go with me. Nomadic freedom without the loneliness of a solo traveller was suddenly a possible reality.

“I want to go with you.”

Everything inside me liquefied. It was so easy to swallow these words, to get lost in them, to let all of my being fall apart and surrender to this one true love, yearned for since inception.

I followed my heart without a second thought. The wind crushed caution, and I smoked it under the hazy night skies. Ideals trumped reason. Living purely, freely; bravely going into vast territories of the heart was all that mattered to me. I was drunk on living.

That there was something broken, someone harmed and left behind, was invisible; collateral damage. I wanted to believe in this one true love so badly that I ignored the inexplicable, as well as my own principles of loyalty to fellow women. The details were murky anyway. When they emerged, they were carefully managed. A broken engagement was revealed. Turned out his fiancée wanted to end it anyway. Turned out the wedding had to be canceled, because it was unaffordable. She was controlling and manipulative. He’d been dead done with her for years. Turned out it would be better for all, especially her, if he didn’t go back to the other side of the world, to end things in person and move his belongings out of their once shared apartment. We had to act on our love now or we would forever live in the dark shadows of regret, unable to breathe.

I met an excellent salesman who sold me a beautifully bound Book of Love. When I opened it, all the pages inside were cheap photocopies of my romantic dreams.

* * *

He moved into my apartment long enough for us to pack up and take off for New York. Our ride-share driver Rami hit a car two minutes after we got on the road.

The fat warning finger of fate, gloriously ignored. Around midnight, we rolled into Manhattan and accompanied Rami to the top of the Empire State Building. It was his first time in the city. My true love and I found a place together on Second Avenue where the walls were pink and we ate nothing but coconut cream doughnuts for days. I saw him and me, holding hands in the reflection of a 1957 Russian Sputnik at the Library of the History of Human Imagination. From that moment we were never apart. Never further than two meters from each other. He came with me to my work meetings. We lived at night and slept in the days. I began to lose friends. “They could never understand our love,” he said. He told me my friends were using me, never cared about me anyway. I believed it all and yet none of it mattered. I had true love.

By the end of that summer I managed to find us two projects that took us to India. He wanted me to see India because for the last eight years it had been his home. Now he needed to close that part of his life, and I was happy to help.

We arrived at night, into the rain. Every once in a while, the rickshaw driver reached out to wipe the liquid light off the surface of the window. There were sleeping bodies everywhere, like trees and stones. As the sun rose, I saw India. I saw her in a glowing old woman with strings of marigolds around her neck, crouching in the middle of utter chaos, observing a white bull pissing in the middle of the road.

But something was not right. I was slowly unable to breathe. On some days, the man I loved oh so much would become stone cold heartless; the words coming at me twisted me, confused me, hurt my lungs. I never knew sentences could be hammers and blades. In these moments, it seemed as if a bomb exploded inside his brain and the eyes were blown out to look into an empty world with a cruel gaze.

One moment still cuts me:

Majnu-ka-tilla, a Tibetan colony in New Delhi. I’m sitting beside a stall selling plastic tennis sets, flip flops and knock-off Adidas pants in dark blue. There’s mud on my feet and I dangle them above a puddle in the shape of fried liver. I’m drinking sweet butter tea and something inside me is trembling. I’ve just been raped by my true love and I don’t know where to put my thoughts. Face down on the narrow bed in the windowless room, hand over my back, still wet from a shower, towel on the floor, the cold, tiled floor and the hot sun scraping the roof above. My tears are silent, his movements, in and out, in and out, are deafening.

But my heart stayed with him, it was not going anywhere. You see, my true love, he never had a real family. He was abused and discarded by his parents. Alone in this world. I felt so much love and compassion for him, I was overwhelmed. That liquid feeling…I wanted to hold him, to be with him, to show him my own family, my eastern brew of unfiltered and unconditional love.

We kept going together.

We rode north on the back of a Yamaha RX-135. Somewhere in rural Punjab, a tire blew. The motorcycle was wrapped in burlap and loaded onto the train, taking us four hours further away. At the end of that road, by the base of the Himalayas, inside a cheap room overlooking a garden of cucumbers, I begin to think of her. The one before me. My thoughts were like prayers and they went like this:

“I live my guilt for the pain we caused you. But oh, you kind, beautiful woman…What gives me joy is knowing you were spared this awful fate.”

An old Tibetan man passed me. He carried a tray of elaborate butter sculptures surrounded by flakes of color and white silk. I followed him through winding alleyways, curious about where he was going and what he might do with his tray when he got there. In the end, he stopped at the edge of a path, spilled the butter sculptures to the ground and walked away.

* * *

November 10, 2010, 7:20 A.M.

From me to him:

In one way or another, pressure is always part of life….You have me, your life partner, who can handle pressure. You can rely on me. We can find a way. I ask you to change your attitude from complaining and rejecting to working together, building and being positive… Negativity comes from fear. Positivity comes from freedom. You are the free-est man I know, my beautiful love. Don’t betray that.”

We had $650 in the bank and I was running out of ideas to keep us afloat.

It took four and a half hours to reach the top of Triund Mountain. The first things we saw atop it were a rainbow, a Danish man named Kettle and two mating dogs stuck to each other, one of them frothing at the mouth. Then came a herd of goats, some of them transporting biological formations of moss and seeds on their coats, standing calmly on scattered stones. They stared quietly at the setting sun as clouds cavorted below in the valley, like cream invisibly whipped by a wizard. A man named Sunhil made chocolate pancakes and I was never so hungry in my life. I was two weeks pregnant. The joy of carrying a life, a little being from places unknown inside my belly, punched all the gloom out of my spine. I stood up straight for my little family.

* * *

Flying from India to the Middle East was like crawling towards the light. I was certain salvation would come from family.

I never imagined my parents would meet my true love for the first time while I was carrying our three-month-old baby in my belly. They moved out of their small apartment and into a shoebox so we could have some privacy and slowly grow as a family. They tried so damn hard. My dad told endless bad jokes and showed us secret nooks inside the earth. My mother quietly loved and observed, breaking the silence with stories of the old world. They were adorable and so kind, their worn hands extended so far towards him they almost fell out of their sockets.

But worry was on the horizon. My true love desired for our baby to come into the world in space, or, in the absence of a spaceship that would take on a pregnant woman, in South America — the closest earthly approximation of the mesosphere. I tried not to imagine how it would be, giving birth in a foreign land, without close friends and family nearby, without a common language spoken. There was no use arguing. I surrendered and trusted. His exuberance had always overjoyed me.

At the end of February 2011 we arrived in South America and saw heavy traces of a million people running around on busses, searching for a lifeline. This period is a blur. I remember sequences. Beautiful people I now feel so close to, they are family. A magenta dress I wore to give birth in, needles in my ears and my feet soaked in flowers. My doula in a stripy shirt and the midwife, her hair like straw, her hand is dry and so steady. I remember the feeling that changed my blood the moment I held my child. The little being, arrived from places unknown like a fearless cosmonaut. I made a promise to him that day: to raise him free to be his own man, to flourish on his own terms without the burden of expectations; light and blithe, trusted and believed in, loving and loved, open to the world. I gave him my word I would always try to understand his heart.

And I remember this, vividly, as if it happened this morning:

I’m in small bathroom, tiled with lifeless beige and coldness. I am on the floor, bleeding heavily. My baby, who came into this world yesterday, after twenty hours of natural birth, is asleep on the other side of the wall. I’m in pain. I’m weeping. I yearn for my true love to come, to get inside the shower with me naked and lift me up and hold me close. He’s nearby. I know he can hear me cry. I remain wet and bloody there, on the beige tiles, for forty minutes, waiting for him. He never comes.

* * *

July 2, 2011, 12:48 P.M.

From me to him:

My love,

We do things for each other all the time. And we depend on each other – by god we do – we are a family, we are in love, we are a unit….I would do anything for you and our son. If you could just understand that when I’m severely tired and saddened by what I perceive as coldness and disconnect from you the only thing that can help me is love. Less talk, no logic, only love. Please don’t leave me alone when I’m in tired and worried and sad. Don’t go tough love on me and talk sense into me. Love me. Eye contact, a tickle, a wrestle, a “love you,” an “I’m grumpy but know I love you and want to be with you,” or even a fart in my general direction.

But I understand I need to depend on our bond less, and be less needy. I will try.

I love you.

* * *

We vagabonded back to the Middle East then, to be close to my parents and partly because we were desperately poor. Although he loved splurging on quality clothes for himself, gadgets and knives, I was yelled at if I ever bought anything for the boy or for me.

On the last day of our five-month stay the bomb exploded inside his brain. The cause was an odd news item that I translated jokingly. I was a clown at the wrong time, at the wrong place.

I remember the dark light of that rainy evening, the red outfit my son was wearing and the tears in his eyes.

I’m running after my true love. His eyes are staring into a cold world. He is a stranger, the ice inside him foreign and frightening. He is holding our little boy. Our little boy, just a year and a half, looks terrified and confused. I’m crying. I’m pleading. I’m silent. It’s cold and getting dark. He wants me to find gas masks, but everything is closing. We keep moving, from buses to trains to foot, searching, paranoid, desperate. I want to scream; it feels so hopeless. I want to tell him there will be no war between now and tomorrow, when we will leave this country. I call my father and ask for help. Hours later he finds us wandering the road by rows of palm trees bending majestically from their yellow fruits. My father shows my true love two gas masks in the trunk of his beat-up car. But it’s not good enough. They’re not new enough. I don’t know. It all ends badly. My father hits him, my father nearly has a heart attack, my son and I are cold and go where he goes, my true love, late into the night, aimless.

A good friend took us into his hut above the valley of minarets. There, my true love forbade my parents to see our son till further notice, possibly never.

* * *

New projects came to life and my work brought us to Canada. I was like a fish, flapping on sand. I tried to accommodate him, I tried to protect my son, to help my parents in their desperate need to see the little boy, bewildered by the possibility of it never happening. I failed. The sand flickered in front of the sun and I closed my eyes.

After another storm of violent words cutting the skin, I finally revealed the worst of it to a close friend. She told me to call the police. I hung up and distanced myself from her. How could I call the police on my true love? On the father of my child?

I went into the no-man land of silence. The united states of confusion.

There are many creative ways to be poor. This time, we moved to an island connected to a medium-size city by a ferry that runs every hour, on the hour. There were apple orchards and bicycle trips and my son feeding three yellow chickens, and a large lawn I had to mow on a tractor. We came here for a year to take care of a home at the edge of the island village. This paradise of a house, belonging to a virtuoso family on sabbatical, was often a prison. Winter came slowly and relentlessly. Ice coated every surface of trees and power lines, and in the wind it sounded like a symphony of crystals.

I’m sitting on the stairs. My son is beside me. My true love is speaking to me, speaking at me, raging for hours now. I say: “Please stop.” I say: “Please have mercy.” It only makes things harder and louder. I say nothing. My child is in my lap. Plumes of snow strike the window. My mind is buzzing with practicalities: If I leave now, he won’t let me take the boy and will wrestle him out of my arms. But I cannot walk away without the boy and leave him alone with this angry man. I stay put. I wait for his storm to be over.

My hips are the sturdiest part of my body. But it is my shoulders carrying all this weight, full of tiny fractures by now. I’ve been the sole breadwinner all along. I have all the responsibility for taking care of this family. I look at my true love and search, so desperately, for a partner. For someone to have my back.

He tells me if I leave him he’ll prove I’m crazy and take our son away from my care. Am I crazy? I’m silent. I feel ill from the stress. I live in fear now.

One morning, broken and hopeless, I set out to speak of the hell I’m living to a friendly neighbor. I make it halfway to his house before turning around in regret, for I believe in true love. My true love. Our true love. I have plenty of love left to give. As much as it takes, in the name of true love.

* * *

February 12, 2014, 8:40 P.M.

From me to him:

“Do you understand how much I love you? Especially when it’s fucked up, is it not clear that all this happens because the love is vast and neverending?”

Three months after this, work took us back to Europe. We found a home in the countryside, sturdy, made of ancient stones, standing next to undulating hills. The doors were painted blue and the hydrangea bloomed into a blinding purple. This is my last memory of us as a family:

I’m sitting in the garden. In the meadow before me a lone horse grazes. I’m weeping again. At 9:36 this morning, June 11, the worst thing happened. My son was grabbed violently by his little arm. He was held hostage as my true love screamed at me from the top of his lungs and called me ugly names. A door slammed into my face and my foot. My baby boy extends his arms to come to me but he’s held back tight. Thirty minutes of hearing that little child sobbing in a way I’ve never heard before, so deeply frightened, and I’m locked out, unable to come to him, useless, hopeless.

As I sit at the edge of the meadow, crying, the horse comes to me and stands close, his large, wet eyes staring into mine. The horse stays there, looking into me, until I calm down. It occurs to me that this animal just gifted me the only compassion I have experienced in a long time.

* * *

Do you want to know how it ends? I got lucky.

While I was working, my true love went away to a weekend wedding in Portugal and came back to tell me he met the new true love of his life. The one he wanted to go with. He was so happy speaking of her, beaming with joy and love. I began to shake. It seemed completely alien to me to be able to throw away a family for a three-day-old acquaintance. “My heart simply took a new direction,” he said proudly, as if singing a beautiful song.

My son ran to me and embraced me tightly. He and I, we have always understood each other’s emotions so truthfully. And here he was, nearly three years old and protective of his mother, when it should have been me being protective of him. I lifted him into my arms, said a quiet goodbye with an “I’ll be in contact shortly,” and walked out. My son in my arms, holding me tight, in the most loving embrace I’ve ever experienced, as we crossed the big river and walked to my friends’ apartment. When I entered their home and understood my new reality, I made a promise to my son to never again be a weak piece of shit.

Strange, erratic emails begin to come. I ignored his whining and demanding to meet and come back to me. His declarations of the light having gone out of his life without me were now transparent for their emptiness.

My true love. I thought he loved me so much, as I loved him. But it was his own reflection he loved in me. When the reflection became unflattering, I was of no use any more.

The man I loved was fiction.

* * *

Over the next year, life cross-faded into surreal tragicomedy. My true love moved in with his new true love after days of knowing her and expected to pay for his new life from our limited family budget. My true love spoke to me in cold, heartless legalese; ignored my extended peace branches and acts of forgiveness. My true love went to Canada and as his final act, asked to take things. Take it all, I told him, I don’t care. Just leave the boy, be in peace.

People who truly knew him and spent months and years with him suddenly came forward and exposed the lies about his parents, about his past and his true self. My true love sued me for half of my future earnings and charged me with kidnapping our son from his home, which was variably stated to be a gym, a non-existent address, and finally an apartment he shares with his new partner. My true love sent the police my way to interrogate me for illegally keeping my son. I was ordered to face a judge, then another, and upturn the life of a little boy who had just begun to speak in a brand new language, after being mute for five months. My true love told anyone who would listen that I’m crazy and manipulative. That he had been dead done with me for years.

* * *

June 29, 2014, 12:48 P.M.

From me to her:

Dear Annalisa,

Forgive me for writing to you. I’ve been meaning to for many years. The first time I wanted to write to you was in the winter of 2010, when I realized I was with a monster and all my sense of guilt over what happened between the two of you turned into a kind of relief that at least you were saved from a life of hell with him and are now free of him. But I was pregnant with his child and intent on raising this baby with a father. How wrong I was.

He lied to me when we met and he convinced me that our love was a once-in-a-lifetime love that must be heeded to at all costs. I was naive and misguided. All along, for the four years I’ve been with him, I questioned why he didn’t end things with you properly and why he treated you so callously, so cowardly. I forced him to write to you, I gave him money to pay you back. I do not understand how I was able to stay with him and love him, seeing how he treated you. I was duped. But I take my part in the responsibility and I have now gotten my karmic retribution I so well deserved.

Two weeks ago he informed me that he cheated on me and is now in love with another woman. She is his true love now, just like it was with me when we met.

I am so devastated I can barely breathe. I haven’t eaten in days. But at the same time I’m relieved the nightmare is over. I have a hard battle before me. I fear he will manipulate me and use our son to avenge me. I am terrified of him. I pray for a swift divorce and hope that this new woman holds onto him. At the same time, I wonder if she is being duped as I was, and if the fate awaiting her is as grim.

Forgive me for contacting you – I have no right. But I wanted to tell you how much I thought of you over the years, how bad I felt for what he did to you. From the little bit I understood about you I feel that you are an amazing person and all I can say is I am grateful that you were spared a marriage with this man. Perhaps one day we can meet and have a cry face to face and confront everything we have been through.

I wish you nothing but love and peace and once again, accept my sincere sorrow for everything.

* * *

June 29, 2014, 1:01 P.M.

From her to me:

I didn’t even have to read all of your letter. I am so, so sorry. I really hoped [he] had changed—for you, and (my goodness) for his son. I know exactly how you feel, it’s utterly devastating. But, believe me when I tell you it won’t be long before you see it is a blessing.

Please call me if you want to talk. I should have trusted my instinct long ago and warned you about this. I questioned whether it was the right thing to do and gave myself the wrong answer.

Following this exchange, Annalisa and I spoke often. Sometimes I would sit under a dying pine tree, desperate to get a phone signal, drowning in fear and sorrow, finding a lifeline in her words. She gave me comfort and hope and made me laugh when I was terrified and destroyed by his actions, unable to recognize the man I once loved.

I did experience true love. Not in the way I thought I would, not as written in that simulacrum of a Book of Love I bought, overpriced. But in a way that came to be much deeper and truer.

True love is in the letter M when my son calls, oh so sweetly, for his maman.

True love is there in the palms of his hands, holding onto mine, as we walk through fields, and forests, and parking lots, and vast spaces together.

True love is there in the heartbeats of my parents, who dropped all to come and stand beside their daughter and never let her dissolve into the pain of betrayal, pushing away the relentless tank plowing into my soul.

True love is in the laughter and joy of my beautiful family, who kept me going with their very being.

True love is in the acts of dear friends, former strangers, neighbors and proprietors who showed me what love and loyalty is, what someone having my back feels like.

True love is in the kindness of the former fiancée, the invisible collateral damage, a sister I betrayed, who chose to join in and hold up the skies from falling down on me. More than ever, I believe in true love.

* * *

Author’s Note: My estranged husband has vehemently denied any acts of neglect, abuse or violence towards me and towards our son. As of last Friday, his various charges against me were dismissed and I’ve been granted full custody of our son. The name used here is a pseudonym. I would have liked to tell you my story in my real name. I hate secrecy and I’m forever done with all that is opaque and cowering. But there’s an innocent little guy I need to protect.

* * *

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A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes, but he lives in India.”

“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”

“Yes.”

“In Italy.”

“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

And it was all we needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”

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

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

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

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

He was ready.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was disgusted by my own thoughts.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Something was wrong.

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

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

I was paralyzed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swear I heard my heart break.

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

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

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

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

He was moving in with her.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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

My Roommate the Prostitute

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At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

* * *

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” will be out in March from Graywolf Press. Follow him @shdeen.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog Fox, he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.