Rebirth of the Cosmos

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.

*    *    *

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.”

*    *    *

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in,” he said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great, actually.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

The author today.

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

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

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

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

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

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

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

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

And I know how important that can be.

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

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

Now it is my turn.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we head up to you?”

Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“SAR base from Team One.”

“Go ahead Team One.”

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

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

“O.K. Team’s coming in.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a Hero. Narratively needs your help to tell more great stories. Join today for as little as $2/month. ×