Rebirth of the Cosmos

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After three decades of management battles and false starts, a storied New York sports franchise prepares to finally step back onto the soccer field.

On a warm summer’s day in 1981, 10-year old Giovanni Savarese sat on a New Jersey-bound bus, gazing out of the window as the New York skyline slid by in the distance. The boy from Venezuela, who didn’t speak a word of English, had spent the past few days at a soccer camp, honing his skills with hundreds of other children. Now he was about to get his first taste for professional soccer. The home team, the New York Cosmos, had arranged the summer camp, and now he was finally getting the chance to watch the then-world famous team in action. Savarese watched in awe as the gigantic spirals of Giants Stadium came closer and closer.

“It was incredible. The environment, the energy, the whole thing,” Savarese remembers. For the next 90 minutes, the pulse of Giants Stadium engulfed him, as tens of thousands of fans cheered the Cosmos while the close summer’s sun beat down upon them. Savarese was inspired, watching the Cosmos come from two goals down to tie and eventually win in a shootout.

Savarese was in New York to attend the Pelé Soccer Camp—named after the Cosmos’ most famous player, who he was lucky enough to meet. The youngster returned to Venezuela with a photograph—a spiky-haired young boy, clad in soccer camp training gear, with a scallywag’s smile; the greatest soccer player of all time’s arm across his shoulders. Savarese, determined to become a professional soccer player one day, hung copies of that picture in each set of grandparents’ houses to remind him of the trip.

The team Savarese supported that day was America’s most successful club team of all-time, once fielding several of the world’s greats. While they are no longer the beacon of American club soccer, at that time, they were known around the world.

“In my time, there was no Internet and the kind of things kids have today,” says Savarese in a warm Italian accent, inherited from his ancestors. “Nevertheless, growing up in Venezuela, I knew what the Cosmos was, who they were—they were famous everywhere.”

Fast forward two decades to the spring of 2013 and Savarese, broad-shouldered, with a shaven head, piercing eyes, and calm demeanor, is still constantly thinking all things Cosmos. Sitting behind his desk in a SoHo office, Savarese sees Cosmos directly in front of him: jerseys, photographs, trophies, footage of goals playing on loop.

The modern-day New York Cosmos practicing on Long Island. (Photos by Brad Horrigan)
The modern-day New York Cosmos practicing on Long Island. (Photos by Brad Horrigan)

At 42, a career as a professional soccer player now behind him, Giovanni Savarese is the new head coach of the New York Cosmos–a team that had not played competitive soccer for nearly thirty years. “Life has a funny way of doing things,” he jokes, leaning back in his padded leather office chair.

For almost three decades, the New York Cosmos have existed purely as a brand, an entity, but had not fielded any players. They last played a competitive match in 1984, yet outside his office, in an open-plan space with a Cosmos logo emblazoned on an exposed brick wall, Savarese gazed at social media managers and marketing experts tapping away at keyboards, trying to keep the Cosmos in the public eye.

On August 3, 2013, that will all change. The New York Cosmos, based on Long Island, will once again take to the field as a competitive team. Though Savarese was the man responsible for signing a fresh group of players, that was just a small part of the Cosmos’ almost-30-year struggle to match a world-renowned name with an actual soccer team once more.

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In 1967, a year before the North American Soccer League (NASL) began, there were just 100,000 people playing soccer in the United States. This figure was a drop in the ocean compared to the millions playing football and baseball at the time. The NASL’s first few years were known for half-empty stadiums and teams assembled of part-timers, students and foreigners. Viewers joked that CBS’ coverage, with its slogan “Just for Kicks!” should have been dubbed “Just for commercials.” Referees were encouraged to call fouls to allow for advertisements, goals were missed, and Americans, quite simply, just didn’t tune in to games broadcast during the mid-Sunday afternoon timeslot.

One such team caught up in this whirlpool of failure was the New York Cosmos. Owned by Warner Communications, the Cosmos, who played their first three seasons in Yankee Stadium and then Long Island’s James H. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University– finished at the bottom of their conference in the 1975 season, by then playing in front of just 4,000 fans on average, in a disintegrating Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. Given the diverse, immigrant-heavy makeup of New York’s population, the Cosmos made people question just how successful soccer in America could ever be. If the game couldn’t make it in New York, the most cosmopolitan, international city in the U.S., where was it going to make it?

Cosmos players Henry Lopez, left, and Paulo Mendes, battle for possession of the ball in training.
Cosmos players Henry Lopez, left, and Paulo Mendes, battle for possession of the ball in training.

That question was answered on June 15, 1975, when the arrival of one man created a seismic shift in the perception of soccer nationwide. That man was Edison Arantes do Nascimento—better known as “Pelé.”

The Cosmos were fortunate enough to have the financial backing of Time Warner chief executive officer Steve Ross. They also employed a persistent general manager by the name of Clive Toye, who had tracked Pelé around the globe since the 1970 World Cup, when he cemented his place as the biggest sporting star on the planet. When the Brazilian retired from his boyhood club, Santos, in 1974, Toye and the rest of the Warner staff jumped at the opportunity. The NASL’s structure was based upon a franchise system, so, unlike in Europe—where teams had been built up over decades, spread out amongst towns and cities, backed by communal followings—anyone who had the money and a stadium to play in could essentially buy a slot in the league and plonk a team there. Once accepted, owners were free to spend as much money as they liked assembling a team; and there were no salary restrictions as there are in leagues like the NFL today.

Pelé agreed to a whopping deal, reportedly worth $4.7 million, which he would be paid over three years. (The highest paid sportsman in America at the time was Henry “Hank” Aaron, earning $200,000 annually.) The deal included sponsorship as well, meaning Warner owned everything, from Pelé-branded boots to Pelé-branded cologne.

“You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States,” said the three-time World Cup winner after he touched down on U.S. soil.

Five days after signing in front of 300-plus journalists gathered at the 21 Club, Pelé made his Cosmos debut. The effect was immediate. Cosmos tickets had previously been handed out with Burger King vouchers; now, at a Downing Stadium where the field had been painted green to look more appealing to the CBS cameras, more than 22,000 enthusiastic and intrigued supporters packed the stands, with an estimated 50,000 left waiting outside. An audience of more than 10 million tuned in on TV—missing both Pelé’s goal and assist during commercial breaks.

Over the next three seasons Ross and Warner used Brazil’s favorite son to brand the game of soccer across the country. Pelé mesmerized fans and players alike with a standard of soccer they had never before seen. Whether Pelé still possessed the swift, mercurial skills of his prime was up for debate; but when compared to the likes of the part-time teachers and scattering of former European club players he was playing with and against, the Brazilian’s control of the ball seemed not only from another world—it was from another universe. “The biggest challenge for us,” said the Cosmos’ then-captain Werner Roth, “was not stopping and watching him play.”

Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, signing his contract with the New York Cosmos (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)
Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, signing his contract with the New York Cosmos (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)

By Pelé’s final season, the perception of the NASL had been completely transformed. By 1977 the Cosmos were also fielding other glamorous names, such as Franz Beckenbauer, a 1974 World Cup winner with Germany (on an $2.8 million, four-year deal), Carlos Alberto of Brazil, and Giorgio Chinaglia, of Italy. Five staff members struggling to cope with media requests and ticket sales became 50; press conferences moved from the locker room to the 21 Club or the Plaza Hotel; help-yourself buffets and bottles of soda were replaced by caviar, smoked salmon and Champagne; and games moved from Downing Stadium to Giants Stadium, where 77,000 fans, plastered in Cosmos merchandise, flocked to watch the coolest team on the planet. There were even stars among the fans. “Sometimes, in the dressing room, I think I’m in Hollywood,” Beckenbauer, famously said. The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Robert Redford and Henry Kissinger all came to see Ross’ team, which was now so well-known that sports journalists only had to mutter four words to get into the trendiest parties at Studio 54: “I’m with the Cosmos.”

As for soccer in America, the Cosmos aura meant the fan base grew throughout the country, as more and more people headed to stadiums to see Pelé and co.’s roadshow. By 1977, the average attendance at NASL games had tripled. During the 1976 season, Pelé, sidelined by an injury, would still travel to games to wave to onlookers who’d come out to see the star. Soccer camps across the country also boomed, attracting youngsters to the game. (Female participation grew particularly sharply, increasing fourfold from 10,000, in 1976 to 41,000, in 1980.)

Soccer finally offered a viable alternative for the traditional American sports of basketball, baseball and football—the Cosmos, who won their second NASL title in 1977, even rivaled the Giants and the Yankees for the back pages of New York’s newspapers.

But the Pelé odyssey had to end sometime. And on Oct. 1, 1977, the Brazilian made his final appearance for the Cosmos, in an exhibition match against his former club Santos. As the rain fell down , “even the sky was crying,” one Brazilian journalist wrote. The man who was the Cosmos was carted off the pitch atop of shoulders, swarmed by well-wishers.

Though an essential part of the Cosmos exited that year, another man entered behind the scenes. That man was an Italian by the name of Peppe Pinton.

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Pinton joined the Cosmos as its general manager in 1977, replacing Clive Toye. A short man, with a thin face, narrow-rimmed glasses and a moustache, he had previously been involved with the club as the manager of one of its star players, Giorgio Chinaglia, whose affairs he continued to oversee. Chinaglia was a burly, outspoken striker–his immense talent matched only by his ego. Because of this persona, many involved in the club saw Pinton as Chinaglia’s lapdog: players said they once saw Pinton carrying a TV through a hotel to Chinaglia’s room late into the night. “My television wasn’t working and I wanted to watch television. He had a good television, I had a bad one; he had to give me the television, what’s the big deal?” Chinaglia later joked in the Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime. True or not, Pinton went about his business quietly.

Following Pelé’s departure, it was up to the Cosmos’ remaining stars, like Chinaglia, to hang around and keep soccer progressing. Over the next few years, NASL teams still attracted huge crowds.

“You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States”

But the Cosmos were losing money, all those ticket sales never made up for the exorbitant salaries. Steve Ross joked at one board meeting, in 1977, that the Cosmos was costing Warner around two cents a share. Some around the table laughed at how insignificant two cents a share sounded. But in reality, two cents a share equated the company’s value dropping by $5 million.

These losses were made easier to stomach, though, by the success of Warner’s video games consoles. (Space Invaders’ profits alone rose from $6 million in 1979 to $70 million in 1980.) Then, in 1979 the league signed a promising television deal with ABC, with the promise of nine live games over the next two seasons, including the Soccer Bowl, the league’s showpiece match.

“Television was crucial,” Phil Woosnam, manager of the NASL, later said to Gavin Newsham for his book on the Cosmos, Once in a Lifetime. “It had always been the thorn in our side and when we finally signed a deal with ABC it looked like we were getting somewhere.” But it soon became clear (again) that nobody wanted to spend their weekend afternoons watching soccer on TV. Viewership sat at just two million homes across America, a terrible showing considering this was during the network-only era. Poor ratings were accompanied by the league’s all-too-rapid expansion, as the NASL bosses added team after team, in some of America’s smallest and most unmarketable locations—from Team Hawaii to the Caribous of Colarado—to anyone willing to pay the $100,000 entry fee. Many of these owners were not “soccer people,” and, after trying to follow the Cosmos model of paying excessive fees for aging stars, they looked to get out of the soccer business as soon as their team’s popularity and financial stability started to decline.

The cash-starved bosses were left with a choice: pass their brands on to others willing to pay the league’s entry fee, or simply let their teams fold. By 1981, the NASL’s showpiece, the Soccer Bowl, had been downgraded to a tape delay broadcast in favor of a repeat of Love Boat. Attendances fell and all franchises quickly became unprofitable.

Steve Ross, CEO of Time Warner and owner of the Cosmos  (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)
Steve Ross, CEO of Time Warner and owner of the Cosmos  (Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos)

While the Cosmos won the NASL championship in 1978, ‘80 and ’82, they were failing financially. Behind the scenes, Steve Ross was hit extremely hard by the video game crash of 1983. Sales of home consoles plummeted by 97 percent over the next two years—an oversaturated market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games meant many consumers lost confidence. Ross was forced to sell off parts of his Warner conglomeration, including the controlling stake in the failing Cosmos.

Ross transferred control of the Cosmos to Giorgio Chinaglia, by then his favorite player and the club’s record scorer. Chinaglia obtained 60 percent of the Cosmos in exchange for $1.5 million in “working capital”– but, amidst all the league’s failings, he and Pinton could not make things work. (Chinaglia had also purchased his failing hometown club, Lazio, in Italy, losing millions there, too.)

By 1984, there were just nine NASL teams still active, and with no TV deals to subsidize their financial failings, more and more teams continued to go under. Without TV money, Pinton estimated the Cosmos needed 20,000-plus fans to meet the $60,000 operating costs of Giants Stadium for each game–but they were attracting fewer than 13,000. On March 13, 1985, the New York Cosmos could not a submit letter of credit to meet the $150,000 NASL entry fee and were subsequently expelled from the league. A day later there were only two teams registered for the start of the 1985 season and the NASL folded altogether.

At the amateur level, soccer was more popular than it have ever been in America. College soccer, hardly considered a sport before the NASL, was now played in more colleges than football. And across the country, four million people were now playing the “beautiful game”–(40 times more than in 1967).

As for the Cosmos, they had won five NASL titles but not made a penny in their 14 years. A year before the NASL folded, in 1984, Chinaglia had handed back his “working capital” stake to Steve Ross, who then passed the Cosmos ownership on to Pinton, asking him to preserve the legacy of the brand…or so it is believed. Others, such as Clive Toye, claimed in numerous interviews both during and after the Cosmos’ demise that Chinaglia never even owned the brand, and Pinton just happened to be the last member of staff standing.

“The Cosmos did not just fall into my lap,” said Pinton in a recent interview. “I had been with the organization for many years…I obtained it from Warner Communications. Chinaglia had no part in my transaction. I was his manager—people just put the two together.” (A disinterested Chinaglia, for his part, would confess years later that he didn’t really care who owned the brand.)

But ownership disputes aside, by 1985, Peppe Pinton was boss. With the team no longer playing, Pinton literally moved all things Cosmos—the trophies, the memorabilia, the merchandise, the 1,300 hours of game footage—into New Jersey-based storage, where they would gather dust for the next several decades.

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Pinton now runs an Italian restaurant in upstate New York called Il Portico, which he opened in 1989. But even before that, in the years immediately following the Cosmos’ exit from professional soccer, Pinton continued to run the Cosmos as a brand, using the tools he still had at his disposal: marketing video footage, the logo, and youth camps like the one attended by Giovanni Savarese. “We were fortunate enough to still have a brand name—‘The Cosmos’—and that was my passion, my love, and that was what I intended to do,” says Pinton.

Pinton operated the Cosmos out of an office in Orangeburg, New York, 20 miles north of the city; the trophies were stored in a mahogany cabinet as a reminder of past glory. “I protected the company assets,” says Pinton assertively. He claims to have spent around $5,000 a month keeping the Cosmos alive—on storage, staff, and office space—not making a penny for himself. (Pinton refused to give exact figures.)

By 1993, the Cosmos name was essentially just associated with youth soccer summer camps at Ramapo College, although Pinton continued to charge anyone and everyone who wished to use the Cosmos’ footage, logo or name. “The way to protect your trademark,” he said, “is to police around the world through various sources, maintaining the registrations, and to prove you are actively involved as a business.” Pinton estimates that he spent between $800,000 and $900,000 in legal battles against those wrongfully slapping “Cosmos” on items while he owned the brand.

During this time, soccer in the U.S. was on hiatus, and no one else really wanted ownership of the Cosmos brand. That changed in 1994, when the World Cup came to America and interest in soccer as a professional sport exploded once more. A new professional league, Major League Soccer, was established. Pinton entered into discussions with the league for the sale of the entity he had run for more than a decade. “He owned the brand and he was looking to sell that brand at some point,” says Daniel Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications for the MLS. “He had a price point that he wanted to sell it at and ultimately we passed on that price point.”

Pinton says he in fact turned down multiple approaches to buy the name, including from the Wilpons, the owners of the Mets; the owners of the New York and Philadelphia-based soccer franchises, who were willing to change their names; Andrew Murstein, owner of the taxi company Medallion; and even Clive Toye. Pinton believed such potential owners were not willing to honor the tradition of the brand. He wanted a buyer who could return the Cosmos to their former glories, as the leading team in U.S. club soccer—not someone who only had the financial resources to create an also-ran club, or an individual only interested in the name purely to sell Cosmos-branded merchandise. “The fact that the Cosmos was not showcased with the new league was not a defeat–it was a victory for the Cosmos, because the Cosmos could maintain its dignity,” he said.

From 1996 onwards, Pinton continued to run Cosmos soccer summer camps, sue illegal users of the Cosmos brand, and reject offers from interested buyers. But on a midsummer’s evening, in 2009, Pinton felt that he had finally found the right man to carry on the Cosmos legacy. Sitting opposite him, in his upstate restaurant, with its cream walls, crisp white tablecloths, and large windows that illuminate the compact room, was an English businessman by the name of Paul Kemsley.

“We were fortunate enough to still have a brand name—‘The Cosmos’—and that was my passion, my love, and that was what I intended to do,” says Pinton.

Kemsley, or “PK” as he is known to friends, is a tough-talking, Rottweiler of a businessman, with a Cockney accent. He was in his early 40s at the time, slightly rotund, and usually sporting a hint of five-o’clock shadow. Kemsley made his millions in property development and in his prime was featured on the UK’s version of The Apprentice, interrogating would-be businessmen and women over their resumes. In 2001 he became a director with the Tottenham Spurs of the English Premier League Tottenham, and was widely praised for helping them reach a steady financial decision. But during the financial crisis of 2009, the Londoner’s company, Rock, (which had an estimated worth of $700 million) went into liquidation and he started to look for fresh opportunities elsewhere.

Kemsley’s people started chatting with Pinton’s people; and on that midsummer’s night—as Sassicaia flowed and oysters were served—Peppe Pinton heard Kemsley’s vision for the New York Cosmos firsthand.

“I had an individual that convinced me that he wanted it more than me; someone who had absolutely no upbringing with the Cosmos, but had acquired a knowledge over the years,” Pinton said. “It was someone who said ‘I’m going to take it from where you are, take all your energy, all your love, all your passion, all the relentless hours, and take it to the next level.’ To a level that I could not have gone.” Kemsley, Pinton thought, would return the New York Cosmos to the forefront of U.S. club soccer and make them a serious force once more. He also appeared to have the money to do so.

When the meal was over, the restaurant’s owner rose to his feet and shook Kemsley’s hand–the deal was done. Pinton immediately spoke to Kemsley’s wife on the phone, congratulating her on the vision her husband had laid out for his beloved team. Pinton was convinced Kemsley was the man who could make the New York Cosmos, once the Rolling Stones of soccer, an actual soccer team once more.

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Rumors started circulating in the British press in late 2009 that the Cosmos were back. Kemsley, they said, had a grand vision for this once-grand team. But it wasn’t until August 2010 that Pelé, rehired as the Cosmos’ honorary president, officially announced the team was preparing to take to the field once again. By this time, the ownership model was made up of three key players: Kemsley, who owned the majority of the brand; Terry Byrne, David Beckham’s former personal manager; and Anomaly, a British marketing company that agreed to exchange their expertise for a small stake in the club. The group started out with a vision of building the club from the ground up: purchasing academies as well as harvesting local talent on both coasts. This would be combined with community events and large-scale marketing to get the Cosmos back in the public eye.

By the beginning of 2011, Kemsley had moved into a five-bedroom apartment on the 75th floor of the Time Warner Center, reportedly renting at $57,500 a month, and a trendy office was set up in SoHo. The Cosmos had already completed part 1 of their plan, sponsoring two academies in New York and L.A. They also purchased the rights to a local soccer event called the “Copa,” essentially a World Cup for the amateurs of New York City, with locals represent their home nations, and renamed it “the Cosmos Copa.” Carl Johnson, CEO and one of the founders of Anomaly, said the first intention was to focus on New York’s cultural mix and how soccer is embedded into its communities.

After signing a deal with the British manufacturer Umbro, Kevin Lyons, a fashion designer, Cosmos-of-old fan and Anomaly’s design director, got to work on designing a new kit for club. Capitalizing on retro nostalgia, Lyons created a new jersey extremely similar to the one worn by Pelé in his last-ever professional match. “The kit was always meant to be worn on the field, but the kids could also wear it as fashionable streetwear, too,” he said. “The idea was novel: we were a cultural entity that wanted to create fervor and then the team would come.”

Lyons had a vision of a New York soccer brand that would succeed in the fashion markets of Asia and Europe, just at Yankee caps are worn around the world. Kemsley, in his flashy new Prada espadrilles, hosted an evening at the Openhouse Gallery in Nolita, blaring out ’80s classics such as Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” while grainy footage of the original Cosmos’ played on a projector. The “Umbro x NY Cosmos Spring/Summer ’11 Collection” was launched, later accompanied by Times Square billboards and pop-up shops around the city. “We hope you get it… It’s going to be huge,” Kemsley declared.

New York Cosmos head coach, Giovanni Savarese, speaking to members of the media
New York Cosmos head coach, Giovanni Savarese, speaking to members of the media

“It was an expression of vision and ambition,” says Carl Johnson. “The ambition from the outset was that this can be the largest name in soccer in the U.S. It can be, and probably will be.”

A month after the clothing launch, the latest group of Cosmos ambassadors, Pelé included, headed to Asia to promote the club’s rebirth. As they hopped between Singapore and Hong Kong—an excitable Kemsley would describe the prospect of meeting the Singaporean president as “sick”—the former players attended signing sessions, Q-and-As and soccer games, all in the hope of boosting brand Cosmos in the Asian market. Soon, soccer fans across the world were indeed wearing Cosmos-stamped clothing: jerseys, hats and jackets started popping up everywhere; from bars in Sydney to the financial district of London—all without an actual team.

Finally, in August 2011, an exhibition Cosmos team played a game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. With the stands packed, Pinton and Kemsley watched on as a squad featuring World Cup winners, players from top leagues from around the world, and American youth talent donned the popular Cosmos jerseys, losing 6-0 in the process. The final score hardly dampened their enthusiasm. “It was like a dream,” said Pinton. “You close in 1985, you walk out of the stadium and you wake up in the stadium of dreams, Manchester United’s, with the brand you kept alive for many years.”

This, though, was only a quasi-Cosmos team—they were still not a competitive outfit—and soon after the Manchester United game, things started to unravel off the field. That month, the Cosmos Academy in L.A. disbanded, $210,000 in debt.

Costs of running the club were mounting up—payments to Pelé, billboard advertising, tours, public events, the now-15-plus staff members. “There was not a sufficient focus on revenue in; rather than just looking at what was being spent,” says Johnson.

The Cosmos merchandise that Johnson’s company had helped secure was one of just a few forms of “revenue in.” And weeks after the Manchester United match, Anomaly pulled out, forfeiting their ownership stake in order to focus on other projects.

According to Johnson, instead of looking for alternative ways to generate money, Kemsley searched for cash to keep the club afloat, turning to an investment group called Cosmos Ventures, and reportedly selling a 50-percent stake for the money he desperately needed.

The bigger problem was that the Cosmos still had no way of joining the top tier of American soccer once again. The MLS entry fee was over $100 million—a level of investment that could not find—and with no actual soccer to attract fans, the club continued to hemorrhage money. By October 2011, Kemsley’s investment had dried up, and when he asked Cosmos Ventures for more funding the answer was a simple “no,” according to current sources at the club. The group activated a buyout clause in their dealings with Kemsley, taking complete control of the club, and on Oct. 26, 2011, Kemsley resigned as chairman. He declared bankruptcy the following year, with the team still never having played a competitive match. (Numerous attempts to contact Paul Kemsley were unsuccessful.)

“I believed in the entity, I believed in the process, I believed in the concept, I believed in who I was dealing with,” says Pinton. “Was I right? Yes. Why? Because even though he’s not here, the Cosmos is still here.”

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Today, very little is clear about the New York Cosmos’ actual ownership structure; the club would disclose only that there are multiple investors with an interest in the Cosmos’ fortunes. English businessman Seamus O’Brien, who founded the World Sport Group, Asia’s leading sports marketing, event management and media company, is the club’s chairman and current figurehead. (When asked, some sources at the club claim O’Brien is a sole owner; others mention a fifty-fifty split with a Saudi Arabian sports marketing group called Sela Sports.)

But ownership structure aside, unlike the previous hierarchy, O’Brien has made it clear he has one simple objective in mind: associating the name Cosmos with an actual soccer team.

Kyle Reynish, New York Cosmos' goalkeeper, during practice (photos by Brad Horrigan)
Kyle Reynish, New York Cosmos’ goalkeeper, during practice (photos by Brad Horrigan)

In July 2012, not long after his tenure began, O’Brien announced that the team (or brand, as things stood) planned to do just that. The club opted to rejoined the NASL, which, having folded in 1985 along with the original Cosmos, was reformed in 2009 as the second tier of American soccer. The league, which is unassociated with MLS, is made up of eight teams. The NASL drew an average attendance of 3,810 in 2012, significantly smaller than the MLS’s 18,807. But with an entry fee at just over $1 million, it was a far more attainable option than that of the MLS’ $100 million-plus entry fee, too.

“We won’t say anything we’re not going to deliver on,” O’Brien told Sports Illustrated, in what appeared to be a dig at the previous ownership. “You’re not going to get hyperbole and big, grandiose lunatic statements that might have been the mantra of the past.”

“Like any other fan, I read that article, and thought, that’s exactly the direction this club in particular needs to go,” said Erik Stover, a laid back, dress-down-Friday kind of executive with a shaven head and warm smile. Stover formerly oversaw the rise of the New York area’s other soccer franchise, MLS’ Red Bulls. He helped plan their move into a $200 million stadium and secured the signing of one of the current generation’s greatest players, Thierry Henry. Now, though, Stover has an office next to Savarese’s. He was appointed the Cosmos’ COO in November 2012, the same month Savarese became head coach. Slowly, Stover and Savarese helped to put together the pieces, both on and of the field, necessary for the Cosmos to become a competitive soccer team. “Now all those big things that seemed so daunting, and would never happen, are actually happening every day,” said Stover, an assured nod of his head in time with the final two words.

The New York Cosmos will play their home games at Hofstra's stadium.
The New York Cosmos will play their home games at Hofstra’s stadium.

By early 2013, the Cosmos had found a stadium: the same place they played during the 1972 and 1973 seasons, at Long Island’s James H. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University. Over the months that followed, the Cosmos slowly and discreetly started putting together the pieces that would enable them to become an NASL club, adding players, recruiting staff, and hosting fan events, peppered with the odd appearance from Pelé.

Just a year after O’Brien first announced the brand’s intentions to play as an NASL team, the makeup of the New York Cosmos is almost unrecognizable to the entity O’Brien inherited. They set up training camp at Mitchell Field in Nassau County, along with a ticketing office at the complex to begin engaging the Long Island community. They have also released a plan for a $400 million stadium in nearby Belmont Park, to include a mixed-use development, shopping areas, and playing fields. Their first competitive game in nearly three decades will take place August 3rd.

The team has arranged a new kit deal, and inked deals with Nike as a manufacturer and Fly Emirates as a sponsor. They have begun to recruit season ticket holders. The New York Cosmos finally has a complete roster, too, a cosmopolitan mix of former MLS players; representatives from Asia, Europe and South America; and American players, including the club’s captain, Carlos Mendes, a New York local who grew up a few minutes away, in Mineola, Long Island.

Club officials are confident they can not only challenge for the NASL title, but also prove they are the best team in the country by winning the U.S. Open Cup, which enters lower-league teams into the same knockout competition as MLS outfits. With players coming from such a wide variety of backgrounds, though, it is difficult to predict how well these players will gel during the Cosmos’ first season.

The Cosmos’ rebirth was somewhat overshadowed by the recent move by English soccer powerhouse Manchester City and the New York Yankees to team up as co-owners of a second New York team set to join the MLS in 2015. Stover says the team welcomes this challenge, and right now are purely focused on raising the profile of the NASL.

“As long as we do it right—we run a proper soccer club, have good connections to our supporters—the other stuff will take care of itself,” said Stover. “We’re not really thinking about lifestyle gear, it’s not about that for us. We understand we have a long way to go…but for us, we ultimately want to win silverware, we want to win championships, we want to compete at the highest level, and we want people in this country, or, for that matter, around the world, to say ‘that’s the best soccer club in the United States.’”

*    *    *

“Just play your natural game,” Giovanni Savarese said reassuringly to around 100 youngsters standing in front of him on a windy May evening in the West Village. “And just have fun.”

As the sun set on Pier 40, a sporting complex hit by the breeze from the Hudson River, Savarese and other Cosmos coaching staff watched over the last of five open tryout sessions the club was holding—one in each borough of New York. The concept was simple: anyone could apply, and one player from each borough would be selected to attend preseason training with the Cosmos.

Cleats in hand, Sean Salgueiro, 10, watches the Cosmos train.
Cleats in hand, Sean Salgueiro, 10, watches the Cosmos train.

“We feel strongly that if you are asking people to see you, you need to go and see them first,” said Savarese, explaining the team’s grassroots strategy. The tryouts attracted everyone from an unfit 62-year old who had sat in the stands during the 1970s, dreaming of playing alongside Pelé and Chinaglia, to 16-year olds who perhaps had never even heard of the original Cosmos, let alone been alive to witness them in their heyday. Players from Germany passed to those from England; Dominican kids from Washington Heights passed to Mexican-Americans from Queens.

When the tryouts came to an end, Savarese brought everyone in to thank them for their participation. He showed his appreciation to those who did not make it, and assured them to never to give up on their dreams of becoming soccer players.

A 10-year old boy from Venezuela left New York with such a dream more than 30 years ago. “You are all part of the Cosmos family now,” Savarese said.

*    *    *

Jack Williams is a New York-based journalist, originating from Wales in the UK. A recent graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, he has written sports features for the likes of The New York Daily News and The New York Times.Twitter: @itsjackwilliams

Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.

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

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

This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spot-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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