Tales from the Dating Scene

Seven New Yorkers share their best, worst, and most comically horrifying stories of love, lust and a lack thereof.

The End of JDate (Or, The Most Bitter Essay on Dating You’ll Ever Read)

By Amy Klein

Hi  JDater! You have 131 unread message(s)! What’s more fun than meeting interesting new people who are interested in YOU? For the best results, respond right away to their note–while you are still fresh in your admirer’s mind. Now, go on. Make it happen.

Best wishes,

Your friends at JDate.

I’ll tell you what’s more fun than meeting people from JDate. Anything. Anything is more fun than meeting a (not) perfect stranger for an interminable drink that inevitably stretches into a dinner at which I am sharply digging my nails into my thighs both to keep myself awake and to distract myself from the pain at hand.

That’s why I am loath to sign on again to JDate, the international portal for Jewish dating that boasts about half a million users worldwide (Match.com has 20 million by comparison). When the site started in 1997, Internet dating was a little-known and somewhat scary phenomenon; somewhere after the millennium, it became the only way to meet someone.

But here’s the thing about Internet dating in general and JDate in particular: People hate it. They detest it. Listen: If I sound bitter, that’s because I am. But I am not alone. Well, I am alone, technically speaking, but I’m not alone on this subject of Internet dating, and specifically JDate. And I’m not a loser: As a thirty-nine-year-old New Yorker, I’m pretty, athletic, down-to-earth, sporty and fun. “She’s so great, why isn’t she with someone?” is what people say about me, although I’m not sure if it’s a compliment or an insult.

I tend to go for guys that say things like, “I want a woman who is independent and has her own interests,” which I’ve only recently understood to mean, “I only have time for women who are like that blow-up doll in Lars and the Real Girl.” I also tend to go out with guys who write “Communication is key,” to answer the question, “What I Learned From My Last Relationship”–an asinine category which should be re-titled, “What I Definitely Did Not Learn From My Last Relationship Otherwise I’d Still Be In It.” I’ve come to understand these guys would rather join the military during wartime rather than have a conversation about The Relationship and Where We Are Headed, the answer being, Nowhere and Fast.

To be fair: Men also have profound and reflective complaints about the females online: Namely, that women lie about their weight and age. I know this because they’ve told me. That’s what people do on JDates: We talk about other JDates like we are at a family reunion and we are trying to catch up with cousins we haven’t seen in years. Even though it’s more like we’re at tryouts for a freak show and trying to come up with the best or worst stories.

But I’ve found, as someone who has been on more than fifty first dates in the last ten years, it’s not the worst stories that get to you; not the guy who tries to choke you while kissing you “because you’re wearing a choker, so I thought you’d like it”; or the hottie who, in the middle of the date, accidentally texts you, “Date’s not going too well”; or the one who reveals he’s a dumpster diver by diving into a pile of garbage before dinner (after dinner might have been OK).

No, it’s the colossal amount of people who are not for you: The guy who looks exactly like his picture but who has as much chemistry as a paper plate; the one who tells you to your journalist face that he doesn’t read the news because it’s too depressing; the one with three cats even though you wrote you are deathly allergic.

Nothing wrong with any of these people per se, if per se means “for someone else.” How many slings and arrows can a dater suffer? I recently started envying my parents, who got married at twenty-two; and that’s a scary thing because my parents had a terrible marriage and divorced after twenty-nine years, but still, at least they didn’t have to JDate.

It hasn’t been all bad. I’ve gotten three boyfriends from the site. That first one I could have met on my own because we had so many friends in common. I hadn’t, though. JDate introduced us, but I didn’t reply to his email until four months later (I was inundated with suitors before I turned thirty-five), and by then he was about to move across the country. I fell in love with him anyway in the six weeks we were together, and after he left, I had such great hopes for JDate that it took years and hundreds of dates before I realized I wouldn’t meet someone like him again.

My second boyfriend was a welder. Now, when I read this on JDate I thought it was a joke, the way men write under profession, “clown school” or for birthplace, “another planet.” I LOLed, it was so funny. (I’d never seen a blue-collar person on JDate.) When he called his voice was sexy and raspy and I didn’t realize it was because he’d pulled an all-night welding shift, and by the time I realized he actually was a welder it was too late because I’d already accepted a date. We went out on-and-off for a year, and this is not to JDate’s credit, because we were ill-suited and incompatible, and even though it’s taboo, I’ll say this: It was because of our class differences, and by this I mean education, money, values and social circles, and if it were not for JDate we never would have met at all.

My last JDate boyfriend was great and sweet and smart, but in the end, he didn’t really want a long-term relationship—not that it stopped him from pretending he did on the website. And that seems to be the bulk of the members, aside from those who are just on it for sex. To this latter group I say one thing: If I wanted to have a casual hookup with a stranger, I’d rather meet an Amazonian named Seamus or Shaquille with rock-hard abs than a 5’6” bespectacled mama’s boy with allergies.

All this is a very, very, very long way of saying why I don’t want to sign up again for the site. But here’s the problem. I’m thirty-nine. Old even by non-Jewish standards. (Jewish-wise, I’m basically dead.) People don’t set me up anymore. Mostly because they don’t know anyone eligible.

So it’s just me and the Internet–and it’s too late for me to understand another website like the cool Nerve personals or OKCupid (just “okay?” why not “GREATCupid?”). I’m going to stick with JDate. Besides, they owe me. Yes, that’s right. JDate owes me a husband. I’ve paid them more than a thousand dollars, not to mention at least two hundred hours of dating time–this doesn’t include prep time of pedicures, waxing and therapy. If dating were tax deductible I could write off half my life. Ergo, I must meet someone on JDate.

And if I do meet someone offline, in real life, I will go look him up on JDate and contact him there and I’ll tell everyone at our wedding loudly and clearly that we met on JDate, that everyone must go on JDate (although everyone will be married by then) and see, I wasn’t wasting all my time and money and in the end. I was not a JDate failure.

Yes, JDate owes me. It’s payback time. JDate, here I come.

Postscript: The Author did, in fact, go back on JDate, but sadly, did not meet her husband on the site. She met him at a party. A real, live actual party–at a bar, no less. By the time she got married she had forgotten about JDate and all the hours she wasted on the site, and, like most coupled people, had also forgotten about all her single friends.

Amy Klein is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon and NPR, among other places.

C.M. Duffy is an illustrator residing in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in editorial publications, books, advertising and album covers.

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Why I Married My Best Friend on Facebook

By Lilly O’Donnell

My Facebook profile says I’m “Married to Haley Moss Dillon,” and has for the last four years. But it’s not exactly true.

First of all, Haley and I are both straight women. Second of all, we’ve claimed to be married since long before New York State legalized same-sex marriage. These Facebook “marriages” between best friends have become the digital iteration of friendship necklaces, two halves of a heart, bought at Claire’s and displayed as a proclamation. But they have practical applications beyond letting the world know that you love and are loved.

Illustration by Melissa Mendes
Illustration by Melissa Mendes

When I was nineteen I got engaged to the guy I’d been with for three years (he bought me a ring and everything: Art Deco white gold with a pearl and two little diamonds). We were even “Engaged” on Facebook, making it really official.

Eventually I realized I wasn’t ready to get married.  I wanted my single years in a cramped studio apartment full of books; I wanted to try to make it as a writer, even if that meant poverty; I wanted the option to pick up and disappear in Europe for a few years. There was no way to reconcile that with my fiancé’s plan to raise three Russian-speaking children in Bensonhurst, ASAP.

So we broke up.

I told myself that ending it was the mature thing to do. I’d rather be single while I was young than end up a middle-aged divorcee, my figure destroyed by the three kids I didn’t even want.

I tried to get excited about flirting. I cut my hair flapper-short, dug out the red lipstick, and bought a new Victoria’s Secret push-up bra.

But, despite my best efforts, I was teenage-girl-heartbroken, crying into my down comforter at night–and in the middle of the day. As if my private misery wasn’t enough, I braced myself for the reactions on Facebook when I updated my relationship status. I dreaded from the pit of my ice-cream-and-booze-filled stomach the torrent of “OMG what happened?” and “:(“ from people I barely knew, and even worse, the congratulations from people who never liked my ex.

The simple solution: Change my status to “Married” to my best friend, Haley. It provided us both with an excuse to keep our romantic relationships off of Facebook and let me change my status without actually announcing the breakup.

Haley and I were pleased with ourselves for keeping our privacy while still being engaged Facebookers. Plus we really are life partners, so why not tell the world?

We’ve been talking about running away and getting married in Vermont since we were fifteen and sixteen and consider it a cosmic prank that we aren’t lesbians. Unfortunately, just like you can’t “pray away the gay,” you can’t pray for it, either.

We refer to each other as “my wife,” and my coworker was surprised, after we’d worked together for more than a year, that Haley and I are not actually a couple.

A way to avoid broadcasting a breakup to everyone I know had turned into a testament to our heterosexual life-mate status. But I was soon reminded of its original purpose.

The ex and I did a terrible job of breaking up. We kept meeting “to talk,” which turned into goodbye sex followed by attempts at reconciliation. We inevitably fought soon after, which led to makeup sex. After we made up we would try again. It was a vicious cycle of self-delusion.

One night after hours of conversation that dripped with naïve adolescent sap, we decided that love conquers all. Again. We were lying in bed when he leapt up and turned on my computer.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

He had logged on to Facebook and was updating his relationship status.

I quickly explained my Facebook marriage with Haley, that she would get pissed if I changed my status, and that we had agreed to leave it that way.

As I said it I realized how relieved I was to have the perfect out. I wasn’t ready for an official Facebook announcement that we were trying again, for eager eyes to see our relationship fall apart, again.

When I realized that Haley is the only person I’m comfortable telling the world I’m in love with, I had to admit to myself that the Band-Aid the ex and I had put on our relationship wasn’t going to hold. There’s no Facebook option for “exes in denial.”

We broke up again that day. And only a few more times before it finally stuck.

The virtual marriage came in handy again a few years later when I found myself in another relationship. I was happy, but after the disaster of my previous rush to labels and rings, had no desire to use the “b” and “g” words. I didn’t even tell my IRL friends about the relationship for the first year or so, let alone have any desire to announce it on Facebook. And when it ended, never having really been labeled, I didn’t have to announce that, either.

The fishbowl experience of Facebook and other online profiles seems in contradiction to this generation’s reputation for being noncommittal–to career paths, to jobs, to relationships. We live our lives out online, on full display, but we also want the freedom to change our minds every few days, to have ambiguous relationships and embrace what’s been labeled “hook-up culture.”

The simple, seemingly cutesy and trendy move of “marrying” your best friend on Facebook is a way around that contradiction–maintaining privacy without the suspicious omissions of the information-less profile.

Lilly O’Donnell writes and tends bar in New York City. She’s currently working on her first book, about her father and whether it’s possible to balance life and art.

Melissa Mendes is the author of the Xeric-award winning graphic novel Freddy Stories.  Her current comic series Lou is being published by Oily Comics.  She lives and works in western Massachusetts.

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A Lollipop And Two Dozen Roses

By W.M. Akers

It seemed I was the only person on campus not getting laid hourly during my freshman year at NYU. The trouble was a steadfast commitment to a long distance girlfriend whom I loved too much to cheat on.

Long distance relationships are tricky because long distance sex is unfeasible, for now. So I dreamed up a Valentine’s Day surprise to return to her bed as soon as possible.

She expected me back in Nashville late February 14th, but I decided to cut class and go home a day early. I’d tell her to step outside her house, where I would be waiting for hugs and kisses. It would blow her goddamned mind.

But come February 13th my flight was delayed by an hour because of an impending blizzard. To kill time, I decided to watch the beginning of “Fitzcarraldo,” Werner Herzog’s maligned masterpiece about one man’s insane attempt to yank a boat over a mountain.

The delay mounted. By the time Herzog’s boat had made it to the other side my flight had been pushed back to 7:45. I gathered my things and left, taking with me a bouquet of two-dozen purple roses I got from a friend who had used them as a film prop.

I had planned on a quick cab ride to the airport, but once in the cab I encountered a phenomenon called “rush hour traffic.” By the time I reached JFK, I was a half-hour away from being New York’s dumbest dummy–the kid who missed his flight to watch “Fitzcarraldo.”

The hands on my watch moved as I waited for security, but the line didn’t. I pushed to the front. The security area was empty. I begged to be let through.

“My flight leaves in a half-hour,” I said, fumbling for my wallet.

“Kid,” growled the security guard. “You dropped your lollipop.”

“What?”

“You dropped your lollipop.”

He glanced down. I glanced down. The hundred people whom I’d cut in line glanced down, and saw my Durex on the floor. I smiled a pathetic smile, and the guard let me through.

(The TSA is no longer so forgiving. Last month I watched a haggard grandmother, about to miss her flight, beg to be let to the front of the line. She was refused. Perhaps she should have dropped a condom on the floor.)

Illustration by Chelsea Mose
Illustration by Chelsea Mose

Carrying two-dozen purple roses on to a plane is easier than moving a boat up a mountain, but still requires concentration. They rode in my lap, and I spent most of the flight inspecting them for signs of wilt. They survived, and my stewardship earned approving looks from a pair of old women sitting across the aisle. Their knowing smiles seemed to say, “That boy is going home to get laid.”

I landed, turned on my phone, and found four voicemails from a girlfriend who did not understand why I had ignored her calls. By the time I arrived outside her house she was half-asleep and all-the-way angry. But I would have my surprise.

Shivering, I stuffed the roses in her mailbox, crouched in her bushes, and dialed.

“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” she said.

“Go outside,” I said. “There’s a surprise in your mailbox.”

“I’m in bed. I’ll get it tomorrow.”

“It won’t last until tomorrow.”

“What is it?”

“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”

“Just tell me.”

“But it’ll ruin the surprise!”

“I don’t care about it, just tell me!”

This went on for a while. Finally, as young men do, I gave up.

“It’s two dozen purple roses,” I said, “and me!”

That got her downstairs.

The surprise was a bust. I didn’t get laid that weekend, and we broke up a few weeks later. But she was happy to see me, and boy was it worth it to see her face.

W.M. Akers is a Tennessee playwright who lives in New York City. He writes about theater at AstorPlaceRiot.net

Chelsea Mose is an Australian-born artist and photographer with a passion for neurology, strange behavior and unforeseen circumstances.

*   *   *

Heartbreaker

By Moses Gates

I am not someone you’d call a heartbreaker. When I turned thirty-five a couple years ago, my love life had consisted mostly of a series of flings best categorized as “friendly.” Even my two serious relationships had started off platonic, and evolved in a manner that would never be the subject of a bodice-ripper. I was the guy you went out with when the guy you really cared about had broken your heart. The fun, easy-to-be-with one who made you feel good about yourself again. Not someone who commanded–or expected–a great deal of emotional investment. Breakups usually consisted of a hug and an offer to set me up with a friend who was “not really looking for anything too serious right now.” I was certainly not the type to make women cry–especially not on the first date.

As I grew older, though, I found myself looking for a more serious relationship. But I was not at all used to the first awkward steps down possible-marriage road. My actual “dating” skills were embarrassingly undeveloped. When I asked friends for advice they rolled their eyes at me.

“Oh, come on Moses” one of my female friends/ex-flings told me as part of a pep talk. “You’re smart, good-looking, and basically have it together. And for God’s sake, you’re a thirty-five-year old Jewish guy who wants to get married and have kids. This is New York. How much trouble do you think you’re going to have?”

As it turned out, a lot. A friendly fling is a lot different than a person to potentially start a family with. I went on dozens of first dates, ranging from the great to the excruciating. Sometimes, I felt myself progressing down the familiar path to what I knew would be a fun and friendly few months. But each time I thought about eventually shopping for baby clothes with the person, the answer was always “no way.”

But one date during February 2011 was different. I met Eliana at the opera, where we had balcony tickets for Tosca. She was a beautiful, kind-hearted veterinarian with sad eyes, but a happy and open personality.

We started the night with a quick glass of wine at a nearby diner. We laughed and flirted, and as we headed to the opera I felt a small bubble of excitement at the possibility that an actual mature relationship might develop.

After the second act, I spotted some open seats on the orchestra level. I knew ushers wouldn’t be looking at our tickets, so I jumped at the chance to do something unexpected. Years of being single had taught me how to make sure a night out ends up memorable and not mundane—one way is take your date on a fun little adventure.

Eliana was game at first, but grew worried as we went to make our move.

“I’m staying here,” she said.

She had been wavering back and forth, and I assumed that all she needed was a small but firm nudge.

“Come on, follow me,” I said.

She did not follow.

After Tosca leapt to her death to close the show, I waited by the entrance for her to come down. Almost the whole audience filtered out, but I still didn’t see her.

“Are you still upstairs?” I texted her.

“I’m going home,” was the reply.

“Oh my. Wait and talk to me for five minutes?” I wrote back.

I found her in the subway, eyes red and cheeks glistening. All my bravado melted away. I didn’t make the mistake of thinking it was about me–obviously I had triggered some insecurity or recent trauma. I still felt awful though–all I could think about was trying to comfort her. I apologized as best I could, and convinced her to get a drink at a nearby bar.

The night soon got back on the right track. We sat on a couch, held hands, had normal first date conversations. The good humor and possibility I had felt earlier in the night returned. There’s something about showing emotion, no matter which one, that serves to break down barriers and make two people feel closer than they actually are. Maybe my mistake earlier was all for the best. Plus, even though we’d found each other on the Internet, we now had a good “how’d you meet” story.

Illustration by Almaz Wilson
Illustration by Almaz Wilson

“You know I made your grandmother cry on our first date” I imagined a grizzled old me saying to our progeny on a porch swing set somewhere.

“I thought he was so handsome, but such a jerk” she’d add lovingly, while giving me a playful shove.

We left the bar and walked to the Lincoln Center subway stop.

“So what are you thinking?” She asked.

“Well, what are you thinking?” I replied, thinking I’d made it obvious that I liked her.

“No, you first,” she said. Fair enough, given what had happened earlier.

“Well I like you,” I said. “I’d like to see you again.”

She looked up at me.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I can tell you’re not going to be my boyfriend.”

Ouch. What a dirty trick. It was like holding a bowl of M&Ms, asking the six-year old next to you if they liked candy, and then responding “sugar will rot your teeth you know.”  I was shocked. I couldn’t tell if she had just reached that conclusion, or had purposefully been a little bit cruel. I had had countless end-of-first-date conversations, some easy, many awkward, but none that involved a bait-and-switch. I struggled for composure as we took the 1 train downtown.

“I really thought we were getting along great.” I said. “Was I wrong?”

“Well I like you and everything. But when you left me in the balcony at the Opera-let’s just say I’ve been there before,” she replied, before getting off after three stops at 42nd street while I continued down to Brooklyn.

I was still flustered when I got home. I dropped everything from the “smooth operator” playbook and texted her. I wanted to show her that I was serious when I told her I liked her, that I was willing to be vulnerable also.

“Sorry, I am just not interested,” she replied.

Since then, I’ve gone on many more first dates, but I still carry regrets from that night. But just as her tears in the subway weren’t really about me, I know my regrets aren’t really about her. I’d had the fleeting relationships I’d had because I’d never been comfortable being “the guy you really cared about.” And at my first halting attempt at being different I’d reverted to type without even realizing it.

Moses Gates is an urban planner, licensed New York City tour guide and visiting assistant professor of demographics at the Pratt Institute. His memoir, Hidden Cities, is in bookstores March 21st. Follow him @MosesNYC

Almaz Wilson is a hopeless romantic and artist living in Brooklyn, New York.

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An Immodest Proposal

By Daniel Krieger

I was teaching ESL at a community college in New York about five years ago when my prettiest student invited me to her house out of the blue to discuss what she referred to as “an urgent thing.” I asked Natalia, as I will call her, if we could perhaps talk in a more neutral environment, like our classroom or a café. But she insisted on complete privacy. I vaguely recalled something about my school’s ‘No Fraternization’ policy, but agreed to pay a visit to my twenty-two-year-old Russian-Greek student’s home.

On the N train to her place in Astoria, I wondered what Natalia could possibly need to talk about. Some arcane point of English grammar? Or was I getting lured into a trap that would have the makings of a noir thriller? With her jet black hair, bright blue eyes, svelte figure and short skirts, Natalia was just right for a femme fatale. I of course would excel as the hapless Joe who gets in over his head.

When I got there she asked me to sit on her sofa while she fixed something in the kitchen. She brought out orange juice and pizza. We ate and drank, made small talk. Then she cleared everything away, sat down next to me, and smiled.

“You ready for talk?” she asked.

“I’m all ears,” I said, wondering if she knew that odd idiom.

She told me how much she enjoyed my class and what a good teacher she thought I was. And then she said I was good-looking and wondered if, by any chance, I happened to be gay. I said I wasn’t. She asked if I was single. I said I was.

“So no one can be surprised if handsome, single, not-gay English teacher and his young student fall in love,” she said.

“I guess…not.”

“Good! So here’s what,” she said, taking my hands in hers. “We can get married so I can get Green Card!”

I looked at her with a slightly furrowed brow. She went on:

“I can pay you $15,000 cash when we marry and $15,000 after two years when we can divorce. I have lawyer who will help with everything. We live together and my mother can come from Athens to live with us. So how do you think?”

“Well, um …”

“We don’t have romance,” she said. “It’s business. I get Green Card. You get money and to live no rent.”

Illustration by Sara Lautman
Illustration by Sara Lautman

I’d been bracing myself for a proposition of another kind. But all that cash wasn’t so easy to resist either, not to mention two years of relief from New York’s obscene rent. I told her I needed to think it over.

The next day, I talked it out with a few friends. One told me the going rate for a Green Card marriage had to be at least fifty grand. Another thought her means of income—she said “exotic dancing”—made the whole thing a bit dicey. A third pointed out the prospect of a failed INS interview as in the movie “Green Card.”

And all the while I kept thinking about the sticky intertwining of our lives that would be necessary to pull it off. Like how would I explain to a future girlfriend what an exotic dancer and her mom were doing watching “Baywatch” reruns in my living room?

There was no way to sugarcoat it for parental approval either. If something went wrong, I could be looking at up to five years in jail plus a quarter-million-dollar fine for committing marriage fraud.

A few days later I called Natalia and told her I appreciated the offer, but the risk outweighed the benefits.

“But nobody know truth!” she said. “We live together two years then divorce! This is good plan. What’s problem?”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said.

She told me to take a little more time to think about it and called the next day. When I told her the same thing again, she let out a sigh and said I was “selfish.”

Her lawyer, she said, thought so too. Neither could understand how I could pass up the chance to make all that money while helping a girl and her mother get a shot at becoming American.

I told her I would gladly refer her to someone else. She let out a deeper sigh and said my teaching actually wasn’t so great, and I was probably gay after all.

The next day, she transferred out of my class, and that was the last I heard of Natalia.

Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a journalist based in New York.

Sara Lautman is an illustrator and comics artist from New Jersey. She has drawn for publications like Bitch Magazine, The L Magazine, The Hairpin, Heeb and The Morning News. Her blog is called MACROGROAN!

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The French Connection

By Natalie Axton

When I was in my early twenties I fell in with a group of French Catholic expatriates. They were an agreeable bunch, carefree in the way people on short-term stays in New York can be. I met them through Bruno, an Asterix-loving, Nutella-slurping Frenchman who was living in my building. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but Bruno was exactly what I had been waiting for. Growing up in a place where most girls dream of owning ponies, I had asked my parents for a foreign exchange student instead. They declined. Bruno, generous and eager to experience New York, was the exchange student I had always wanted. I introduced him to my friends. In return, he introduced me to his.

Bruno was a Catholic and, I came to learn, part of a specific French subculture–landed, conservative, and (sometimes literally) entitled. Critics call them “bge-bge” which stands for “bon gouts, bon gens” and suggests these people believe that good taste implies good people. In New York these French formed a tight-knit circle. Their leader was a man named Laurent. He had attended the prestigious Sciences-Po in Paris, trained to become a priest, and then come to New York to work in finance. This was New York in the mid-1990s, a city revived in the world’s eyes to have become just safe enough to provide slightly dangerous fun. Laurent was the go-to guy if you were French, conservative, and found yourself needing ballast. He was a small man who lived in a very big loft in Soho. He had a lot of parties.

Bruno went regularly to the parties, and he took me. They were networking opportunities for the expats. For me, as one of only a few Americans invited, the parties were a cultural event. It was there I learned to “dance rock roll” to John Cougar Mellencamp songs and to cut each cheese in the proper way. I came to understand why the French are all keen on visiting the Times Square Baptist Church (it’s in all the French guidebooks) and why they stalk the squirrels in Central Park with zoom lens cameras (grey squirrels are uncommon in France).

Seeing New York through the prism of this subculture was entertaining. It was French, but it was square. No one was more fascinating than Laurent. I heard Laurent condemn body piercings, tattoos, and homosexual flamboyance as a “need for attention,” then proclaim that he loved living in The United States because it is such a religious country. Laurent spoke for the rest of the bunch, who believed in an ordered society if only they (and they alone) were allowed to break its rules. For example, I once went to the Met Museum with Bruno. It was crowded; the weather was rainy. When we got into the museum we saw the line for the coat check was long. Rather than stand in line to check it, Bruno stuck the golf umbrella he was carrying down his pant leg. “The French don’t wait in lines,” he explained, pole vaulting down the Egyptian gallery on his umbrella-leg. Of course the French wait in lines. But not when they don’t want to.

Illustration by Nathan Place
Illustration by Nathan Place

“Bonjour. C’est Luc. Comment ca va?”

“I’m fine, thank you. Who is this?”

“Luc. We met at the party. Laurent gave me your number.”

Luc wanted to take me out to dinner. I was flattered, even though I couldn’t remember who he was. We went out, had an unremarkable evening, and that was that. The next week Marc called, and the whole process was repeated. Then again the following week with Jean-Paul. Pretty soon every Thomas, Etienne, and Henri were calling me, and I started to wonder why.

Of course I was appalled Laurent had started giving out my number without my permission. But by that point I knew him well enough not to be surprised. What I was curious about was the volume. The explanation lay in French history. French law mandated universal military conscription until 2001. Although ‘universal’ applied only to men and not all men served equally. Because Bruno was well educated and had feigned asthma to a French military medical office, he was allowed to do his military service at Societé Generale, a French investment bank. That’s why he was living in the city. I hadn’t caught on–after all, we had spent most of our time at the parties dancing and sharing pictures of squirrels–but most of Laurent’s other expats were doing the same thing.

I’m not exactly sure what kind of woman I would have expected French Catholic men on shore leave from the financial markets would want to go out with. But I suppose I was it, because I quickly became an unofficial attaché to the Laurent-Soho diplomatic mission. Every week a new Frenchman would call me and say, “Allo. My name is [Hugo Jean-Pierre, Marc, Etienne, fill in the French blank]. Laurent gave me your number.” I occasionally recognized a voice I had met at a party, but most would be blind dates. In any case, I never turned any of them down. None of these calls led to any great romance, but they did keep me busy. There was Tristan who took me to a jazz club in Harlem. And Jean-Luc, who insisted we see Smokey Joe’s Café, a musical revue playing on Broadway. My favorite was Xavier, who lived in Philadelphia. He came in on the odd weekend and was always up for paintball.

Laurent chose to return to France a few years later. The parties stopped, and so did the calls.

And Bruno? Bruno married my best friend, a Canadian atheist who spoke fluent French when they met. They live in the French Alps and have two children.

Natalie Axton is a writer living in the lower Hudson Valley.  She blogs at www.livingwithcriticism.com.

Nathan Place is an almost-professional cartoonist, writer and videographer, currently receiving training in two of those fields at the CUNY Grad School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.

*   *   *

A Kiss on the Cheek

By Daniel E. Slotnik

I was a little bleary-eyed and wasn’t paying too much attention to my conversation with Ron, a coworker, on a January morning years ago. Then he asked a question that made me focus.

“Dan, are you single?”

I waited a beat.

“Um … excuse me?  Are you propositioning me?”

“OH!  Oh, god, no!” Ron laughed. “I’m seeing a woman named Nan, from Thailand. She has a friend named Ae. She’s really nice, is in New York working as an au pair and is pretty lonely. Also, she’s a knockout. Would you have any interest in maybe taking her out?”

“Yes!”  I said, pretty eagerly. The past year, after my last and then-longest relationship had ended, had been a bit lonely. What followed was the most awkward, and best, date of my life.

First, Ae and I exchanged photos. Ae was crouched next to an amiable yellow lab in hers, which I immediately took as a good sign. She had long, surprisingly curly brown-black hair, a one-thousand-megaton smile and eyes the color of dark-roast coffee beans. I had yet to speak to her, but I was smitten. I had a couple of my roommates help me take a phone picture that downplayed my starter widow’s peak and somewhat lumpy appearance and sent it to her. She didn’t seem horrified, so we made plans to talk on the phone that Thursday when I had a day off.

The conversation was agonizing. Ae had a very sweet voice and a lovely accent, but she also spoke somewhat haltingly and very softly. My hearing’s not great at the best of times and my room in our sketchy, converted Midtown loft abutted an alleyway where at least seventy-five industrial heaters moaned night and day.

As a result I said “WHAT?” a lot–never a great way to behave in an introductory conversation. But we chatted for over an hour, about dogs, her job in New York, what she thought of the city and Thai politics. (I had learned some basic details, like the name of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, for the occasion.) We made plans to meet at a cafe at Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street that Sunday, and I remember hanging up the phone and feeling more excited than I had in a long time.

Sunday finally arrived, and I dressed up: Fairly tight jeans; a lucky button-down, tucked in; and my brown boots. I was eager but nervous. I went to the Barnes and Noble in the early afternoon, but at first couldn’t find Ae. She had said we could meet in the cafe, but I didn’t see anyone who resembled her picture there. I called her, and we spoke to each other while searching down the aisles of books.  I spotted her by the magazine racks and thought “Please, let that be her.”

“So…what do you feel like doing? Do you want some coffee?” I asked, after a protracted handshake.

“I don’t really like coffee. Want to walk around a bit?”

“OK,” I said happily. (I confess, I thought, “Then why did we meet at a cafe?” But she could have said, “I want to ice skate naked through Central Park,” and I would have picked up some skates.)

And so we wandered. For hours. We punctuated the day by stopping for Japanese food at Kitaro, during which I asked her what kind of music she liked (ska, which I don’t love but started rattling off bands like I’d been skanking for years). We took in a very bad horror movie, during which she held my hand (I thrilled like a thirteen-year-old and she asked why my palm was so sweaty at one point. But mostly I kept up a near-constant, anxious commentary on whatever topic came to mind.

Illustration by Andra Emilia Fenton
Illustration by Andra Emilia Fenton

Ae was very calm throughout the whole thing and took my chattering with aplomb, though I suspect that she understood only a fraction of what I said because I spoke so fast. But we spent the whole day together, and we’d held hands during a scary movie.  I thought things looked good for me.

We’d been together nearly all day, the sun had set and it was cold. Ae asked me to walk her home, to 72nd and West End.  I didn’t want the date to end yet, but what could I do?

I left her by the awning of her host parents’ building and, steeling myself, leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She released a high-pitched, strangled shriek, and ran through the door.

I was utterly shocked—I thought she’d liked me! I did the cheesy “call me” hand signal through the door as she hustled to her elevator.

It turns out that Ae was still in the process of breaking up with a boyfriend in Thailand at the time. She thought I was meeting her as a platonic friend to spend time with in the city. On top of that, as I have learned later, many Thai people, Ae included, prefer to move very slowly in romantic relationships. The boyfriend had taken almost a year to kiss her.

Luckily, I was ignorant of these things at the time, and went home confused but extremely hopeful. Ae and I did have another date (she asked if I could find six friends to meet her six friends at a club—it was an interesting night), and many more after that. We have been happily married, and still often confused, since 2010.

Daniel E. Slotnik is a contributing editor for Narratively. He has worked at The New York Times since 2005, has written for several Times sections and blogs and is a frequent contributor to the obituaries department. Follow him on Twitter @dslotnik.

Andra Emilia Fenton is a Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator. She is currently working on her second children’s book.

*   *   *

40 Years Ago, an Alabama Jury Proved White Supremacists Could Be Brought to Justice

The long-delayed trial of the KKK bomber meant white southerners like me—and my aunt, who was on the jury—could no longer ignore the evil around us.

Uncle Bobby sat on my grandmother’s couch with a hangdog look and a brown paper sack. I wasn’t used to seeing him this way. Tall, lanky, bearded, and gruff, Uncle Bobby dispensed orders and opinions. On Monday, November 14, 1977, he delivered tampons.

His wife, my Aunt Nell, was sequestered for a jury. A bailiff called with her request: clothes, her Bible, and a large bag of feminine hygiene products.

Searching through the Birmingham Public Library archives 40 years later, I find a photograph of Aunt Nell, Juror 149, leaving the courtroom of the biggest case in the city’s civil rights history. I note first that Uncle Bobby brought her white slacks. Next, in her right hand, I see a crumpled tissue. She’s crying.

Jury members leave the courtroom. Aunt Nell wears white slacks, and in her right hand is a crumpled tissue. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

At 16, I thought only of myself. Nell was the cool aunt, the party aunt who packed a large green Impala full of giggling teenage girls each Friday night and drove to football games, past cute boys’ houses, or to rock concerts. How long was this sequester? Would we miss KISS?

My cousin Tracy, 14, and I pestered her dad with questions. Could we ride downtown with him? Could he drive by Penny Pet Food billboard, so we could watch the dog’s tongue loll and its tail wag?

Maybe we could get on television!

“No!”

Uncle Bobby dashed our hopes with a bark. He wasn’t taking girls to any courthouse where Dynamite Bob was on trial.

* * *

On the morning of September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, each 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were busily primping in the basement ladies’ room of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for a special Youth Day program when a dynamite blast tore out the church’s east side. The explosion’s force blew off their frilly Sunday dresses and sent concrete fragments flying through their skulls. Relatives identified them by their ash-covered patent-leather shoes.

A local Ku Klux Klan faction targeted the church for its visible presence in the civil rights movement. Protestors had gathered at Sixteenth Street multiple times earlier that year for mass meetings of the Birmingham Campaign to confront one of segregation’s most violently defended bastions. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after his arrest in a downtown march. In May, a protest called the “Children’s Crusade” left from the church to face Jim Crow. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police to attack the young demonstrators with dogs and firemen to hit them with water cannons. Photographs and video footage shocked the world. Embarrassed civic leaders agreed to hire black workers and desegregate downtown stores and businesses.

But the chaos was not yet over. In early September, not long after the March on Washington and King’s “I Have Dream” speech, a few city schools admitted the first black students. A violent backlash ensued. White students at three high schools rioted. Local civil rights activists’ homes were firebombed. Governor George Wallace did nothing to help. Earlier that summer, he famously blocked the way of two black students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, making good on words from his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On Tuesday, September 10th, President John F. Kennedy bypassed Wallace, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and sending the troops to schools to keep order.

On Friday the 13th, the city remained awash in hot-rods flying Confederate flags on their radio antennas and hanging signs from their windows that said “Keep Birmingham Schools White.”

On Sunday the church exploded.

The blast resonated across the nation. The “four little girls,” as the victims were collectively known, inspired poetry, fiction, visual art, and music. Their deaths galvanized support for the movement, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Back in Birmingham, the FBI and local police chased each other’s tails around a slipshod investigation that went nowhere. Fourteen years passed before Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Sixteenth Street bombing’s ringleader, was brought to trial.

* * *

My grandmother, a recent widow and a newly employed nurse, brought her children to Birmingham in the late 1940s from Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Granny was excited to find a place to live near her job at Hillman Hospital downtown, in the city’s first housing project for whites. Elyton Village sat on Center Street, ten blocks south of an emerging civil rights showdown.

In 1947, a federal judge ruled Birmingham’s 1926 race-based zoning laws unconstitutional. Middle class black families began purchasing bungalows from white owners along north Center Street. Then their bungalows blew up. Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 racially motivated bomb attacks occurred.

Neither Aunt Nell nor my mother remembered the explosions that gave Birmingham its nickname, “Bombingham,” although many took place close to where they lived. Perhaps to shield her girls, my grandmother said the rumbling came from “danny-mite,” as she pronounced it, in local coal and iron ore mines.

Down the road from what later became known as “Dynamite Hill,” my mother fought her own battle. One morning, a neighbor girl called her “poor.” After school, Mom waited for her behind a bush. When the girl roller-skated past, Mom jumped out and pummeled her face into the concrete. Not long afterward, my grandmother got a better job and moved her daughters from Elyton Village to East Lake, a working class community five miles east of downtown. Even though Mom got a spanking for her violence, she told the story proudly.

“We fought our way out of nothing,” she said. “Don’t let anyone try to drag you down to their level.”

A group of African Americans view the bomb-damanged home of Arthur Shores, an NAACP attorney in Birmingham, September 5, 1963. Explosions became so frequent that Birmingham earned the nickname, “Bombingham.” (Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

I had been a civil rights educator for two decades when Aunt Nell mentioned the little black girl my late mother beat up.

I heard this story all my life and missed the obvious.

“Of course the girl was black, baby.”

Aunt Nell, now in her 70s, is the kind of Southern lady that calls everybody “baby.” The kind that cooks supper for her Baptist church on Wednesdays, prepares the programs for Sunday service on Thursdays, and visits shut-ins on Saturdays. Still the cool aunt, but no longer the party aunt, Nell has silver hair, which complements her steel blue eyes. Her walker, named “Mr. Walker,” goes with her everywhere after Uncle Bobby’s passing.

Aunt Nell and Mr. Walker have been through all Twelve Steps. She does not shy away from honest answers.

“Baby, your momma wouldn’t have hurt a white girl so bad for calling her poor.”

Flashing into my mind: the scene from Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” where Maxine McNair shows the director the piece of concrete that was embedded in her daughter Denise’s head.

* * *

The news media focused on shoes. The Associated Press circulated a photograph of Maxine McNair’s father, F.L. Pippen, and another man running from the church carrying Denise’s shoe. Pippen had just pulled Denise’s body from the rubble.

Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, published a column the next day that used the image to create a sense of empathy – and shame – in his white readership. “A Flower for the Graves,” read later that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, argued that the responsibility for the bombing did not lie only with the act’s perpetrators but with all white Southerners who, as Patterson stated, “created a climate for child-killing.” He described a grieving mother holding a shoe that belonged to her dead child. “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson stated. “Let us see it straight and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoes and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.”

Patterson urged his readers to do better, to “plant a flower of nobler resolve” on the girls’ graves. “We created the day,” he said. “We bear the judgment.”

* * *

The FBI and local police knew who bombed Sixteenth Street, but the investigation dragged on for years with no prosecution.

Bob Chambliss topped everyone’s suspect list. A craggy faced drinking and fighting man, Chambliss learned the explosives trade in Birmingham’s iron ore mines. In 1963, the 59-year-old Chambliss officially worked in Birmingham’s city garage. Unofficially, he worked for Bull Connor setting fuses on Dynamite Hill.

Robert E. Chambliss’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

The FBI had been monitoring Chambliss and his KKK cronies through an informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. A black female eyewitness named Gertrude “Kirthus” Glenn reported seeing a 1957 Chevy (later traced to Chambliss’s friend Thomas Blanton, Jr.) near the church the night before the bombing, and a man matching the description of either Chambliss or another suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, inside the car. But her testimony alone could not be the foundation for a trial against white men, especially considering that another potential eyewitness, the white police officer on duty that night was Floyd Garrett, Chambliss’s nephew. Chambliss and two other men, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were picked up for possessing and transporting dynamite. They paid a $100 fine and received a suspended sentence. No other arrests were made. In 1965, local authorities named Cherry, Blanton, and another man, Herman Cash, as primary suspects, with Chambliss as the ringleader. Yet in 1968, the FBI closed the case, and director J. Edgar Hoover sealed the files.

* * *

My grandmother told me that the Sunday of the church bombing, friends called her from the hospital where she worked, warning her not to come downtown. The dead and wounded had come there, and “they” – meaning black people – were rioting.

Granny said that she gathered me, a toddler, into her arms and headed to the hallway in the middle of her house, where we sheltered during tornadoes, singing hymns while waiting for the storms to pass.

Sixteenth Street Baptist’s minister, John Cross, tried to calm the unrest by reciting Psalms 23, the Lord’s Prayer, from a bullhorn in front of the church.

Two youths died in the day’s violence. A white police officer shot Johnny Robinson, 16, in the back. White teenagers shot Virgil Ware, 13, at random.

Younger activists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel grew so angry over the continuing miscarriage of justice that they challenged King’s stance on non-violence. After much soul-searching debate, a consensus emerged to fight for the right to vote and get men like Bull Connor out of office.

The strategy worked. The tangled emotions—the grief, the shame, the rage—that fueled Eugene Patterson to write “A Flower for the Graves” and thousands to converge on places like Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965, manifested themselves in two pieces of civil rights legislation. Both put Dynamite Bob on a collision course with a Birmingham courtroom.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed who voted, which changed who served on juries, and who got elected to judge and prosecutor positions. A young white law student named Bill Baxley vowed in 1963 that he would one day do something about the church bombing. When he became the state’s Attorney General in 1970, he immediately started digging into the church bombing case.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act changed who had access to public space. The church bombing sent a message that black citizens had no rights to public facilities, no rights to stores, no rights to schools, no rights to the most sacred places. Voting shifted the city’s demographic from one that was majority white and dominated by Jim Crow violence to one that was primarily black and ready to tell a new movement story. That storytelling process would start with the 1977 Chambliss prosecution and reach its fruition in 2013 with a monument to the four girls on the fifty-year anniversary of their murder. “Four Spirits,” by locally born artist Elizabeth MacQueen, features bronze statues of each girl – one beckoning visitors, another releasing doves – and a bench for rest and reflection. The monument sits at the center of a large memorial complex that includes the church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a walking tour, and multiple works of public art in a park that used to be famous for police dogs and fire hoses. Such a space sends a very different message from that of 1963: that the story about the fight for justice, equality, and freedom will occupy a significant portion of the city’s newly defined civic identity.

* * *

The 1977 Chambliss case was shaky, but Baxley pushed ahead because the time was right. Old-guard civil rights warriors tired of justice too long delayed. New Birmingham looked forward to words like “closure” and “healing.”

The trial opened on November 14. The charge was the murder of Denise McNair. Baxley told me in an April 2013 interview, “you can murder someone without knowing them if you set a bomb intending to do harm.” The state made four separate murder indictments, one for each girl. The judge, Wallace Gibson, ruled that the trial would go forward on one indictment only, an odd decision that would prove decisive. The jury was made up of nine white and three black members. Aunt Nell was an unlikely choice. She went to high school with defending attorney Art Hanes, Jr., and Hanes’s secretary Suzy was my mother’s best friend. I asked him in a May 2013 interview about the selection. He said that because his father had been Birmingham’s mayor (from 1961 to 1963) it was hard to find jury members he didn’t know. I asked Baxley also. He did not remember Juror 149 specifically, but he had a definite trial strategy that Aunt Nell fit. She was a Christian, a homemaker, and a mom. Her daughter (my cousin Tracy) was in 1977 about the same age as Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise when they died.

The evidence against Chambliss: he purchased a case of dynamite; he knew how to construct the specific, and rare, kind of fishing-bobber and metal bucket detonator used at Sixteenth Street; he was seen near the church the night before. But more important than any of that was Chambliss himself. Aunt Nell said she based her decision to convict on “his arrogance, his hatred, and his niece.”

For Aunt Nell, the niece Elizabeth Hood Cobbs’ testimony was the trial’s turning point. In 1963, Elizabeth Hood was in her early twenties. By 1977, she was divorced, a mother of one, and a Methodist minister named Elizabeth Cobbs. She stated under oath that she came to Chambliss’s house during the school riots and found him noticeably agitated, cursing, and using racial epithets. “Just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told her. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”He had enough dynamite “to flatten half of Birmingham,” he claimed. Cobbs was at the house after the bombing, when news reports stated that murder charges might possibly be filed. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody,” Chambliss told the television. “It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

On November 17, 1977, Baxley made his closing argument. He noted that the day would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, and by then she likely would have been a mother herself. He told the jury that it was their “duty” to convict.

At 4:10 pm they went into the jury room to begin deliberations. Five hours went by with no verdict. The judge allowed them to retire for the evening so they could get some sleep and start fresh the next morning. What happened during those five hours?

Aunt Nell told me that she had no doubt how she would vote.

“Baby, that man was guilty as sin,” she says. “You could see it in his face the minute he strolled into that courtroom like he owned it. You could see it in the way he stared at his niece.”

Not all jury members saw what Aunt Nell did. They spent their five hours reviewing the evidence piece by piece: witness testimony, intricate details about bomb building, Chambliss’s whereabouts in September 1963, morgue photos. Then they voted: 11-1. One white man remained unconvinced. The deliberations were exhausting and painful, Aunt Nell remembers, but not acrimonious. The man needed more time. The jury ate dinner: something from room service that Aunt Nell doesn’t remember. She does recall marking her Bible. Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, not of evil, to give you an expected end.” Aunt Nell slept well trusting that her Lord had a plan. The jury started up the next day a little after eight a.m. Two hours later they voted again.

On November 18, 1977, at 10:40 a.m. the jury returned a guilty verdict and set the sentence at life in prison. Chambliss served his time in a solitary cell.

The conviction established a new precedent for civil rights era crimes. Cold case prosecutions became increasingly common over the next few decades. In 1994, a Jackson, Mississippi jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005, another Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty for the murder of three voting rights activists during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Such “atonement trials,” as historian Jack Davis calls them, were important to people in places like Birmingham, who wanted to leave a violent past behind.

Some people have a different take on redemption. Chambliss died in 1985, still saying his Klan brothers did it, not him.

Ten years after Chambliss’s death, the F.B.I. reopened their investigation files. With new evidence unavailable to Baxley in 1977, Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District (and now a candidate in the special election for Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat) successfully prosecuted the co-conspirators who remained alive, Thomas Blanton in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The other suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994. After Cherry’s conviction, news headlines nationally spoke of “healing” and “closure.”

* * *

In “A Flower for the Graves,” Eugene Patterson claimed that the moral responsibility for the church bombing lay not with men like Chambliss who planted the dynamite at Sixteenth Street but with white Southerners who, by their overt actions or their silence, created fertile ground for violence. Both Art Hanes and my Aunt Nell taught me a lot about justice and accountability.

Hanes said that he lost the case in the defense. During the prosecution, Hanes was aggressive, objecting to anything related to the use of words such as “dynamite” or “bomb.” He even got the judge to cut those words out of the coroner’s report with a penknife. During the defense, as Hanes called up one motley character witness after another, his attitude shifted. He stopped pushing. He stopped objecting. He seemed resigned. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had planned to call only one witness: Chambliss himself. When it came time, Chambliss said, “I ain’t gettin’ up there.” Hanes said that was his epiphany.

One needs his backstory to understand. Art Hanes, Jr. was a Princeton educated partner in his father’s law firm. The firm defended the worst of the worst: Chambliss, the white men who killed Selma civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and, briefly, James Earl Ray for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Hanes claimed that he came out of law school “idealistic.” He told me, “Jefferson says that, ‘You judge a society not by how it treats its privileged but how it treats its meanest wretch.’ I came out of law school saying, ‘I can represent the meanest wretch.’” But in that courtroom, he said that he changed his mind: “I was not going to spend the rest of my life bleeding on those counsel tables.” He still worked in murder trials, but when Medgar Evers’s murderer Byron de la Beckwith tried to hire him in 1994, Hanes said no. No more being “on the wrong side of history.”

I asked him if he thought Birmingham had redeemed itself from the wrong side of history. Not nearly enough, he said, despite the prosecutions and the memorials: “We can’t adjust to a new society until all of us who were raised in a segregated America are gone… To me, all those things are current events. You can’t put them behind you and think of them as past.”

* * *

Aunt Nell and I also talk a lot about the past and change. Sometimes we drive past the places she has lived since moving to Birmingham. In 2013, the county just south of Birmingham where much of the city’s white population took flight after integration, received word from the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court stated that federal election monitors were no longer necessary in places with a history of Jim Crow, even though voter discrimination might still persist. We could not help but notice the wealthy extravagance of the lavish malls and sprawling gated communities we saw in Shelby County’s northern suburbs compared to the fast food restaurants, pawnshops, and bail bondsmen in predominantly black East Lake and Elyton Village.

Who needs KKK dynamite when you can just turn your back?

Yet Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, just west of the city’s central business and shopping district, is lovely – all green space and public art. Aunt Nell and I visited near the church bombing’s 50th anniversary. I asked her what she was doing while the famous “dogs and fire hoses” incidents were taking place downtown. “I cared and I didn’t,” she said, “because it didn’t affect me. I was into my own life, doing my own things. I was a young mother. But when I sat on that jury, it really opened my eyes.”

We stood at the corner where “Four Spirits,” the memorial to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise now stands, diagonally across from the church. Off to one side, the artist set a small pair of bronze shoes.

Maxine McNair kept the ash-covered patent leather shoe, along with the bloodstained piece of concrete that she showed to Spike Lee, in a box for decades after she lost eleven-year-old Denise.

My cousin Tracy and I survived our teens, went to plenty of rock concerts and football games, had children of our own, enjoying all the rights and privileges Birmingham daughters deserve.

Aunt Nell looked over at the church then out at Birmingham’s sleek skyline and sighed, “It makes you wonder how all that could go on and you just didn’t know. I guess you could call it ignorance.

“But it wasn’t.”

The Elizabeth MacQueen statue, “Four Spirits” statue at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Ted Tucker, courtesy the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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