When my boyfriend took a job helping a widow clean out her house, among the urine-soaked rugs and years-old piles of laundry, I saw our relationship in a new light.
David Murphy rang the doorbell of a typical suburban house, set far back from a busy street amid trees and shrubs. An older woman opened the door, accompanied by a short, elderly dog and a tall, scruffy, younger one. “Come in, dear,” she said, leading him into a sitting room. Everywhere he looked, piles of clothes and bags of papers lined the walls. She’d used all the wall space and started hanging pictures from the bookshelves. Thick dust coated everything. And then, the smell hit him: dog urine.
Her name was Sandy Edgerly. Her gray hair twisted on each side of her head and met in a bun. Her shirt was buttoned to the neck, and she slid the house slippers from her feet the instant she sat down, pulling her legs up under her. As she explained the job – yard work, projects around the house, and some light housework – David surveyed the chaos surrounding them, considering the disconnect between what she was hiring him to do and what actually needed doing. She wanted someone for about ten hours a week and she could pay twelve dollars per hour.
David had just moved to Chapel Hill. In Fort Lauderdale, he’d worked at an eyeglass office for two years. He hated it. He hated wearing dress shirts and slacks and ties. He hated selling and managing and sitting in an overly air-conditioned office. So when he moved to North Carolina he wanted a different life.
This was exactly what he was looking for.
* * *
In the month between turning 25 and starting my first grown-up job as a middle school teacher, I met David. It was the end of a solitary year that followed four years of back-to-back relationships. When he pulled back from our first kiss on a windy Fort Lauderdale beach, he looked toward the dark sky and said, “I think I’m in trouble.”
I’d never experienced the luxury of being certain how much someone liked me. When David looked at me, I could feel interest emanating from him. He touched me as though I was the loveliest woman he’d ever come across. Nine months in I bought him a thrift-store hand-blown glass vase – a vase I liked so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it.
“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t have to if you moved in.”
With him, I learned how to be in an adult relationship. We spent time together and time alone. Our stuff merged well and we had a room of our own in the apartment we shared. When we fought no one yelled. Instead we talked and worked to put us back together. I was happy, secure, safe.
I was also doubtful and afraid. Someone said to me, “We don’t go into relationships expecting them to end.” But, I did. They always had an expiration date. My parents divorced when I was seven and the only happy long-term couple I knew was supposedly a sham – the man was rumored to be gay.
With David, I went through phases. Unsure, especially in the face of his certainty. Then I’d focus on my desire to be with him for that day alone. The days added up and I forgot about my doubts for a while.
* * *
On the second day, Sandy gave David a full tour of her seven-thousand-square-foot home. She’d dressed to work in a ball cap and noticed that he did, too, in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. With evident embarrassment, she led him deeper into the house, where she never allowed anyone to go. They walked by laundry baskets that had been sitting beside the front door for six years as she talked about how she and her husband liked to collect things with a history. Over 41 years they’d amassed a large collection of books, figurines, art, furniture, dishes, and clothes. Art leaned against walls, lurked under beds, hid in closets. They’d been meaning to do a thorough cleaning when John was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2006. By September he was gone. Friends washed her clothes and brought them back in those laundry baskets, but she hadn’t put the clothes away or even moved the baskets since the funeral.
She showed David the garage, so full they couldn’t walk into it. The basement and an accompanying apartment were cluttered with not only clothes and papers, but also archaic electronics, obsolete health care items, and old office supplies. David got to work without awaiting instruction, excavating walkways mid-tour.
Soon they were working forty hours a week. And they had some disagreements. He pulled up the oriental rugs that old Lucky had coated in urine and took them to the cleaners. He wanted Lucky confined to one room, but Sandy wanted him to roam. They compromised: the bedrooms were off limits and the clean rugs would remain in the basement until Lucky went to his heavenly reward. David sorted everything into categories: Keep and Put Away, Give to Charity, Throw Away.
Each day Sandy started off with David, telling him what pile each object belonged in. But she often got tired and had to go rest in the living room. Then he grew bolder, sorting on his own. She always checked the trash after he’d gone and if she saved anything – a piece of ribbon, a Halloween decoration – she jokingly chided him for getting rid of it the next day.
* * *
I heard about Sandy for months before I met her one October night. David and I sat on one side of a booth, with Sandy on the other, at a K&W Cafeteria. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, spinach, macaroni and cheese, coconut pie, cornbread, and biscuits were arrayed on the table between us.
Sandy talked about her childhood in Tennessee and about meeting her husband at college in Knoxville. It was an accident – she hadn’t even wanted to date. She was working full-time as the fashion coordinator at Sears and planned to stay in that world. She only went out with John as a favor to a friend. At dinner they had so much to say to one another that she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. From then on that’s the one thing she knew: she wanted to be with him.
When they discovered that their jobs were incompatible – his stable and needing roots, hers ever changing and requiring frequent moving – she gave up her career for him. When they couldn’t have children, she decided he was enough. When they ended up having a son anyway, she stayed home with him. When she was sad she wanted John; when her mom was sick she wanted John. She was proud of him. After he was gone her world fell apart.
Sandy talked so much that night she hardly touched her food. David picked up the conversation so that she had time to eat. I reached for his hand under the table and pressed my leg against his. I thought about our love. I was an anxious person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by the world. When we first started dating I tried to shield him from that. If I started “feeling funny” when we were together, I’d go home. But over time I came to rely upon his love. The way he’d just comfort without trying to fix me. I squeezed his hand. Hearing Sandy talk about John reminded me of the safety I felt with him.
I looked at him. He was dark-haired. Narrow, but not exactly slim, with rounded shoulders and a head that jutted forward slightly when he wasn’t thinking about it. The expression on his face was either obviously charmed by what he heard or his lips were slightly pursed in what looked like bewilderment, but was usually concentration. I thought about how we’d moved to Chapel Hill so that I could attend graduate school. I loved coming home to him in our old rented farmhouse and feeling his warm body against mine, but I also judged and questioned him. At a department party I worried about what he would say and do, what my new colleagues would think of him. It took him three or four sentences, punctuated by pauses, to answer a question. These slow and measured responses frustrated me. Was I ready for this to be the person I would choose?
* * *
Sandy and David spent most days together. Now the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window knew not only her name, but his, too. They were parked in her minivan under a tree when she told him about the accident. One night after work seventeen years before she was standing at the post office counter, below the half-lowered metal door, rummaging through her purse when someone yelled “Ma’am!” She heard a terrifically loud noise and felt a blow that started in her head, traveled down her spine and into her feet. She thought, I’ve been shot.
She’d actually been hit on the head by the 884-pound metal door above her. After that everything changed. It marked the beginning of her second life. Her memory suffered. She couldn’t retain information that she read. She couldn’t drive because she couldn’t gauge the distance between her and the cars in front of her. Her body wouldn’t do what her mind told it to. She slept for twenty hours a day.
Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. John called this “laying-a-bed” and would often take her to breakfast, to visit a friend, or to her favorite antique store as a remedy. By the time David met her, a lot had changed: she read all the time and she drove just fine. But she still slept a lot, had difficulty remembering and sorting things, and sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. Without John, she didn’t know what to do with herself when she felt this way. Her house was full of her and John and their life together. She didn’t know how to attack it, so she just moved around it – adding to it over the years until it was unbearable.
Sandy hosted Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the first time in six years that the house teemed with people. Sandy and David had done so much work that Sandy’s granddaughter was allowed to roam free. Sandy told her son, “You can even look in the closets.”
* * *
After our dinner at K&W Cafeteria I started thinking about Sandy and the stories David told me. Her laying-a-bed reminded me of the way I felt sometimes and how David tried to cajole me out of it, just like John. But did I love David the same way that Sandy had loved John? With a devastating, messy, no-doubt-about-it love?
One day while sitting next to her fireplace she told me about their wedding night. They’d gone to Gatlinburg for a weekend honeymoon and after John fell asleep she thought, “What in the world have I done?” She didn’t know how to be a wife. Before she met John, she had not even wanted to marry.
John woke in the middle of the night, and saw her packing a bag, preparing to leave him. He suggested she wait till morning, because it was snowing and they were both tired. At breakfast she said, “The best I can offer you is one day at a time.”
“I’ll take it,” he said.
At first this story relieved me. Her early uncertainty legitimized mine. She brought me into her bedroom and opened the closet. David had pushed her to get rid of John’s clothes, but a few items remained. She ran her fingers down the arm of a shirt. Sandy was aware of the importance she placed on belongings. She realized that her house and her stuff told the story of who she was not only to others, but also to herself. Her belongings reinforced her identity.
With David, through cleaning, sorting, and decluttering, Sandy renegotiated her identity. She didn’t need to keep everything in order for her to know who she was. Select items allowed her to hold on to a sense of her history, her accumulated identity, while also discovering a new version of herself. A version that put new wallpaper in the kitchen – wallpaper not for John, not for her son, but for herself. She decided that this marked the beginning of her third life.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized she had been sure of John. She’d doubted him that night, but she’d been sure from that first date when they had so much to say to one another, she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. With David and me, talking was something I worried about. Sometimes when we sat silently in a restaurant I thought it meant we weren’t right for each other, but David felt it was a sign of comfort and love.
Sandy gave up everything for John. And because of the life she got in return, she had few regrets. I was afraid to give up my alternate realties, the other versions of my life, of myself. David promised that I could hold onto his certainty, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.
* * *
David helped Sandy over the next year and a half in a reduced capacity, which was more like the job as originally advertised. She still bought more stuff than most people – QVC boxes showed up on her doorstep weekly. Most of the time she was unapologetic about this, but sometimes she hid things from David. One day she placed the winning bid on an oil painting showing a harbor scene at an auction. When she picked it up afterward she realized it wasn’t painted as well as she thought. On the way home she decided she wouldn’t tell David. She’d touch it up with some paint herself and then hang it on the wall surrounded by other, better paintings. Then she’d show him. That way she could skip him giving her a hard time.
David now lives in Columbus. I live in Pittsburgh. Moving across state lines together again felt like marriage, like forever. And I couldn’t promise him forever. That glass vase I bought him sits on a bookshelf in the apartment he lives in alone. He spends Thanksgiving with Sandy every year. Her house is full, but she isn’t hoarding papers in bags. The aroma of dog piss cannot be detected. Her grandkids are allowed to wander and she’s not ashamed to have friends over. This house, that they put so much work into, holds all her selves: her childhood, her life with John, her son, the accident, John’s death, and her by herself. For the first time she’s living a solitary life, and she doesn’t hate it.
As an Ivy League-educated journalist who has reported on scams and their victims, I certainly never thought I’d fall for one myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I received a call on my home phone recently from someone who identified himself as Officer Jason Dean with the Investigative Bureau of the Department of Treasury. He said an arrest warrant had been issued in my name for failure to respond to IRS Notice CP503 — a third reminder — informing me that I owed $5,347 in back taxes. He said my home and cell phones were being traced and I should not attempt to leave the city.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “I never received any notices.”
“That is not my concern,” he replied. “We’re only calling you as a courtesy to inform you that you will be arrested and charged with failure to meet federal taxation requirements, malicious conduct, and theft by deception. You will be arrested within the next two hours and held in custody for six months pending an investigation.”
And just like that, I was caught in what has become the biggest tax scam in American history.
I called upstairs to my teenage son and told him to call his other mother and tell her to come home. Then I got back on the phone and asked for more details, trying to prove to myself I could dismiss this as a hoax. I asked for the address they had for me. (He had it right.) I asked for the tax year this issue allegedly stemmed from. (2011.) I asked for my Social Security number. (He said he was not permitted to give this over the phone.)
I usually do my own taxes, and I am never completely confident that I get it right. Just a few months ago, I had received notice that I owed about $700 in back taxes for income I’d forgotten to include on my 2013 return. More recently, I filed my 2014 taxes, hoping I’d done them right. But 2011? I couldn’t even remember what I’d reported.
But the man on the phone was done talking. He repeated that I must not leave the area, or I would be charged with evading the police. Then he prepared to hang up.
“Wait,” I said. “This has to be a mistake. If I owed back taxes, I would pay back taxes.”
He paused and asked, “Can you tell me truthfully you have the intention to pay any taxes you owe?”
“Yes, of course,” I said.
He said he could transfer me to another unit that might be able to help. But, he warned, they don’t have to. (It sounded ridiculous but I wasn’t quibbling.)
A moment later, another man came on the line, identifying himself as Investigator Duane Maguire. He repeated that I would be held in custody for six months while a lien was put on my property.
Thinking this all bizarre but also thinking that things do go terribly wrong for people every day, I asked what I could do.
“The payment options are closed,” he said. “This is a criminal tax fraud case.”
“There must be something,” I said, adding, “Look, I have children.”
“Let me ask you,” he said, “Have you ever been arrested before?”
Assured I had not been, he said there was one possibility — if he could obtain a 1099C form for out-of-court restitution for cancellation of debt. But this would be difficult to secure, and there was not much time.
Just then, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read 911.
I told the man on the phone the police were calling me. “911? Already?” he said. “Don’t pick it up. They are trying to trace your location to make the arrest. I will try to call them off. Just don’t pick it up.”
He then explained what I would have to do to avoid being arrested. “I cannot take any personal information from you,” he said. “But if you obtain an Instant Tax Payment voucher at the bank and give me the code on it, I can obtain the 1099C form.” This, he said, would give me 48 hours to visit an IRS office and clear things up. But, he insisted, you must stay on the phone with me at all times until the process is completed. This made no sense. But I didn’t question it.
I looked at the kitchen clock. It was 5:10 p.m. I told him I had to pick up my son from baseball practice.
“I can call you on your cell phone but you have to stay on with me while you pick up your son and go to the bank,” he said, adding: “This is a federally monitored and recorded line, and you must not discuss what is happening with anyone or you will be in violation of federal law.” I raced upstairs and told my son what was happening and that he should relay it all to his other mother, Kate.
My cell phone rang. It was 911. It rang again. It was Kate. It rang again. It was 911. It rang again. It was the alleged Investigator Maguire. Bringing the phone with me, I rushed out of the house, telling my son to come with me to drive and refusing him a moment to change out of his pajamas.
In the car, the call came over the speaker, and when the caller put me on hold a few minutes later, I used my son’s cell to call Kate.
Within twenty seconds, he came back on and asked, “Who are you talking to? I told you this is a federally monitored phone, and you cannot speak about this with anyone. You are breaking federal law.”
I kept my son’s cell line open so Kate could hear.
“Is anyone else with you?” he asked.
“No,” I said, signaling my son not to say anything.
When we arrived at the ball field, I found my eleven-year-old in the dugout and told him something had happened and there would be a voice on the car phone as we drove home but he was not to say anything. He complied until the man asked how far I was from the bank.
“What did you do?” my younger son asked. “Rob a bank or something?”
I signaled for him to be quiet, dropped my kids off at home, and drove to Wells Fargo. It was 5:40 p.m. and the bank closed at six.
I had made no decision to withdraw the $5,347. But I was definitely operating on the premise that I needed to get to the bank before it closed to keep my options open. If it was a scam, I thought, they would tell me. If it was real, I would have to access the funds that would keep me out of jail.
At a stoplight, I glanced at the texts that had come in from Kate:
“Do not take money from the bank!!! Pls call the police instead.”
“Pls speak with Marcus at the Wells Fargo before withdrawing any money.”
A moment later, I was standing before Marcus. The IRS, presumably, was still on hold.
“Kate talked to the police and is 100 percent sure this is a scam,” Marcus said. “So is my manager.”
“100 percent?” I asked.
“100 percent,” he repeated.
He walked me over to the bank manager who explained: It used to be about lottery winnings. Now it is about alleged threats from the IRS.
As I sipped a glass of water, and my rushing adrenalin began to subside, the whole thing suddenly seemed so obviously ridiculous. And it was no surprise that when I got back on the phone, the alleged Investigator Maguire, who must have sensed this fish getting away, was no longer there.
Throughout my hour-long ordeal I was very aware that it could be a scam, and that there were many things that didn’t make sense. Yet I was also deeply afraid that it could be true — that I could have made a mistake on my tax forms; that IRS forms could have been sent but never arrived; and that events could get out of control and go terribly wrong. And this combination of plausibility, fear and confusion soon drove most rational thoughts from my head.
Since the IRS-Impersonation Telephone Scam began in 2013, it has targeted more than 400,000 Americans. More than 3,000 have been successfully conned out of thousands of dollars and more, according to Congressional testimony by Timothy P. Camus, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations and Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The total take: approximately $15.5 million.
If anyone should have known better, it was me. I’m a somewhat experienced adult, with more than one degree from an Ivy League university. In my career as a journalist, I’ve researched the ways our minds fall for tricks like this. I’ve even reported on scams that cheated people out of big down payments on houses and tricked others into buying previously wrecked cars. But the truth is that I fell for this scam — almost completely.
And if you think that you wouldn’t, you might consider what Stanford University scam expert Martha Deevy, Director of the Financial Security Division at the University’s Center on Longevity, has to say. Contrary to popular opinion, Deevy and her colleagues have found that no one type of person tends to be vulnerable to a financial scam but, rather, certain types of people are vulnerable to certain types of scams.
For example, older women who live alone tend to be more vulnerable to confidence scams in which someone promises a large sum of money for a small fee (a fee that grows as the target is drawn in). Educated middle-aged Caucasian men who identify as financially literate tend to be vulnerable to investment frauds. And while the IRS scam is too new for researchers to have identified a typical victim profile, Deevy suggests that it is likely to be “law-abiding citizens who are confused by the IRS” — which, she adds, represents a very large number of us. In fact, when Deevy received a voicemail from an IRS scammer herself, she said she had to listen to it four times before concluding it was not real.
“These guys,” she says, “are very good.”
Unlike most scams that attempt to trigger the desire for gain, the IRS scam rests on something more deeply hardwired in the brain — the fear of loss, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and others have found, is a twice as powerful motivator. And fear of the loss of personal freedom is one of the most powerful fears there is. For me, it made the chance of losing $5,347 seem a trivial risk in comparison to the possibility that I had unwittingly brought trouble on myself that could land me in jail. So I kept taking this call seriously until it was absolutely clear to me it was not.
This quality of uncertainty, says Stanford’s Deevy, is precisely what these scammers prey on. “The IRS, in particular, even in a law-abiding person, is such a mystery. You think, ‘Did I miss something? Did I screw something up? They have seven years to come after me.’ It’s not indisputable that you could have done something incorrect. It’s plausible — and that’s why people get hooked. You might know it doesn’t sound right but you also think if you are wrong about that, the stakes are so high.”
Couple all this with the seeming urgency of the threat (the police will be there in two hours), the creation of isolation (you must not talk to anyone about this), and the apparent external affirmation (repeated 911 calls), and you have the ingredients for a scam that can get to people who should know better. Indeed, for me, it almost entirely stopped me from doing what is second nature: Google it. Talk to other people. And think.
If I had done any of those things, I would have known that the IRS never calls to demand immediate payment without giving you the opportunity to question it or discuss an appeal. Nor does it threaten law enforcement. Nor does a call from 911 appear as 911 on your phone. But fear put me in an altered space that, by the following day, made the whole experience feel like a dream.
Once back to my senses, I hesitated to share my story because it is embarrassing to say one fell, or almost fell, for a scam. People are quick to judge in these situations — if only because one does not want to imagine oneself being similarly vulnerable. But in the end, I decided to swallow my pride in the hope that sharing the story might help someone else recognize this scam for what it is, before their fear triggers are similarly activated, at the risk of overwhelming usually more rational minds.
* * *
Lisa Bennettis coauthor of Ecoliterate and a contributor to The Compassionate Instinct and other books. She is currently writing a memoir about how the most challenging issues of our times help teach us the most important things about being human. She is on Twitter @LisaPBennett.
Marley Allen-Ash is an illustrator from Toronto creating work through printmaking and digital media. Follow her on Instagram at @marleyallenash and see more of her work on her website www.marleyallenash.com.
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic 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.”
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!
After years of avoiding love, I found a match that seemed almost too perfect. We were practically walking down the aisle before I realized it really was too good to be true.
“So let me get this right. You’re Italian but you’re a resident of India.”
“And your fiancé is Canadian. Resident of Canada.”
“Yes, but he lives in India.”
“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”
“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”
“That doesn’t matter to us. It’s a parish matter, they take care of the paperwork. Did you discuss it with your Italian priest?”
“My parish is in Delhi because I am a resident here. Anyway yes, we have permission to have the ceremony in Italy. We still need the bishop’s permission for the mixed religion marriage, but that should arrive soon.”
“So all we need is a certificate that says your fiancé has never been married before. A nulla osta. And then we can process the documents.”
“See, that’s why I called. Canada doesn’t really have that certificate.”
“Did you check with the Canadian embassy in Rome?”
“Yeah. They say they have nothing to do with this.”
“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”
The lady at the Italian embassy in Delhi wasn’t able to help. She’d never seen this before. Our wedding was just like us: Unique, unconventional, and a little all over the place. It looked impossible. Four months from the day and nothing was confirmed.
“It’s not going to work. Nothing’s ready.” I called him in a panic as soon as he woke up, in Canada. In India, it was evening already.
“Amore mio, that’s not true,” he replied. “Everything’s set. We’ll get the paperwork done.”
He was right. We had a venue, a fairytale-like villa on the Amalfi Coast. I had a dress — an expensive affair that looked just understated enough: When I tried it on I teared up immediately, surprising my cynical self at the belief that it was “the one.” The invites, designed by a talented friend, were about to be printed. Save the dates were sent — all our favorite people couldn’t wait to be there.
We had even received our certificate from the church after a two-day intensive course instructing us on how to start a good Catholic family. Not that we were going to be a Catholic family, but the course was compulsory to get married in a church —which I wanted, not for religious reasons but because I liked the tradition — and he had accepted to do, to please me. The course was on the outskirts of Delhi, and for two days we stayed in a nunnery with other couples, sleeping on different floors (the men upstairs, the women below) and attending classes on family values and conjugal duties. A foreign couple wasn’t the norm, and we were the center of attention — particularly when questions about sex came up and everyone assumed, despite our amused protesting, that we knew more about it than the teachers.
“So, where does sperm come from? Maybe you know?” I was asked.
“Nope. No idea.” I’d reply as the class burst in laughter. “Maybe he does?”
He looked at me smiling, shaking his head. “Why would I know? I don’t know!”
We were warned that the Holy Spirit was not going to attend the ceremony since we weren’t both Catholic, but then his being Jewish — as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, which was the case for other mixed-religion couples there — gained the staff’s sympathies. He was labeled “almost Christian.” We joked that we didn’t have money to feed the Holy Spirit anyway.
I needed to calm down. It was all working out.
But we did need the papers. And we didn’t know how to get them.
“Maybe it’s a sign? Maybe this wedding thing is a bad idea?” I whined. I was tired, and insufferable.
He laughed. “Aaaamore,” he started, in a sing-songy way. His funny accent on the few Italian words he knew would lighten up the darkest rooms of my soul. “Listen. Getting married is the best idea we’ve ever had and we’re going to do it. It’s all going to work out. I promise.”
* * *
He was so certain about us. He had been unfailingly so since our engagement, which caught me by total surprise. We had been living together for a couple of years in India — where I had followed him looking to start a career, and finally be with the man I loved — when he proposed.
Before moving in together, ours was the erratic, long-distance relationship of two people who never seemed to be in the same place. We met in Italy, fell in love and spent the summer of our lives on intense weeks together and long stretches apart: He worked on a photography project that took him to Alaska, Japan, Congo; I went to Kosovo, volunteering and looking for stories, then moved to Paris to complete a master’s. His work took him there, too, and we spent a couple blissful months together. For the first time since I could remember, I felt beautiful; I was loved and desired. We’d dress up and walk out in the middle of the night to have French onion soup in 24-hour restaurants. We shared a studio that was too small for one, let alone two plus too many cameras.
Before I’d met him I kept joking that “love is overrated.” But it wasn’t; It was perfect. When he had to go back to India, where he’d been living for years before moving to Italy, I worried it’d be the end.
It wasn’t. We spoke whenever we had a free minute. It was never enough. We were so different that our attachment was a mystery to both of us: I loved studying, he had hardly finished high school; I was all about manners and rules, he recognized none; I worried about everything, he never did. At times, our love for each other seemed to be the only thing we had in common.
And it was all we needed.
On spring break I went to see him in India. I landed, terrified and drenched in mosquito repellent, in the fog of Delhi’s February nights. In the arrival hall, he was waiting for me in the neon light, holding a sign, just like the hotel chauffeurs. It read: Amore Mio. My love.
Everything in India frightened me. The smell. The noises. The light, so different from anything I had seen before. Even the peacocks, flying on the rooftop terrace from the park nearby, were wonderful but so foreign. I followed him to Calcutta on assignment. In the teeming backstreets, electrifying and overwhelming, I looked upon poverty and dirt, equally horrified. Once I cried a whole night about not being able to afford anything better than a filthy guesthouse. I returned to Paris relieved.
We managed to meet wherever and whenever possible. In Paris, London, Italy. In New York — where we both thought we’d eventually end up. We spent Christmas together, my family now his. He had been estranged from his parents for many years, and while on my insistence he had resumed contact with them, it didn’t look like there was real hope of saving their relationship. They had been demanding and cruel to him in his teens, kicking him out of home before the end of high school, and still refused to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it. As someone who counted on her family for anything, it was impossible to even imagine how hard that must have been, so it filled my heart with joy hearing him call my mother “mamma.”
A year after my first visit, I moved to Delhi. I planned to stay a few months, but I began the adventure of a lifetime.
We got an apartment and decorated it with colorful fabrics. I struggled to keep the dust out of the house, struggled with everything that didn’t work, struggled with the scorching summer heat, struggled to get work. I struggled, struggled, struggled. I packed my bags at least twice, shouting at him that I was going back home. He’d been in India so long he could no longer remember the hardship of the beginning, and he was traveling so much for work that I was often on my own. I got mad at him — now that we could be together he was off to Africa or China or wherever, prey to a wanderlust I failed to understand.
All I wanted was for him to be around for me, because when he was, things were pretty wonderful. We had so much hunger for time together that nothing seemed trivial: We’d explore the city on his motorcycle, go on holidays to remote places, turn any and every bit of daily life into an adventure.
But a couple of weeks here and there were not enough. I felt like all I did was wait for him. Finally, shortly after he came back from a long trip to visit a dear, sick uncle, I broke down. I felt horrible — this trip was not for fun, how could I get mad about it? — but I just couldn’t help it. I told him we’d better split up, that he had no space for me in his life. I screamed, he screamed more, the neighbors came to check if I was O.K. In a country where women are common victims of domestic abuse, it was hard to believe that it was me who always raised her voice first. We resolved that we should part.
* * *
I was on my way to work, late and unspeakably sad, when I realized I did not want to leave him. I wanted to stay. I loved him, and our life.
I went back to our apartment. He was sitting on the couch, exhausted as I was from so much fighting. I hugged him, sat on his lap.
“I’m sorry. This was terrible,” I apologized. “I don’t want to go away. Never.”
“I don’t want you to go away either. I want to be with you forever.”
“Yes. Forever,” I said, and I meant it. Yet I was shocked when I saw in his eyes the resolution of a question I didn’t know he had in him, and I wasn’t ever expecting him to ask.
“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”
“What… You don’t… You don’t have to — I’m not going anywhere. You need to think this through.”
“But I have! I have. Look—” he reached for his backpack, me still sitting on his lap, and took out a small box. “I even have a ring! I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
“Well this is pretty right,” I joked. “So how did he propose? Well, we had a massive fight and nearly broke up, but got engaged instead.”
“So. Will you marry me, amore mio?” He was serious.
He was ready.
It was a gorgeous ring, an Art Deco family heirloom — Canadian, as guilt-free as diamonds can come — and hard not to notice. People did notice: the excitement about our engagement was so genuine and overwhelming, everyone pointing to what a romantic story we had.
It was, indeed, the most romantic story I had ever heard.
* * *
It was all unbelievably sweet, yet I couldn’t shake the looming sensation that something was going to go wrong. It came out in my dreams. The fear of losing everything would turn into nightmares, and cropped up at every big step we took.
I loved him, and the unexpected certainty that he, too, truly loved me gave me a happiness so enormous it frightened me. My father had died too early for me to believe happy endings were possible, let alone feeling that I was destined for one.
I looked everywhere for signs of an impending disappointment. We had to leave our apartment, and our landlady insisted we owed her several months of rent. He was in charge of making the deposit but couldn’t find the receipts to show we had paid — that was enough to infuriate me. He was irresponsible, I said – how could he be ready to be a husband? We should call the whole thing off.
We looked for a new place, and I cried like a spoiled child when faced with the reality that his priorities were different from mine — he wanted to save money on rent, and on everything really, to be able to invest in his work. I saw myself as shallow and materialistic for wanting a place that was nice and comfortable. Again told him, “See? This is why we should not do it.”
I would cast doubts over us and our future, which I so wanted and so feared.
But for all my questions, he had answers. “It’s us, amore,” he’d tell me, his voice always so calm and kind. “I’m not letting you get out of this.” His certainty seemed to grow as mine withered, and the way he dealt with my actions, minimizing my fears, showed me time and again the depth of his love.
We finally found a place that worked and bought new furniture. We didn’t have much money — I worked as the editor of a small online publication and had been supporting both of us on my Indian salary while his work was slow. He had a few personal projects to pursue, and I was determined to help him see them through. His assignments had always been sporadic, but a day of his work often paid ten of mine, and something always came through when our funds were nearly gone.
But this time seemed different — I was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford the fairytale wedding that I, who had never actually thought I’d get married, discovered I wanted. My mother was covering most of the costs, but I insisted we at least pay for a few things: The flowers, the invites, the favors. As the weeks, then the months, went by, I grew worried we wouldn’t have enough.
One thought, in particular, made me panic. If he didn’t get any work soon, I’d even have to pay for his suit and his ticket to Italy for the wedding. I’d have to pay for my own bouquet. Something about the image of me buying myself my own wedding flowers was unbearable to me: Was this the life I was signing up for? What if he never actually had a breakthrough? I looked up what would happen if we divorced, if I had to pay him alimony.
I was disgusted by my own thoughts.
I hesitantly suggested he look for assignments from publications less prestigious than the ones he usually worked for. He was hurt, and saw that as a lack of belief in him, pointing out that he could have gotten work in Africa had he been free to move there, but I didn’t want to leave my job to follow him around — that had its costs.
But my faith in his talent was blind — it was destiny I didn’t trust.
* * *
We were over the rough patches, though, when the issue with the papers came up. It appeared we were in a bureaucratic loophole and none of the puzzled officials I contacted were able to figure our situation out.
“That’s why we’re so special,” he said. It was a fact.
He had gone to Canada to renew his visa — his trip home drained my account, but some work had finally come through for him and he was going to be paid soon. We were back on our early-days routine of long-distance phone calls. For the first time in our many goodbyes, I hadn’t cried when he left. As he told me that he’d be right back, his happiness was so visible it gave me goose bumps, and a newfound feeling of safety.
But then, when I tried to reach him the day he was meant to go see about our documents, I couldn’t get through to him. He would not pick up his phone. He was not online — which he almost obsessively always was. I emailed him. No reply.
Something was wrong.
Whether it was some sort of sixth sense or just my constant fear of the worst, I started to worry. I called the friend he usually stayed with, trying not to sound paranoid; after all, it had only been a few hours since I had heard from him. He was not home. As the night became morning in India, a day was passing in Canada. I called, and called, and laid awake waiting. Sleeping was out of the question.
Finally, I got a two-line email. He said he loved me. And that he needed space.
I was paralyzed.
The following days were a game of waiting. I checked my phone and my email compulsively. I stared at the screen to see if he was logging onto Skype. No sign of him. I told myself I should not try to contact him, that he needed to be left alone, though I did write to him that we could postpone the wedding if he wanted to, and that whatever problem there was we were going to work it through. I knew we could.
I blamed myself for having so many doubts. Had I ruined everything? I kept going to work to be around people, but I was numb.
As the date of his return trip approached, I tried to be calm and focus on the fact that I was about to see him again. We had never been out of contact this long, and I missed him terribly. I tried to be patient, but when I saw his name go online on Skype in the middle of another sleepless night, I couldn’t resist.
“Amore mio,” I typed. “I am so happy you are coming back next week. We’ll make things right, I promise.”
“Yes,” he replied. “We have a lot of work to do but we can make things right. Things will be right.”
But he was not coming back. Not yet anyway. His birthday was coming up, and he didn’t want to spend it with me.
“I don’t want to resent you,” he typed.
He wasn’t going to discuss it further, but I convinced him that he owed me an explanation. He promised to get back online soon, and he did.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, sweetly, when I answered the video call. “I missed you.”
He looked beautiful, too, in his light blue collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves and messy hair.
He started explaining what was going through his head: He needed to be free to travel and work, and I wanted security — we were just too different, there’s no way it was going to work.
As he was speaking, gently, his words started losing meaning to me — it all became white noise, and I interrupted him.
“Oh my god,” I said. “You cheated on me.”
Something in his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he replied.
“No, not again,” I begged. I knew it was true, again.
I hadn’t thought about it for years — the memory of betrayal buried deep under the illusion of the most wonderful story that had ever happened to me. I had found out about his infidelities before I moved to India, when we lived apart. Infidelities and lies: a girlfriend hidden from me when we first got together, who he moved back in with after he left Paris; an older woman he had even thought he was in love with; adventures around the world as he traveled for work.
But we had worked through it all. He had begged me to stay with him when I found out, told me I was the love of his life and the last chance he had of having a happy life, of changing. He had blamed distance and so had I, and it had worked for years — so well, too well. I had worked so hard to get past his infidelities that I had actually forgotten about them — the truth, of the past and the present, felt heavy on my burning sternum.
“Yes, again,” he said, suddenly cold. There was something in him, something in his voice I could not recognize. He was a stranger.
“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I found her.”
I swear I heard my heart break.
He told me he’d just met her. A few days had been enough to know. He had given up thinking he could find the one. But there she was. They were going to travel together, see the world and be nomads, as he wanted. And she wanted. And I never did.
“I bet she dresses terribly,” I said, heart yolk leaking from my smashed chest, making an ugly mess already.
I became a monster; I could barely speak, filled with anger as I told him, shocking myself with the violence of my own words, hissing at him, shaking, that it was not true that he felt sorry — that he felt good and not sorry, that while fucking this woman he didn’t know, in and out and in and out of her, he did not think of me.
“You want to make me feel guilty because I am in love.”
He was moving in with her.
“Are you going to marry her?” I was crazy. It was crazy.
“We’re not planning to get married at the moment.” He was crazy, too.
The conversation lasted through the night, through bouts of anger, tears, words of love. At the end, I asked him if this was the first time that he’d be unfaithful since we’d been living together.
“Is it because I was not enough?” Isn’t that what every rejected lover dreads?
“Yeah. I was always looking for something better.”
“Something or someone?” I couldn’t stop digging.
“Something, someone, I didn’t know. I thought it was as good as it got, with you. Now I know it wasn’t true.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not in love with you. I don’t think I ever was.”
Outside, it was dawn. The sounds of India waking up were a loud sign the conversation had to end. We — “us” — had to end.
“I will miss you so much,” I muttered before I hung up. I wanted him desperately. But he was unrecognizable, someone else. Happiness and love were a dark force in his gaze. They were pulling him away from me, taking him some place frightening and far, a place my arms couldn’t stretch to.
I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel anything other than terror. Who was he?
* * *
When I landed in Milan I was a ghost. I hadn’t eaten in days; I had no feelings other than sorrow. My sister picked me up from the airport, and as she hugged me, without saying a word, I cried. I cried when I saw my mother. My grandma was visiting — usually the simple sight of her would be enough to put me in a good mood, but I just kept crying, incapable of anything else.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was all I could say, whisper really. I was sorry I had trusted him, that I had followed him, that I had brought him home. I was sorry I was so embarrassingly heartbroken. I was sorry I messed up, sorry I failed, sorry about the embarrassment of a wedding to cancel. That he had not only lied to me, but to my family, caused me unbearable pain. I blamed it on myself — all of it.
I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.
I walked straight into my mother’s bed and laid there crying for days, getting up only to check my emails for signs of him, and sit at the table for lunch and dinner, unable to touch my food.
As I stared into my plate, the Italian mothers of my life — my own, and my mother’s — discussed me, and him, as if I weren’t there.
“She isn’t eating.” “I can see that.” “What are we going to do about this one?” “I don’t know, I can’t force her.” “Look at that. Not one bite.” “I know, Ma. She doesn’t feel like it.”
My belligerent grandma had been through a lot — her father dying as a kid, the war as a teenager, her husband leaving her a widow in her early thirties, an earthquake destroying her home and her town in her late forties — far too much to concede to a romantic heartbreak.
“That guy had always been a bit strange,” she offered. “Remember how he stopped eating meat?” She had always treated his vegetarianism as an exotic disease.
When I finally had the strength to leave my bed, I started trying to put together the pieces. I was obsessed with understanding, and the more I obsessed, the more it all seemed terrifying.
I went back to Delhi, leaving behind a family worried sick about me, determined to save the salvageable: A job I loved in a country that was going to save my life.
My pain was enormous, kept alive and stinging by a succession of small new wounds.
I had to cancel the wedding, let all the guests know on my own, as he was far too busy with his new life to even tell his own family — who called me seeking explanations, unable to track him down.
* * *
In all of this, and despite my rational self, I still madly loved him. I hoped he would come back. Once I woke up convinced I heard him ring the bell in the middle of the night. It was a dream.
A recovering patient, I put one day in front of the other, waiting for my love to go away. Like a famous Italian poem says, it was like quitting a vice. Come smettere un vizio. It was a daily exercise in abstinence — from calling him, wanting him, loving him.
Before I knew it, it had been a month since I had last seen his face, on a computer screen. Then two, then a whole summer.
On August 26, when our wedding was meant to be, the sun was shining over the Amalfi Coast, but I spent the day in rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, on my own, hanging out with the monkeys at Pashupatinath Temple — the Temple of Shiva.
I was glad there was a god I could thank for destruction.
For a long time afterward, I was obsessed with this story. Obsessed with his lies. I uncovered countless more: about his family, his past, our relationship. The more I found out, the more the hurt gave way to relief.
I wrote to the woman he had left for me way back when — to let her know it didn’t work out with us. Somehow, I felt it was right for her to know, that I would have wanted to know, if I were her. She was understanding, forgiving, and helpful — knowing far too well what I was going through, she repeated to me countless times I had not lost someone worth keeping.
Years later, that’s what I told his wife, when it was she who wrote to me.
Annalisa Merelli is an Italian writer living in New York. She is a reporter with Quartz and tweets at @missanabeem.
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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.
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 Garzais 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.
Eleven days after marrying the love of my life, I stared at his lifeless body and said goodbye.
Eleven days after my wedding, two men from the crematorium arrived to take my husband’s body away.
“Do you want his ring?” they asked, pointing to the black titanium band on his left hand.
“No, he should wear his ring,” I said. He should wear it into the afterlife.
A quick look passed between them. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” I replied, and turned to my mother-in-law Linda for approval.
“Honey, you should keep his ring,” Linda said gently.
I gave the crematorium men a slight nod. They slipped the ring off his finger and handed it to me.
* * *
Kaz and I once made up a story of how we met. “You fell on your bike and I stopped to help you,” he said in his baritone voice. This actually happened on our second date. “Sounds good to me,” I said. But we never told the made-up version. Whenever people asked us how we met, we would look at each other, shrug and tell the truth: we met on Match.com. My profile advertised “Curves and Curls – what more do you want?!” His moniker was “Nerdy4Music.”
After years of dating more men than I care to mention, in April 2007 I received an email from Kenneth Allen Smith. “My name is Ken, but everyone calls me KAZ,” he wrote. He was an employed, never married, childless, bald, badass, bespectacled black man, born and raised in Washington D.C. by a single mother. He had equal parts swagger, sensitivity and sweetness, had traveled the world, had real rock stars for friends, was witty, funny, charming, pragmatic, Scorpion sexy, so smart he beat his own computer at chess, and he rode a Honda RC51 sportbike. To quote a female colleague (who once yelled this at a party), Kaz was the coolest motherfucker on the planet.
At the time, I didn’t understand why such a cool guy was dating me, a somewhat neurotic, struggling filmmaker who was not thin. “I like spending time with you,” he explained. “You’re smart, funny, beautiful, good in the kitchen and good in the sack, and you’re sexy as fuck.” I still didn’t buy it.
In 2010, after two years together as a couple, during which we almost broke up once, we learned that the headaches and blurry vision he’d been experiencing were the result of a terminal brain tumor. Neither of us could believe it. Why would a healthy, physically active, forty-two-year-old man get the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy? It was too random to be true.
And yet, for me at least, it felt strangely inevitable. My mother had been ill for much of my childhood and died when she was fifty-six (I was twenty-two). Now, the man I loved more than anything, the best man I’d ever known and probably would ever know, was going to die young, too.
Within days of the diagnosis, he proposed. Kaz didn’t make rash decisions. It had taken nine months for him to say “I love you,” and after two years he was still reluctant to move in together (a source of frustration for me — at thirty-nine, dragging a backpack around every weekend was getting old). But the tumor changed things.
“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But I know I want to spend it with you.” He bent to one knee. “If you’ll have me.”
As I looked down at him, I was more afraid than I had ever been. Commit to someone with a terminal illness? “Yes,” I answered. I, too, wanted to be with him as long as possible. Deep down, I also might have thought we could beat this cancer bitch, statistics be damned.
Life moved forward. We moved in together, a huge transition for any couple but especially for one dealing with cancer. We supported each other through two resection surgeries, three clinical trials, dozens of MRI’s and doctors’ appointments. We tried to marry, but various factors kept getting in the way. He wanted to do it quick and easy at a courthouse. I wanted our friends and family around. Both of our families had money and debt concerns. Plus, I’d never planned on changing my name if/when I got married, and Kaz was old school. “You can keep your name professionally if you want, but I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take my name,” he told me.
Then, in November 2010, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to work. Even more devastating, he could no longer ride the motorcycle, or walk without assistance. He sank into a deep depression. As his illness progressed more rapidly, my caregiver responsibilities and the pressure of dwindling time intensified. We started arguing. Whereas before I had always been the one waiting for him to catch up, now he rounded the corner of acceptance before me. I still refused to accept it, like a ship captain who keeps trying to steer a sinking vessel. At one point, I thought I would surely have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave.
Instead, I got a cold.
One day in late March 2011, my job sent me home because I was feverish. I walked into the apartment early and was surprised to find Kaz sitting on the couch fully dressed.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I feel weird,” he said.
His body was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a blanket and draped it around his shoulders. “I’m so pissed we never get to hang out anymore,” he said. “Something always happens and we can’t just hang out. It hurts, it really hurts.” His gaze drifted up to the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…” his voice trailed off.
The doctors later told us if I hadn’t come home early, the seizures would have killed him. They still almost killed him, but the doctors worked hard to keep him alive, while I sat by his bed and prayed. Please don’t take him right now. Please let him wake up. Please don’t let it end like this. Please give us another chance. Please let us say goodbye.
Forty-eight hours later, he finally opened his eyes. I had never been so happy in my life.
“When are you going to be Mrs. Smith?” he asked in front of his team of doctors and his mother, who had just flown in from D.C. “Are you going to hyphen or not hyphen? I’m okay with second billing,” he continued.
My face flushed as everyone turned to look at me. “Let’s talk about it later,” I said quietly.
The next day, I was sitting on his bed massaging his hands with lotion while a young nurse changed the bags on his IV drip. Kaz looked at me intensely.
“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”
“I think so,” I smiled.
“I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. I have never wanted to marry someone as much as I want to marry you. I didn’t think it was possible.”
I heard the nurse sniffle behind me.
“I want you to be Mrs. Smith,” he said, ignoring the nurse.
“Then you have to get better,” I said.
* * *
On Good Friday, April 22, 2011, we stood on the Griffith Observatory veranda overlooking the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by several protective rings of our closest friends (we didn’t have a location permit). I wore a sleeveless blue cotton dress that I had purchased that morning. Kaz wore a black suit, shirt and shoes, and a blue and purple-flowered tie. Our officiator and friend, Chandra, read the vows:
“Do you, Kaz, choose Niva as your wife? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”
“Hell to the yes!” Kaz said loudly. Everyone laughed.
“Do you, Niva, choose Kaz as your husband? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”
“I do.” I smiled.
Chandra pronounced us man and wife. I bent to kiss Kaz in his wheelchair, and then leaned back to look at him. We had done it. Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
“Wifey,” he whispered the next morning.
* * *
Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.
I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.
“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”
The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.
* * *
A month earlier, when he was in the hospital, he had told me he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes spread out on Angeles Crest Highway, the mountain road where he had ridden his motorcycle every weekend. He told me who should receive his things, how to divide his money and what songs to play at his memorials. I wrote everything down in a list, fifty words to sum up a life.
As I added the last item, he said, “I miss us.”
I looked up from the list, my heart in my throat. “I miss us too.”
“I’m so glad we stuck it out,” he said. “I know we both thought about leaving.”
“I’m honored to be here with you, babe.” I leaned forward to kiss his hands.
Afterwards, I referred to that list like a bible, using it to guide me through the memorials, the obituary notices, the giving away of possessions, the canceling of credit cards and all the other tasks that must be handled after someone dies. The day I showed up at his bank, a heavily made-up teller kept looking between the death certificate and the marriage certificate. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You married eleven days before he died?”
“Why? How did he die?”
I didn’t explain it to her. It was none of her business.
“I’ll need a court order to switch over his accounts,” she said, shaking her head. “This just doesn’t make any sense.” I wanted to scream. He died at forty-three years old. Nothing made fucking sense. Instead, I looked squarely at her and tried to keep my voice steady. “I have all the proper forms, signed and notarized. If you don’t help me transfer the accounts, I’ll close them and go to another bank. Do you understand?”
“I have to speak to my manager,” she mumbled and rose from her desk. As she walked away, I stared outside at the traffic on Vine Street and thought about throwing myself in front of a double-decker tourist bus.
* * *
When we moved in together, Kaz and I had talked about making some changes to the apartment. After he died, I decided to go ahead with those plans. I asked Chandra, an interior decorator, to help redesign the space with Kaz in mind. We chose furniture in grey tones with chrome details and black-and-white checkered tiles for the kitchen, an ode to his old racing flags and love of chess. We hung his favorite rock posters, African masks and Chris Cooper lithographs. We put pictures of him on every bookshelf.
Several weeks later, Chandra and I sat on the patio drinking beers. “How do you feel about all the changes?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope he approves.”
“I think he does. I can feel him here really strongly.”
“I thought it was only me.”
“No, dude, he’s totally here.”
I nodded. So I’m not going crazy.
I often felt his body pressed against my backside and his arms around my waist when I was in bed. Other times, I felt his hands cupping my breasts from behind. Sometimes the lights would dim, and I felt him as a breeze against my face. Most cherished were the times he visited me in dreams. In one dream, as we were getting undressed, he said, “I’m afraid if I keep coming to you like this, you won’t be able to move on.”
“That’s okay,” I said, already half naked. “I don’t want to move on.”
When he was alive we used to write each other emails throughout the day. Now I wrote him letters. I told him about the long process of legally changing my name, first going to the Social Security office, then the DMV, my bank, and human resources. I told him how I was still getting used to being called “Mrs. Smith” and saying “my husband,” let alone saying “my late husband.”
During the day, I left the television on the channel that broadcasts the AMA, MotoGP and World Superbike races. After work, I watched all the same shows we used to watch together, still sitting on my side of the couch and directing my comments, jokes and questions to him. I got used to having one-sided conversations. I started telling close friends that Kaz was actually still in the apartment; he was just invisible.
One night, a former lover came to visit. I started crying and the man held me, which felt good. It had been so long since real arms held me. But as the man’s hands moved down my back, and his lips found my neck, I went limp. I didn’t have the energy to refuse him, but didn’t fully engage either. I kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if Kaz was in the room, or if this made him leave. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep.
I wrote to Kaz: “I don’t know if you saw what happened the other night, but I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Honestly, being with him just made me miss you more.”
* * *
Around our first wedding anniversary, I took my wedding ring off at the gym and forgot to put it back on. When I realized my finger was bare the next day, I felt naked. I spent the rest of the day praying that the ring was where I thought it was, and that I hadn’t somehow lost it. I rushed into the bathroom when I got home and found it in the side pocket of my gym bag, which I had left on the counter. I slipped it back on and vowed to never take it off again.
But as time went on, Kaz’s presence seemed to recede, like an echo, and the emotional limbo between newlywed and widow in which I’d been living began to fade as well. One day I did take the ring off. At first I wore it around my neck along with his ring. Then I started leaving both rings at home in a jewelry case, a decision fraught with angst and guilt. I recognized that losing the feeling of being married was part of the healing process, but it was also painful, like we were “breaking up” on some cosmic level.
Then I realized that it wasn’t as much of a break-up as it was a shift. I still felt him inside and around me, but in a different way than before. I could feel him encouraging me to move forward with my dreams and desires.
When he was in the hospital, we once had a conversation about my career. For years, I had bounced between writing and directing small projects and working all kinds of day jobs. “What do you think I should focus on?” I asked him.
He thought about it for a moment. “I think you should focus on writing.”
“How would you feel if I wrote about us?”
“I hope you do write about us,” he smiled.
Today, three years later, I am starting to envision my future. I see film festivals and book signings; a house with land, animals and a fireplace; African plains, Parisian boulevards and Jerusalem sunsets; and a community of artists dedicated to the pursuit of personal expression.
A while back, I spent time in Vermont on a writer’s residency and was drawn to the quiet, open sky and the no-nonsense atmosphere of the rural Northeast. Shortly after the third anniversary of his death on May 3, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave Los Angeles, to breathe fresh air, meet new people and experience seasons again. A few weeks later, I gave notice at my day job. Soon, I’ll be driving across the country with my dog to live and write in the Catskills, about two and half hours outside of New York City.
What I’m less clear about is who (if anyone) will be with me in the future. I’ve been on a few dates in the past couple of years, but nothing major. As I told a friend recently, my current love life is “an empty beach.” The truth is, I’m not the same person I was when I married Kaz, nor am I the same person I was after he died. At some point, I became bi-curious, something I would never have had the courage to admit if it weren’t for Kaz and everything we went through together. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to love again, but I credit Kaz for teaching me how to love and be loved. I know he would want me to be happy.
* * *
Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir titled The History of Us and writes regularly about grief, writing and her dog at www.ridingbitchblog.com
Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013. Check out more of her illustration and comics at redinkradio.com