Tales from Brushes with Beasts

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Monkeys on the shoulder, attack dogs at the door, and bears in the living room—seven hilarious stories of what happens when humans and animals collide.

Monkey Business

By Juliet Eastland

How I wish I could attribute my arrival in New York to noble motives—the Muse, for instance, calling me to a life of creativity. My inner savior, propelling me toward a lifetime commitment to the urban poor. But no, I came for one reason: to find a husband.

I’d been living in San Francisco. There are some straight, Jewish men in San Francisco, and I dated all three of them. There was the programmer who took me on our first date to a club—a sex club. The drummer, who confessed he’d never invited me over because he was sleeping in the park until his roommate “chilled out.” The architect, who canceled a date so he could attend a session with his past-lives guru. Lovely men … different priorities. Truth was, I was not a California gal. I’d left my Massachusetts hometown to find myself, and here I was, same east-coast shnook, just sporting do-rags instead of Dockers. Sitting at a drag show one night, I watched my work colleague lip-synching on stage, and it hit me: he’s got mile-long legs and a closetful of lamé, and he’s looking for a husband. I didn’t stand a chance.

It was time to try New York City on for size. My mother grew up among the delis and sturgeon shops of the Upper West Side, her mother in the Lower East Side’s Russian Jewish community; I had Apple in the blood. Rabbis, financiers, pretzel-vendors … somewhere in this jubilee of a city, my man was waiting. I just had to find him. I hit the road, tie-dye and tarot cards flying from my car windows as I headed east.

Once landed, I secured an apartment, a job and an online dating account. Ah, “online dating.” Have you dipped your toe into this Charybdis of poor grammar and purple prose? Despite my parameters—no smoking/drugs, local, LTR—I got messages from men who didn’t read carefully or, possibly, at all. I was propositioned by a teenager in Wisconsin. For a brief, heady period, I found myself corresponding with “married man ISO naked friend.” Managing my inbox began to consume me. To paraphrase the great Young MC, I was ready to hang myself with a celibate rope.

So when Avner emailed, my heart beat faster. His message was subtly flirtatious. Impeccably spelled. Funny. He referred to Maimonides, Madhur Jaffrey, and “Nixon in China.” He was a history teacher. And his photo: delicious. Could this be The One? We made a date.

It was divine. He was divine. He did not mention crystals or pescatarianism. He spoke of former girlfriends with respect while conveying, reassuringly, that he never wanted to see them again. He loved dogs, knew a wimble from a woodborer, and was reading a history of chess just because. By the end of my first beer, we’d moved in together. By our second bottle of wine, I was considering our married name: hyphenated, or should I take his? Sipping my postprandial cocktail, I envisioned our children. They’d have his eyes, I hoped—so blue!

Dinner over, we headed toward Central Park West, savoring the summer evening. I tottered, cocooned in a vinous haze, clutching the arm of my future fiancé.

And then, trouble. We approached a woman sitting on a park bench and holding a diapered baby in her lap. But as we got closer, even I, in my stupor, could tell the creature was not a baby. The tail, for one thing, snaking from the diaper and flicking like a live wire. And the eyes: two black holes peering out from beneath the lintel of a tiny, Neanderthal brow. We stopped.

“Whassat?” I demanded.

“This is Molly,” the woman said primly.

“Come,” urged Avner.

“Wait! Tha’s not a baby,” I continued confidently. “Tha’s a…”

“Monkey,” the woman filled in.

“Oh, cute!” Molly was a mangy, repulsive creature, clad in her shabby diaper, but I saw only her charms.

Avner recoiled.

Before I could make a move, Molly leapt off the woman’s lap and wrapped herself around my shin. Avner hissed and took another step backward. Our first fight! Years later, we’d look back and laugh.

Molly shimmied up my leg like Mowgli scampering up a palm tree. She skittered up my torso to my shoulder and examined my earring. Then she hopped on my head, dug her fingers into my hair, and started grooming me. I was pleased. In my inebriation, I thought it would look fetching, me standing in a flirty summer dress with a monkey on my head.

“You’re looking for nits, aren’t you, pumpkin,” the woman cooed.

Nits. Oh, dear. How many critters, I wondered, was the potentially verminous Molly depositing in my hair follicles? Worse, how many was she retrieving? City apartments housed mites, bedbugs and lord knows what other horrors. I started to sweat. Surely this was too much information for a first date. I didn’t dare meet Avner’s eye.

But Avner had disappeared into the night. “Hol’ on!” I called. I disentangled Molly and handed her back. I headed off, but moments later tiny hands grasped my shin. I hobbled back, Molly clasped around my ankle like a convict’s iron. The woman bent and peeled Molly off my leg.

“Bad girl,” she crooned. She eyed me with approval. “She likes you!” I was flattered. I was also concerned that Molly’s affection for me was growing at an inversely proportionate rate to Avner’s. I stumbled down Central Park West, Molly jumping between benches behind me like a bolt of electricity. The last I saw, she was sitting on a bench like a tiny swami in a loincloth, chewing her fingers and contemplating my retreat.

“Monkey!” I babbled, when I reached Avner. “Can you b’lieve it?” Avner walked me to my door and backed stiffly down the steps, taking care not to touch me. I let myself in, still chattering. “Monkey! Monkey!” And then, I am ashamed to say, I opened the window, leaned out, and bellowed down the dark street: “Avner! No monkey business?” He waved weakly and disappeared around the corner. I passed out.

A few days later, I emailed an apology and update: according to Simon & Schuster’s Encyclopedia of Animals, Molly belonged to phylum chordata, class mammalia, order primate, suborder haplorhini, family cebidae, species saimiri sciureus: Molly, Squirrel Monkey. “Highly active and lively,” these miniscule monkeys gather in bands of twelve to thirty or more. They populate forests from Colombia to the Amazon Basin, where they feed on insects, seeds and birds. Gangs of monkeys have been known to execute coordinated raids on fruit plantations. I pictured Molly atop the bus stop shelter at Broadway and 103rd, casing out the corner fruit store and calculating the distance to the apple bin. How she’d navigated Colombia to Columbia, I don’t know.

Avner emailed back, thanking me and regretting to say he’d be busy for the foreseeable future. I never saw Molly again, either. Mirtsishem, she’s surviving. It’s a jungle out there.

Juliet Eastland is a freelance writer and primate enthusiast now living in Boston. She is, thank G-d, happily married (to someone else).

* * *

Grin and Bear It

By Steven Lewis

As near back as the end of the last century it was all pretty quiet up here in the Shawangunk Mountains of Upstate New York—you know, the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-DahMister Bluebird’s on my shoulder … yadda yadda of crickets chirping, chipmunks sniffing, birds tweeting, turkeys gobbling, Disneyfied deer nibbling green grasses as red foxes pad silently across the yard, monarch butterflies landing on the Rose of Sharon.

Indeed, one of the extra pleasures of rural life back then was to be able to taunt our urban, hyper-sophisticated, uber-allergic, Patagonia-wearing weekenders and daytrippers with the seeming ease of free range existence up here in the boonies. No crime. No smog. No noise. No additives. No rat race. No rats. I’d point to the hammock strung between the pines and they’d grow smog green with envy.

Then sometime before Y2K, it seemed, our formerly benign deer gained courage—or more likely lost territory due to development—and started eating our roses. Then the azaleas. Then the yew bushes that front the porch, stripped to ugly brown sticks poking through the white snow. Bambi was banished at Blockbuster.

Next, right on cue for the twenty-first-century apocalyptic film boom, we started seeing coyotes, howling beyond the tree line, and hearing the blood-curdling screech of fisher cats pouncing on cute little chipmunks, squirrels and bunnies in the dead of night. Then came the snakes. Snakes! More and more snakes. Big black snakes, garter snakes slithering out from the charming stone wall, a copperhead in the woodpile, an occasional rattler on the rocks.

And that was before the first bear, a 400-pounder, showed up in our backyard for some tapas: bird seed, suet and garbage. He was not alone. Soon after, we saw a mother bear and three cubs cavorting around the swing set and the little goldfish pond. RIP Carlton Fish, Carlos and Not Carlos.

The Forest Rangers were alerted. They essentially shrugged, telling us we had to take in the bird feeders each night and build bear-proof garbage bins. I did. But when one of the big fellas knocked over my previously immobile bear-proof garbage bin—and had his fill of my landfill—my only option was to nail it to the porch and hope he couldn’t knock that over too. He didn’t. But he (or another he) ripped off the front doors of the previously bear-proofed garbage bin, so I had to secure it with C brackets and a sliding 2×4. Just like my friends’ lofts in the city.

Right now, I’m winning, if that means I’m trapped in my house when the ursine hoards wander around my backyard—just like our closest, albeit unseen, neighbor-through-the-woods. She was working on her computer one afternoon when she looked up to see a fully grown male on her deck, his nose pressed to the glass, peering in at her. A breathtaking vision that quickly turned into the triple realization that she was trapped in her house, the refrigerator was empty and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. And thus a few hours later, all ethical and moral considerations falling Maslow-like by the wayside, she phoned town for pizza delivery. The poor delivery-boy-cum-college-student saw the bear, dropped the box on her porch and ran for his life—no pay, no tip, but a new understanding of the precarious nature of existence to bring to his philosophy class.

A similar understanding of the nature of life arrived at my doorstep last summer. I was up late doing some work, my wife asleep upstairs, when I heard the back screen door squeak open and clap shut. I assumed it was our old dimwitted dog Gloria nosing it open to wander around outside. A few moments later I heard it squeak open and clap shut again. Gloria coming back in. Then it happened again: Gloria going out. Then again: Gloria coming in. So when the squeak-clap happened one more time I snarled bear-like at the dog to get back in the house—squeak-clap—and soon packed up the laptop, closed the back door and went upstairs to sleep.

Where I found Gloria already asleep on the floor next to my wife.

Oh.

Oh?

Ohhhhhhhhhhh.

I ran downstairs, flipped on the floodlights and ran out into the cool night to find the bird feeders I forgot to bring in strewn about the yard, twisted and mangled. I looked back at the screen door.

I guess he decided, finally, not to come back in.

Or perhaps he came back in and was disappointed with our leftovers.

Although our visitors no longer seem smog green with pastoral envy, they do seem mighty impressed—even drop-jawed—with the perilous conditions we face up here in the provinces. “Bears? Bobcats? Snakes? I don’t know how the hell you can live here!” they exclaim. And that, admittedly, is almost as pleasurable and comforting as the shtick with the hammock.

Steven Lewis is a former Mentor at SUNY-Empire State College, a current member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute faculty, and an active freelance writer.

* * *

Indoor Wolves

By James Folta

My general conclusion is that humanity’s earliest mistake was to invite feral wolves into our homes and think that they would bow to our whims. I see dogs as wild animals, still not to be trusted. I was attacked and harassed by dogs beginning as a toddler and have been jumpy around them ever since. I still switch sides with my friends while walking, to put their bodies between my own body and a potential dog attack. To me, dogs are primarily a threat. Take a look at their jaws and tell me we haven’t invited killers to share our civilization. I’m not calling dog lovers idiots, I’m just saying they’re a little delusional.

The city is the last place I expect to meet dangerous beasts, but I have run into some truly terrifying dogs in New York. I work as a carpenter for a high-end interiors company. One of our best clients is a kind, middle-aged multi-millionaire, an Upper West Side mom who regularly hires us for small jobs around her apartment. “Small jobs” here is a relative term: we’re talking $10,000 to $30,000 worth of work. This is pocket change when your place is crammed with capital-A Art: Andy Warhol in the entry, Jasper Johns used to cover the fuse box, Ansel Adams partially obscured by a window shade.

My boss likes art and raved about the collection. I was excited. A kind lady with great art sounded like a fine way to work for a few days. So when I padded through the laundry room and into the open kitchen at 8:30 a.m., the last thing I expected were the three gigantic monsters turning to size me up. One was a savage, crumpled-up bulldog, its pigeon-toed legs like weight lifter’s arms. But the other two made my stomach plummet. I don’t know their breed. Dire wolf? Werewolf? Hellhound? Whatever breed has hulking bodies as tall and broad as my chest and heads like anvils. These were beasts with something to prove. They could have been the leads in an all-dog remake of “The Wrestler.”

They stood tensed and quivering on the verge of some action, their claws clacking and scraping on the tile floor. The owner was behind them and stepped forward with a limp. Great—she’s slower than these demon dogs. We’re all going to be eaten. I scanned for exits as I tightened my hand around my tool bag.

“Hi, I’m James.”

“James! Hi, we’ve been expecting you.”

We couldn’t say anything else before the dogs cut the tension. Their heads dropped and they bellowed tremendously, barks like band saws fighting through corrugated steel. I cowered against the wall between a phone and a Dutch Master sketch, estimated value: unknown. I smiled but it was hard when I realized that I hadn’t told my loved ones how much they meant to me and I hadn’t spent enough time outdoors and I hadn’t destroyed my diaries and I desperately wanted more time.

The dogs kept hopping forward on all fours, stomping the ground. Each time, I shivered back and my elbows clattered against the wall. The client decided this was the moment for some quick facts:

“They’re former attack dogs! They’re trained to attack strangers!” she shouted. “They’ll calm down when you calm down! Calm down!” So these dogs were worse than wild; they were trained to be better killers than nature had made them. She repeated the phrase “calm down” a few times, as if shouting this would pummel me into tranquility.

“Oh, attack dogs, neat.” My small-talk bullshitting skills sailed above the fog of my fear.

None of us were calming down. So finally the owner put her hands on her hips and disappointedly conceded that it would be better to not have a dog attack over Tuesday’s breakfast. The beasts were moved into another room with a “tsk-tsk.” I spent the next forty minutes of work on edge, tightening the seat on a toilet until my hands stopped shaking.

I’ve been back to this apartment a few times and the dogs haven’t forgotten me. Each time they’ve seen me, they’ve charged me. I’ve been chased down a hallway as the dogs poured sinisterly around the corner like the elevator blood from “The Shining.” I’ve waited anxiously to be escorted from one of the apartment’s bathrooms, knowing the beasts were prowling around. I’ve tumbled over my own tools because one of them sneezed behind a door I was painting.

What’s most disorienting about having to run and cower from these ex-attack dogs is their juxtaposition with such a ritzy apartment. It’s almost offensive to be surrounded by millions of dollars in art while grappling with my Neanderthal brain’s fight-or-flight response. I may be surrounded by the best among humanity’s creations—espresso machines, Pop Art, dimmer switches and heated floors—but it all becomes secondary to my fear. Like a roof leak with fangs, these domesticated wolves are a grim reminder that nature will find me wherever I hide.

James Folta is a writer, comedian, and carpenter living in Brooklyn. Follow him on twitter, @JamesFolta.

* * *

A Night at the Zoo, 1974

By John Gredler

Teague’s parents were divorced, too. His father had remarried and moved into an apartment in a building called Orwell House on the corner of Eighty-sixth Street and Central Park West. We were seventeen or eighteen at the time, and when his father went away on weekends, Teague would sometimes invite me down to the city.

One night we were sitting around drinking Ringnes beer. We played chess using a board Teague had drawn on a piece of white-painted wood and these little lead soldiers he collected. Later we watched Monty Python on the TV in his father’s den, Teague miming all the bits he now knew by heart. When it ended we were bored and decided to go out for a walk in Central Park.

Teague pulled out a pouch of Drum tobacco to roll a few. I grabbed some beers, the squat bottles fitting nicely into the pockets of our army surplus canvas coats. We took the elevator down to the lobby where Teague tipped an imaginary hat to the doorman, saying “Cheerio!” as we walked out. The doorman did not look up.

Both of us knew it was not a good idea to be going into the park this late but we didn’t care. Up at Belvedere Castle we stopped to look out at the shimmering buildings that corralled the park on three sides. Teague opened two beers using his teeth. We drank them fast, tossing the empties into the pond below, then headed south through the overgrown Ramble. Passing the Bandshell there was movement; cardboard shelters huddled on the stage shifting around as people bedded down for the night. We were alone walking the Mall, its canopy of trees forming a tunnel before us. At the zoo we stepped over the sagging chain with a green sign on it that read: “ZOO CLOSED.” We were surprised it was so easy, that there were no other barriers or gates to stop us from entering.

As we walked down the path, I looked left and saw a huge white mass of moving fur. The polar bear was in an enclosure surrounded by a high iron fence about twenty feet from the path. Another fence about seven-feet high ran next to the path, creating a sort of grassy buffer between the path and his pen.

“Let’s climb over and get closer,” Teague said.

“I don’t think so.”

Teague was already up though, swinging himself over the top. He slipped suddenly and went crashing down onto a large flat rock on the other side. He laid there a moment, moaning. When I got to him he was sitting up holding his head and cursing: “My fecking coat got caught at the top.”

“Come on,” I said grabbing his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

“No, man. I want to see the bear.”

I looked down. “Did you piss yourself? You’re all wet.”

“Oh shit, the beer bottle broke.” He laughed and did a little dance, shaking his coat, jiggling the shattered glass.

It was then that we both felt the presence of the bear, turning to see his large white head, those big black eyes staring back at us.

We walked closer to the pen. Teague tore a branch from an ailanthus tree and threw it over the fence. The bear picked it up, sniffed at it and tossed it away. He seemed curious about us though, ambling over for a closer look.

I was a few feet from the fence, watching the gracefully lumbering giant, mesmerized by his deliberate movements, when he reared up onto his hind legs, leaning his paws on the iron rails right in front of me. I reached up and touched the hard gray pad of his paw with my hand. His curved yellow claws were as thick as my fingers and almost as long. Teague did the same, touching the bear’s other paw. In a moment he was back down on all fours, turning to walk away.

We didn’t say anything to each other as we climbed back out and made our way to the center of the zoo. On the low wall of the sea lion pool we sat and shared the last beer while the sleek brown mammals churned ceaselessly in circles through the water behind us.

From the Cat House beyond I could hear a deep growling. I pictured the coal black panther with yellow eyes as I had once seen him, years before, his head low to the ground, nervous in his small cell, pacing back and forth, back and forth, hunting for a way out.

* * *

The Hand-Held Lions of the Cairo Zoo

By Ben Gittleson

It was like we had just committed murder.

Walking out of the lion enclosure at the only zoo in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, we could still feel the fur on our hands.

“Don’t post pictures of this online,” I told Tyler, as we turned our attention to the hyenas.

We had come to the zoo with one goal in mind: hold the lion cubs. It wasn’t difficult. The moment we pushed our way through the zoo’s gates, an employee spotted foreigners and led us to the cubs—they are, after all, the only reason non-Egyptians come to Cairo’s dilapidated zoo.

The facility sits on the west bank of the Nile River, an oasis of green in a sea of dusty yellow. Cairo has few public parks, and the zoo gives Egyptians a chance to both interact with the animal kingdom and enjoy a day under some trees.

But the Giza Zoo was becoming quite run-down and struggling to maintain a status as a real attraction, despite its proximity to the beasts of the African Serengeti and the deserts of the Middle East. The animals actually looked sad in their tiny enclosures. Black bears paced around in a caged area not much bigger than a shoebox Manhattan apartment, and a popular exhibit was devoted to common housedogs, where German shepherds wandered across a desolate patch of grass and dirt. Animal rights advocates have often cried foul about the zoo’s treatment of animals. This month, they were alarmed when zoo officials reportedly claimed a baby giraffe there committed suicide.

All this didn’t matter to Tyler and me, who were singularly focused on holding some cute, furry lion cubs. After we entered a back area and forked over our $3.50 each—a considerable sum in poverty-ridden Egypt—the sleazy zookeepers, who seemed more interested in a quick buck than the animals’ welfare, reached into a dark cage and thrust a baby lion into my arms.

Our delight almost immediately turned to dismay, as it became clear these lions were probably mistreated and definitely heavily sedated. Their eyes drooped, they moved lethargically and they seemed almost despondent, unaware of the world around them. Still, worried that my cub might snap out of it and bite off my hand, I quickly posed for photos and passed it on to Tyler.

We felt dirty. An activity that had seemed so novel made us complicit in what appeared to be the mistreatment of animals. With our wallets and a generous foreign exchange rate, we apparently enabled the zoo workers to make money at the expense of their charges. And we had photographed it all.

So we turned our attention to our fellow zoo-goers, distracting ourselves by watching the Egyptian families who had taken advantage of this urban refuge. They let their kids run amok, throwing down blankets for picnics and paying off workers who gave the children lettuce to feed the sea lions and ostriches.

A soccer ball whizzed by my head as we approached a man painting whiskers and a mane on an Egyptian child’s face. Families sprawled out on picnic blankets and parents whipped out hookah pipes, digging in for a long afternoon at the zoo. Outside the gates, taxi horns blared, workers sweated through gridlock and the unemployed milled about, worried about how they’d buy bread that day. But for the small price of admission, working-class Egyptians got the privilege of taking it easy, savoring each other’s company, lounging in defiance. And checking out some exotic German shepherds.

We pushed the drugged lion cubs to the back of our minds and, in doing so, were able to catch a glimpse of life that, as foreigners, we might never have had the privilege of seeing.

Ben Gittleson works on ABC News’ Assignment Desk in New York and freelance reports from around the city. From 2011 to 2013, he was a freelance journalist based in Cairo, and he has filed stories from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan for The International Herald Tribune, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and a variety of other publications.

* * *

Raccoon Eyes

By Will Ellis

No one saw me poking around the old Fort Totten Post Hospital, except for a suspicious raccoon that seemed to be the unofficial watchman of the place. I ignored him and stepped through an open door at the back of the building. That’s when he must have followed me inside.

I hadn’t bothered to look over my shoulder as I made my way past ancient kitchen cabinets piled high with dust. I sidled through a two-story cave-in—a dimly lit hallway that visibly slumped a foot or two lower than any floor should. With as light a step as my husky frame allowed, I headed down a spongy staircase to the basement to check in on my favorite sight in the hospital—a mind-bending spot where you can look straight up through three stories of collapsed rooms to the dormer windows in the attic.

As a photographer who’d spent the last year-and-a-half shooting New York City’s decaying factories, institutions, schools and cemeteries, Fort Totten, a former U.S. Army installation in Queens, had just the right combination of history and dilapidation I was looking for. The defunct military base is gradually being improved as a public park, but vast areas of the peninsula are all but overtaken by wild things, and dozens of historic structures are falling to rack and ruin.

That day, I pushed my luck all the way to the top floor, through a sturdy stairwell in the heart of the building. It was just as I remembered from my first visit a year before, only farther gone. I settled on a bit of stable ground and assembled my camera. The hall was silent. And suddenly, it wasn’t.

Tiny footsteps emanated from a doorway just a few feet ahead of me. A moment later, the culprit presented himself, unfurling a banded tail. It was the same raccoon I’d passed on the way in, and he must have been following me around all morning. He froze when I spotted him and locked his eyes with mine in an expression of unfeeling animal curiosity. I fumbled to switch lenses and get a few pictures of him. There was no mistaking the question in his gaze—what are you doing here? I could have asked him the same thing.

I was backed into a corner and he was getting too close for comfort. He took two steps toward me with no sign of apprehension, making it clear that I was the outsider, that wilderness had laid claim to this forsaken place long ago. My animal instincts kicked in and I found myself acting out a ridiculous gesture of intimidation—stomping my feet, flapping my arms, hissing like a maniac. It was unnerving how long it took him to react. For what seemed like minutes, he just kept staring.

More out of boredom than fear, he wandered into an adjacent room, traipsing over wafer-thin floors that even the most foolhardy explorer would know to avoid. I set up my tripod and attempted to coax him into the light with the kind of tk tk tk sound that never fails to get the attention of house cats. Predictably, my companion was unmoved. He backed into a brightly lit dayroom and crept out of sight. I reframed the camera and waited for him to step into my picture. Ten minutes later, there was still no sign of him.

I left my gear and followed the direction of his movements, hugging close to the stairwell where the floor was still attached. Every door I passed opened into another scene of unbridled decay—vines overflowing from a broken window, saplings taking root in the floorboards, the bones of the old hospital bleached and rotting in the rafters. Tk tk tk tk tk? A breeze rambled through the top floor, stirring a bank of dry leaves. Tk tk tk? I reached the end of the hall where his tracks ended, but all I found was an empty room. I was alone in the dark again, back in the crumbling corridors, left only with his incisive question. What the hell was I doing there?

The floor gave a little. Through a doorway to my right, I looked straight down to the basement floor three stories below me and decided to never set foot in that building again.

Will Ellis is a freelance photographer, video editor, and the founder of AbandonedNYC.com.

* * *

Goodbye Andy

By Lili Holzer-Glier

It was a glaring afternoon, when all the snow reflects the sun into your eyes, and through your squint it almost seems like everything is black-and-white. He was alone in a small pen, pure white and prancing, a shaggy extension of the knee-deep snow. As the riding instructor grabbed my skinny six-year-old leg and tossed me into the saddle, the pony seemed giant, although in reality he was only four feet tall at the peak of his shoulder.

My mother, a lifelong horse person, had bought my first pony, a tiny Shetland, before I was even born, and she had me riding before I could even walk. Burned out from the early 1980s New York City art scene, my parents had done what many artists seeking space and peace did: bought a farm upstate. Way upstate—just a little too far from anything (an hour from Albany, an hour from Saratoga), Hoosick Falls occupies a forgotten corner of New York scattered with struggling farms and shuttered factories. My father turned the sheep barn into his studio; my mother took the corncrib and slowly began transforming the cow barn into a horse barn. The first equine to occupy the farm was a thoroughbred filly named Lilly, my namesake. By the time I was six, I had outgrown the Shetland pony and we were hunting for my next steed.

I asked the shaggy white pony to trot, and we bounced around the riding arena well enough. But then a black cat shot down the barn aisle, into the arena, between the pony’s legs and out the other door. Frightened by the flying feline, my fuzzy friend leapt sideways so spectacularly fast I found myself hovering in the air like a cartoon before dropping hard to the ground. Tears of embarrassment pricked my eyes, as I lay flat in the dirt, blushing with my failure. The riding coach brushed me off and threw me back up on the now wild-eyed pony. I didn’t fall off again, so naturally my mother bought me this rather acrobatic creature.

We learned that Andy the white pony had a paralyzing fear of adults, likely from years of previous abuse. Andy would run endless circles around any adult who attempted to capture him in the pasture, snorting, his head held high like an Arabian. Sometimes he would let you get so tantalizingly close, only to bolt off again, white tail streaming away. But I, a timid small child, could catch him. And he could read people. He knew I meant him no harm. That isn’t to say he never left me hovering in the air again, landing flat in the dirt and watching him streak out of sight.

A few months after we bought Andy, I was riding around the corner of the barn just when a repairman was folding up his ladder. That repairman must have looked like the devil himself because Andy took off at a full gallop. Being an extremely stubborn child, I refused to watch his rear-end sprint away from me once more. So as I was falling to the ground, I grabbed the reins and did not let go. That pony dragged me about a mile, at full tilt, across two meadows and into the woods. It proved difficult even for a pony like him to dodge trees and drag a small person, so he began to slow. I finally let go and he stopped, turning and peering at me quizzically. My face, chest, stomach and legs were streaked with bloodied drag marks, and I couldn’t move my right arm. Turns out he had damaged the growth plate in my wrist. Courtesy of Andy, my right arm will always be slightly shorter than my left.

About a year after that, a lawnmower came around the corner of the barn, spooking Andy, who then dragged me the entire length of our half-mile gravel driveway, gracing me with a scar that runs most of my left forearm. But after that incident, Andy never dumped me again. This was in part because I was older and stronger and had developed an incredible knack to cling to naughty horses like a stubborn spider monkey. But Andy and I also developed an immense bond—the frightened abused pony and the lonely only child, growing up with few friends in an isolated town of 3,000 people.

Every day after school I would leap out of the car to go see Andy. He and I would wander my family’s farm until we knew every creek, clearing, wood and meadow. I rode him without a saddle or bridle, only a rope around his neck. I let him pick his way through the fields, stealing mouthfuls of grass and watching the deer bounce by. Our meanderings were always at the golden hour, when the August sun streaked across the yellow hay fields. I rode him until I was really too big to be doing so—fourteen years old, about to leave the farm for boarding school, with long legs that could almost wrap around Andy’s belly. On one of my last days there, I rode him until dusk, and as we came out of the woods into a clearing resplendent with fireflies, we stopped and looked, a glittering goodbye.

Lili Holzer-Glier is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, PBS and Newsday.

Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spot-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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