Tales from the Night

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In taxicabs and at diners, down dark alleys and on bright stages, ten New Yorkers recall their most memorable dusk-to-dawn stories.

Chasing the Dawn

By Jennifer Mascia

New York in the ‘90s was truly a time apart. The city had licked its crime problem, its crack problem and its graffiti problem just in time to embrace a wave of Clintonian prosperity fueled by a giddy tech boom. The tallest buildings in town were still standing. Newspapers made money. Magazines enjoyed supersized expense accounts. Most of us had jobs.

I arrived smack in the middle of the ‘90s. My parents were raised in Brooklyn and when I was seventeen they wanted to move back. So we schlepped our life in a U-Haul from Southern California, setting foot on New Utrecht Avenue on July 1, 1995. It was humid beyond comprehension. Dirty. There were roaches. I knew no one. My friends were at the beach without me. I was pissed.

I spent a year pissed off on Staten Island, in a seventh-floor apartment on the North Shore, overlooking lower Manhattan. It was breathtaking, but all I saw amidst the glitter was uncertainty. Had I altered my trajectory by leaving California? Was I supposed to be here? Would I ever find a place among those imposing buildings across the bay?

I moped from July to June. That was when my friend from Catholic elementary school came to visit. Maria was a real noodge, as my mother would say. You know the type: never wrong, must control every social interaction, an angry drunk. After eleven months of hours-long phone calls she invited herself to Staten Island.

One night toward the end of her visit she wanted to go out. I had only been to the city a few times at that point, so, at Maria’s urging, I asked my co-worker at Starbucks, Jeff from Bay Ridge, to show us around. He had a car. He invited his friend Carmine, from Staten Island, and off we went in Jeff’s rickety Tercel. First stop was the liquor store, where we got a bottle of Absolut. I was still young enough that I felt I couldn’t turn down a shot, so I ducked down in the backseat and chugged. Once in Manhattan we downed kamikazes at a restaurant at South Street Seaport.

For the next six hours we walked: to the World Trade Center, where we stared up at the towers. “I can’t believe there’s only one security guard here,” Jeff said in his adenoidal Brooklynese. We hopped a train to 8th Street, where we wandered St. Marks. We passed DojoConey Island High—“Is it really a high school?” Maria asked as I scowled—and the big blue Narcotics Anonymous building. A meeting had let out and the addicts congregated on the front steps. It was a Friday night and the sidewalks were bursting. We went west.

“Smoke, smoke,” a guy said near Washington Square Park. It was before the security cameras, when you could still score. “Smoke, smoke.”

“Here you go!” Maria said helpfully, rifling through her purse for a Marlboro Light. She held one out to the man trying to sell us drugs.

“Maria! No!” Jeff said, laughing, grabbing her hand and whipping her away. A block or two later Jeff bought me a rose and kissed me, right there in the street. I perched on my tippy-toes—Jeff was 6’1” to my 5’3”—and I fell right off the sidewalk. I think I may have done it on purpose, to be cute, to get his attention. He laughed. Shit, did I mess it up? I desperately wanted another chance.

“What’s that?” I asked Jeff, pointing to the stretch of sidewalk before us. It was glittering.

“I think they mix glass in with the concrete,” he replied.

“Wow. What’s that?”  I asked, just to keep him talking. I pointed to a phone booth, where, instead of “NYNEX” stamped across the front it said “Lotion.”

“Who knows—it’s the Village,” he said. I’d later discover it was the work of a street artist who manipulated recognizable symbols of the city. Even the mundane had fans here in New York, where everything was interesting.

We made our way north, to the Empire State Building. They hadn’t shut the lights off yet. Someone took a photo of us on the observation deck: Maria has her arm around Carmine; they’d made out a few minutes before that. I’m standing between her and Jeff, my face beaming with contentment. You can see my nails, which I’d painted that evening with Chanel’s Vamp—very on-trend for 1995—and my tight shirt and skirt, which I’d been too self-conscious to wear until Maria convinced me I had a “tiny tummy” and should show it off more. She was really convincing. It makes sense that she became a prosecutor.

What goes up must come down when you live in Staten Island, so we headed downtown on foot. We were going to get Jeff’s car, which was parked by the Seaport, but we got sidetracked by the Brooklyn Bridge. It was begging us to cross it. At three a.m. We hit the walkway, singing to passersby and laughing wildly. I ran ahead to see if Jeff would follow me. He did, and when we kissed he tried to lift my shirt up and get under my bra. I let him. For a minute.

“Stop! We’re in public!” I said, still tipsy, wondering if I’d remember everything. Because I knew I’d relive this night over and over and I wanted to get it right. I faced Brooklyn and the Watchtower kept reminding me what time it was: 3:45. 4:01. I didn’t want it to be dawn, because dawn meant it was over.

We drove back across the Verrazano just as the sky faded to light blue, right before sunrise. As Jeff pulled into the circular driveway of my parents’ apartment building my stomach twisted into a knot. Anxious flutters traveled from my stomach to my arms and into my chest. What was this raw nerve? Was it Jeff, or the night? Or both?

I know what it is now, because I haven’t felt that feeling in years. That balled-up bundle of emotion was my soul awakening: to youth, to possibility, to excitement, to love. And Maria had made this happen. By encouraging me to wear that skirt and paint my nails and drop the scowl and ask out the guy from Starbucks, she was telling me to live.

Today the Narcotics Anonymous building houses a Quiznos. You haven’t been able to buy weed on St. Mark’s Place since 1999. Jeff is married to a man now, something I should have seen coming, but…youth. Carmine is a father. Maria and I don’t speak, and to be honest, I’m not really sure why. I am never afraid to turn down a shot of vodka. But I’ll always be up for chasing the dawn.

Jennifer Mascia is the author of Never Tell Our Business to Strangers. She works in the Op-Ed department of the New York Times.

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Danger Son

By Drew Henkels

If  you frequented the Lower East Side anytime before 2011, it’s possible you set foot in a place called Mars Bar, which was at Second Avenue and First Street. Although, if you had a functional self-preservation instinct and a healthy amount of common sense, it’s more likely you did not. Mars Bar was what you might find if you dove to the very bottom of a dive bar, peeled the scum from its floor, and lifted a trap door to a new dimension of dirt and debauchery. The interior of Mars Bar was long and skinny, with only a foot or two of wiggle room between the jukebox and bar stools, which stretched back to a small supply closet and toilet-paperless bathroom. The only light in the place seemed to come from the lone glowing jukebox and the neon beer signs hanging outside. Seeping through the warped glass cinderblocks, they bathed the graffiti-caked walls and ceiling in a dreary neon wash. Before its doors closed for good in 2011 due to pressures from the Health Department and plans for an icy condo skyrise, it was a true punk rock mecca; one last stronghold of the no-brow art world.

Illustration by Chelsea Mose
Illustration by Chelsea Mose

As a twenty-two-year-old film student in 2007, this was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. On one particularly boozy Wednesday night, I found myself drinking alone in Mars Bar at three a.m. My friend, who was celebrating his birthday that night, had wisely decided to jump ship and go home. I, on the other hand, was content soaking up the spirits and the spirit of the place altogether.

At the far end of the bar was a small cluster of what I assumed to be homeless men (a coat fashioned out of bubble wrap, taped to one grisly man seemed a fair indicator). The female bartender was catering to them intently. Earlier she had shown me, with a sly, proud smirk, the hammer she brings to work to “tame” the late-night crowd. She would pound the bar with it anytime someone did something she didn’t appreciate, like a judge residing over an unruly courtroom with an iron gavel. I was seated at the opposite end of the bar, in a recess dark enough to be forgotten entirely. There to my right, also out of earshot from the rest of the bar, was the only other patron that night: a middle-aged skinhead with bomber jacket and cuffed jeans to boot. As I complemented him on his jukebox song choice, it became clear that this was no punk rocker, fashion skinhead. This was a full-on, I-want-to-talk-Aryan-brotherhood skinhead. I settled in, and prepared to file the experience under my songwriting material bank.

Somewhere between long sips and a short yawn he reached a hand into the pocket of his jacket, then pulled it out and leaned his meaty forearm on the edge of the bar. In his palm was a small puddle of pills. “See! I’ve got enough Adderall to keep me going” he bragged.

When the color of the pills did not match my personal experience, I arrogantly blurted out “Those aren’t Adderall.” He jumped to his feet, so I jumped to mine, startled.

The man was built like a bulldog, with a demeanor to match. He was short and muscular, with a cold, casual violence hiding somewhere in his eyes. When we squared off, my neck was right at his eyeline, maybe reminding him that he did not have a neck (perhaps this was what was making him so angry).

“That’s not you’re fucking kidney…” he barked, digging two stumpy sausage fingers up underneath my ribcage “Do you want to find out?”

I grimaced and backed down immediately, trying to diffuse the situation. “Haha OK! OK! I believe you!”

His eyes let up, almost softened, and he suddenly became apologetic. “Agh I’m sorry, I’m on edge tonight. I’m never going to make up for what I did. All those things, I’m never going to make up for those things. I’m sorry, let me buy you a drink.”

I accepted the offer, mainly out of fear of disagreeing with anything he said. We huddled over another drink, and he continued to tell me about his experiences in what I slowly pieced together to be the Gulf War.

“Do you know they made me skin a man!?” his eyes darted nervously around the space, as he became increasingly agitated. He continued to teeter between gleeful boasts and haunting confessions. Anger and guilt slurred together in every word, and I was becoming more uncomfortable with each tale.

“Wow, that is a crazy story!” I interjected at some point. “I gotta be on my way now, but thanks for the drink.” I stood up and reached for my coat. Again he pounced to his feet, intentionally blocking my path to the exit with his wide frame.

“Sit the fuck down. You’re not going anywhere.”

I sat down. This time he seemed to have even startled himself. “Is she here?” he asked in a surprisingly soft voice, his face now twisted with regret.

“Is who here?” I was stunned.

“She’s here, isn’t she?” he whined, looking somewhere over my shoulder into the empty side of the room. I glanced down to the lit end of the bar, where the disturbance had gone unnoticed, then quickly came up with a new escape plan.

“I’m going to go get a sandwich. Want one? It’s the least I can do since you bought me the drink…” I said with the best casual tone I could squeeze from my shaky voicebox as I stood for a second time and reached for my coat. Once again he shot up.

It must have been a switchblade considering how fast it came out and its length, five inches or so of steel blade pressed to my neck, his watery eyes already stabbing at me from behind it.

What happened next is difficult to explain to the rationally minded. All I can do here is recount it exactly as I remember. Everything slowed and became still and quiet. A laser beam of focus linked the jukebox to my mind. (The only time I have ever experienced anything similar was when I first saw my now wife from across a crowded room.) Then the jukebox, with its warm fire-like glow, spoke directly to me. It was a female voice singing, the record seemed to be skipping, and the message repeated: “Danger son, danger son, danger son.”

“I WILL KILL FOR WHAT I NEED,” he blurted as he pulled a wad of cash from his other pocket and held it in my face. He continued to edge me toward the pitch-black supply closet, where, to this day, I am convinced he was ready cut me up. This was no pragmatic mugger; there before me was a man deep in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Spit sprayed from his chapped lips: “Step into the closet SON!” And it was there, right then with the word “son,” that the warning from the jukebox clicked: he was going to kill me if I went into that closet.

I’m still amazed that the move I pulled next worked. It was almost like out of a cartoon. I lifted my arm, as if on autopilot, pointed over his shoulder and yelled “I would but… LOOK!”

He paused, stunned, still staring into my face.

“LOOK!”

He craned his neck away just long enough for me to duck out from the knife and shove past him. I bolted past the jukebox, knocking over bar stools on my way, and crashed through the drinkers huddled by the door, out onto Second Avenue.

The sky was just turning from black to its deepest shade of purple, and a new calm had entered my mind. As I ran toward the street, I coolly calculated the odds of his knife reaching my back against the risk of darting into four lanes of moving traffic. I found an odd serenity and self-satisfaction as I wove through the moving traffic like a gazelle.

Blocks curled under my feet as I ran, a maniacal grin sprawled across my rosy face. When I lost my breath and couldn’t run anymore, I stopped and took my shirt off, tying it around my head like a do-rag in an attempt to disguise myself from my hunter, then walked the rest of the way home bare-chested.

Back in my freshly painted apartment, I vomited into the new sink. I lifted my head and looked around at the recently installed cabinets, the sterile sconces and other fixtures of a just-flipped piece of real estate. Then my eyes settled on the window, where the city skyline was thawing in the pale light of dawn. I felt the bizarre bubble of false security around me pop, and just stared out at the city, thinking about what else goes on out there in the dark of night.

Drew Henkels is a Brooklyn-born artist and videojournalist. He loves adventure, and specializes in being in the wrong place at the right time

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

*   *   *

A Nickel’s Worth

By Kyle Ayers

People say that Brooklyn has lost its edge (for better or worse, depending on who you ask). A borough once riddled with crime has seen its fedoras shift from gangsters to hipsters, its delis and bodegas vacated in favor of cupcake shops and mustache-themed everything, and a bunch of people who look and dress more or less like I do.

I was standing in line for organic, locally-sourced barbecue at Fette Sau in Williamsburg when a native Brooklynite, a stranger sparking conversation in a lengthy line, told me a story about a drug deal gone bad he had witnessed as a teenager. One person didn’t bring enough money, and apparently drug dealers are sticklers for cash. The dealer stabbed the buyer and fled the scene. No one called the police—it just wasn’t what you did back then, said the man in line.

I wanted this. I wanted some grit in my life. Things had been awfully tame since moving to New York, despite what my mom would believe. I’m all for being safe, all for general well-being, but an occasional “New York movie moment,” would have been nice. Months passed, then finally, one night I got just that. My apartment window faces a fairly well lit alley. I heard people outside talking and went to the window. All of a sudden I was witnessing a drug deal. I was giddy.

Dealer handed Buyer drugs. Buyer handed Dealer money. A moment passed, and I heard the Dealer yell: “Hey man, you shorted me four bucks. Motherfucker this is only forty-six dollars.”

I’m about to see a murder, I thought. My phone was in the other room. I couldn’t chance looking for it just to capture a nice shot for Instagram and risk missing out on my vintage Brooklyn moment.

The Buyer fiddled around in his pockets, then handed the Dealer a nickel. Five cents.

“What the fuck are you—”

The Buyer interrupted with an insane confidence and said, “Look closer at that nickel.”

Illustration by Melissa Raimondi
Illustration by Melissa Raimondi

I’ve never heard someone say that before, in any context. My eyes widened.

“Man, that nickel from 1944. E’erbody KNOWS nickels made between 1942 and 1945 were made with real silver. That’s a wartime nickel, bitch. Worth at LEAST ten bucks melted down!”

I thought, for sure, I was about to see someone get killed. Instead, both guys pulled out their smartphones and proceeded to look up the validity of that statement. They then shook hands, hugged, and walked in opposite directions.

Maybe the city has changed even more than that guy at the restaurant knows. I’ll have to look it up and see.

Kyle Ayers is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, by way of Missouri. He performs all over the city, tweets @kyleayers, and can write concise, simple sentences about himself.

Melissa Raimondi lives in Washington, DC, where she edits for Science magazine.

* * *

We Never See It Coming

By Lawrence Spiegel

The night has many secrets. It means us no harm, yet we are cautious and deliberate, lest we disturb it.  We proceed slowly, taking small steps so as not to stumble and trip. Sometimes we jump in and find out there was no danger at all. The night can provide a new idea, acceptance of a path we missed or perhaps a vision of the future. Sometimes it takes a long time to accept and understand what the night has revealed. As I write this, I am thinking of one particular night long ago. The prelude is my first job as a stage manager in New York, in the late 1960s.

I had grown up in New York, but never really had any interest in the theater. It was at college in Oklahoma, of all places, that I came to it. The other New Yorkers I met there were in the theater department. I followed suit. I also got married in college, and after moved with my wife to Los Angeles, where she was from. I heard a local playhouse was auditioning for the role created by Martin Sheen in “The Subject Was Roses.” I got the role and was received quite well in the local press. I followed up with an acting class, which led to a stage managing gig for the class’s teacher, which in turn led to a summer stock production with a new play being tried out for a possible run in New York. A week in Westport, one in East Hampton, one in Philadelphia, etc…But things did not go well. After four stops there was a week break during which the lead actress and the director were replaced. It didn’t make any difference and after another four weeks it was over. The play would not make it to New York. But, as things weren’t going well with the marriage, I headed back there myself.

We were boarding the train for the ride back to Manhattan from Philadelphia whenMichael, one of the actors, sat down next to me and asked if I had anything lined up. I explained I wasn’t even sure where I would be crashing when the train got in. Michael began talking about a project he and his friend, a young actor named Al Pacino, were planning to do Off-Broadway. He said they had convinced a very successful Broadway director to come on board, and asked if I would be interested in stage managing.

Of course I was interested. Aside from the fact that I had nothing else to do, I had previously seen Pacino in a moving Broadway performance, which netted him a Tony for what one critic called “the choreography of a hood with a poetic soul,” and recognition as the “most promising young actor on Broadway.”

A day later there was a meeting at the theater in the West Village, off Sheridan Square. That part of the village was already chic and emerging as a hotbed of theater. I couldn’t have been in a better spot—never having done a show in New York before, landing this gig, and even getting paid for it. I met with the producer and director, who introduced me to the theater owner and asked her to give me a set of keys to facilitate meetings and rehearsals. The others left, leaving me alone with the theater owner. We talked for a while as she showed me around, chatting about the upcoming play and the actors in it.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“Well, I just got back and crashed last night with a friend up on Sixty-Eighth Street.”

“I wonder…” she thought out loud. “I have some work that needs to be done around here; nothing big and it would be good to have someone keeping an eye on the place. The boiler man and others need to have access, so if you’re interested you could take one of the dressing rooms, set it up as you wish and stay as long as the show is here.”

I had never heard of anything like this before and wondered if she was setting me up for something, but she seemed sincere about her business and it was the best option I had, so I agreed. She gave me the keys, said she’d stop by the next day with a list of what needed to be done. At first it was kind of spooky, alone in a dark theater at night. But I got used to it. I thought being alone in this haunted house might even be a bit of fun.

The first day of rehearsal was everything I had imagined the theater could be. We sat in a circle: me, the director and the four actors, slowly, methodically exploring and listening to each word, each combination of words, observing the affect on each other and ourselves; stopping, asking questions and going back over it again. The play was about two working-class guys who, somewhat inexplicably, go out and brutalize more successful folks. The writer gave no reason for their acts of violence, nor did he leave any hints. For actors it was ideal. No preconceptions about who your character might turn out to be and certainly no opportunity to prejudge him.

In the coming days it continued like this, each actor trying to find where the truth of the character lay within himself, revealing elements of their own personality they perhaps didn’t know until then. The pace began to quicken as we moved toward the opening. All were satisfied and content that we were on track. Tensions rose, not against each other but characters in conflict tearing down preferences not easy to let go of. We knew the play was going to be a hit.

Word had gotten around. The opening night was all theater pros and they were excited. All went very well and the evening finished with standing curtain calls, after which we went to the local watering hole across Seventh Avenue to wait for the reviews and party. In those days the producer sent friends or aides to each of the dailies to pick up copies of each morning paper with the first reviews and bring them to where we were celebrating.

The wait was long and for the first time in six weeks I sensed something was wrong. They were taking too long to get back. When they did start coming in each one went straight to the producer with their papers, handing him the bad news. There was a hush in the room; all could see from the producer’s response the news was not good. Euphoria subsided, replaced by angry emotions.

The director went from table to table. It seemed as if he was trying to convince himself that these lesser critics meant nothing. “The Times hasn’t come in yet and it’s the only one that counts,” he said. “They sent their top gun tonight, who only does Broadway; never comes downtown. Surely he saw more than these others.”

This was not to be. The number one theater critic in New York began by facetiously thrashing the writer: “It is a half-interesting play, far more remarkable for what it promises then for anything it delivers…Seeing this play we can note something of its violence but we learn nothing of the people.”

He went after Pacino too: “I would like to see what else (he) can do in this world besides scaring babies, old women and me.”

After reading that, the director stormed out. The producer huddled with his partners before saying goodnight, probably resigned to sleep before deciding on the production’s future. Others started to drift out, leaving just a few true believers.

Illustration by Bill O’Rourke
Illustration by Bill O’Rourke

I turned on the stage lights. They talked for a few minutes, then got up on their feet and worked, running through scenes with determination. They couldn’t rewrite without the playwright or make any real changes, but with Voight—who had just finished filming “Midnight Cowboy,” which was destined to garner many awards later that year and make him a big Hollywood star—now guiding them, their enthusiasm was back. He had rekindled the confidence in their talents that had been pouring out of them just hours before.

They worked till three. After they took off I laid down in my makeshift bedroom for hours, thinking, wondering if it would make a difference. Voight had a lot going for him; he was doing interviews every day and had many new connections that might be able to help us out. I also wondered why the critics were so hard on what appeared, at least to me, to be a spectacular work of art. Were they just scared off by the violence? They seemed particularly upset that the violence had no explanation. But does it ever? Experiences, especially recent ones, have shown us that violence can be a force of nature often beyond our ability to comprehend. I went to bed with those thoughts in my head, excited about the new life being breathed into the play.

I fell asleep around six. I was pissed off when the backstage phone rang at ten. It was the director. He was short and to the point. There was going to be a meeting in the theater at four. I needed to be there. The producer is contacting the others, he said.

The meeting began friendly enough, with the director taking the lead, praising everyone for their hard work and personal commitment to truthful standards of creative achievement, and attacking the ignorance of the critics. But one could quickly sense for him it was more a wake than a revival.

My late-night colleagues took over and put forward that they could get commitments that could keep us going as word-of-mouth built and the negative responses of the critics were overcome. The director countered with age and experience. It was like the play coming to life. The emotional, uncontrollable, sometimes very violent young men challenging the established, successful adult.

The producer then stood and announced he and his partners had decided to call it a day.
One of the other actors followed suit and said, “I would do anything if I could change the outcome of what has happened here but it is over. I’m going to pack my things.” He headed backstage and all was silent. A few minutes later he emerged, wished everybody the best and took off.

One by one the others picked up their gear, took one last look at the set and disappeared.

Larry Spiegel was born in the Bronx and presently lives in Manhattan. He spent the first half of his adult life in the theater and the second half teaching and coaching four- to nine-year-olds in New York City public schools. Larry’s “A Child’s History of the Bronx” and his “Through the Front Window” recently appeared on Narratively’s “The Park Bench.”

Bill O’Rourke is an artist who lives and works in the Tri-state area. He has recently finished creating cartoons about the 2012 presidential election, and despite the overflow of material, is glad it is finally over. His latest project “RESTAURANT: 101″ is a cartoon series based on his adventures working in restaurants in New York City.  You can follow Bill’s work and cartoons on Facebook and on Twitter@billartistguy

*   *   *

Breakfast with Bowies

By Gabrielle Sierra

Bowie Ball 2011—a high-spirited night of free glam rock makeovers, gender-bending and live shows from David Bowie tribute bands—was held at Le Poisson Rouge, an artsy lounge in the West Village. My friends and I go every year, honoring the individual childhood crushes we each developed while watching and re-watching the 1986 cult hit Labyrinth.

We arrived early enough to get our hair teased outward and upward by a series of flamboyant stylists, followed by some intense makeup application from chatty young rockers. Glitter was poured over our heads with reckless abandon, leaving us shimmering and shining like three golden disco balls.

The night swam along in a hazy glow from there on out. We drank. We cheered for the performers and danced to the live music. We drank. We clapped for the Bowie impersonator who took off her pants on stage. We drank. And suddenly it was  four a.m.

“Let’s go somewhere else for a nightcap,” my friend said half-heartedly, lacking any real conviction to do anything but go home to bed. She rubbed her eyes sleepily. She reminded me of the babe who our beloved Bowie kidnapped in Labyrinth.

“I simply refuse to leave,” I said. “Just wait a little longer. Jennifer Connelly’s character will come rescue you soon, sweet babe.”

We couldn’t agree, or really understand one another, so I stayed and my friends left. I danced around for a bit to one of the last live bands. It was only once they stopped to switch a guitar that I was suddenly struck with the fleeting sober thought that I was alone at Bowie Ball.

But the Stardust gods heard my fear and sent me Charity: A six-foot-seven transvestite who was dressed as David Bowie circa 1976 when he starred in The Man Who Fell To Earth—white orange hair, pale skin, grey fedora.

“Well aren’t you funny,” Charity said, twirling me like a drunken top.

“Am I?” I asked.

Charity introduced me to Sam (Ziggy Stardust Bowie) and Rick (suit, ruffled shirt Bowie). They bought me another drink. And then we all left to have breakfast at Silver Spurs. As we walked the few blocks to the diner I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I had three Bowies all to myself.

Crammed into a booth, I was kept warm between Charity and Sam. The diner was empty except for a few other late-night stragglers, most of whom gave our table a quick once-over before going back about their business.

The trio of Bowies talked about some friends I didn’t know, so I ate my ham and cheese omelet in respectful silence. Occasionally I would look up at one of them and gaze with wonder into their heavily made-up faces. Sam was particularly beautiful, with a structured jaw that only slightly moved as he chewed his western omelet.

Charity asked me all these questions about being from New York, as it turns out she was originally from the Midwest. We joked about make-up and tight skirts.

After our plates had been cleared Rick picked up the check, and we all exited the diner together. The sun was coming up but it was a cold morning, and none of us were dressed warmly enough. It vaguely occurred to me that I had lost my scarf somewhere during the journey. Someone suggested that I get the first cab that stopped but I declined. I lived close by and felt the urge to walk home. Sam, Rick and Charity each hugged me, thanking me for joining them.

“Be careful getting home now,” Charity said, “and remember to take your makeup off tonight or you will break out.”

Illustration by Melissa Mendes
Illustration by Melissa Mendes

We all hugged again and then they piled into the cab, driving off to some magical Bowie land that I would never know. Or a shared apartment on the Lower East Side.

I pulled my jacket tightly around me and begun the seven-block walk home, once again aware that I was alone with a massive Mohawked head full of hairspray and a stage-makeup filled face. But it mattered less now.

As I walked through Washington Square Park I thought of my Bowie angels, the three who helped me finish off my night with a warm cup of coffee rather than a dark walk to my apartment. I knew I probably wouldn’t see them again, or that if I did I might not have the courage to approach them and ask if they remembered me. But the night was just so perfect, so New York, that I was happy to have it end just the way it did.

I hummed “Life on Mars?” and trailed gold glitter all the way home.

Gabrielle Sierra is a freelance arts and culture journalist from Brooklyn. She is a writer for Melodysiac and Brooklyn Exposed, and will soon begin a position with The Daily News. She is currently getting her masters degree from the CUNY Graduate Center for Journalism

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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Watching the Line

By Rebecca White

New York is the city that never sleeps, but when you’ve been up all night listening to your hospital roommate moan in pain while you yourself are tethered to a nutrition bag via a catheter in your neck, you come to realize that if it’s past midnight and you’re still awake, you better be healthy. If not, the towering buildings, the tightly cramped spaces, the eight million people who are everywhere yet all out of sight, become reminders of your confinement to the physical self. No matter how much moves and shakes in New York’s early hours, this city can also be the loneliest place in the world.

I spent two weeks in the hospital this summer and another five weeks after that bottled up in my apartment, not sleeping at night. Six years ago, when I was twenty-five, I had my gallbladder removed. This summer I needed abdominal surgery to fix a complication that had occurred over time. During recovery I was told I could not eat or drink anything until I healed.

After several days at the hospital, receiving nutrition intravenously through a small vein in my arm, I learned that a catheter would have to be inserted into my neck. The doctors were ready to bring in the big guns so that they could administer a more heavy-duty version of intravenous nutrition. The procedure for getting this catheter into my neck became fodder for many sleepless nights:

Imagine being strapped to a table. You’re in an operating room. You’re lying on your back. You’re wide-awake and the brightest lights you’ve ever seen are directly overhead. Doctors with facemasks surround you; an image straight out of an “X-Files” episode on alien abductions. Just when you feel you can relax, they tilt the operating table downward so that your head is pointing toward the floor and your feet are pointing up to a sky you haven’t seen for days. The doctors are holding long needles, one of which they will use to puncture a hole in your neck, then they’ll spend the next twenty minutes inserting a thick rubber tube inside. The tube will not stop until it reaches your heart.

They’re creating a pathway for what you will refer to as “food” until they remove it after three days and reinsert a similar tube called a PICC line into a large vein in your arm. This new tube will be connected to a TPN bag that you will hook yourself up to for twelve hours per night for the next five weeks while in the relative comfort of your own home. This is not a dream but it is the stuff of nightmares. It is also your life for now and don’t ask why. My life, I mean.

Back home, now a little over ninety pounds and staring down five weeks of virtual starvation, I was weak, tired and afraid. I didn’t have a roommate and was going through a messy breakup.

My doctors recommended I attach the TPN bag at night so that I could sleep through the infusion. During the day, I would disconnect the bag and cover the port in my arm with a white bandage. But sleep was impossible for mounting reasons. During the first few days at home, I would wake in the middle of the night panicked and listening for the nurses and doctors who would no longer be coming in to check on me.

I was alone now, and once I realized this I became a creature of unnatural habit—emphasis on the word ‘creature,’ because I did not feel human. I was being kept alive, after all, by an appendage that was crafted in a warehouse somewhere out of plastic and rubber.

Around ten p.m. each night I would connect myself to the TPN bag. I used hypodermic needles to insert Pepcid and vitamins into the bag. Once I mixed the concoction thoroughly, I hooked the bag up to a pump, which coursed the fluid through my veins while simultaneously alerting me to the presence of air bubbles with a loud beeping noise.

One week into this treatment and the air bubbles became the enemy.

Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn
Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn

If you’ve never seen an air bubble one inch long work its way snakelike through a long tube, then slip quietly into your body because you couldn’t pinch the tube closed in time because you couldn’t stop watching the bubble slink closer and closer to your arm because it was two a.m. and you’d been half sleeping, half watching “Parenthood” repeats on Hulu, then you’re missing out on a special kind of torture.

I imagined the air inside my body piling up like soap bubbles in various chambers of my heart, pushing against the sides of this now expanding organ to the point of possible rupture.

So I began to ‘watch the line,’ terminology I created for keeping my eyes on the PICC line, on the lookout for air. This was to protect myself, of course; to make sure that once an air bubble was spotted, I could immediately put pressure on the line, disconnect it, and release the air. I’d been told repeatedly that ‘the air won’t kill you,’ but they weren’t fooling me.

Doctors told me. Nurses told me. “The air won’t kill you,” they all said. That’s the thing about being sick, though. Something will either kill you or it won’t, and the ambiguous middle ground becomes subject to the wilds of your mind.

Three weeks into the fast, I was a verified day-sleeper. I slept while disconnected whenever possible. Because at night, I had to watch the line.

I had to watch the line while in the East Village, summer interns chugged down beers and rejoiced over two-for-one slices. I had to watch the line while in the Meatpacking District, men with too many muscles sidled up behind intoxicated women ‘on the floor.’ I had to watch the line while the elderly woman with whom I’d shared a hospital room still moaned in pain because her intestines were inflamed and her veins were still too small to hold the IVs that would have helped her receive medicine and soothing fluids.

In September, when the PICC line was removed, there was nothing left to watch, so I lay in bed awake and in shock. It was over. I could eat again. I had healed. I was almost back to normal.

As I started to feel safe again, I allowed myself to sleep with the rest of the city, to close my eyes before dawn. Some nights I feel safer than others. But I made sure to type this story after midnight to reconnect, if only for a few hours, to a part of myself I will hopefully only meet again in my nightmares.

Rebecca White is a Narratively contributing editor. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times.

Chelsey Pettyjohn is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. You can see more of her work at hideousthings.com.

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Riding the Green Wave

By Moses Gates

The double-decker tour bus for the night loop doesn’t leave until it’s full up with paying customers. Usually it’s not much of a problem to get people on a nice evening, but for whatever reason when my bus got to be about two-thirds full, the tickets just stopped selling. So we kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until the last few sales finally trickled in. I had been counting on being done with this tour at 9:30, but because of the delay I wasn’t back in Times Square until 10:15. I met my girlfriend, Sara, and her parents at 49th and Seventh at 10:20.

It was Sara’s parents’ first time in New York so of course I, an actual professional tour guide, was also playing amateur tour guide for them. After all, this was about the only card I had to play to impress them–I had no money, lived in a walk-up with a roommate in Crown Heights, and my current career consisted of waiting for work on a Times Square street corner. Earlier I had suggested my go-to, cheap(ish), first-time-in-New-York dining experience: dinner at Lombardi’s. The first pizzeria in the United States, Lombardi’s is still going strong over one hundred years after it was founded at the corner of Spring and Mott–close enough to Little Italy that you can couple the experience with an easy after-dinner stroll down Mulberry Street. New York City pizza, history, and an iconic neighborhood, all in one. Maybe I wasn’t a big shot with a penthouse apartment and fancy job, but I at least knew how to give out-of-towners a memorable night enjoying a lovely little corner of New York. The only problem was that Lombardi’s stopped seating customers at 10:45 on the dot.

Upon meeting Sara and her parents I made a mistake – remembering that the restaurant is only a short walk from an N/R stop, I had us head downstairs to the 49th Street station, thinking I had enough time to save car fare. But as every New Yorker knows, the N/R stands for the “Never” and the “Rarely.” As it approached 10:30, we were still waiting. I knew we would never make it on time, even if by some miracle a train appeared right that minute. Our last shot was to get a cab.

Sara’s parents were leaving the next day, and I was pretty sure I had blown our chance at Lombardi’s—not to mention dented my man-about-town credentials. I’d done the route from Times Square to downtown a million times on the tour bus, and it takes forever: traffic, lights, stops, turns, getting through Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square, Union Square. Still, it was my last shot before having to find something interesting and edible in Midtown, while trying to play it off like it was only a slight step down from the dinner option I’d been talking up all day. You bet I was going to try.

I hailed a cab. “We’ve got to get to Spring and Mott by 10:45” I said. “You can do that?” I knew no cab driver was about to turn down an easy fare from Midtown to Little Italy, but there was something in the way that this guy gave a shrug and a “yeah, ok” that made me think he actually meant it.

I got my first clue that I was right as we headed down Seventh Avenue into Times Square. This was back in 2007, before Broadway was shut to traffic. The junction between Broadway and Seventh Avenue was a hell of merging cars, jaywalking tourists, and cabs cruising maddeningly slowly for the remnants of the theatre crowd. Most drivers–myself included–would have sighed, muttered a curse, and navigated the bowtie intersection as best we could before finally crossing 42nd Street and continuing on at a normal pace. Our driver snorted, shot effortlessly through the honks across three lanes, and turned left down 48th Street, hardly pausing for the tourists crossing the street.

The asset that a driver brings to the business transaction that is the New York City taxi ride is pretty straightforward–he has a car at the moment and you don’t. It’s a rare person who brings any kind of added value to the action of driving it. But not this time. As we turned right down Fifth Avenue I realized I hadn’t just hired a guy with a car. I was with one of the one percent—this guy was just on a different plane than your average driver. I felt like I was in a movie: on an honest-to-god, crazy New York City cab ride.

For him, lanes were a creation for other people, irrelevant to the physicality of the road. Cruising down Fifth, he stayed straddled between the left-hand and middle lanes, blocking off both of them and allowing himself a huge swath of the road to utilize as he saw fit. This, I soon found out, was so he always had the option of a passing lane whenever he caught the car in front of him, as he inevitably did. He never let any other vehicle dictate his pace–repeatedly passing on the right, quickly swerving to avoid the double-parked cars or left-turning vehicles. Then he’d jerk back hard to cut off whoever he’d just passed and reclaim his personal speedway.

Then there was the matter of the traffic lights. The lights of the avenues of Manhattan are timed, designed so that traffic flows smoothly at a controlled pace. Once you see a light turn yellow in front of you, you might make it through that one, but you know you’ll get caught a block or two later. Not with this guy. Right as he saw a yellow he’d give it something extra, knowing exactly how much he had to push it to make it through the next major cross street, where the lights would reset and the game would start over again.

We made it across 42nd street without hitting a stoplight. Then, barely, across 34th. Then we came into Madison Square, one of those places where Broadway intersects with an avenue at a diagonal and traffic slows down for all the lane changes and merging. It’s almost impossible to make it through without hitting a red.

There was also another problem–we were on the left side of the street. That side doesn’t continue on Fifth Avenue, but instead leads down Broadway into Union Square: a dammed-up mess to be avoided at all costs. I considered pointing this out to the driver, but instead decided to have faith. My faith was rewarded. The driver was using the left lane–marked, of course, with an arrow indicating the proper direction was down Broadway–not in order to actually switch over to Broadway, but simply as a clear path to beat the light while the right lanes became congested from the merging traffic. We made the yellow (well, more like deep orange) light, and the subsequent red stopped the traffic in the right-hand lanes. This enabled the driver to then cross over through the now-clear intersection all the way to the right and continue down Fifth. We made it through 23rd Street and the lights reset again. I was absolutely exhilarated. The driver looked bored.

He saw he was finally going to get caught at a red on Ninth Street, which is one-way the wrong way from where we were going, so he preemptively swung it left onto Tenth. Two blocks and we turned right on Broadway, and the game began again–cruising along, straddling lanes, riding the green wave, speeding up at the first hint of yellow to overtake other drivers and not get caught at the light.

We made it past Houston, he turned left on Spring, and after about thirty seconds of watching pedestrians jump out of our way as we sped down the crowded downtown street, we finally screeched to a stop. We’d hit our first red light–one block from Lombardi’s. It was 10:39.

I gave the guy twice the meter and the parting words “you are an incredible cab driver.” In return, I got a grunt that said “yeah, obviously,” and not even a cursory offer of change—he knew he’d delivered my money’s worth and probably more. We walked through the door of Lombardi’s at 10:41 PM, the hostess happy to seat us, and we happy to enjoy a large pie with meatballs, and another with extra garlic.

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

That One Time a Kid Almost Bled Out in My Arms

By Arvind Dilawar

It was shaping up to be a quiet Saturday night in August of 2009. I was twenty-two and living with my mom in Jackson Heights, Queens, while finishing my last year of college. I had just broken up with my girlfriend and quit my job at H&M, so I had nothing to do and no money to do anything. I was probably settling in to watch TV all night when Daria, a friend from junior high school, called and convinced me to grab a drink with her. (The names of people in this story have been changed to protect their identities; some of them are currently in jail, for reasons unrelated to this story, while others are gearing up to become lawyers.)

After a few rounds at a bar in Elmhurst, we headed across the street to a bodega to buy two Four Lokos, then walked around the corner to a dead end that offered a good vantage and a dumpster to ditch our cans in case NYPD pulled up. The scene wasn’t lost on us: we realized that we were, in fact, sitting between a “DEAD END” sign and a dumpster while drinking highly caffeinated malt liquor in public. The realization brought on a degree of despondency. It wasn’t so much the classlessness of our predicament that was bringing us down—it was the sheer banality of it. We used to have fun. Our nights used to be exciting. We were getting old.

Thus, when my twenty-year-old brother called to invite us to a party his friends were throwing, we decided to go. It can’t be worse than this, we thought.

The party was in East Elmhurst, at the family home of one of my brother’s friends. Upon arriving, we walked through the house and met the host’s mother and father, who were jovial and welcoming—more a part of the festivities than chaperones. With a smile, the host’s father shook my hand and commented on how much my brother and I look alike.

The party itself was in the backyard, where dozens of mostly Hispanic twenty-year-olds were talking, drinking and dancing to a mix of hip hop, R&B and reggaeton. Despite almost everyone being underage, there was a keg and boxes of miniature liquor bottles, which my brother’s friends had stolen from the airport they worked at.

It was a good time. I met my brother’s friends; I chugged tiny bottles of whiskey; I did my first keg stand. We were in the neighborhood where I grew up, so I invited a few more junior high friends, Eric and Omar, who arrived a few hours later with their own friend Dillon in tow. He was a tall, skinny-ish kid who was probably twenty-two or twenty-three. I don’t know how Eric and Omar knew him, but Dillon soon made himself known to everyone at the party.

Dillon, who was abundantly drunk, and the host’s older brother got into an argument about something that was most likely meaningless. When the host’s father attempted to break it up, Dillon punched him—the father—in the face.

The way the wind sweeps up a plastic bag, that was the way it seemed Dillon was forced from the backyard to the dark alley behind it—except that instead of an invisible current of air pressure, it was with the fists of almost every able-bodied young man at the party. Instantly, everyone was in the alley, with a circle of a dozen kids wailing on Dillon. A few people tried to break up the fight, but it was impossible to get through the melee. No one took a swing at me—probably because they mistook me for my brother—but Eric and Omar weren’t so lucky. I remember seeing Eric out of the corner of my eye as he tried to fight off two kids who were hitting him repeatedly. At one point, someone sprang from the torrent with a bottle in hand and shattered it over Dillon’s head, and down he went, beneath the crowd. The stomping didn’t end until someone screamed out “POLICE!” and everyone scattered.

Eric, Omar, Dillon and I were left in the alley with one or two of my brother’s friends who had also tried to break up the fight. Dillon was still laid out on the floor, so I walked over to him, knelt down and propped his head up on my lap. He was unconscious, and as I wrapped my fingers around the back of his head, I could feel a dampness that I hoped was runoff from the broken bottle, but knew it couldn’t be from its warmth and the way it congealed with sediments of alley gravel.

After circling around the block once or twice, an NYPD squad car drove up the alley. Two officers emerged and began questioning us, but we feigned ignorance about the fight.

“You gotta call an ambulance, this kid is bleeding a lot,” I told one of the officers, to which he responded, “What are you, a doctor?” One of my brother’s friends shot back: “Are you doctor? No, you’re a fucking cop, so call an ambulance!”

EMTs finally arrived to take Dillon to a local hospital (where he would get stitches but otherwise be alright). While they were securing him to a stretcher, the police lined the rest of us up against the fence, searched us and questioned us again. Eric, still reeling from either drunkenness or the punches he took, collapsed onto the ground—but it was more comic relief than grave concern, and after laughing about it for a second, we quickly got him back onto his feet.

After the ambulance left and the cops released us, I was able to find my brother, who had ducked back into the house with his friends and was now blackout drunk. I took his car keys and instructed one of his friends to take him home. After scouting the block for lingering squad cars, who would instantly recognize us and pull me over for driving under the influence, I packed Eric and Omar into my brother’s car and we drove off. I dropped Omar off at his mother’s apartment, then decided that Eric, who had passed out, was in no shape to go to his mother’s place.

The sun was begging to rise by the time we got back to my mom’s house. I woke Eric and helped him stagger to my room. He collapsed onto the bed, and I placed a waste bin next to it in case he needed to throw up — which he began doing almost immediately. I was so tired that I laid down on the carpeted floor and fell asleep.

A few hours later, I woke up to check on Eric, who was still out cold. I thought about Daria; I had lost her right before the fight started, and she hadn’t been picking up her phone since. I tried calling her again, but her cellphone went straight to voicemail. I hoped she was OK. I thought about how our night had started, with fears of monotony, weariness, age; I thought about where we were this morning—beaten, frayed, lost. I thought about the unimaginable chasm between then and now, how impossibly those points connect. I don’t know which I prefer, the dull stasis or the chaotic upheaval, the tiredness or the violence. I guess it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t seem like you get to choose.

That night, I was wearing a light blue Western button-up, which I eventually noticed was speckled with blood. The stains wouldn’t come out in the wash, but I decided to keep it anyway. I still have it.

Arvind Dilawar writes mostly about the dumb things he’s done, but has somehow managed to have his work appear on TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Mail and, of course, Narratively. Go figure.

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In the Morning, Feeling Half Right

By Chris Pomorski

Through the twin living room windows of my Brooklyn apartment, I often watch airplanes dip gently north, toward their berths at LaGuardia. Most days they pass every two minutes or so—close enough to make out the darkened rounds of individual portholes, and yet, by a trick of wind, somehow silent. When the planes appear outside, already low in the sky, tray tables have doubtless been stowed and seatbacks restored to upright positions. Travelers sigh and work their jaws, drain tomato juice from thin plastic cocktail glasses. They have viable agendas or imagine so. One, perhaps, has a line on a no-fee apartment; another hopes for a taxi medallion; a third has come to see about a girl. Some possess no more than vague notions of their destination, yet unruffled by experience. At night, they duck beneath the moon before disappearing from view.

A few months before I arrived in the city, at my college graduation in Boston, a professor told the assembled audience that many of his students knew only enough about their future to say they were too sophisticated for any town but New York. Many of his students, knowing better in the way of people that age, chuckled. What he failed to reveal was that after we’d arrived, we would need to explain to ourselves why we had come, and that until we could, we might well suffer. Sophistication alone, he ought to have mentioned, would not sustain us.

New York, I understood at twenty-two, was a desirable place to live. I could have named many reasons why that was so. Nonetheless, I could not have explained why I wanted to be here. That first year I did not often see concerts or get to the theater. In my cramped office, I took note of readings and performances I would never attend. Bar tabs and cigarettes trumped the bills of restaurants and fashionable grocers, and I subsisted chiefly on jarred tomato sauce and turkey bacon. In taverns that smelled of fraternity house basements, my friends and I drank until closing and remembered little of what was said. We were dropped by college girlfriends and slept with girls a good deal less sensible. We dozed through weekend sunlight or spent it groaning on loungers from Jennifer Convertibles. Come evening we reconvened around bottles of whiskey and gin.

On warm nights, I often selected a tourist’s route home from my job near Radio City, past Rockefeller Center and through Fifth Avenue’s busiest shopping district, where I could shake my head with satisfaction at the confused visitors who clogged the one fragment of town I felt confident navigating. More than any other, the scene outside the Public Library in Bryant Park was devastating. There I watched shimmering young women and bespoke-suited men about my age moving in sunshine with a certainty of purpose I could not imagine. They had, I felt sure, come with something in mind—it mattered not what—beyond merely being in a particular place. Here were strivers to endure the eight years’ residence required to earn the title of New Yorker. Solidity marked their strides. They obtained. They did not wonder: What brought me here? Their apparent surety rendered them alien and increasingly, I could not justify my presence in the city. Yet I never thought to leave.

Illustration by Sara Lautman
Illustration by Sara Lautman

On the narrow section of wall between my living room windows, where I sometimes linger during breaks from writing, hangs a print of a drawing I tried and failed to see early one morning at a midtown exhibition, not long after moving to the city. I do not remember where the previous night began, but it ended with a foggy sunrise over the East River, observed with three friends from a roof deck in Murray Hill. We’d been at one bar or another and returned to drink from tall cans of beer in the warm dark. We smoked Camels or American Spirits, lounging in iron furniture that the building’s management must have acquired decades earlier. We watched the lights change in the tower of the Empire State building and marveled at the quietude of First Avenue, emptied at five a.m. of double-decker buses.

When we arrived, however, art lovers had somehow already crowded the lobby: heavyset women in stonewashed jeans, lithe Europeans, pinched old couples wearing sour expressions. Strolling the exhibit’s first rooms, we discerned how badly out of place we must have looked. Wild-eyed and smelling of liquor, with shirttails hanging from our jeans, we made a succinct portrait of white-collar depravity. For some minutes, we managed to endure stares of disapproval, but as our buzz faded and exhaustion gripped, the crowd’s judgment induced untenable paranoia.

There is a brand of acute and sudden self-awareness very like panic, and before we could see much of what Kentridge had in store, we fled, poorer by the price of admission for our trouble.

Much—too much—has been made of New York’s peculiar allure, of lights and excitement, celebrity and skyline. It was nonetheless perhaps some combination of these notions that drew me otherwise purposeless to the city—an idea of the place rather than any tactile sense of it. The people in the museum that morning, though, had not traveled from faraway homes to bask in any vague glow. They had come to walk particular streets, cross galleries and theaters from lists of destinations. My distaste for sightseeing notwithstanding, they were on to something. For all its myth, New York is no more than a very large collection of small things, and as in any other place, one’s happiness or misery here depends on the specifics, on which details one fastens upon or ignores. A visitor’s connection to New York, though, is equivalent to a fling. Free of a long-term relationships’ difficulties and compromises, it is relatively easy to fixate on the city’s loveliest features. Still, the tourist’s view can be illuminating, even if it finds us wanting. In the looks of censure we received from our fellow museumgoers there lurked a hint of sympathy: “You are so lucky and you don’t even know it,” they seemed to say. “Is there no other way you can make a life here?”

In Goodbye to All That, her seminal essay on leaving New York, Joan Didion laments the youthful indiscretions she had thought would never come due: “It had counted after all,” she writes, “every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” At twenty-seven, I am a year younger than Didion was when the city’s romance ended for her, and there are moments that her insights seem achingly true. But procrastinations amount, after all, to the deferring of choices—choices that often enough we are not quite ready to make. Didion was right. The early mornings in bars, the cocktail-doused afternoons, the times “we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice,” have always counted. They count not merely against us, though, it seems to me, but also toward what follows. Without them, there wouldn’t be any Slouching Towards Bethlehem, any White Album orSalvador. I, for my part, would not stand at a window in Brooklyn, watching planes go by and wondering where the passengers are headed, what they will endure, and what will come of it.

Chris Pomorski recently completed a degree at NYU’s graduate school of journalism; his work has appeared on Indiewire and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

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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Seersucker & Salmon on the Dumbest Morning of My Life

By W.M. Akers

No matter how neatly they rhyme, don’t trust friends who say, “Early flight? Stay up all night!”

Illustration by Laura Baisden
Illustration by Laura Baisden

Leaving New York after my freshman year at NYU, I booked an eight a.m. flight and was foolish enough to let my best friend turn my ordeal into a party. With the graceless vigor of those young enough to still have a metabolism, we threw ourselves into an all-nighter fueled by Talking Heads, lamb gyros and the world’s worst Manhattans—an abominable mix of Canadian whiskey and dry vermouth that only a freshman could love. But my friends fell well short of greeting the dawn.

“It’s past two,” they whined. “We’re going to bed.”

Half-drunk and fully alone, I put aside my wistfulness and whirlwinded around the apartment, cramming my crap into any bit of luggage that could hold it. Just before dawn, I staggered out of my dorm for the last time, dragging two rolling suitcases, a three-ton duffel and a Duane Reade bag full of sneakers. Unable to carry my Totally Awesome dorm room posters, I left them behind, and my dorm rooms were never Totally Awesome again. I hailed a cab for JFK and slipped into sleep.

Why JFK? You see, my freshman year I had a long-distance girlfriend—a high school squeeze whom I kept dating in order to have someone to yell at me once I got to college. To allow for periodic make-out weekends, the good people of JetBlue arranged a direct route from JFK to BNA, which began service the day I left for New York. Wishing the inaugural flight bon voyage were Nashville’s mayor, a congressman or two, and the kind of anonymous country band for which the Music City is renowned. As we taxied away, the grounds crew sprayed two arcs of water over the plane—a baptism for the new route. Direct service was cancelled after a year, but my god did I put it to good use.

No torture device is as brutal as the long-distance relationship, which leaves a man ripped ragged across two time zones. But at $90 a ticket, I could afford a JetBlue taxi back to Nashville every few weeks, allowing me to make the sort of attacks upon my girlfriend’s innocence that just aren’t possible over the phone. This kept us going for a while, but by May, the relationship collapsed under the fetid weight of teenage emotions. It was time to take high school W.M. back behind my memory barn and shoot him in the head.

When I went to the airport that long, ugly night, I wasn’t going directly to Nashville, but was instead hauling everything I owned to California, for a weekend with a friend in sunny San Diego. I swear this made sense at the time.

Trouble is, although I arrived at the JetBlue terminal just after dawn, I wasn’t flying JetBlue. When you hand a JetBlue employee another airline’s boarding pass, they make a face like you’re trying to squeeze their brain into a raisin box. After a few seconds of slack-jawed staring, I noticed my boarding pass said “SOUTHWEST.” I was halfway through asking what terminal I needed to sprint to when I realized something hideous.

Southwest doesn’t fly out of JFK. Southwest flies out of Islip. Islip is in Long Island.

I was not in Long Island.

I wish I could say that, upon this realization, I sprang into action. But in my life I don’t think I’ve ever sprung into anything. Instead, I trudged to the AirTrain, ready to treat myself to a long, despondent subway ride back to the dorm. A screw-up like me doesn’t deserve a cab. The AirTrain chugged around to Jamaica Station, and I slouched towards the E. And then I spied the LIRR, and the pieces fell into place.

Southwest flies out of Islip. Islip is in Long Island. The Long Island Railroad, by its very name, must go to Long Island. I can go to Long Island!

It was like the end of “Usual Suspects,” if that movie were about a kid trying to get to the airport, and Keyser Söze were his own stupidity. I called 1-800-Southwest and begged for salvation from myself. “Iscrewedupreallyreallyreallybad,” I blurted. “Are there any more flights that would let me make my connection in Chicago?”

“Get there in forty-five minutes,” said the magical phone person, “and we’ll get you on a plane.”

I dragged my two suitcases, my three-ton duffel, and the Duane Reade sneakerbag across Jamaica at person-like speeds, and found a train going my way. I sat down, took out my newspaper and—oh, rats. I forgot to tell you about the seersucker suit.

Soaked in rage-sweat, I flopped onto a bench. It was eight a.m.; my first flight was just leaving, and I was the only person in Jamaica traveling east. Across the tracks was a gaggle of grey-faced commuters, staring at the hungover boy in the wacky suit reading the salmon-colored New York Observer. With massive relief, I realized I was going to get away with it. Like a young person, I had made a moronic mistake. And like a young person, I would not be punished. I was the bizarro commuter, on his way to the west coast, and I was going to make my flight. I was going to make my connection. And I was never going to make this mistake again. Probably.

Only later did I learn the magnitude of my error. Not only was I not supposed to go to JFK—I wasn’t supposed to go to Islip. Although Southwest confined their New York flights to Long Island at the time, that day they had somehow secured themselves a gate at LaGuardia. It should have been an easy morning, but instead I went to the wrong airport. Twice.

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

Laura Baisden lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  She is a printmaker and illustrator who specializes in relief printing and letterpress.  She spends her workday designing posters at Hatch Show Print, and her evenings drawing and carving her own illustrations. 

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What’s your ultimate New York at night moment? Send us your own tale from the night; we’ll publish the best on this week’s edition of The Park Bench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spot-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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