Mr. Ince and the Hope of Being Needed

A year and a half with a tireless Turkish day laborer in Berlin shatters the stereotype of the freeloader in Europe’s pivotal immigration debate.

In the middle of the night, when the devices are dark, his antique alarm clock reminds him that his time has come. It sounds like hammering, monotonous like the melody of his days. Dursun Ince rolls out of bed and slips into blue overalls and a blue knitted sweater, then pulls a blue knitted hat over his head, giving him the look of a deckhand on the high seas. He ties his boots, caked with dust from the last construction site, and reaches for his gloves, branded “Work-On” and manufactured in China. He is available now, ready to work anywhere, perhaps including the land of his gloves.

In the night, when the days of wage begin, the center of his world shifts from Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood to Neukölln, into the room where the decision whether he is needed is made. Luck decides, and it can be cold, turning days possessing the prospect of wage into days of waiting, lost days. The hope of being needed moves men like him to travel across the city at night, not knowing what awaits them in the decision room. They want to belong when the others wake up and take their place in the working world. They are looking for gaps in this world and want to fill them, for a day, a few hours, a few bills.

Ince is a prototype of the modern day laborer in Germany, a man who defines his relationship to work on his own terms. The day laborers of this era are different from those who stood in the streets of Berlin during the Great Depression and hung signs from their necks, begging for “work of any kind.” These men aren’t hollow-eyed figures driven by fear. They don’t have to work every day and take any job. They don’t suffer from the shortage of their money but the poorness of their days.

Following Ince for a year and a half, a picture emerges of a man who has arranged himself in the frailty of now. The hole in his life is the paucity of work, the absence of a task. He breaks the cliché of the indolent recipient of unemployment benefits. He doesn’t wait for work; he follows it. But only to a certain point. It’s the day laborer’s syndrome. He struggles with commitment. He wants to belong, but doesn’t try to repair the rupture in his relationship with the working world. He targets the gap.

Ince quietly closes the door to his apartment and leaves his wife and four children behind. At 3:59, he catches the day’s first subway. He mustn’t miss it if he wants to reach the decision room in time. At 4:30, the jobs are passed out, not a minute later.

Dursun Ince reading a newspaper on the subway on his way to work.
Dursun Ince reading a newspaper on the subway on his way to work.

He has started and left many jobs, following the classic trajectory of day laborers. It’s difficult to write this life down on a sheet of paper and submit it for a job application. Ince’s name rings of an immigrant background, but it’s just a Turkish cipher for a German story. They never quite came together, Ince and the working world. He has that in common with German day laborers. They are strangers in their own country.

The room where the decisions are made lies at the end of Sonnenallee, or Sun Alley, a part of Neukölln that looks like a supersized toy land. On his way there, Ince passes a video arcade named Oasis of Luck, a pub called Coma, and Germany’s largest hotel, moored like a cruise ship on the banks of a canal. Between the Sun Curry sausage stand and the Filthy Rich garden colony, he stops in front of a large, dark cube of a building, on its façade the white shining letters of the word that attracts him: WORK.

The Job Agency Berlin-South is the day laborers’ Kaaba. They pilgrim from all corners of the city to the black cube and gather in front of the rear entrance. They don’t line up; there’s no need to position themselves. Luck decides. They assume the day laborer’s posture, standing at the ready and waiting.

Ince getting breakfast before heading to work.
Ince getting breakfast before heading to work.

The building where they are looking for work has the architecture of the agency that is supposed to find it for them: massive, labyrinthine, with endless corridors where one gets lost. During the early hours of the day, only three windows on the ground floor are illuminated. Behind one of them sits Thomas Schröder. He is the man who guides the day laborers to the gaps in the working world.

At half past three, when Ince left his apartment, Schröder was activating the systems in his office. He switched on his computer, the radio, and the coffee machine. Then he sat down at his desk, listened to the messages in his voicemail, and read e-mails. The gaps in the working world often open up outside Schröder’s working hours: When someone is needed to tear down a wall at a construction site, a moving company wants someone to carry the washing machine, or a slaughterhouse is looking for someone to wipe the blades clean.

On this morning, Schröder has an exceptional offer. A construction company is looking for two workers to tear out needle-felt carpeting in an office building. It’s paying ten euros per hour, for three days — a day laborer’s dream. The company describes the job as “work in an unfavorable posture.” Schröder has an inkling of what awaits the men. “At some point, they won’t be able to get up anymore,” he says. “They’ll have to be rolled out with the carpeting.”

The company has two special requests. It asks Schröder not only to look for men with the “ability to cope with a heavy workload” but also those who have a “tidy appearance.” Schröder highlights the requests with a yellow marker, then walks over to the door that separates him from the men waiting outside in the darkness. “Alright,” Schröder says, rattling his key chain. “Time to feed the predators!”

The men stub out their cigarettes and walk into the light. The decision room is a rectangle with seven rows of the kind of light-blue bucket seats that can be found in job centers all over Germany, the corporate design of the reformed welfare state. The men all look in the same direction — at the hatch in the wall.

Schröder is sitting on the other side. When he has news for the men, he opens the hatch and briefly shows his face. There is a small box in front of the hatch, and as the men file past, they drop cards with their names in it. They take a seat and wait for the moment of decision.

The moment arrives every morning at half past four, when Schröder appears in the hole. He grabs the box, takes out the cards, and shuffles them. The men fall silent and stare at Schröder’s hands; some rise from their seat. Schröder shuffles the cards once more, then places them side-by-side, like a solitaire player. He will pass the jobs out in this order — if he has any.

Schröder announces the list, and the men who hear their name last take their card and leave. He hasn’t said how many jobs he can offer, but the men know that there are rarely more than two or three. There are seventeen cards laid out in front of Schröder.

He looks at the cards for a moment, then invites the men of tidy appearance who seem capable of handling a heavy workload into his office. He has to be careful now. He will overrule the luck of the draw, and the men are sensitive about that, particularly those of untidy appearance. Mr. Zimmermann, the first man Schröder approaches, refuses to tear out any needle-felt carpeting. He says he’s done it before, and that his back hurt so badly afterwards that he couldn’t walk upright for several days.

The next candidate says it’s too much money. The pay for this job would push him past the limit of 100 euros that day laborers are allowed to earn in addition to their unemployment benefits of 404 euros per month. If they earn more than that, the Labor Agency deducts a large portion of their wage from their benefits. They get to keep 20 cents of every euro they make beyond the 100-euro limit. If their wage exceeds 1,000 euros, they are allowed to keep only ten cents of every euro beyond that. That is the balancing act facing the welfare state: Not to forbid the unemployed to work, while protecting the state against exploitation. It’s difficult to convert fairness into a formula.

Schröder can’t change the system; he can only try to facilitate it. He knows that many of the day laborers are impatient, short-sighted when it comes to handling money, and he tries to utilize that. “I’m sure you’d rather have the money in cash at the end of the day than wait until the end of the month,” he says.

“But I don’t,” the man responds.

“Well,” Schröder says, “that’s the problem.”

The other man’s problem is Ince’s opportunity. He’s the third man on Schröder’s list. He listens to the offer, and the two look at each other in silence. “Well?” Schröder asks after a while. Ince doesn’t understand the question. He looks at Schröder as if he wanted to ask: “Did I get up in the middle of the night to turn down work?”

Dursun Ince, job offer 2071, now has work for three days.

In Schröder’s file is an incomplete list of Ince’s path through the working world: mechanic, packer, salesman, kitchen help, warehouse keeper, truck driver, processor at a plastics plant. Remover of needle-felt carpeting fits well into the list.

Like a personal advisor, Schröder now handles the details. He copies Ince’s income tax form and health insurance ID, then staples them to the “Certificate of Additional Earnings According to Paragraph 313, Third Book, SGB II.” He then copies a section of a Berlin city map, marks the spot where work is awaiting Ince, and explains which subway he should take. If the Third Book of SGB II demanded it, Schröder would prepare him a sandwich, too. It’s the attraction of the day laborer’s life. The men don’t have to read job listings, or write applications. They just have to show up in the decision room and get lucky.

Ince at the Job Agency Berlin-South, where he looks for unskilled labor work.
Ince at the Job Agency Berlin-South, where he looks for unskilled labor work.

The other needle-felt carpeting remover who will be working with Ince is Thomas Menzel. He’s here for the first time, and an hour later he leaves with an address and the promise of three days of work. He doesn’t look as if he considers himself lucky.

* * *

At half past six, Ince and Menzel meet at a subway station near the construction site. They walk into a former factory building with gleaming white satellite dishes on its roof that is now the home of Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. Bernd Buchwalder is waiting for them in the lobby. He’s the man who wants them to tear out the carpeting. They sign in at the front desk and clip visitor IDs to their overalls. “We have to behave in a very restrained way here,” Buchwalder says, almost whispering. “Keep out of the way. Stay clean. Every little misstep will immediately be reported to management.”

Room 125 is 1,096 square feet in size and covered with the foundation of German office culture: gray needle-felt carpeting. Ince and Menzel take box cutters and get down on their knees. They slit the carpet, then take a hammer and ram a chisel between carpet and floor, trying to get a grip. They pull on the carpet, but it keeps slipping out of their hands. They use pliers, but the carpet seems to be inseparably glued to the concrete floor. “Old Swede!” Menzel shouts, using a German expression of surprise. He drops his pliers, throws his head back, and walks in a circle. “The others knew why they didn’t want this.”

On this day, Ince found work at the television station Deutsche Welle, where he and a colleague tear out carpet.
On this day, Ince found work at the television station Deutsche Welle, where he and a colleague tear out carpet.

Ince says nothing.

They get back on their knees and pull the carpet in slow motion, inch by inch, as if skinning an animal. They cling to the carpet, tug at it, their faces aglow. They get up and prop themselves against the resistance, standing lopsidedly in their boots. And then the carpet rips, and they topple over as if they were shot.

Ince is better equipped than Menzel; he has work gloves and a handkerchief that he uses to wipe sweat from his forehead. Menzel has bare hands and a flammable temper. When Ince sees Menzel’s face turn red and hears him snorting with anger, he passes him his bottle of water and says, softly, “Take a break.”

There is a constructional fault in the world of day laborers. They do the hardest, dirtiest work, but the most capable men never enter this world. Most day laborers are over 40, many over 50, some over 60. The younger ones, Schröder says, aren’t willing to get up at three in the morning. “That’s when they’re usually getting home.” It’s the luck of the older ones, but they pay a price. They enter the decision room every morning a little more tired. Schröder can see it in the way they walk. He hears it in their voices. “Some of them,” he says, “are somewhat spent.”

Ince takes a rest.
Ince takes a rest.

The carpeting in room 125 is like a stage where Ince and Menzel are performing a chamber play about the brave new working world. Long before the two men were toiling here, workers of the General Electricity Company bolted locomotives together in these halls. The strands of different eras of labor are coming together in room 125. It’s a fitting place for a story about modern day laborers. They are kneeling on the floor of the newsroom of a broadcast called “Germany Today.”

During their breakfast break, while drying, Ince and Menzel gauge each other’s background. Ince was born 45 years ago near Erzincan, in northeastern Turkey. “I’m from Anatolia,” he says. It sounds like an apology, a self-conscious allusion to his humble beginnings. Menzel was born 39 years ago in Berlin. “I’m from Neukölln,” he says. It sounds like a reproach, a resentment at being from a neighborhood with a large Turkish community. He looks at Ince for a moment. “I don’t have anything against foreigners,” he says, “but they toss their garbage out the window.” Ince sips his tea and says nothing.

On the carpet, in their struggle with German craftsmanship, they complement each other well, the quiet Turk and the angry German. It helps that Menzel saw Ince throw his sandwich bag in the garbage bin.

When Buchwalder tells them to take their lunch break, Menzel rushes out the door. Ince walks aimlessly down the street and stops between two diners, one Turkish, the other German. He peeks through the windows, hesitates, then enters the Turkish place. He orders kebab and sits down at a table in the back, surrounded by slot machines and a mural of a mosque, placing himself somewhere between Berlin and Anatolia.

There’s a distant look in Ince’s eyes when he remembers his childhood, the years when he herded sheep with his father in the mountains of Anatolia. He misses the sweeping fields, their silence. But the land of his dreams is Schleswig-Holstein, a pastoral state in the north of Germany. Ince was fourteen when his father moved the family to Germany, the country of work. They ended up in Talkau, a village outside of Hamburg where the father found work on a farm. He was the servant for all tasks.

One day, the owner of the estate dropped dead in his boots, and Ince’s family moved on. Sometimes the widow writes him letters, asking if he would like to come back. Ince would go in a heartbeat, but his wife is against it. She fears the loneliness of the countryside, and he doesn’t object. He’s not good at arguing.

* * *

When the first lights of the morning traffic move past the windows, those who remain behind in the decision room begin their rituals of keeping themselves busy. They sit in the bucket seats and debate whether to emigrate to Norway. They wonder what’s written in the Qur’an. They hear the sound of the heels of women walking down the hallway, and imagine how their hips are swaying. They call each other’s cell phones and dance to the ringtones. The jobs are gone, but they hope that more offers will come in. It rarely happens, and they know it.

One of the men never sits down. He shuffles around the room as if walking in his sleep and examines the door hinges, the light switches, the sockets, the radiator valves. He jolts everything, looking for something that might be in need of repair. In moments like this, the room seems to have a therapeutic effect.

In room 125, Ince places his hands on his stomach. The kebab is giving him trouble; sweat runs down his neck. He’s exhausted, but he doesn’t allow himself to pause. He pulls on the carpet as if fighting his own name. When asked the meaning of Dursun, he smiles and says, “Let it be.”

Ince is a man of obtuse contours; his roundish body reflects his elusive nature. He moves in an inconspicuous manner, modest in appearance and always hesitating, determined only not to commit.

* * *

The following morning, as Ince enters the lobby of Deutsche Welle and signs in at the front desk, Menzel’s name is already on the list. In the column titled “Company,” Menzel wrote “Job Center.” Ince writes down the name of Buchwalder’s company. He wants to belong.

Ince helps a colleague while working at the television station.
Ince helps a colleague while working at the television station.

They are better equipped today. Menzel is wearing work gloves, construction boots, and a clean white T-shirt. Buchwalder has organized claw grips to keep the carpet from slipping through their hands, but yesterday’s struggle has taken a toll on their bodies. Their movements are slower, stiffer. After half an hour, Menzel looks around, leans toward Ince, and asks, “Shall we take a break?”

“Go ahead,” Ince says, and continues working.

Menzel looks at him as if he’d like to spit in his face. He tears at the carpet as if in a fight he must win within seconds. Ince takes a calmer approach. His rhythm is steady, and he never complains.

Menzel becomes quiet, lurking. Sometime after breakfast, he puts on his jacket, walks toward the door, and says, “I’ll be back soon.” It takes Ince a while to realize that Menzel has deserted him. He worries about him, but keeps working as though nothing happened. Buchwalder is impressed. He watches how Ince makes the carpet disappear, quietly and without anger. At the end of the day, he kneels next to him and says, “We have to talk about your future.”

Ince looks at him as if the word frightens him: future. It sounds like something that could be too big for him, endless felt carpeting. “You’ve demonstrated your stamina,” Buchwalder says. “Could you imagine working for me permanently?”

Before going home, Ince has a beer after a hard day’s work. (His wife doesn’t let him drink alcohol at home.)
Before going home, Ince has a beer after a hard day’s work. (His wife doesn’t let him drink alcohol at home.)

Ince looks at his shoes and says nothing. Then he does what he often does when he has to make a decision. He retreats to a space between yes and no, and says, “Oh, well.”

Buchwalder tries to give him an opening, and asks what he did before his life as a day laborer. Ince tells him that he started an apprenticeship as a mechanic at Mercedes-Benz, but didn’t finish it. Buchwalder nods and waits. He still hopes to get an answer to his first question, but Ince just stands there in silence.

Buchwalder gives up and hands him a 100-euro bill, the pay for the day.

* * *

Day laborers live in a contradiction. They make themselves available, but want to be in control of their availability. They want to belong to the working population, but don’t want to give up their noncommittal lifestyle — the freedom to decide each morning whether to work or not, to accept one job and reject another. They struggle, but they don’t feel forced to break with their way of life.

Most of the day laborers disappear from the decision room when they reach the 100-euro limit. They withdraw to their apartments and wait for the end of the month, when they become recipients again. A few, however, continue to work. They need money right away, or can’t bear the loneliness at home.

Unemployment has been Schröder’s work since 1982, back when the Labor Agency was called a “federal institution.” His job title combines the stuffiness of the old times with the sound of the new: Technical Assistant for Job Allocation in the Job Center. The newspeak of the agency is more than a shell. It reflects the decoupling of work from profession — the end of a position as a permanent place. Work, which the German Duden dictionary defines as “bodily or mental activity,” has become a job, an “opportunity to earn money.”

Schröder sits in his office as if in the antechamber to the new working world. The Labor Agency is leasing him out to the local Job Center. Since the time the government stopped distinguishing between the unemployed and welfare recipients, Schröder has been helping out at the Job Center, which some of his colleagues consider the reservoir for the hopeless cases. It has changed Schröder’s perspective, his sense of what is possible. “I’m satisfied,” he says, “when I go home at noon and can say, ‘Today I made one person happy.’”

On the morning of the third day, Menzel shows up at Deutsche Welle. He wants his wage. With the meticulousness of an accountant, he lays out to Buchwalder that he worked for three and a half hours before disappearing. The fact that he took the job from another day laborer and then deserted Ince doesn’t figure into his accounting. Buchwalder doesn’t want to argue. He hands him 35 euros and asks why he left. “Because it’s a shitty job,” Menzel says. He then mimics Buchwalder’s body language, walks to the door, turns to Ince, and says, “Have a nice day.”

Ince says nothing. He has a new partner on the floor. Working next to him is Norbert Linke, 39 years old, carefully chosen by Schröder as the reliable opposite to Menzel.

The boss checks Ince and his colleague’s progress.
The boss checks Ince and his colleague’s progress.

At a quarter to ten, Buchwalder approaches, and Ince and Linke look at him knowingly. They’re kneeling on a shrinking island of carpeting. “I’ve got nothing more here,” Buchwalder says. He pays them an extra hour, and asks Ince for his phone number. He’s not interested in Linke’s.

Ince has a defeated look on his face. He saw the carpeting disappear from underneath him, but he thought the work would somehow go on, at least until the end of the day. He and Linke rip the last bit of carpet off the floor, then take the elevator down to the front desk and return their visitor’s passes — two guest workers in Germany.

Linke walks to a supermarket to claim the deposit for the empty bottles he collected in the last few minutes at the construction site. They’re worth one euro and twenty-five cents. It’s his bonus, the value of seven minutes and thirty seconds of work in an “unfavorable posture.” Ince goes straight home. There, he sits in front of a cabinet where the pictures of his life are on display and watches television with his kids. “When I take a break,” he says, “I feel like something’s missing.”

Ince believes that the German welfare state takes good care of him. The state gives him money for a life without work, for rent, the children, the electricity bill. He doesn’t understand how some families can’t make ends meet with this amount of money. “It works,” he says.

There was a time when Ince would have liked to become a German. A few years ago, he applied for citizenship, but he didn’t have the patience for the process. He drifted through the halls of bureaucracy the way he moves through the working world. At some point, he let go.

Once, he thought about leaving Germany. He read an ad in the newspaper that a company in Canada was looking for lumberjacks. He liked the idea of working in the silence of the forest. He called, but in the end didn’t go. He’s caught in an eternal state of “Oh, well.”

* * *

In his office in Sun Alley, Schröder picks up the phone and calls a few companies that regularly request day laborers. He asks about their experiences with the men he sent them, their needs. “They want to be stroked, too,” Schröder says. After that, he calls companies he thinks might be interested in his men. Some are surprised that there’s still such a thing as day laborers. Others see it as an opportunity for exploitation. They offer to pay three euros an hour. “They think these men are the bottom of the barrel,” Schröder says. Sometimes he sounds like the day laborers’ advocate.

For Ince, work was always something to be followed, from Anatolia to Schleswig-Holstein, from Kreuzberg to Neukölln. The thought that work might be waiting for him is foreign to him.

Ince is a man for all seasons. In the summer, he works two weeks for a construction company. He tears down walls and pushes the rubble in a wheelbarrow to a container, reliably and quietly. But on the third day, he makes a mistake. One of the container’s flaps loosens and hits his thigh. He keeps working, afraid of losing the job. But soon, he can’t walk anymore. Ince excuses himself and goes to the hospital.

It takes a week until he can move his leg again, and he decides not to do construction work anymore. He’s afraid he won’t be so lucky in the next accident. He remembers the day he saw a day laborer touch a high-voltage cable, and how it almost killed him.

In the fall, Ince changes course. He commits to something. He takes a part-time job as a cleaner of traffic signs, pulling off stickers, removing graffiti. He works twelve and a half hours a week and gets paid four hundred euros a month.

In the winter, he broadens his portfolio. He starts working for the fast-response unit of Berlin’s Sanitation Department. He rakes leaves, shovels snow and scatters salt whenever bad weather opens up gaps in the work force. He hopes for a long, hard winter.

Ince feels that his body is a dwindling resource, and he starts to think like an entrepreneur. He diversifies. He wants to obtain a license to operate a forklift, and gain access to the distribution centers of a globalized world. He sees it as a way out of the world of needle-felt carpeting. “I’ll ruin my back if I keep doing this,” he says, protectively placing his hands on the lower end of it.

Ince is beginning to feel trapped in the cycle of the day laborer’s life, in the confines of the city, and one morning he breaks out. After a night when he went back to working at a construction site, he takes his pay and buys a ticket to Schleswig-Holstein. He gets on a train and travels into his past, to the farm where his father once worked. The letters from the lonely widow stirred something up in Ince. He wants to work for her, but he arrives too late. She has already found other men.

He goes missing for a day, submerged in the dream of his life. Late at night, he returns to Berlin, disillusioned, lost in the city, a farmer without land.

After that night, Ince’s life appears to be falling apart. He loses weight, eats little, and no longer drinks beer. His doctor is concerned about the state of his liver. He hasn’t seen Schröder in a long time. He’s tired of getting up in the middle of the night and counting on the luck of the draw.

Ince and his family at home.
Ince and his family at home.

Most days, Ince sits in his living room as if someone had lost him there. There isn’t much left in the room. A sofa, a table, a television, and him. The cabinet where he kept the pictures of his life is gone. “My wife threw it out,” he says, looking at the bare wall. She was tired of it, and hacked it to pieces. His wife is still with him, but he sits there as if posing for a picture of the emptiness in his life.

He’s torn the paper off the walls and ripped the carpet off the floor, becoming his own day laborer. In the hallway, he laid out a new laminated floor, but he had to rip it out again. He forgot to ask the landlord for permission. The television is his fireplace. On the coffee table in front of him is a Watchtower pamphlet from Jehovah’s Witnesses titled “Christian Rebirth: The Path to Salvation?” It’s curious reading for an Alawite.

Ince becomes harder to reach. He’s often withdrawn, but he feels like everyone else is keeping a distance. The widow has stopped writing, and the last letter he sent her was returned as undeliverable. He thinks she’s dead. Schröder’s gone, too. One morning, as Ince enters the decision room, another man is shuffling the cards. But it’s a waste of time; he has no jobs.

Everything’s changing in the room — the faces, the atmosphere, the expectations. Schröder isn’t gone; he was just on vacation. He sits behind the hatch like a tourist, tanned and relaxed, and bows over charts with numbers for the past few months. In good months, he used to be able to offer more than two hundred jobs. Now it’s barely over a hundred. The day laborers’ lottery is turning into an endless loop of disappointment.

To ease the tension, Schröder and the day laborers are negotiating a coffee agreement. The men say they can no longer afford to buy their own coffee at the gas station across the street. After some back and forth, they reach an agreement with Schröder that they will buy the coffee and he will brew it for them. It helps Schröder bridge the awkward silence after another disappointing draw. He then quickly asks, “Coffee anyone?”

The group of men waiting in front of Schröder’s door has gotten smaller. Mr. Bogen, a shipbuilder, is still there, sitting by the window and reading a book titled “Renewable Energy.” Mr. Müßig, whose name means “leisurely,” is still eager to work. Menzel, the man who abandoned Ince, still walks away from construction sites when he gets tired. Linke, the man who replaced him, and Mr. Zimmermann, who refused to tear out felt carpeting, have disappeared. So has the man who never sat down.

Three new candidates are sitting in the front row, but they seem out of place. They have the smooth faces of boys. The two Turks and the Lebanese impress Schröder because with their precision-clipped hair and low-hanging pants, they look like they’d rather be someplace else at four in the morning. But they are here. They don’t turn down any jobs, and they don’t disappear from construction sites. They keep playing a German rap song on their cell phones that echoes the soundtrack of their days.

Get up, get out

Just do it

Today’s your day

Just move your ass.

Ince doesn’t return to the room. He’s his own job broker now. Sometimes he helps the fruit vendor in the street in front of his building, sometimes he works for the neighbor’s cleaning company and picks garbage out of parks. He earns some money, but he misses the feeling of being needed, of belonging for more than a few hours.

One night, Ince is standing in a women’s bathroom and tears down a wall. He’s swinging a sledgehammer, and with every blow, he vanishes deeper into a cloud of white dust. The call came unexpectedly. Buchwalder needed him, and Ince came right away. He’s filling one wheelbarrow after another with rubble, then pushes them down a hallway lined with work schedules and union pamphlets about broken wage agreements. Ince doesn’t notice. He’s wearing safety glasses, a dust mask, and earplugs, looking like a creature from another world.

At one point during the night, Ince is standing outside in the cold, shivering in a sweat-soaked undershirt. His eyes are bloodshot. “I don’t think I’ll make it to the morning,” he says. He sips espresso from a plastic cup, the fifth of the night, then hears one of the workers call, “Where’s my Turkish sidekick?” He goes back into the women’s bathroom.

Ince prepares tea for his family.
Ince prepares tea for his family.

The next morning, he drags bags of garbage to a container in the courtyard, then sweeps around it, not leaving a trace. His head is covered with dust, making his hair look like it turned gray overnight. He takes his pay and walks down the street the same way he came. He turns around and briefly walks backwards, as if rewinding his day. Feeling hungry, he sits down in a bakery and eats a piece of cake, then walks down the stairs to the subway. Halfway down, he stops and watches the people streaming past him, heading the other way. “They’re going to work,” Ince says, “and I’m going home.” He looks as if that made him uncomfortable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

How It Feels to Be the Biggest Woman at a Clothing Swap

Great, actually.

My bedroom is completely ransacked – clothes are thrown everywhere, purses piled high on my bed. I’m frantically throwing nearly all of my clothes into large plastic bags. Some are still wrapped in the plastic they came in, hanging from metal hangers, as if embalmed and exempt from the passing of time. First to go are the tight designer t-shirts, then the dresses – so many dresses. The black satin cocktail number that once made me feel sexy, but that I could never zip up now. The turquoise one with animal print from Century 21 and the red flowered dress that knocked everyone’s socks off at the company party ten years ago. I used to be so audacious with my wardrobe. Now, I want fewer eyes on me.

I planned on walking, but the load becomes more than I can carry. Instead, I throw the clothes in my car and take off, headed for my first ever clothing swap – where women get together to trade things they no longer want. I’ve been invited by my new friend Sarah to participate in this feminine ritual. This is more than the usual spring cleaning for me; I need to get rid of these painful reminders of the woman I outgrew, literally and figuratively. I no longer want to feel body-shamed by my closet, which is stuffed with clothes that are literally six sizes too small, some that have hung there, unworn, for over a decade while I tried to convince myself I could be someone else.

As I schlep my bags of clothes up to Sarah’s pre-war walk-up, I start to worry that, as a size 12, I’ll be the biggest woman there and nobody will want my offerings. But there’s no turning back now.

* * *

My obsession with fashion started when I was a teenager, when adolescence brought with it a horizontal growth spurt. I didn’t object to my new breasts and butt, but the rapid increase in my thighs and belly made me want to buy every piece of fabric ever made just to cover them up. I was convinced that buying the tightest jeans possible could stymie my out-of-control thighs and shrink them back to their original size. If my clothes were cool enough, stylish enough, expensive enough, everyone would just focus on them and not the fact that I had blown up underneath them.

At 16, the author playing dress up at a friends’ house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photos courtesy the author)

By the time I was 14, I was a size 12, and no fashionable clothing could hide the discomfort I felt. It wasn’t enough to have nice clothes, I still wanted to be thin like the other girls. To be what I thought was normal. Through my teens and 20s, I tried every trend: cleanses, the lemonade diet, the cabbage soup diet, no carbs, low carbs. I tried taking diet pills, Dexatrim every morning with endless glasses of water, but it only gave me headaches and constant trips to the bathroom. Nothing worked.

Finally, I spent one full year when I was in my thirties eating pre-portioned frozen food out of a box and getting up every day at 5:30 in the morning to work out. It worked. I dropped to a size six; in certain styles I was even a four.

I had always hated dressing rooms – the bright lights zooming in on my imperfections, the dread of nothing fitting right. But then, the first time I went shopping after the weight loss was a revelation. Almost everything fit. I remember the moment I pulled a red cotton Brooklyn Industries dress over my head and caught sight of my new self in the mirror; it was as if it was made for me, and I looked incredible. Even though I was thinner, I still had feminine curves, and this dress brought out every one. The cleavage, the thin waist. I wore it out of the store, crumpling up my old clothes and having the cashier cut the price tag off of me at the register. I felt taller, sexier. I bought a whole new wardrobe for my new start. At 38, for the first time, I began to love the warmer months, when dress season was in full bloom.

But the sacrifices I made to get into those dresses meant, ironically, that I rarely went out to dinner or parties because I was afraid of gaining weight. It’s amazing how often people commented about me not drinking or eating, often making me more self-conscious. When I did give in and go out I’d gain weight instantly. Every single time. It was a total Catch-22. The whole purpose of those clothes was to show myself off, to push me to socialize more, but in reality, they kept me in my studio apartment, away from the world, afraid to live.

The author, far right, during the last week of senior year in college.

Eventually I tired of the restrictions and disappointments and took a break from a life of deprivation. The weight crept back on and then some. Most of my favorite clothing no longer fit, regardless of how many pairs of Spanx I wore. Still, I held onto them for over ten years, hoping to someday return to that size, that woman. I had tried to stick to discipline, but eventually being a certain size just wasn’t worth how hard I had to work. It was one thing to say no to dessert or put the bread basket away, but to constantly be hungry and depleted felt at odds with my energetic personality. I wanted to go out, socialize, travel and taste different foods, have different experiences. Being thin without enjoyment defeated the purpose of trying so hard to look the part. I wanted to be part of my own life.

Now, at 47 I’m packing up all of these dresses that belonged to a woman I’m no longer trying to force myself to be. A woman who needed to give up everything for how others might see her. A woman whose biology was never destined for the petite rack. I still miss how I looked in those years of denial, but I don’t miss how I felt.

* * *

I carry three large bags filled to capacity; the plastic handles digging into my skin, turning my fingers red. I walk up four flights of stairs to Sarah’s apartment, where there are tall green plants in every corner and books falling off the shelves. Sarah comes to greet me, her brown hair flowing down to her shoulders, bouncing as she cheerily introduces me to her friends. My heart sinks as I realize most of the women here are in the size six range, a zone I hit just once, and briefly, in my life. I doubt there’s going to be anything here for me.

Sarah pours wine into small glass jars and spreads out homemade pesto sandwiches with brie and bacon marmalade. As we sip our wine and scoop up the melted cheese, the swap begins. Each woman takes a turn presenting her items to the group. Even though everything is being donated, you still want to make sure someone takes home your once-treasured goods with a little pitch. Great color but I have outgrown it. Perfect for summer but too revealing for me. It says, “Love me I’m a Vegetarian,” but I eat meat now so…

A thin brunette with a lot of energy bolts up to the front of the room. As she begins to describe her clothes, all the attention is on her. People start raising their hands and laughing, this is actually kind of fun. “This is the one I got when going to the holiday party last year,” she explains. “And this one my mother-in-law got me but is clearly not my style.” Some of the women talk of ex-boyfriends as they explain the stories behind their clothes. Some of their new jobs. Everyone here wants to get rid of their pasts too. Hearing each story – vignettes about their items, their lives, brings me closer to the women. I feel connected. While they physically appear different than I, they too have stories of wanting to move on in their lives and away from a time that has passed. The clothing swap allows us all the opportunity to release our nostalgia.

I’m surprised at how comfortable these women are in their own bodies. One short woman with a black long bob actually takes off her blouse and begins to try on the clothes right in front of us, her white cotton bra bright like neon lights. She throws on blouses, sweaters and even dresses as if no one is watching. Some of the women know her and her fashion show just blends into the background for them. But I can’t stop staring. I am no prude, but how can she take off her clothes in front of all of these people like she’s in a Loehman’s dressing room? What is that like, to be confident enough in your body to strip down in front of strangers like it’s no big deal?

Eventually it’s my turn to present. My palms begin to sweat. I want the ladies to love my clothes as much as I once did, to realize how important these items were to me in my life – my nostalgia, my years of trying to change myself, and this final moment of release as I let all of that pressure go. Each garment on display represents my sense of self when I bought them. I almost feel like if they reject my clothes, they will be rejecting a part of me. I’m afraid they might ignore me because of my current size, like some men do when we meet for the first time.

The author today.

I take a deep breath and go to the front of the living room. I open up my shopping bags and begin with an apology. “I used to be a variety of sizes from six to 12, so hopefully you will find something you like,” I say, as I start to pull out one meaning-laden item after another. I take out long flowy dresses that I wore when I first lost considerable weight in my 30s, when friends had asked if I had an eating disorder, but it was a combination of Jenny Craig and 5:30 a.m. workouts. I pull out my favorite red dress and it’s snatched up immediately. I feel much better about being here. Then I pull out a black strapless dress I never even wore. It was my “just in case I get invited” dress for parties I never went to, wanting to be someone’s plus one but often being passed over for a younger, more petite date. Someone takes this one, too, and I can feel the load lighten, all of those years of watching and wishing, falling away as I give away one too-small dress after another.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to let them go, knowing that I bought these clothes hoping for a different type of life. Now I am saying goodbye to the woman who wore them, or hoped to. Maybe wisdom really does come with age, but whatever finally let me let go of the insecurities of my youth, I’m no longer willing to base my self-worth on an arbitrary standard that I’m biologically incapable of attaining. All of my old insecurity isn’t going to disappear overnight, but passing along my clothes, my past, and my younger self feels noble, graceful, and it leaves room in my life for me, the real me.

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

When someone goes missing on a frozen mountaintop or in a wildfire, my team heads out to help when no one else can — even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

Three kids are missing on the mountain. They missed their check in, and search and rescue (SAR) has been tasked with finding them. It’s what we do. We track down the lost and injured and bring them home. I’ve been a member of this unit, primarily based around Mount Hood, Oregon, but working wherever we are needed in the Pacific Northwest, for about three years. Given my profound lack of experience at the onset, I’ve only actually been useful for about a year, maybe two.

We have a general idea of where the three kids are, or at least where they are supposed to be. At the base of the mountain, where most climbs start, is a climbers’ register where parties write down their intended route, expected return date, and what equipment they have – vital information in just this type of situation.

It’s cold and windy. Visibility is low. No one wants to be in the field on days like this. But, as Rocky, a veteran member once told me, only half joking, “We’re mountaineers. We suffer. It’s what we do.” That suffering is accepted because this is what we volunteered for (and almost all of us are truly volunteers – only the sheriff and a few others are paid). It’s made tolerable knowing that there is someone worse off, someone who needs us.

We will trace the most likely path and hopefully find them hunkered down in a snow cave or some other shelter, but alive. Bringing a victim home alive is why I go up. The satisfaction is like no other. After more than a decade in medicine, as an EMT initially and now as a physician assistant in a busy urban ER, I have revived cardiac arrests, treated trauma and dealt with just about every other medical calamity, but mountain rescue is different. People get injured in the mountains and back country, we get them when no one else can or will. Even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

And I know how important that can be.

On the night of my first high school dance, the police showed up bearing somber news to my mother. She took me into the back room of the house. “There’s been an accident. Dad’s dead,” my mother told me, barely a quiver in her voice. She was trying to hold it together, but saying that out loud, she couldn’t. My brother, mother and me stood in that back room, with the lights off, and hugged and cried and lost track of time.

He fell while out hiking two states over. Local SAR was bringing the body out of the canyon. They couldn’t save him, but they could return his body to his family. We grieved while we waited for his return, which would take a day or two. It didn’t become concrete or tangible until we had the body. A tremendous service was done for my family by strangers.

Now it is my turn.

I will do for others what had been done for us. I will bring them home, do what I can to prevent further backroom suffering. Paying a debt to the universe makes the insufferable tolerable.

* * *

We are a team of 15 – physicians, general contractors, business executives and even an animal chiropractor, with personalities as varied as the professions. But there is a core tenet among us all: to help those in need.

A resort at the base of the mountain provides a Sno-Cat that transports us up through the groomed ski fields. National forest regulations prohibit mechanized travel beyond certain boundaries, but occasionally, we get permission to ignore them, to save a life. The driver takes us up as far as we can go before the Cat starts to backslide.

This is where the hard work starts. From here on out, we will be on foot. Once over the ridge and onto the next glacier, we break into smaller teams of three or four and separate to search different areas. Bob, a tall, slender guy who made some wise business decisions and retired early, is my team lead. He is tasked with interacting with the other team leads and Incident Command, as well as making sure all of us come home alive. Then there’s Keith, an engineer who makes dad jokes without being a dad; Christopher, an occasional school teacher who’s fond of instigating shenanigans and watching his work unfold; and me, the newest member of the team – the low-man on the totem pole.

The winds are up. The temperatures are down. Visibility is minimal. Freezing fog deposits a thin layer of ice on clothing. Beards freeze and develop icicles. Any exposed skin quickly turns red and raw. The moisture from my breath freezes my goggles. Periodically, I use the rubber handle of my ski pole to scrape the ice out of the goggles. This only provides a brief window of clear vision.

We follow the kids’ intended route up the mountain, up the gentle snow slope, bearing west. It’s a short distance, but it takes us an hour in these conditions. We come up into a bowl, relatively protected from the wind. The route travels up from the bowl and over a ridge. Once on the other side we must be hyper-vigilant. We will be travelling across a large crevasse field, hidden in dense fog. The route leads up a snow and ice gully from the far end of this crevasse field. This is one of the two more common routes for teams to take after they have previously completed the standard route. It represents a step up in technical difficulty, presents complicated route finding, and is an overall longer route. Most of us on the rescue team have climbed this route before, individually or as a team, but not in these conditions.

A fall from their route could have spit the kids out onto this crevasse field. We must search it exhaustively. First, we rope up – tying ourselves together so that if one of us falls into an unseen crevasse, theoretically, the rest of the small team can arrest the fall and retrieve the teammate. A rescuer becomes a liability if he is dead. As the newest, least-experienced member, I’m in the middle of the rope. Bob, on point, has to choose a path around the crevasses. The man in the back is the last hope if the first team members can’t arrest their own fall. Bob scans the snow for signs of weakness indicating a crevasse. I follow the footsteps exactly.

Slowly, methodically, we spread out to search the area. Ice axes are at the ready in the event a rope mate goes into a crevasse. My eyes strain to look for clues through fogged-up goggles. Even a light snow can cover vital clues. We move westward toward the terminus of the route the three kids were attempting.

“I need to search that area down by the big crevasse. Keep eyes on me,” Bob says. Rather than continue with our roped travel, Bob will move more cautiously down towards the crevasse on his own. I head up a ridge and plant myself in a vantage point where I can maintain constant visual contact. The area looks lousy with crevasses, with more likely hidden. Bob is belayed down into the field by Keith, who is anchored to the snow. Any fall should be terminated quickly. Should be. Our gloves have a layer of icy grime, so holding the rope during a fall would require more effort than in more pristine conditions.

He goes out, searches, and returns. No incident, but no evidence found of our three kids either. We’re preparing to keep moving when our radios start crackling and we hear someone from one of the other teams say, “I think I’ve found something.” We all stop and put lift our radios to our ears.

“Should we head up to you?”

Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”

My team was searching the lower end of the glacier, so we are some of the last to get to the scene. As we approach, I see the other teams standing around a body. If it weren’t for the people standing around him, I might have walked right by; he was nearly invisible in the waning day, under a fresh layer of snow. I see that no one is frantic. No one is pulling a medical kit out. Our kid must be dead. His mouth is open, in the shape of an “O” and full of snow. I get to him and place my hands on his body. He is stiff and frozen. His base-layer shirt and soft shell jacket are unzipped. There is blood on his thigh, though no obvious deformity or injury. I see no grossly apparent signs of blunt trauma. Some distance away, there is climbing gear strewn at the bottom of the route. One of the other teams had continued searching and found it. It looks like he walked some distance away from the debris field.

Maria, a newly minted ER doctor, digs a little bit of the snow out of his mouth. Not much, just a little. I’m not sure why. It is an image that will stick with me.

“Hey, why don’t I package the body? Not everybody needs to see this,” I offer to the overall rescue leader. Some of the team members have never seen a dead body before.

He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, do it.”

I’m new to mountain rescue, but seasoned to life’s grim realities. The body must be packaged for extrication. He will be covered with a protective plastic tarp and placed into a litter. The litter is like a backboard with small walls and rails. It proves difficult to package him. He is frozen and did not have the foresight to die in a position conducive to packaging. But, I make it work. I have to.

Looking at what’s in front of me, I know what is ahead for the family. I know the sound. I know the dark, backroom scene, huddled in a private anguish that comes after the authorities deliver the news. There’s a wail that comes with unexpected death. It comes from the gut. It’s a sound I heard time and again in those first few days after my father died. I lost a parent, but they have lost a child. I package him as gently as I can. We will get him back to his family. The importance of our task is visceral. I cannot fathom what mourning without the body is. This family will not have to try.

* * *

The radio crackles again. The sheriff is thinking that we should package the body, anchor it someplace safe, and mark the location on GPS. This would allow us to keep searching for the other two. The freezing fog has turned to heavy snow. It was early afternoon, a time in the Pacific Northwest when the sun begins to set, and we are worn. We wouldn’t have more than a few hours of daylight left and still had to get off the mountain.

This is a dilemma. He’s dead, but the other two kids may not be. Until we find them, there’s no way to know. The weather forecast calls for continued lousy conditions for the rest of today and the next few days. Extrication is a lengthy process. Under the best conditions, in more easily accessed terrain, extrication by foot takes half a day. Do we begin the extrication of the body and leave our other two kids to try to survive another night? Do we try to place our first kid somewhere we can find him later and keep searching? In these conditions, among the crevasses, with the accumulating snowfall, it’s unlikely we would be able to find him again. Even anchored in a corner somewhere, location marked on GPS, any manner of event could prevent us from retrieving him. Avalanches could change the landscape of the entire field. There is the risk of continued snowfall and burial. An anchor could fail, leaving the body free to slip into one of the crevasses below.

It’s unbearable, in my mind, to leave him to keep searching. The thought of having to tell the family that we found the body, but left him on the mountain, is crushing. It seems inhumane. But then what would we tell the families of the other two kids if we left the mountain without knowing whether they were alive or dead?

I’m supremely thankful not to have to make that call. There are benefits to being a rookie.

The medical team, my other team, has setup nearby, in an area safe from crevasses or avalanches. There is a tent to escape the wind and warm drinks are being brewed. The medical team is solely concerned with the living. In the absence of proof of life of the other two, the medical team bears watch over the rescuers. The tent is for the rescuers. The warm drinks are for us. Periodically, people have to take a breather, to warm up and mentally recharge. It’s amazing how beneficial something as simple as a warm cup of tea can be in these situations. As one of the new guys, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I stay in the crevasse field and suffer.

Conversations between the rescue leaders in the field and the sheriff’s SAR deputies have been ongoing since we packaged the body. I haven’t been listening. I have no input to offer. Just feet to carry me to wherever I can be useful.

“The sheriff wants us to keep searching.” Word is spreading. My heart sinks into my stomach. I am exhausted. There is no good decision to be reached. I look at my teammates and can tell many are feeling the same. We don’t want to keep searching, but we will.

“SAR base from Team One.”

“Go ahead Team One.”

“Yeah, hey it’s Rocky. We’re not going to do that. It’s cold, it’s late. We’ll never find the body again. We’re bringing the teams in.”

A respected member and veteran of decades of mountain rescue has shut down the sheriff’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the sheriff’s call, but a good leader knows when to listen to experienced heads.

“O.K. Team’s coming in.”

We re-cross the crevassed glacier, this time with a sled with a body in it. Once at the eastern end of the glacier, we raise the whole package up and over the ridge, which is accomplished with ropes, pulleys and brute force. Eventually, we reach the waiting Sno-Cat. The packaged body lies between two rows of bench seats. The seats are full of rescuers. The layers of ice that had been our constant companions begin to melt. Steam rises off each living person’s head. Some people are looking through the camera we found among the scattered belongings. Perhaps a clue will be found to lead us to the other two kids. Perhaps there will be some indication as to what went wrong.

We reach the familiar transition point at the base of the glacier. We get out of the Sno-Cat and unload the package. A short distance below, snow meets parking lot. Rescuers meet sheriff. I head inside. There is to be a debrief. We are reminded of the resources available to us, should we need them, if anyone is experiencing grief or stress from recovering a body.

The body is brought inside the lodge. I can hear the family. By the end of the debrief, the family of our first kid should be well on their way to the city with the deceased. They are not. Word is traveling. The family of our first kid is staying on the mountain to support the families of our other two kids. I can’t imagine how they came to that decision. Their boy is dead. Yet, they remain with the other two families, while the body of their boy travels back to the city.

When I hear this, I remember that the ache I’m feeling all over is just physical pain. It is temporary.

* * *

I return to my warm apartment. The two kids are still up on the mountain. I’m mentally preparing for a return to the cold and misery tomorrow when the page comes through. We are grounded. No searchers will be deployed tomorrow on account of the horrendous conditions. Officially, this is still a “rescue.” The longer our other two kids are out there, the less likely they are to survive, if they are still alive at all. But they are up there, somewhere. I have little faith that this is going to be a rescue.

I feel utterly helpless, sitting in my kitchen, in a worn-out old chair, head back, staring at the ceiling. The debt I set out to pay remains. I am unable to provide the service that was done for my family. Logically, I understand it is out of my hands. The dangers and risks are real. This is a rational decision. In my gut, though, I have failed. This was my task. Bring the bodies home. Yet they remain on the mountain. There is only failure now.

So, I get drunk, the only solution I can think of.

Over the next few days conditions continue to deteriorate and eventually I have to go back to work. Finally, the search gets called off completely.

The following summer, I’m returning from a wildfire when the text comes through from my good friend Bob G., a member of the medical rescue team.

“multiagency effort. found the other 2.” He gives me no context. He doesn’t need to.

There is a great deal of discussion and speculation as to what happened. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t particularly care how they got there, just where they end up – back with their families.

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