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. 

*   *   *

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.

The Prison Where Inmates Help Each Other Die With Dignity

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More Americans are dying behind bars than ever before. At one correctional facility, volunteer death-doulas offer care and comfort to their fellow prisoners.

It’s six p.m. on a summer Wednesday, and Billy Canady Jr., 47, is beginning his shift as a hospice volunteer. His patient, Carl Stevens, is dying of cancer. A mermaid looks down on the bed  where Stevens is sleeping, part of an ocean-themed mural that sports his sentimental touch: photos of Stevens’ children and grandchildren by the bed. Canady taps the elderly man lightly on his shoulder to let him know he’s there.

“He just looked up, and it’s like you get this sense that he knows he’s safe,” says Canady, who is fourteen years into an eighteen-year sentence. It’s looks like this that make his volunteer work worth it, he says.

Canady has been looking after Stevens (whose name has been changed here because he did not agree to be interviewed for this piece) for a little over two weeks. At this point, caring for him means sitting by the bed to keep him company because Stevens is still largely self-sufficient. They have a few things in common: both love German shepherds and value family. And, most importantly, both are inmates at Osborn Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in northern Connecticut.

The mantra of hospice is “death with dignity.” It is a comfort-oriented approach to death in which quality of life is deemed as important as the number of days the patient has left. Pain management is a priority, and unlike the sterile anonymity of a hospital, hospice patients die at home or in a place that feels like home, surrounded by family. Hospice care is meant to address not just the physical needs of the dying, but their mental and emotional needs as well.

Osborn’s hospice may not be as cozy as a living room, but it is a definite step up from a cell or the general medical ward down the hall. Many inmates don’t have family who are willing or able to spend their last weeks, or days, with them. So in addition to medical duties, the inmate volunteers serve as a stand-in family.

Osborn is among a relatively small number of U.S. prisons that have a hospice program. The most recent count, conducted ten years ago, found only 65 out of 1,800 correctional facilities had hospice programs. Able-bodied inmates play a key role in the prison model of hospice: They volunteer as part-time companions to the patients, and part-time assistants to staff nurses. They spend time talking with their patients, reading to them, and just being there for them. And if the patients need help, the volunteers feed, bathe, and take them to the bathroom.

There is no shortage of elderly inmates in need of hospice care, largely thanks to bloated sentences during the “tough-on-crime” ’80s and ’90s. In fact, they make up the fastest growing population in prisons today: In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the highest number of inmates on record died behind bars, with about 3,500 in state prison and about 450 in federal. Inmate volunteers provide free labor and save the prisons money, but proponents of prison hospice say that its greatest benefits are social rather than economic. For the patients, hospice offers them the prospect of a more humane death by allowing them to spend their final days with round-the-clock care by peers. And for the workers, the experience of caretaking can be profound. Plus, academics who study this type of program say that this goodwill is spread beyond prison medical wards.

After an inmate embraces the role of caretaker for his patients, “then it becomes more about their relationship to other people … their community,” says Kristin Cloyes, a professor of nursing at the University of Utah who has studied the prison hospice program at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. “They’ve actually transformed the culture,” she says. Cloyes speculates that the hospice program at Angola was a key factor in the dramatic decline in violence Angola has seen in the past three decades.

Jamey Boudreaux, executive director for the non-profit Louisiana and Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), has been visiting Angola to observe the hospice program since its early days in the late ’90s. He also recognized the cultural shift Cloyes cited. The hospice program created a “new emphasis on dignity of one person — no one dies alone,” he says. “The administration saw that when you start respecting human dignity, the violence dropped.”

Since the program started at Osborn ten years ago, the hospice has seen 37 patients. (This doesn’t represent all of the inmates who have died here over those years, as some chose to die in the medical ward alone or with a staff nurse, explained Colette Morin, a nurse at Osborn and the coordinator of the hospice program. Others are hesitant about signing the “Do Not Resuscitate” order — only offered when a patient is entering their last six months of life — required to enter hospice care. This is a barrier to some inmates, Morin says, who think, “If I’m signing into this program, I’m signing up to die.”)

Canady is one of twenty inmates currently trained to be an inmate volunteer. Over the past six years, he has guided fifteen patients to a peaceful death.

Morin describes the 45-hour hospice training, which covers practical skills as well as emotional, as a process that allows guarded men to break out of their hardened shells. It is important that trainees learn to be more in tune with their own emotions, so that they can be present for their patients. An early assignment is to write a letter of apology to their victims and read it to the group.

“The transformation, I feel, starts there, but it carries on to the rest of their life in prison,” Morin says.

But the intimate interaction — clothing, bathing, assisting in the bathroom, and so on — between inmates in hospice goes against standard prison code and concerns some correctional administrators, according to a 2002 survey of fourteen state and federal prison officials carried out by the GRACE Project, a now-defunct effort to increase the understanding of prison end-of-life programs. Putting able-bodied inmates in charge of weak ones also raised eyebrows because of the potential for victimization. It is concerns like this, perhaps, that explain why prison hospice is not more widespread.

At Osborn, staff is very selective about who they allow to be in the program. One of the longest serving volunteers at Osborn was put on probation, Morin says, because of a contraband infraction — unauthorized sneakers.

Canady was first introduced to hospice work while on temporary leave from prison to visit his dying grandmother in 2010. Hospice workers were caring for her at that point, and he was moved by their efforts. When he returned to Osborn, he decided to give the prison’s hospice program a try.

Alongside Narcotics Anonymous, which helped him kick his addiction to crack cocaine, Canady counts hospice work as among the most rehabilitative experiences that he has had in prison. “I can just be me, and be proud of the person who I am, the person who my mother and father wanted me to be,” he says.

Canady’s father, Billy Sr., is a Vietnam veteran and a retired school aide. His mother, Belva, worked on the production floor at a local factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, an industrial town about an hour and a half south of Osborn, making small screws. Of their three sons and one foster daughter, Billy Jr. is the only one who has been incarcerated. The parents describe Canady as a happy-go-lucky kid who fell in with the wrong crowd.

“Everyone out here speaks highly of him,” Billy Sr. says, “They’re surprised that he’s still incarcerated.”

Canady describes his wrongdoings as a spiral of addiction, and stealing to fuel his addiction, starting when he was in high school. Things got out of control, he says, when at 22, his best friend died after a fight with an armed neighbor. “I heard two shots,” he says, and “72 minutes later he died.” At that point, he says, he just stopped caring.

His addiction took hold of his life. He stole from his parents, and eventually — armed with a gun and knife, which he brandished but never used, he says — from a local gas station and two cab drivers. It was those robberies that landed him where he is today.

“Like they say in recovery, when you get desperate, you’ll go to extremes to get what you want,” he says.

Under different circumstances Canady doesn’t think he and Stevens would have crossed paths. Stevens was a journalist who lived in a rich part of Hartford, whereas Canady grew up in industrial Waterbury, and was “running the streets,” in his words, at a young age. Yet there he was, sitting by the man’s bed during his most vulnerable hours, caring for him as he neared the end of his life. Canady loved listening to Stevens’ travel stories — he visited New Mexico each year to meet his best friend, a place Canady had only seen pictures of — and never grew tired of hearing about his children and grandchildren.

Their transgressions brought them to Osborn, and hospice bound them together. About a month after Stevens entered hospice at the age of 73, dementia started to kick in. One afternoon, a staff nurse found him wandering the hallway talking to his daughter, who wasn’t there. She called Canady.

When he sat down by the bed, Stevens told him that he “finally made it to the office,” but became riled by an imagined deadline. Canady, playing the sympathetic editor, reassured him: “We’ve got plenty of time to get this done.”

Eleven days later, Canady packed Stevens’ bag, and helped him shower and change into a state-issued outfit for release: elastic-waist denim pants and a grey sweatshirt. He is only Canady’s second patient to have been granted medical parole.

“I told him he was going home,” Canady says. “I held his hand and told him how much I love him, and God bless him and stuff like that. I thanked him for allowing me to work with him and sit with him. He smiled and he squeezed my hand to let me know that he heard me.”

Stevens died a few days later. Reflecting on their relationship, Canady says: “He told me I was a good person. You don’t get that too much in here.”

This fall, Canady started his bachelor’s degree in human services at Osborn through a federally funded Pell Grant program. He’d like to do some sort of social service work when he’s released in four years, and wants to continue being a hospice volunteer. He realizes that his options will be limited because of his criminal record — most places are very careful with who they allow to work with elderly patients. But, he says, “I definitely want to stay connected however I can.”

* * *

“What we thought was interesting was that [becoming an inmate volunteer] went beyond personal transformation,” says Cloyes, who co-wrote a series of studies on the program at Angola. According to Cloyes and her co-authors, the work of caretaking creates a set of shared values among volunteers, a social contract that is distinct from mainstream prison cultural norms: ‘“real men’ who want to care for others and elevate themselves, their prison family, and the community,” the authors write in a recent article. These shared values create a culture among caretakers, one that is passed on from experienced volunteers to newbies.

Experienced and novice volunteers came together this Valentine’s Day, when roughly forty family members of inmates and a handful of prison administrators gathered in Osborn’s visiting room to celebrate the graduation of eleven new caretakers. They had been selected through a rigorous application process and completed the 45 hours of training. The graduates and a few senior volunteers, all wearing beige prison uniforms, sat on metal chairs with chipped white paint as the guests filed in. Three tables adorned by silver and blue plastic tablecloths lined one side of the room, topped with two large grocery-store-bought sheet cakes, a tub of single serving milks, and a large canister of coffee and Styrofoam cups for the post-ceremony celebration.

Following opening remarks by Morin, and a Christian prayer by a visiting reverend, Canady stepped to the podium to address the crowd. This was the first time he was the senior volunteer speaker. His mother and father sat in the middle of the room. Billy Sr. rested his elbows on the table, clutching his hands. Belva looked at her son intently.

Canady thanked everyone for being there. “Six years ago I decided to do something different with my life in prison,” he said. “I remember my father always used to ask me: ‘When are you going to grow up?’ That’s what I’m doing, I’m doing something I’m proud of,” he said, his voice cracking. Belva, too, wiped away tears. He told the graduating volunteers not to let the stigma that they won’t amount to anything dictate their lives, and to take this as an opportunity to step in that direction, as he did.

“I no longer have to walk these halls like a prisoner,” he says, “I can walk them like a man.”

 

 

Sorting Through a Hoarder’s Lifetime of Clutter, We Learned the Meaning of Love

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When my boyfriend took a job helping a widow clean out her house, among the urine-soaked rugs and years-old piles of laundry, I saw our relationship in a new light.

David Murphy rang the doorbell of a typical suburban house, set far back from a busy street amid trees and shrubs. An older woman opened the door, accompanied by a short, elderly dog and a tall, scruffy, younger one. “Come in, dear,” she said, leading him into a sitting room. Everywhere he looked, piles of clothes and bags of papers lined the walls. She’d used all the wall space and started hanging pictures from the bookshelves. Thick dust coated everything. And then, the smell hit him: dog urine.

Her name was Sandy Edgerly. Her gray hair twisted on each side of her head and met in a bun. Her shirt was buttoned to the neck, and she slid the house slippers from her feet the instant she sat down, pulling her legs up under her. As she explained the job – yard work, projects around the house, and some light housework – David surveyed the chaos surrounding them, considering the disconnect between what she was hiring him to do and what actually needed doing. She wanted someone for about ten hours a week and she could pay twelve dollars per hour.

David had just moved to Chapel Hill. In Fort Lauderdale, he’d worked at an eyeglass office for two years. He hated it. He hated wearing dress shirts and slacks and ties. He hated selling and managing and sitting in an overly air-conditioned office. So when he moved to North Carolina he wanted a different life.

This was exactly what he was looking for.

* * *

In the month between turning 25 and starting my first grown-up job as a middle school teacher, I met David. It was the end of a solitary year that followed four years of back-to-back relationships. When he pulled back from our first kiss on a windy Fort Lauderdale beach, he looked toward the dark sky and said, “I think I’m in trouble.”

I’d never experienced the luxury of being certain how much someone liked me. When David looked at me, I could feel interest emanating from him. He touched me as though I was the loveliest woman he’d ever come across. Nine months in I bought him a thrift-store hand-blown glass vase – a vase I liked so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it.

“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t have to if you moved in.”

With him, I learned how to be in an adult relationship. We spent time together and time alone. Our stuff merged well and we had a room of our own in the apartment we shared. When we fought no one yelled. Instead we talked and worked to put us back together. I was happy, secure, safe.

I was also doubtful and afraid. Someone said to me, “We don’t go into relationships expecting them to end.” But, I did. They always had an expiration date. My parents divorced when I was seven and the only happy long-term couple I knew was supposedly a sham – the man was rumored to be gay.

With David, I went through phases. Unsure, especially in the face of his certainty. Then I’d focus on my desire to be with him for that day alone. The days added up and I forgot about my doubts for a while.

 * * *

On the second day, Sandy gave David a full tour of her seven-thousand-square-foot home. She’d dressed to work in a ball cap and noticed that he did, too, in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. With evident embarrassment, she led him deeper into the house, where she never allowed anyone to go. They walked by laundry baskets that had been sitting beside the front door for six years as she talked about how she and her husband liked to collect things with a history. Over 41 years they’d amassed a large collection of books, figurines, art, furniture, dishes, and clothes. Art leaned against walls, lurked under beds, hid in closets. They’d been meaning to do a thorough cleaning when John was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2006. By September he was gone. Friends washed her clothes and brought them back in those laundry baskets, but she hadn’t put the clothes away or even moved the baskets since the funeral.

Sandy and John on their wedding day, November 1965. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Edgerly)

She showed David the garage, so full they couldn’t walk into it. The basement and an accompanying apartment were cluttered with not only clothes and papers, but also archaic electronics, obsolete health care items, and old office supplies. David got to work without awaiting instruction, excavating walkways mid-tour.

Soon they were working forty hours a week. And they had some disagreements. He pulled up the oriental rugs that old Lucky had coated in urine and took them to the cleaners. He wanted Lucky confined to one room, but Sandy wanted him to roam. They compromised: the bedrooms were off limits and the clean rugs would remain in the basement until Lucky went to his heavenly reward. David sorted everything into categories: Keep and Put Away, Give to Charity, Throw Away.

Each day Sandy started off with David, telling him what pile each object belonged in. But she often got tired and had to go rest in the living room. Then he grew bolder, sorting on his own. She always checked the trash after he’d gone and if she saved anything – a piece of ribbon, a Halloween decoration – she jokingly chided him for getting rid of it the next day.

* * *

I heard about Sandy for months before I met her one October night. David and I sat on one side of a booth, with Sandy on the other, at a K&W Cafeteria. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, spinach, macaroni and cheese, coconut pie, cornbread, and biscuits were arrayed on the table between us.

Sandy talked about her childhood in Tennessee and about meeting her husband at college in Knoxville. It was an accident – she hadn’t even wanted to date. She was working full-time as the fashion coordinator at Sears and planned to stay in that world. She only went out with John as a favor to a friend. At dinner they had so much to say to one another that she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. From then on that’s the one thing she knew: she wanted to be with him.

When they discovered that their jobs were incompatible – his stable and needing roots, hers ever changing and requiring frequent moving – she gave up her career for him. When they couldn’t have children, she decided he was enough. When they ended up having a son anyway, she stayed home with him. When she was sad she wanted John; when her mom was sick she wanted John. She was proud of him. After he was gone her world fell apart.

A photo in Sandy’s den, of Sandy and John at their son Nate’s rehearsal dinner, in 2004. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

Sandy talked so much that night she hardly touched her food. David picked up the conversation so that she had time to eat. I reached for his hand under the table and pressed my leg against his. I thought about our love. I was an anxious person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by the world. When we first started dating I tried to shield him from that. If I started “feeling funny” when we were together, I’d go home. But over time I came to rely upon his love. The way he’d just comfort without trying to fix me. I squeezed his hand. Hearing Sandy talk about John reminded me of the safety I felt with him.

I looked at him. He was dark-haired. Narrow, but not exactly slim, with rounded shoulders and a head that jutted forward slightly when he wasn’t thinking about it. The expression on his face was either obviously charmed by what he heard or his lips were slightly pursed in what looked like bewilderment, but was usually concentration. I thought about how we’d moved to Chapel Hill so that I could attend graduate school. I loved coming home to him in our old rented farmhouse and feeling his warm body against mine, but I also judged and questioned him. At a department party I worried about what he would say and do, what my new colleagues would think of him. It took him three or four sentences, punctuated by pauses, to answer a question. These slow and measured responses frustrated me. Was I ready for this to be the person I would choose?

* * *

Sandy and David spent most days together. Now the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window knew not only her name, but his, too. They were parked in her minivan under a tree when she told him about the accident. One night after work seventeen years before she was standing at the post office counter, below the half-lowered metal door, rummaging through her purse when someone yelled “Ma’am!” She heard a terrifically loud noise and felt a blow that started in her head, traveled down her spine and into her feet. She thought, I’ve been shot.

She’d actually been hit on the head by the 884-pound metal door above her. After that everything changed. It marked the beginning of her second life. Her memory suffered. She couldn’t retain information that she read. She couldn’t drive because she couldn’t gauge the distance between her and the cars in front of her. Her body wouldn’t do what her mind told it to. She slept for twenty hours a day.

Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. John called this “laying-a-bed” and would often take her to breakfast, to visit a friend, or to her favorite antique store as a remedy. By the time David met her, a lot had changed: she read all the time and she drove just fine. But she still slept a lot, had difficulty remembering and sorting things, and sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. Without John, she didn’t know what to do with herself when she felt this way. Her house was full of her and John and their life together. She didn’t know how to attack it, so she just moved around it – adding to it over the years until it was unbearable.

Sandy hosted Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the first time in six years that the house teemed with people. Sandy and David had done so much work that Sandy’s granddaughter was allowed to roam free. Sandy told her son, “You can even look in the closets.”

* * *

After our dinner at K&W Cafeteria I started thinking about Sandy and the stories David told me. Her laying-a-bed reminded me of the way I felt sometimes and how David tried to cajole me out of it, just like John. But did I love David the same way that Sandy had loved John? With a devastating, messy, no-doubt-about-it love?

Sandy’s den, shortly after she and David made the house presentable, 2012. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

One day while sitting next to her fireplace she told me about their wedding night. They’d gone to Gatlinburg for a weekend honeymoon and after John fell asleep she thought, “What in the world have I done?” She didn’t know how to be a wife. Before she met John, she had not even wanted to marry.

John woke in the middle of the night, and saw her packing a bag, preparing to leave him. He suggested she wait till morning, because it was snowing and they were both tired. At breakfast she said, “The best I can offer you is one day at a time.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

At first this story relieved me. Her early uncertainty legitimized mine. She brought me into her bedroom and opened the closet. David had pushed her to get rid of John’s clothes, but a few items remained. She ran her fingers down the arm of a shirt. Sandy was aware of the importance she placed on belongings. She realized that her house and her stuff told the story of who she was not only to others, but also to herself. Her belongings reinforced her identity.

With David, through cleaning, sorting, and decluttering, Sandy renegotiated her identity. She didn’t need to keep everything in order for her to know who she was. Select items allowed her to hold on to a sense of her history, her accumulated identity, while also discovering a new version of herself. A version that put new wallpaper in the kitchen – wallpaper not for John, not for her son, but for herself. She decided that this marked the beginning of her third life.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized she had been sure of John. She’d doubted him that night, but she’d been sure from that first date when they had so much to say to one another, she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. With David and me, talking was something I worried about. Sometimes when we sat silently in a restaurant I thought it meant we weren’t right for each other, but David felt it was a sign of comfort and love.

Sandy gave up everything for John. And because of the life she got in return, she had few regrets. I was afraid to give up my alternate realties, the other versions of my life, of myself. David promised that I could hold onto his certainty, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.

* * *

David helped Sandy over the next year and a half in a reduced capacity, which was more like the job as originally advertised. She still bought more stuff than most people – QVC boxes showed up on her doorstep weekly. Most of the time she was unapologetic about this, but sometimes she hid things from David. One day she placed the winning bid on an oil painting showing a harbor scene at an auction. When she picked it up afterward she realized it wasn’t painted as well as she thought. On the way home she decided she wouldn’t tell David. She’d touch it up with some paint herself and then hang it on the wall surrounded by other, better paintings. Then she’d show him. That way she could skip him giving her a hard time.

David now lives in Columbus. I live in Pittsburgh. Moving across state lines together again felt like marriage, like forever. And I couldn’t promise him forever. That glass vase I bought him sits on a bookshelf in the apartment he lives in alone. He spends Thanksgiving with Sandy every year. Her house is full, but she isn’t hoarding papers in bags. The aroma of dog piss cannot be detected. Her grandkids are allowed to wander and she’s not ashamed to have friends over. This house, that they put so much work into, holds all her selves: her childhood, her life with John, her son, the accident, John’s death, and her by herself. For the first time she’s living a solitary life, and she doesn’t hate it.

Inside the Surreal, Offensive Tradition of ‘Bavarian China’

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Each year this small German town has a 'Chinese' parade, complete with an emperor in yellow-face and paper dragons galore. As an outsider looking in – and one of Chinese heritage to boot – I didn't know what to think.

Dawn is just beginning to tinge the horizon blue when a cannon blast shatters the quiet of the small Bavarian town. I shuffle from my bed to the window, pushing aside the paper garlands of yellow Chinaman figures to gaze blearily at the wintry landscape. The tourism office has dubbed Dietfurt, population 6,084, “Bavarian China” and “Town of the Seven Valleys.” The apartment I’ve rented for the week looks out onto one of those valleys, an expanse of untrodden snow fading into a dark hollow cloaked with bone-chilling mist. Were it not for the town’s pride and joy, the annual Bavarian China parade taking place this afternoon, I can’t imagine any reason I’d ever come here.

Fifteen minutes and one coffee later I’m tiptoeing down the icy front steps, following my ears toward the booms. After a few turns, there they are: a motley crew of thirty bedraggled clowns shuffling toward me like zombies. Between them they’re heaving a noise cannon, a marching band’s worth of instruments, and a wagon of booze they’ve been nursing since two a.m.

Morgen,” I mumble, and fall into step. We proceed down the road, trombones and trumpets ablaze, stopping a few minutes later in front of a tidy house on a cul-de-sac. The door swings open and out steps a rotund, sixty-something white man clad in a floor-length robe of gold lame. It’s Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, the star of today’s festivities.

“Come in, come in!” he cries. We pile into the kitchen, where his wife and daughters are passing around glasses of fizzy wine, coffee, and doughnuts. A stick of Chinese incense sends pungent curlicues into the air. It’s a well-deserved break for the clown wakeup crew, which is tasked with getting the town in partying spirit right from the crack of dawn on this most important day of the year. It’s Unsinniger Donnerstag – Nonsensical Thursday –, the beginning of Carnival Week.

In Dietfurt, the occasion is marked with a massive Bavarian China parade that draws fifteen thousand drunken, Chinese-costumed spectators. It’s a proud local tradition every Dietfurt native holds dear. It’s also the weirdest and most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever witnessed. “What the hell am I doing here?” I think to myself as I, a writer of proud Chinese heritage, watch the jovial man next to me, an emperor of fake Chinese heritage, sweep aside the tassels on his chintzy headdress to take a bite of jelly doughnut.

* * *

I first met Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, a.k.a. Fritz Koller, the afternoon prior in the town’s one-room museum dedicated to Carnival, or Fasching. We sat under the gaze of his emperor predecessors whose portraits and gibberish names lined the walls. A display case held memorabilia from parades past, like a pin depicting a buck-toothed Chinaman caricature riding a panda like a bucking bronco. In one corner hung an embroidered robe of yellow silk, a gift to Emperor Boo-Dah-Washy (reign: 1976-1999) on a Chinese-government-sponsored visit to Beijing.

Being emperor is a big responsibility, Fritz told me. Behind his prim, rimless glasses, his eyes were weary. His parade float and costume took months of work. The bar has been set high: In 2000, he made his debut hatching out of a giant dragon’s egg. Here he paused and cast a studied glance at me.

“And where are you from?” he asked politely.

I knew what he was getting at. “My mother is Chinese.”

“Chinese roots, thought so,” he said placidly, and carried on. “So as you know, the dragon symbolizes good luck.”

I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but that reaction wasn’t it. Some enthusiasm at encountering some actual Chineseness, maybe, or a touch of humility about explaining Chinese symbolism to a Chinese person.

The parade’s “Dragon Troupe,” waving banners and mock kung fu swords.

It was strange to see my culture crudely caricatured and commodified into a hokey party gimmick and to keep my mouth shut. But I came out of curiosity – about what this ritual means for its believers, and how small towns can become incubators for the most oddball behavior. I’m in Dietfurt as an intrepid social anthropologist, I told myself, to observe the locals in their native habitat, withholding judgment.

And it was hard not to be impressed by Fritz’s dedication. He’ll ride in the parade drawn by a massive dragon, then climb up a towering pagoda for his grand finale. To an outsider it sounds purely absurd, but behind the shenanigans is a nostalgic reverence for tradition, even a sense of identity. “Some of my most wonderful childhood memories are of Fasching, Fritz said wistfully. “This is a tradition we grow up with. Bringing up the next generation of Bavarian Chinese is very important.”

Nobody can say for sure why, but Dietfurt has been nicknamed “Bavarian China” for centuries. The legend goes like this: During the Middle Ages, a bishop became angry the town wasn’t paying its feudal dues. When he sent over his treasurer, the townspeople shut all the gates to the little walled town. He reported that the Dietfurters had barricaded like the Chinese behind their Great Wall, and the reputation stuck.

Carnival is a big deal throughout the west and south of Germany. In Catholic Bavaria, it’s a chance for the straight-laced populace to let loose. But nowhere, as any Dietfurter will proudly tell you, does Carnival quite like they do – that is, in yellowface makeup and Confucius beards. It was back in 1928 that someone, no one remembers who, suggested the local brass band take inspiration from the town’s nickname and wear Chinese costumes in the Carnival parade. The idea caught on, and a tradition was born.

* * *

After parting ways with the clown crew, I soon find myself wedged onto a pub bench with the emperor and his entourage. Pia, the bubbly young blonde who runs the Dietfurt tourism office, invited me here for a press breakfast, but I seem to be the only journalist who showed. The emperor’s right-hand man, Kai-Ho-Gei, is decked out in a maroon velvet outfit that I can only describe as campy kung fu warrior. On his head is a gold-painted hardhat, dripping with tassels and topped with a red lampshade. Then there’s Kai-Ze-Mei, clad in Tibetan monks’ robes with a shaved head to match.

Breakfast is a pretzel, grainy mustard, and bulging weisswurst sausages. Tradition mandates eating these by biting a hole at one end and sucking out the filling like meat Jell-O, but I choose decorum over street cred and use knife and fork. Kai-Ho-Gei, the one with the lampshade on his head, nudges over his weissbier and insists I drink.

“I have to pace myself,” Fritz says. “A drunk emperor would not be tolerated.”

Kai-Ho-Gei, the Diefurt emperor’s right-hand man, has a beer with breakfast.

Here’s Pia, clad in a silky black top with a Mandarin collar. Swishes of makeup shape her eyes into almonds, and a rhinestone sparkles on one of her front teeth. The emperor has pre-ordered her a beer, which she throws back in a few gulps. I finish my sausage and decline more beer. Time to parade: T-minus three hours.

Back on the square, men are barricading the bank with planks. On the pavement, vendors are frying spring rolls and stacking doughnuts, each one daubed with chocolate icing to give it a slant-eyed Chinaman face. I spot a group of Chinese twenty-somethings and make a beeline for them, the first actual Chinese I’ve spotted since arriving in town.

“Those lions look weird,” Wang is saying, pointing at the papier-mâché animals flanking the square, which look like a preschool craft project. Along with his friend Qiling, I soon learn, Wang is studying for his master’s outside Nuremberg. They’ve come here with three friends after learning about the parade on Facebook. Unlike Yin, who’s darting around taking selfies with the Germans, Wang doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun.

“Why do they think this stuff looks Chinese?” he gripes to me in Mandarin. “They’ve mixed up stuff from the Qing and Ming dynasties. And why all the pointed hats? Nobody in China wears those anymore.”

“We have Oktoberfest in Shanghai,” Qiling reminds him.

“At least people there don’t dress up like Germans,” Wang retorts.

A couple walks by, she in Japanese geisha attire and he in a Genghis Khan getup, with a full face of yellow makeup.

“They think we have yellow skin,” Wang says, bemused. He points at his winter-chapped face. “But I’m more red than anything.”

We duck into a pub to escape the February chill, and before the door has even swung shut, the room falls silent and swivels to face us. It’s like a slow-motion scene from an old spaghetti western. “The Chinese are here!” a voice cries.

Servus!” Yin calls out cheerily, the informal Bavarian hello.

Servus,” responds a jovial chorus.

We scrounge seats in the back room, across from an oma and opa who stare in stunned rapture. Yin offers them a Prost, and they break into grins. Unlike me, my Chinese blood diluted with WASPy Canadian-Britishness from my dad, these “real” Chinese kids are the celebrities of the day.

As Wang plows through a currywurst sausage, he takes the opportunity to pick my brain. How did I learn Chinese, he wants to know, and what was it like growing up in Taiwan as a mixed-race kid, caught between cultures?

“Like, what if I marry a German woman?” he asks between bites. “And we had a kid? They wouldn’t really belong anywhere, not here in Germany or in China.”

What I don’t say to him because it’s not the time or place, and because my Chinese skills are not quite up to the task, is that he’s right: Sometimes you end up not belonging anywhere, neither in the country where you were born or the ones your parents came from, and at some point you have to accept that your identity will be forever complicated. But then again, maybe it’s always complicated, as illustrated by Exhibit A, an all-white town in the Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria, where the people have built their identity upon pretending to be Chinese.

Instead of saying this, I tip back the last of my beer and reluctantly say goodbye. I’m due at a reception hosted by the mayor, which turns out to be a dud. I head back into the cold alone. The parade is about to start.

* * *

After a long morning of beer-swilling, I’m ready to get the show on the road. And then, with a sudden cacophony of cheers, we’re off. Here they come, the brass band in coolie hats trailing one long, faux braid each; the ninjas; and the “Chinese from Mars” wearing beer mugs on their heads. Here they come, the “Chinese Indians” in feathered headdresses. A dragon fills the air with belches of yellow smoke. A bevvy of blondes sashays along in dirndls fashioned from Chinese brocade. The spectators press in; they cheer and roar and swig beer. I spot the emperor’s daughters, grinning ear-to-ear as they twirl orange parasols.

The local soccer team and hip-hop dance group are in the parade, the bikers’ club and the youth gun club too, and the town kindergarten. They keep on marching past, one costumed group after another, though my ice-cold feet are aching by now for the parade to be over. I duck inside the town hall to warm up. A drunk couple makes out furiously next to me, smearing his Fu Manchu beard across his chin.

I’m back outside just in time to see another dragon peering around the bend, this one drawing a tall wagon on which the emperor rides, raising his arms benevolently like a pope in his popemobile. He looks beatific and even through the torrent of streamers dangling from his headdress, it’s clear he’s beaming with pride.

His wagon halts on the square, where he climbs the steps to his throne with great ceremony, heralded by oom-pah-pah music and flanked by the dirndled dancers. This is the parade’s climax, but rather than a regal speech, what comes next is a call-and-response performance, something like the chants I learned at summer camp when I was ten. The music swells, the emperor delivers a few rhymes, the crowd roars and drinks, and so it goes, one boozy verse after another. I want to feel the reverence for tradition that Fritz enthused about, but this is actually reminding me of a Halloween frat party. Wang, Qiling, and their Chinese crew are nowhere to be seen.

The crowd in the town’s main square awaits the emperor’s speech.

By the time nightfall descends, Dietfurt is absolutely heaving. Security guards frisk passersby, and an ambulance stands at the ready. Teenagers skulk down dark alleyways, emptying bottles of vodka down their gullets. At the entrance to one party, a sign announcing the entry fee, eintritt, spells out “eintlitt” instead, replaced the “r” with a big, mocking “L” in red marker to make sure no one misses the racist punchline. For the first time, I feel a hot surge of anger. This anthropological experiment is over.

Thankfully, there’s wine waiting in my apartment. As the people of Dietfurt drink their way into oblivion in their silk pajamas and pointy bamboo hats, I fall asleep on the couch, Merlot on my lips and Steve Urkel dubbed into German on the TV.

Next morning, I’m up early again. The town is dead quiet as I walk to the bus stop, treading on sodden confetti and sidestepping a Chinese takeout box, its noodle innards splayed out like greasy roadkill. Everyone is still in bed, nursing hangovers and dreams of next year’s parade.

I didn’t finish that bottle of wine, but I’ve got a different kind of hangover. Smiling gamely in the midst of madness takes a lot out of a person, and I’m more than ready to flee this Twilight Zone where cultural appropriation is a way of life. Still, I got what I came for: a culture-clash encounter like none other. Also, the confirmation that however complicated my mixed Chinese identity can sometimes feel, there are people out there – namely a town of 6,084 people in Bavaria – who are far more confused than I will ever be.

It takes two trains and a plane before I’m back home in Berlin, and throughout the journey, the refrain from the Dietfurt anthem repeats in my head like a broken record: Chinesen aus Bayern, wir wollen immer feiern… We Bavarian Chinese, we always want to party.

As My Face Disappeared So Did My Mother and Father

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When a horrifying bacterial infection disfigured my newborn face, my parents abandoned me right there in my hospital bed. The only thing more painful than knowing they left me behind was finding them 38 years later.

Three days after his birth, a perfect baby, the carrier of his young parents’ dreams and ambitions, became what some might call a monster. Like ants on honey, a bacterial infection consumed his face, and as quickly as his face disappeared, so did his mother and father. The newborn that his parents had expected to take home and raise as their cherished son was no longer the child they had the courage to claim.

I was that baby.

Despite their valiant efforts, the doctors, with their arsenal of antibiotics, proved unable to push back the bacteria’s devastating aggression. When it had finally run its course, my nose, lower right eyelid, tear ducts, lips, and palate had been eaten away, leaving behind a gaping hole.

Abandoned by both parents and stripped of any family, I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, identified for the next eighteen years of my life as case number XUG-905.

Perhaps my parents assumed or even prayed I would not survive. Or perhaps they believed that without a face, I had become something less than human, incapable of loving and being loved. Whatever the basis of their decision, I don’t know anything about it except that I was abandoned.

What I do know of those first years has been reconstructed in the manner of my face — bit by bit, stitch by stitch. I know that with my lips and mouth eaten away, I was unable to nurse so was fed intravenously. And I know, given the scores of operations I endured — ultimately perhaps as many as a hundred — that I was tethered for much of my childhood, my hands tied with strips of cloth to my hospital crib so I couldn’t tear at my bandages and stitches. But most damaging of all, the one person in the world I most wanted to reach out for had long gone.

* * *

The state of New Jersey, no doubt concerned over mounting medical costs and the ill effects I might suffer from long-term institutional living, placed me in a foster home when I was three. The family’s adjustment to having me in their midst must have been daunting; a scarred freak of a child with a stretch of patched-together depressed skin in lieu of a nose, no lower right eyelid or upper lip, a gaping palate, and behavior severely lacking in social skills.

The first time I can recall being part of a family I was sitting on a hardwood staircase and peering down through white banisters at the living room below, fascinated by how different the view was. This was a real house, in Morristown, New Jersey, and my new mom was tying my shoelaces while I looked down at the place I would come to call home. Obediently, I held out each foot in turn as she tugged on my laces and I scanned the puzzling scene.

I was now the Mackeys’ foster child. Big Ed; his wife, Shirl; their daughters Robin and Lisa; and their oldest, Frank, were my new family.

For the most part it was a happy home in the suburbs — a white clapboard, two-story colonial with a large yard, lots of trees, and two cars: Shirl’s blue Valiant and the family car, a wood-paneled station wagon. Ed, who had to commute each day into the city, was ambitious and, knowing he wouldn’t get any unearned breaks, often worked evenings and weekends doing construction. Despite his habitual bitching about how rotten his day had been and his quick temper that could flare like a brush fire, all of us admired him.

Shirl, in an effort to help me make friends, convinced me to join Cub Scouts. That lasted one meeting, when I got booted out for punching a mean Scout who picked the wrong person to bully. Only rarely did I participate in group activities, except for occasions like trick-or-treating when everyone was caught up in the excitement of Halloween and had their attentions elsewhere. Masked, I could be forgiven my freakishness, but the irony was that my own face would have been a far more frightening costume. Still, for one short glorious night I could escape my reality.

* * *

“Howard,” Shirl announced one day, “Dr. Gratz thinks it’s time for you to have another skin graft for your nose — because you’re growing so fast,” she hastily added when she saw my face blanch with terror. I wasn’t one of those kids who love to hear about how tall they are getting, proudly stretching themselves to full height against the doorframe to measure how much they’ve grown. This was not one of those charts.

Calmly she assured me this surgery was necessary and gently broke the news that I would have to be hospitalized for a few days. Crestfallen, I slumped in my chair and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Shirl did her best to convince me that it would all be worth it. I understood full well that a stay in the hospital meant pain, lots of it.

A large nine-by-eight-inch patch of skin was excised from my chest and shoulder, the graft then rolled up and stitched along the seam to create a headless snake of raw, living flesh. One end was then attached under my chin and the other to the tip of my reconstructed nose. This appendage, left to dangle in front of my face for the next six weeks, constantly reminded me of what I had gone through but gave me no idea of where I was going.

With strict orders not to bathe or shower, and allowed only a careful wash in the sink, I gingerly padded to the small bathroom adjoining my hospital room to dutifully wash up. When I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I froze. Staring back at me was a creature more gruesome than the late-night horror-movie monsters I watched on TV. That the alien in the reflection was me, Howard. It was too much. I felt my blood plummet to my feet and slid helplessly down the wall to the cold tile floor. “Why me? Why me?” I sobbed, over and over. God must hate me. What terrible thing did I do to deserve this? Bone weary when I returned home, I dragged myself into the den and collapsed on my beanbag chair to wait for Robin to come home. There, stuck to the vinyl with sweat and tears and cradled by thousands of beans molded to the shape of my body, I cried myself to sleep.

* * *

By the summer following my freshman year of high school, even Shirl was at her wit’s end. Both she and Ed decided for everyone’s sake it was time I try another foster home. “Howie, you’re not happy. Let’s just see how it goes for a while.”

On a sad June day just weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a state worker picked me up to deliver me to New Jersey, where I was temporarily placed in the home of a German woman, one whose feet were so swollen she could barely navigate her way around the house.

Next was a placement with a nice Jewish family who said blessings in Hebrew before each meal. That lasted a week.

Oddly enough, it was Dr. Gratz who intervened. During an examination he determined it was time for another skin graft. Realizing that I had better use the state’s medical funding while I still could, I went along with it.

When the state found a temporary placement for me close to the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx where my operation was slated, I felt I’d come full circle, back to the very borough where all the pain and loneliness had started. With yet another new face in a long line of state social workers, I drove to my new home where I would stay for the duration of my surgery and recovery.

I became a bit concerned as we drove past abandoned warehouses and graffiti-covered walls, the smell of garbage rotting in the summer heat filling our car. We soon pulled up in front of a block of identical brick row houses. I hadn’t finished knocking when the door opened and Vito and Mary Signorelli stepped out to welcome me. My caseworker, anxious to get out of the neighborhood before the sun went down, hastily departed.

First-generation Italians, my new interim foster parents greeted me enthusiastically. Vito, gray haired and grizzly, appeared not to have shaved for a week and wore his baggy, black-and-white-checkered kitchen pants loosely cinched below his large belly. Over a stained white V-neck T-shirt hung an impressive collection of gold chains that made faint clanking noises whenever he moved. Mary, her black hair thick with ringlets, was short and stout like a tree trunk. On each of her short fingers she wore several inexpensive gold rings, outdoing Vito with his one pinkie ring.

Feeling awkward and out of place, I made my way into the living room. Everything was covered in plastic: the chairs, lamps, sofa — even the carpet was protected with plastic runners. Plaster statues of the Madonna, Jesus, St. Francis, and St. Christopher cluttered the room and decorated the turquoise walls. In the dining room, a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hung opposite a giant crucifix.

“Anthony, get-a down here!” Jolted from my culture shock by Vito’s bellowing, which made Ed sound like a choirboy, I turned to see a slovenly dressed, overweight boy appear on the stairs. Scarcely bothering to lift his head of long, stringy hair when we were introduced, Anthony struck me as someone lost in his own home. Moving like a sleepwalker, he showed me to my tiny room with a daybed (over which hung another cross) that filled the space. In the time it took for me to throw my bags on the bed, Anthony was gone. All I heard was the door closing behind him, then the sound of rock music pulsating through our common wall.

I returned downstairs to rejoin Vito in the living room. Pensive, his head tilted as he studied my face, he asked, “Howard, you-a Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had guessed correctly. In reality, I had no idea what my background was and always tried to avoid any such line of questioning.

“That’s-a okay. You-a hungry?”

I nodded, whiffing the tantalizing aroma that filled the house. “Good, Mary make-a lunch for us. I make-a fresh bread.”

* * *

Finally, the day for my surgery arrived. I was sixteen now, and though I understood the progression of each stage, I felt I was repeating the same old story but with a different body part. This would be another serious surgery, and to lower the chance of infection, my stay this time would be two weeks.

Dr. Gratz’s plan was to attach another headless snake of skin to my nose, only this time he’d take a twelve-by-fifteen-inch graft from my left thigh. It would be, I hoped, a stepping-stone toward the final act when the curtain would close on my resentful relationship with Dr. Gratz. After the surgery, I was overjoyed when Ed and Shirl, Robin, Frank and Lisa showed up to visit me. If only for a few hours, I was with my family again and didn’t feel quite so alone in the world. They seemed happy to see me, and their news of home helped ease my homesickness. Even Vito and Mary visited me, bringing me fresh cannoli when I was able to eat solid food again.

Discharged, I returned to the Signorellis, where everyone was taken aback at the sight of my bandages and swelling. It wasn’t a coincidence that they spoke more often in Italian than they had before my surgery. Ordered to stay out of the sun, I spent my entire summer indoors watching Yankee ball games or “Bowling for Dollars” while Vito yelled at the TV as though the contestants were with us in the living room. Attentive to my every need, they did everything in their power to help me.

Mary decided that food was what I needed. “Howard, manga, manga, you need-a strength.” Between her pastas, sausages, and minestrone, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. But their insistence that I not lift a finger left me with too much time on my hands. Vito, seeing me depressed and limping around the house with my leg still sore from the graft, tried to cheer me up with Italian ices he bought on the street.

When I returned to Dr. Gratz a few weeks later to have my bandages removed, I felt the old anxiety I always felt in his presence. Tense, I lay back on the rustling paper.

“Howard, relax. I will take this off, yes?”

I nodded, not the least concerned about so simple a procedure. In one fell swoop, he ripped the tape off my leg without even giving me time to scream. My whole body went into shock. In the moment it took my mind to register the pain, I didn’t cry, I screamed. “Fuuuuuuuck!”

Dr. Gratz’s head jerked back like a chicken’s, his eyes bulging like headlights. Furiously I glared at him, seething with contempt at how cavalierly he treated me, as if he were pulling a Band-Aid off a finger. “Howard, Howard, it’s fine, it’s over.”

It wasn’t fine. I looked down at the droplets of blood floating above a sticky yellow pebbling where the skin had been removed from my thigh and thought of the yellow fly strips dotted with insects that hung in my old neighborhood’s backyards. I wanted to jump up and smash his face in, not for what he had done, but for his complete lack of sensitivity. With great effort I resisted the urge, consoling myself with the fact that we would soon part ways.

My stay with the Signorellis was over, and though they had been kind and generous, it was time to move on.

“Howard, you are a wonderful boy!” Mary said as we hugged goodbye. “God bless-a you. I will-a pray for you.”

* * *

One night, some two decades later, after hours of trying to fall asleep, I turned on the TV and mindlessly watched From Here to Eternity. Just as I was drifting off, a commercial roused me: “Find your long lost loved ones! Call now! 1-800-SEARCH.”

Half asleep, I fumbled for the remote and turned up the sound as smiling men, women, and children ran toward each other across the screen. Radiant with joy, they embraced in a meadow of wildflowers, the empty void in their hearts filled. “Call now and find that special someone today!”

I scrambled to find a pen and jotted down the number.

The next morning when I saw the number lying on the coffee table, I sat down and eyed it warily, as if it were some creature that might bite. My mind raced as I stared at it, wondering what I would do. Call? Toss it in the trash? Tuck it away and let it nag at me like a splinter? An unpleasant tightness in my chest made me realize I was holding my breath. Do it!

If only to end the suspense, I picked up the phone and dialed. Casually, I gave the information requested: social security number, place and date of birth, my biological parents’ full names as stated on my birth certificate, and my credit card number for the $50 service. After informing me that I would receive the results by mail within six weeks, the operator wished me luck. In a daze I hung up and began pacing my apartment, pausing every so often to stare blankly out at the city.

I had never intended to track down my birth parents. Apart from desperate times in childhood when I had ached for my birth mother, I had mentally banished her and my father from my life. My attitude was, if they didn’t care enough to seek me out, to hell with them. But now, with that one call, I began to imagine my parents. What would they be like? How would they react to my contacting them? Did my mother have an emotional breakdown over my disfigurement? Had it psychologically incapacitated her? Had my father forced the decision to abandon me? A “him or me” ultimatum?

Imagining one scenario after another consumed me, each playing out in my head until finally, overloaded with pointless speculation, I put it out of my mind.

Weeks later the envelope I’d been waiting for arrived. I anxiously tore it open and pulled out a short stack of computer printouts. It was an almost out-of-body experience to gaze down at columns of Shulmans listed in New Jersey, along with their phone numbers. I was thirty-eight years old and had never before met a Shulman, and now, somewhere among the names I held in my hand, there might be the ones I sought.

Ed and Shirl, from the time I was old enough to ask, had given me what information they had, which was little more than their names. Knowing that Leonard and Sarah were my parents’ names, I focused my search on the L. Shulmans and S. Shulmans. I began dialing the first L but abruptly hung up when it occurred to me that it would probably be best if I had an opening that didn’t make me come across as weak or needy.

“Hello?” I practiced, clearing my throat to find the right pitch, “Is Leonard or Sarah in? Please, may I — my name? It’s Howard, your biological son.” No, too contrived. “Excuse me, my name is Howard and I’m looking for my biological parents.” No, too abrupt. “Excuse me, my name is Howard. Did you by chance leave a baby in the hospital?” O.K. Again. “My name is Howard Shulman. I’m looking for a Sarah or Leonard Shulman. I was wondering if you might be my birth parents?” This was ridiculous!

On the first call that someone answered, angst set in. The woman said she knew of no such people. The relief I felt made me wonder if I was ready for this.

Determined, I took a deep breath and dialed the next number, and the next. With each call I made, I received the same reply. I expanded my questioning, asking if they might be related to anyone named Leonard or Sarah. “Sorry, no,” they each answered. After a series of dead-end calls, my anxiety began to subside. I was becoming resigned that my search would lead nowhere and was thinking I might just forget the whole thing, when a young woman answered.

“Who’s calling, please?”

I had to grope for words. “Um, well…my name is Howard Shulman. I, uh, got your number from a family search agency, and I was, well, put up for adoption, well, sort of, and now…”

“Hold on a minute, please.”

I held my breath. In the background I could hear voices, an exchange with another woman, which I strained to hear. An eternal moment passed.

“Hello?” a woman answered, her voice cautious.

“Is this Sarah Shulman?” I asked.

She knows who is on the phone. I can feel it. Suddenly I was wary.

“Yes?” she replied, holding her breath. “I’m Sarah.”

“I think you may be my birth mother,” I said, my voice quiet. Time slowed down as a deafening silence filled the connection between us. I waited, every fiber of my being tuned to the other end of the line. In my state of hyper-awareness I could hear her strained breathing and the unmistakable sound of tears choked back. Gently, I broke the silence.

“Are you O.K.?”

After a long pause she answered, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I don’t want to disturb you.”

After a lull, I heard her whisper, “I always knew you would call.”

I was stunned. Unable to respond, I could only listen to her faint crying.

For the first time it fully dawned on me that this was more than just about me. I wanted to say that I hadn’t meant to upset her. How could I tell her I had never intended to make this call in the first place and was no more prepared than she?

Unprompted by me, she began talking of Leonard, who had passed away a few years earlier.

“I’m sorry, I would have liked to meet him.”

“He was a good man,” she said, her voice trailing off.

My mind raced full-throttle. How good of a man could he have been, being party to giving his own son away?

She regained her composure and opened a floodgate of questions about my life. “Are you married? Any children?”

“No, no. I’ve had wonderful women in my life, but no.” I needed her to know that I wasn’t a social outcast and functioned fully in the world. Suddenly, fearing she might hang up at any moment, I blurted out, “What’s my heritage?”

“Why, you’re a Russian Jew.”

“Russian Jew?”

“Yes, on both sides. Third generation. Your father’s side was in the garment trade.”

Well, I thought, at least my call has been worth something.

At her urging, I briefly touched on the main events of my life while conveniently omitting the nefarious details. More than anything, I thought it odd that she had not asked a single question concerning my health or medical status. Were the words “face” or “nose” taboo?

And then, without intending to, the question that had festered inside me my entire life blurted out of my mouth like a micro torpedo. “Why did you give me up?”

I heard her breath catch but she made no response. When she didn’t answer, I broke the tension by suggesting a reason. “I understand it was a different time, with all my medical issues.”

“No, it wasn’t that,” Sarah answered, retreat in her voice.

“What then?” I asked, desperate to understand.

“It was a very difficult decision. Please, don’t make me feel guilty.”

I decided it wise to back off if I didn’t want her hanging up on me. “Do I have any siblings?”

“Yes.” Relief and pride filled her voice as she began to speak at length on a subject obviously dear to her heart. “David, the oldest, is a lawyer. He’s married with children and …”

Her words became a blur I could hardly follow and made me begin to wonder what had been the point of initiating this surreal conversation. So that I could feel invisible? A nonentity? Are you that insensitive? Don’t you realize the more you praise your “true” children, the more you exclude me? Bewildered, I hardly knew how to respond. I could feel my anger rising but held my tongue.

“My daughter, Linda,” she continued, “is also married and is now expecting, and Joseph, my youngest, is a lawyer as well, still single.” Her voice trailed off, as if Joseph’s bachelorhood were the only thing that marred her contentment.

Struggling to disguise the hostility I felt, I asked, “So David is my older brother?”

“Yes, he’s always been aware of everything. The same with all the other children.”

Exasperated, I still needed answers and returned to the only question that mattered to me. “Why did you give me up?”

I thought I would crush the phone her pause was so long, my hand turning white as I waited for her to tell me the truth.

Finally, in a voice unsteady and barely audible, she answered. “We couldn’t handle it.”

Couldn’t handle it! What the hell was “it?” Social stigma? Financial? Medical? Family pressure? Maternal guilt? What? Was I even human to her? She couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?

I was shaking, enraged.

I had never cared before; survival had always been my focus for as long as I could remember, but now I had to know more. I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. If I didn’t regain control, I knew what little headway I had made would evaporate. My next question was nothing I had intended, but just flew out of my mouth. “Can we meet sometime?”

She hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m quite busy right now.”

“I understand.” I didn’t, actually. Her dismissal felt like another abandonment. I let it go and thanked her for her time.

“Call me again if you wish,” she said. Then the line went dead.

* * *

By the time we pulled up in front of the deli, my heart felt as if it would leap out of my chest. I took my time paying the fare and, as calm as I could be under the circumstances, stopped to peer into the chrome interior, my misshapen nose all but pressed to the window. Seeing no one that fitted her description, I took a deep breath and entered. Inside, I scanned the diners and immediately settled on a petite woman halfway down the aisle, seated alone and facing the entrance. Without looking at her clothes, I knew in my heart she was Sarah.

As I approached her I was startled to see she was older than I had imagined. What had I expected? Sitting straight, her shoulders back, she sat stiffly waiting for me, her face tense. Noting her tailored light-brown jacket and white satin blouse, I immediately thought that she shopped at Saks or Ann Taylor. Almost four decades since the day my fate was sealed, the day when I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, and I’m critiquing her wardrobe? My attention shifted to her dark coiffed hair streaked with gray, and at that moment realized that she, too, had spent time preparing herself for the occasion. “Sarah?” I heard myself ask.

“Yes?”

“I’m Howard.”

“Yes, I know.”

How could she not? With her eyes absorbing my face, I could barely follow what she was saying. We tentatively shook hands.

Facing Sarah, I settled myself in the booth and took measure of the stranger sitting across from me. Tired and drawn, with deep shadows under her eyes, she betrayed her studied composure by nervously fidgeting with her coffee cup.

“You look good,” she said, her voice quavering.

I’m sure I do, compared to the last time you saw me — bandaged, hooked up to tubes, fluids, and God knows what else. “Well, I’m still here,” I retorted, immediately on the defense.

She sighed but kept her eyes on me, then acknowledged my cutting attempt at humor with a wistful smile. As she searched my face I got the distinct impression she was evaluating my surgical alterations, comparing what she saw seated before her against what she remembered of me at birth. Her expression hovered somewhere between stoic and vulnerable, like hot and cold water running into a plugged sink—a lukewarm mix that could go either way.

She took the plunge. “I want you to know I never hid anything from my children.”

At “my children,” I sucked in air, cut to the quick.

I changed the subject and launched into bits of my history she’d already heard from our phone conversations. But the burning question of why she had abandoned me refused to stay bottled up and was making my stomach churn. Before I even knew I was forming the question, it slipped off my tongue. “Why did you give me up?” I asked again, the urgency I felt evident in the force of my question.

She dropped her head and stared unseeing into her untouched coffee.

“Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?” I asked. “Why, since your family knew about me?” Saying “your family” to the woman who gave birth to me was surreal in itself.

“I thought it would be best for you that you start over with a new family,” she said, her shoulders sagging.

“My new family? I don’t understand.”

She looked confused. “You were adopted, right?” she asked, leaning in toward me, holding my eyes in hers.

“No,” I answered haltingly, “never formally.”

A shocked look came over her face. “But . . . but they told us you were adopted!”

“They? Who’s ‘they’?”

“The lawyer.”

“Lawyer?” Now I was totally confused.

Sarah’s hands lay still, as if what held her up had deflated. Shaking her head, she finally continued. “Leonard and I hired an attorney to look after you,” she explained. “He told us you had been adopted by a nurse, a nice family in the Midwest.”

“Midwest?” I had to laugh out loud. “No, the family I was placed with was in New Jersey.”

“Where?”

“I lived in Morristown, Summit, Randolph.”

Her eyes widened. It was too much for her and she slumped back against the booth. In some detail I told her of my childhood, growing up in the Garden State.

“You lived in Summit and worked at the Office restaurant?”

“Yes.”

She covered her face with her hands, her fingers splayed so I could see her eyes tearing up as she stared at me in disbelief.

“You know it?” I asked.

After some time she lowered her hands and placed them palms-down on the table. When she spoke her words were tremulous and distant. “We…sometimes Leonard and I would eat there on occasion.”

Her words trailed off.

It was my turn to lean back and catch my breath. I saw my dishwasher self, washing their dirty dishes, the closest I would ever be to them since the day I became an “it” to her. The irony of my scraping their discards in the back room, bussing their table, or redoing an order they might have sent back to the kitchen — just like they sent me back for failing to be good enough — made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to walk out then and there, leave her like she did me. Instead, I resolved to finish what I had started.

We sat some moments in silence, each pondering our likely crossing of paths, when she began to speak of Leonard, how he was a self-made man who owned a clothing store with his brother, and what a hard worker and honorable man he was. More than ever I wanted to meet him so I could ask him just how honorable he was that he could abandon his second-born son.

When Sarah told me how she and Leonard had started a program to help Jewish children in need, I was dumbstruck by her callousness — cruelty, really. Proud of her charity, she prattled on. My body temperature soaring, I abruptly rose and excused myself to go to the men’s room. Reeling, I dropped my forearms to the rim of the sink and cradled my head in my hands, utter disbelief at what I had just learned sucking the wind out of me.

Get a grip, I told myself. This was her guilt, trying to save thousands when she turned her back on saving one. Little good it had done me. My jaw clenched, I returned to our booth for round two. I needed to rise above her insensitivity and regain my composure. How could I fight with an elderly woman? But sadly, my anger got the better of me. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked, my voice steely.

Without emotion or hesitation she answered, “No, I don’t. I did what I had to.”

Oddly, that was the only thing she’d said since I laid eyes on her that I could relate to. But that she could see herself as a proud mother, benefactor, and devoted wife and still look me in the eye, refusing to give me any real explanation for her decision to walk away from me, her baby, her blood, and expect I’d be satisfied, incensed me.

Her lips quivered as tears resurfaced and streamed down her cheeks. “Howard, I can’t do it anymore,” she cried. Tears, Sarah? You have no idea the tears I cried for you when I was a child. Suddenly indignant, she straightened up and declared, “I will not relive this again. What’s done is done.” I nodded in complete agreement.

Having now exhausted any lingering shred of mercy, I was incapable of holding my peace after so many years of pent-up anger, and pressed on. “How could you have done that to a baby? Forget me — any baby?”

“Howard, I’ve punished myself enough. No more.” She was now in full retreat.

I felt no satisfaction in seeing her cry. The woman who had been in control was gone, and in her place sat a pathetically guilt-ridden one, burdened by a lifetime of crushing denial. At that moment the depth of her distress suddenly struck me, and I apologized over and over, swearing to her that it had not been my intention to hurt her. My quest had gone from curiosity to attack — with an aging woman who could never defend her actions and could never dare to revisit the past.

The table between us seemed to broaden as the distance between us grew, the air suddenly as stifling as our conversation. I made a feeble attempt to reach out to her. “I’m having a hard time understanding this, you know.”

Like the stranger she was, I thanked her for her time and escorted her outside, where I flagged down a taxi for her. There was no feeling between us — nothing. The ties of blood were evidently not enough to bridge the gap. Drained, we could do nothing more than shake hands and say our good-byes. Alone on the sidewalk, I watched her taxi pull away.

Our meeting replaying in my head, I struck out towards home. I had poured my heart out, venting frustrations buried so deep I didn’t believe anything could ever have awakened them. I had barely refrained from lashing out that she was a God-fearing, synagogue-attending, do-gooder, Jewish hypocrite, all of which would have served no purpose and would have done nothing for the anger I felt. Emotionally and physically spent, I arrived at my apartment exhausted, taking no comfort from the thought that blocks away she was probably experiencing similar emotions. Sarah, too, I realized, had suffered her own torment. How had she always known I would call?

* * *

Howard Shulman is the author of Running from the Mirror, a memoir to be released by Sandra Jonas Publishing House on October 5, 2015. This story is a condensed excerpt from that book. Preorder the book now and receive a 25% discount: http://bit.ly/1L4mcCE. Goodreads members can enter to win an advance reading copy.

Lee Lai is from Melbourne and other places. She makes comics and illustrations.

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