Snapshots from the Trail of The Last Picture Show

Following a literary legend to the dusty small town that gave him his fame, three budding writers learn Texas-sized lessons on love, loss and lament.

Larry McMurtry wrote the novels “The Last Picture Show” and the Pulitzer-winning “Lonesome Dove,” along with the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” and numerous other books and essays. Much of his work is inspired by Archer City, his small hometown in West Texas, where, fittingly, a small group of storytellers gather for a writers’ retreat each year, hoping to establish their place in the literary world. Along the dusty trails of this forgotten hamlet, they work to find their voices, confront their fears and find home in the backyard of strangers. For the three writers below, their stories may have started at the Archer City Writers Workshop, but their experience in West Texas changed something deep within them.

‪‬‬Jumping off the Truck

By Madiha K

The chill of the winter night air cut through my thin black pashmina shawl as I walked from the car park toward the international departure terminal of the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore. At the counter I handed over my passport and an admission letter from the Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism in Denton, Texas.

The immigration officer looked at my ticket. “Aamreeka?” he asked gleefully. “Un huh” I said. Pakistanis have this fascination with America that borders on obsession. It’s America’s affluence and the attainment of “the American dream” that Pakistanis hope to achieve some day.

“Thomp! Click!” The officer banged the pre-inked stamp against my passport.

A dotted red rectangle surrounded the text:

Immigration Officer

Exit

23 Dec 2009

After a twenty-three-hour flight, I landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. My parents had moved to America three months earlier. As members of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, they had faced years of state-sanctioned persecution. Death threats and political instability were always a looming threat. My watch was still set to Pakistani time; I didn’t have the heart to change it. It felt like the only link I had to home. Changing the time would somehow mean I had abandoned home.

*

On a dorm room door a paper cutout of my name greeted me. As I began to unpack, tears rolled down my cheeks. So this is the American dream? Downsizing from the family home? Living out of five boxes? My house in Pakistan was an old Army garrison built by the British before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Vivid and painfully tender memories of my mother and home filled my empty room.

I opened the first box and picked up the mattress pad. I struggled to put it on the twin size mattress. Standing on top of the bed frame, I stretched the white mesh, tussled with the elastic but it quickly scrunched back. My hands gave way and the mattress flopped on the bed frame.

Failure.

I repeated the process.

Failure again.

Frustrated at my inability to do something as simple as putting on a mattress pad, I realized how ill prepared I was for life, how dependent I’d been on other people for my existence. It was my first understanding that life here will never be like Pakistan. No one will make the bed for me, cook for me or clean after me. I will have to leave my upper class Pakistani habits at the door.

*

On lonely evenings, the beauty of the sinking Texas sun sprinkling crimson dust into the vast skies made me think of Lahore and of all the times I had chai in the garden. We would sit barefoot in our lush side garden around a low table on white lounge chairs. The setting sun signaled the call of the Maghrib prayer. Loudspeakers punctured the serenity of dusk as nearby imams competed against each other in out-of-tune voices calling the faithful for prayers.

“Haya alas Salah.” Come to prayer.

“Haya alal falah.” Come to success.

A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.
A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.

I had not come to success. A friend told me what one of our professors thought about me: I would start projects but never finish them. I would plunge into a project with great zeal only to abandon my drafts. I always felt my work wasn’t good enough or at least not as good as my peers. Am I kidding myself? I wondered. Do I really have what it takes to be a writer?

A few days before the semester ended, a professor asked me to take a class in Archer City. “You need it,” he said. I quizzed former students on what to expect. “It’s a life-changing experience,” they told me. “It will help you find your place in the world.” I agreed with my professor. I did need it. After coming to America, I felt “my place in the world” was disappearing faster than dust in a windstorm. Would Archer City really be the life-changing experience students had assured me of? All I knew was that I had to go and find out.

*

So the journey began on a scorching July afternoon in Texas, with a full tank of gas in a 2004 butter yellow convertible Volkswagen Beetle, a roll-on hand baggage, and an empty navy blue journal bought minutes before the journey.

I had considered driving solo but had never driven alone anywhere more than half an hour from home. What if the car broke down? What if I had a punctured tire? What if I got lost and no one could find me? A part of me wanted to get lost, forcing me to take control of my life and find my way back. Taking a solo road trip had lingered in my imagination ever since I had learned to drive. In my imagination, I would drive solo in my yellow convertible on Route 66, one of the most famous roads in America that had been a symbol of freedom and independence in popular movies and songs. But a bigger part lacked the gumption and courage to make even the two-hour drive to Archer City alone.

I tuned up the radio to drown my discordant thoughts. But the radio couldn’t suppress the memories of friends I had lost contact with and dashed hopes of becoming the writer I dreamed of becoming. All my failures – as a person, as a writer – stirred in my head, competing with the voices on the radio. When the afternoon stock report blasted through my speakers “The Dow Jones…..” I abruptly turned off the radio.

My sobs punctured the silence. Somewhere along the double-lane road, I confronted my biggest fear: America might be home. My parents made an abrupt decision: to choose life over home. They chose life, and moved to America while I was still clinging to memories of home. Yet over time I began awakening to a harsh reality: my home no longer existed. Lahore, Pakistan: the flimsy brown gate of my house, the Neem tree that bent over the verandah, white chairs in the backyard, the orange wall in my room. That house was empty now. Everything packed and taped, sealed with ropes and plastic for a who-knows-when time in an uncertain future.

*

I parked my car outside the Spur Hotel in Archer City. Eight strangers had signed up for a writers workshop designed to bore deeply into the lives of the locals, unearthing the stories that spoke to them. Just before sunset, about the same time the students finished unloading their suitcases and filling the refrigerator with basic supplies for the week, my professor showed up. “We’ll go to the dirt roads tonight,” he said. “We’ll follow Crystal.”

Crystal was a tomboy and a cowgirl who lived with a pretty blond named Fonda. That made them outcasts in Archer City. As in Larry McMurtry’s screenplay, “Brokeback Mountain,” gay relationships are not accepted in the cowboy culture of Archer City. Maybe that’s why Fonda and Crystal loved hanging out with “the writers,” as they called them.

Crystal wore a big smile and a messy, wavy bob. She had no makeup and it was hard to understand her through her thick Texan twang. But she and Fonda opened their heart and home for us strangers as if we were longtime friends.

We separated into two groups: One group rode in Crystal’s truck while the other climbed into the bed of my professor’s silver Ford Ranger. No streetlights lined the roads. Only the headlights of the trucks offered limited visibility as we moved off the paved streets of Archer City onto the dusty back roads. Loose gravel crunching beneath the tires, the truck caravan navigated the chalky trails surrounding Archer City. Dust blew, making it hard to breathe.

I thought of my childhood in Lahore; a seven-year-old me, chasing lightning bugs. I wished I could see them now. But the darkness was absolute. Crickets sang their song and the night sky twinkled with constellations. We slowed down and came to a stop. In the darkness, only our silhouettes were visible.

A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011.

Country music floated over our conversations. Through the worn-out speakers of Crystal’s truck, the local radio station blared one song after another mythologizing the cowboy culture, cattle, and the love of the land.

I was standing next to a fellow writer when he offered me a beer.

“No, thanks. I don’t drink,” I said.

“You’ve never had a drink?”

“No, it’s forbidden in Islam,” I said. “But I’ll try it some day. Just once.”

“You should do it today. I’ll get you one,” he wandered off in the darkness towards the cooler.

A minute later he came and handed me a beer. “Here you go!”

Reluctantly, I held the bottle, giggling. “What am I supposed to do? Just chug it down?”

“No, let’s have a toast.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, raising his voice above the others. Now all eyes were on me. “We have someone here who’s never had a beer in her life.”

“How old are you?” he asked me.

“Twenty-five,” I said.

“Twenty-five and never had a drink? Get on the truck. Come on, stand up!”

I climbed onto the back of Crystal’s truck and stood, holding a bottle of Shiner.

I pressed the cold glass bottle against my lips and tilted, threw back my head and gulped the liquid. One small sip and I swallowed. All Pakistani conventions shattered, all religious dogma abandoned.

The crowd cheered.

I dedicated my toast to my professor and our tribe of writers.

I had done something no one in my family had ever done. I had done something that would embarrass them.

Yet I didn’t feel it was wrong. In defying my religion, my culture, my entire past, I felt relieved of heavy baggage I had been carrying all my life. As I jumped down from that truck, I felt a rush – of falling and scrambling to stay afloat. In that moment I decided I would rather be the writer who tried and failed and rose up again rather than the writer who never tried. That day on the dirt roads I gained my rite of passage as a writer. A member of a tribe. A writer who jumped.

*

On our second day, we met Jackie. An aging, arthritic cowgirl with a biting wit, she seemed to see right through us, as if she possessed in her head x-ray images of our minds. She was such a brutal and honest critic of our writing, such a shrewd judge of personality, that we all swore she was an oracle, possessed with amazing psychic powers. We sat in a semi-circle in her backyard, the night stars game to our confessions. The only source of light was a bright yellow bulb and each time someone read their piece, they had to sit near the bulb. In reading our raw and often emotionally-charged rough drafts aloud in Jackie’s backyard, we exposed ourselves to Jackie in a way penitents expose themselves to a priest.

To one writer, Jackie said, “You are hiding from your true self.” She correctly noted that another was raised by a single mother even though that wasn’t revealed in his draft.

To me she said, “You’ve overcome your fears. You’ll be an amazing writer.” I wanted to believe her. But I was disappointed. She didn’t see through me deep enough to see that I was not an amazing writer. I cried as I read my piece.

Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her "the last real cowgirl." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her “the last real cowgirl.”

*

Earlier that day, gathering under a gigantic antler chandelier in the hotel lobby, my professor instructed us: “Images are doorways to your imagination,” he said. “Find an image that speaks to you and write about it.”

I didn’t know where to go. Everyone seemed to have a destination in mind. I stood still at the entrance of the lobby. Where was my image? Where was my imagination? I remembered seeing a sign pointing towards the Archer City cemetery. A low terra cotta wall marked the front boundary of the cemetery. I stood still at the gate and said a little prayer in Arabic. “Assalam-o- Alaikum ya eh lal qaboor.” Oh inmates of the graves, blessings on you. My mind went back to Pakistan.

I sat for hours on a concrete bench gazing into the scattered graves of people I didn’t know. I stared into the nothingness and slowly I could feel calm. I felt it was okay to walk alone. Mom and Dad might not always be there. I’ll be okay, I whispered to myself. I’ll be okay.

*

I know why I was drawn to Archer City. In so many ways it was like Lahore. You didn’t need to call before showing up at someone’s house. You ate and sat in the garden for hours and no one was in a hurry to leave. You shared stories and everyone listened because deep down, we all have a story we are yearning to tell and hear. In Archer City, the spirit of the Old West lingers on. Men wear cowboy hats and drive their rugged Rams and Silverados. They drive slowly through the blinking red light on the square. Amid the locals of Archer City, I found home. In the backyards of strangers on moonlit nights I found my voice. It’s been two years and a lot has changed. I have graduated. I finished the piece I started in Archer City and I went back again. This time I rolled down the windows, cracked up the music, sang along to songs and laughed at my old self.

Madiha K graduated with a masters in Journalism from the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Born and raised in Pakistan, she currently calls Texas her home. She is fascinated by human stories of migration and concepts of home. Her work has been published in Warscapes.

* * *

How the Hell Did I Get Here?

By Alicia Auping

Dust swirls. It’s a staring contest, and I’m losing. My opponent’s eyes are pools of black bulging from his head. His head is the size of my entire body, and he lowers it, swinging it back and forth. Never mind the horns.

How the hell did I get here?

Even though I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, for almost ten years, astonishingly I never stepped foot into the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The closest the annual rodeo ever came to affecting me was the overflow parking that invaded The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where my dad is chief curator. That’s my world: art, poetry, literature.

I spent my formative years in Buffalo, New York. I’m a city girl. I don’t like horses. My encounters with horses have been limited to Susan Rothenberg’s abstract renderings. Horses terrify me. The biggest animal I’ve ever been comfortable around was my black lab, Amigo, and until today, my only glimpse of the inside of a rodeo is a picture sitting on the front desk of the Spur Hotel in Archer City, Texas.

Seven days ago I arrived in Archer City to attend a literary journalism class. I’ve learned a lot over the past week about writing, and about myself. I’ve bonded with an eight-year-old Archer City icon and a ten-year-old cowgirl, attended a cattle auction, won bingo at the community center and learned how to play pool at the American Legion.

Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. 

Now, I’m running for my life.

I’m at the Boomtown Rodeo in Burkburnett, Texas, with my classmate Jason Yang and our teacher George Getschow. My bug-splattered Toyota RAV4 sits in a grassy lot, dwarfed by heavy-duty pickup trucks extended in length by horse trailers. We follow a chorus of whoops, hollers and whinnies toward the entrance to the rodeo grounds, and our noses are met with a rare mixture of sweet and pungent aromas: nachos, cotton candy and living, breathing animals. Young and old cowboys are walking around in worn jeans and boots with huge hats and belt buckles. Their women are wearing head-to-toe denim dripping in sparkly sequins and rhinestones. I wish I’d packed my Bedazzler.

Enormous dragonflies and beetles swoop and dive amid the festivities. Young wranglers practice their roping skills a few yards away. A small child passes by on a miniature horse, and I do a double take. It’s a country western circus.

A veteran of the rodeo circuit, Archer City resident Don Masey, explains all the events to us — barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding, and one of our favorites, the calf scramble. It’s adorable. A ribbon is tied to the tail of a calf and children chase after it to get the ribbon.

When the adult scramble is announced, George practically shoves me and Jason off the bleachers. We hesitate but then give in. Why the hell not? We can chase a calf. It’ll be fun.

We join the parade of good ole boys heading toward the entrance to the arena. I look around at the muscle-bound young men sporting wranglers, boots and cowboy hats, strutting into the ring. Their hands are calloused. I rub my hands together self-consciously; they’re as soft as peach skin.

I look at Jason’s crisply pressed button-down shirt tucked into his slacks, then at my own jeans and sneakers.

“I’m going to be the only girl out there!”

“I’m the only Asian at the entire rodeo!”

And those are the last words we exchange before we step into the ring.

I look down at my neon yellow Nikes kicking up a combination of sand, dirt and manure. They leave a foreign footprint on the ground, which is accustomed to the familiar imprint of cowboy boots.

There is a wall of cowboys in front of us. I can’t see over their Stetsons. I feel like everyone’s staring at me, a Lilliputian under the bright lights. Who are those weirdos? What the hell are they doing in our rodeo arena?

I’m ready to get this over with.

All of a sudden, the wall of bodies scatters. Jason and I stand in the middle of the mayhem as still as stones.

My heart stops.

Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard.

“Oh my God, it’s a fucking bull!” I don’t know which one of us says it before we run in opposite directions just in time for the bull to trample the ground where we were standing seconds ago.

My heart has kicked back in at double-time.

I lose sight of Jason in the commotion. I’m disoriented. I don’t know whether to run towards or away from the bull. I’m caught in a cyclone of broad shoulders and cowboy hats. My eyes sting from the dust. Where’s Jason?

Then I see him.

He runs head-on towards the bull. What is he doing? He’s so close. He reaches for the ribbon tied between the bull’s horns. Oh my God, I think, he’s either going to get that ribbon or he’s going to die.

He doesn’t get the ribbon, and he doesn’t die. His fingers are mere inches away from the delicate ribbon dancing around the horns of the snorting, heaving behemoth. Dressed in perfectly pressed business attire, facing a bull head-on, he realizes what he has gotten himself into. At the last minute, he veers out of harm’s way, and a strapping young man twice his size swoops in, easily slipping the bow off its beastly horns like a present on Christmas morning.

The winner, a seasoned cowboy, struts around the ring, grasping the ribbon in his hand like he had just won a million dollars. In reality, it was fifty dollars and bragging rights.

Jason and I meet up and walk out of the ring with the crowd. Our fellow participants pat us on the back laughing because even that bull knew we didn’t belong there. We laugh back, relieved yet proud, knowing we’ve shared an experience we’ll never forget.

Fear is a valuable emotion for a writer. Adrenaline kicks in, and our senses go on hyper-alert. When we are scared we remember every minute detail. This is what writers do to find a story. I’ve learned that being a writer is scary, and it’s normal for me to feel that way. It takes courage to write. Not just courage to translate your thoughts onto paper but courage to step outside your comfort zone, into a world that is so strange and so terrifying.

Like a rodeo ring occupied by a gigantic, ornery bull.

Alicia Auping is an alumna of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, where she also received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. A current contributor to the Dallas Observer’s arts and culture blog, Mixmaster, her work has been published in Denton Live, Denton-Record Chronicle and Mayborn magazine. ‬

* * *

The Bookkeeper

By Nicole Holland Pearce

There he is. A small, rumpled figure unloading books from a sea of boxes, throwing out volumes, piling others on top of themselves. It is methodic. Bookshelves surround him, stretching from floor to ceiling. He stands in the center of them, near a large table, which is also filled with books overflowing to the floor. I walk up behind him on the balls of my feet. His light gray hair tufts ungraciously on his head, and thick plastic eyeglasses lie across his nose. On a stark white strip of paper, taped on their side, it reads, “Mr. McMurtry.” I clear my throat and ask him where he found the shipment he is unloading. Stacks salvaged from the Fort Worth Library. He turns to face me.

“What’s your name?” he says.

“Nicole.”

“I’m Larry.”

“I know,” I say, smiling.

The author I’d fallen in love with, like a lot of Texans first did — with Lonesome Dove — stands in front of me. When I was about ten years old, I devoured the 945-page epic—to this day, the longest book I’ve read. I adored the story of Gus and Call and spent Sunday afternoons watching the movie next to my dad. It was those Sundays that I really got to know him — how much he liked reggae, his interest in Westerns, his talent for grilling — more than when he and my mom were married. When we were together, he spent his time making sure I learned how to use my head: we read about nature, he encouraged me to write. He even taught me how to box.

When he died a few months before my sixteenth birthday, it shook more than my foundation, but my confidence in myself. It wasn’t for another decade that I’d accept how his death had caused my esteem to plummet. I’d fail classes, misbehave and close myself off from the world. I’d protect myself with mental armor. I’d refuse to be vulnerable or expose my true feelings.

I stare at Larry. It has taken me fifteen years to get to this spot. The long journey to the dusty, bantam town of Archer City started when I knew I wanted to write more than anything in the world. And like many roads, mine up to this point had been winding.

*

When I drove into Archer City that early February day, the town was deserted. No traffic passed under the blinking stoplight, no shoppers mingled in the thrift store. I parked in front of The Spur Hotel, pulled the keys out of the ignition and walked down the town’s main artery, Center Street, heading to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2.

Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel "Lonesome Dove." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel “Lonesome Dove.”

As I maneuvered each volume off the top shelf, I felt like I was on a dig — excavating remnants of history from a forgotten place. Some of the antiquarian books were so old that touching them elicited a rust-colored chalk from their covers. Some of the spines looked like the bark of an oak. These books were about to turn back into the trees they were made from, I thought to myself. I felt as if I should be wearing gloves, as if someone should be monitoring this back room to make sure I’m delicate, to make sure I don’t steal. But it was completely empty. I sat down on the ground and scribbled on a notepad.

I walked across the street to the main bookstore, Booked Up No. 1, to see if I could find inspiration. My desires rolled around in my head like pinballs ricocheted by self-doubt. I feel like I’m running out of time to make a name for myself. To make it as a writer. My own waning confidence halted me. I found it harder and harder to write. Like many writers, the desire to perform well can often diminish the desire to perform at all. A blank page is sometimes easier to tolerate than a terrible paragraph. The pressure put on writers by deadlines and editors doesn’t even measure up to the pressure we put on ourselves.

I remember when I really loved writing. My first short story was written on my dad’s laptop — twelve typed pages about a set of twin siblings washed away in a flood. When I went to work with him the next day, he told all the office women with teased hairdos and heavy perfume that his daughter was going to write a book one day, and I believed him. Now when I sit in front of a stark computer screen, the cursor patiently blinks. I’m afraid to let go. I write, then press delete.

*

Larry stares at me.

“Can you show me your rare book room?” I ask.

We walk back across the hot stretch of highway to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2. I pull down Dante’s classic, The Divine Comedy. “Is this the first edition?” I ask. He examines it. I can tell he may not even care to recall when or how he acquired it. “No,” he says after some thought. “It’s just a fancy edition in German.”

A stack of railway records sits next to him. In the front, a pile of British lit. A heap of random anthologies. Four bookstores filled to the brim, overflowing. I ask him: “What are you going to do with all of this?”

“I don’t rightly know,” he says. “I’m the last bookseller, and bookselling is dying. Truly dying.” He says it like a man whose passion is fading away in front of him. I understand this. Despite my effort to write, it seems my ability is slipping away.

*

When I was thirteen, I told my dad I wanted to drive a red convertible. I said I couldn’t wait to find out what it felt like to have the wind tangling my hair. The freedom of it. When he picked me up on his next visit, on Valentine’s Day, it was in a cherry-colored Chrysler LeBaron. The Red Baron, we called it. It was a rental, but it was my dream car. We drove all over Interstate 10. I’m sure, as a single man — divorced from my mother for almost five years — the car served as much to his benefit as it did as a gift for his daughter. But, I choose to remember it as my gift from Dad. He remarried a year after that, to a lighthearted woman named Cindi whom I grew to love, because he did.

I leave Archer City that evening after my short conversation with Larry. He calls me the next day. It’s a Sunday. “I’d like to show you where I grew up,” he says, and invites me back out to Archer. On Monday, a bouquet of flowers arrives. The card reads: “Happy Valentine’s Day. Larry.” All I can think is, ohmygod!

On Monday, we meet at Booked Up No. 1. Larry drives a modest four-door sedan. We stand between his front bumper and the front door to the bookstore and stare at each other for a moment before he says, “Ready for our adventure?”

As he drives down the two-lane highway, heading toward his Archer City residence, he tells me about the crew of carpenters who have momentarily taken over his home. They’re working on some updates because his niece will be married there in the spring.

I spent a lot of my adolescence in the passenger seat — all those car trips back and forth between Victoria and San Antonio. The passenger seat became my safe place. My dad would pick me up from my mom’s house, and we’d make the three-hour drive. One weekend, we pulled into our town’s small gas station. He asked me to buy some beer for him while he filled up the tank. I was eleven. I was proud to do it and had no doubt the six-pack of Budweiser would be packaged and sold to me. “You must be Gary’s daughter,” the woman behind the counter said. “Yep. Just this, please.” She wiped a piece of dry blond hair out of her thin lips, which parted into a smile. “Okay, sweetheart.” I walked out with the brown paper bag creased at the top and hopped into the passenger seat of the car. I’m not sure, but I like to think my dad was testing my courage, like he’d do from time to time. That’s the thing about losing a parent. I’m left to connect the dots, and sometimes the pictures I put together may not be accurate. But it’s what I have. He popped open a sweating can, and we drove out into the afternoon — the hot Texas sun piercing the windshield.

A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010.

Larry and I twist through his modest neighborhood, designed before curbs and cul-de-sacs became popular. I smile at strangers like I’m supposed to smile at them. It’s what you do in a car with a literary megastar, isn’t it? Or do you just stare out the window? Or do you stare at your feet? I look at Larry as he turns into the driveway, pulling in front of his private library, a little two-story wonderment he calls the book house. It sits a few yards behind his main house and holds some of his most prized editions. Inside, the floor looks like an old-fashioned diner — a pattern of black and white tiles. Sunlight floods the space. “Over here is popular culture,” he says pointing to a wall of colorful spines aligned on the wall. “Up there is Western Americana.” A sturdy set of white wooden stairs with apple red railings leads up to the second story, which is brimming with countless editions in sets of white shelving. Every few yards, a large naked window breaks up the walls of books. Downstairs, near the doors, sits an amassment of H.G. Wells books, for which he paid $60,000. It’s worth twice as much today. “This is the second best H.G. Wells collection in the world,” he says. He seems O.K. with that: “Book collecting isn’t a race.” His bookstores hold 400,000 volumes. So if it were a race, he’d be standing in the winners’ circle.

*

My dad called one evening to say I’d forgotten my toothbrush, and that’s the last time I ever talked to him. A few days later, he was in the hospital. He had a heart attack and died a day later. A week following, I got a letter from Cindi in the mail. It was on thick stationery with laced edges and the handwriting was ornate, written with an inky black pen: Dear Nicole, I know how much your dad meant to you…

It went on this way for three adorned pages. I never heard from her again.

For the three years that followed, missing him went in phases. Some nights I cried, others I was angry. I read about a girl whose dad died when she was young. She was in so much denial that for months she thought he was hiding in her closet. I can’t remember how many times I’ve dreamt that I’ve found him in another city, living another life.

Here on Idiot Ridge, where Larry penned “Lonesome Dove,” the grass around the front gate is overgrown. A sharp, cold wind, even in the bright sunlight, makes us pull our coats around us as we walk inside his house. A patterned couch sits with its back against the living room’s large window, facing the small dining room, which leads to a smaller kitchen. It’s filled with bookshelves stuffed with books. He tells me his son uses the house from time to time when he’s in town. I walk around on the worn wooden floors. Larry’s father and grandfather built it, a “simple shotgun house,” he calls it. His love affair with reading began in 1942, when his cousin, Robert Hilburn, stopped by the house and dropped off a small box. It held nineteen books, just standard boys’ books, but he read them through and again. “That was my library,” he says. Now, his personal collection holds more than 28,000. Book collecting makes Larry happy; writing fills in the rest.

Over lunch — sandwiches at a little cafe in Wichita Falls — I sit across from the man who has never had writer’s block. Never uses a computer. Who doesn’t wear a watch and methodically writes five pages a day, every day, his entire career. “You’ll be surprised how that adds up,” he says. “I’m seventy-four and I’ve written forty-three books.” I talk about my recent writing struggles, and he simply tells me he looks at writing as a job. He doesn’t get flustered by it, doesn’t agonize over it, doesn’t dread it.

On our way back to Archer, he talks about overcoming a severe depression that he suffered a few months back, leaving him worn and empty. Today, he looks like a much healthier man. New projects on the horizon, and what I’ll learn later — a marriage to Faye Kesey, widow of the late literary luminary, Ken Kesey. As he drives, I tell him how much I want to be a writer. Well, that I am a writer — but I’m longing to make a living by it. Write a memoir one day.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Twenty-nine.”

“You have plenty of time to venture out into books.”

“Thanks,” I say, thinking of my dad, who gave me the same advice. Maybe this time I’ll take it.

Nicole Holland Pearce earned her master’s degree at the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism. She’s been writing professionally for ten years, covering everything from a fifty-mile canoe trip down the Brazos River to the national mortgage crisis. She lives in Dallas with her husband Eric and two four-legged children, Cora and Diego.

The Archer City Writers Workshop is part of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Begun in 2005 by George Getschow, the in-residence workshop at the Spur Hotel in Archer City is a component of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the pre-eminent literary nonfiction conference in the country. More stories from the workshop can be found here.

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

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. 

* *

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

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

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

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.

* * *

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

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