Tales from the Tunnels

From a teenage escape gone wrong to quarreling lovers and a missing ear, writers and illustrators remember their most unforgettable subway rides.

Crazy in Love

By Jacquelin Cangro

They squeezed their way to the middle of the car to stand directly in front of me. Within moments, they began arguing. I’ll be honest—I could only catch about every third word, what with their slurring and all, so I’ve cleaned up the conversation as best as possible.

Guy: Why are you following me? I told you to stay home.

Girl: I can go wherever I want. It’s a free country.

Guy: You better get off at the next stop. I’m not fucking kidding.

Girl: Oh. My. God. I’m going to be sick.

Me, suddenly extremely nervous she was about to unload all the munchies she ate on my new sweater: Uhm…

Guy, to me: No, she’s not. She’s just saying that to get out of it.

Girl: I am. I…am…going…sick.

Guy, shaking his head as if he and I are on the same page: She’s just fucking around. Stop fucking around!

Girl, to the elderly Asian lady sitting next to me: Can you…?

Quick as a bunny, the Asian lady grabbed her orange plastic bags and disappeared like magic. The girl sat next to me and rested her head on the wall behind us, moaning.

Guy, looking at her with disgust and then turning to me: She is such a bitch. You want to see why?

Of course not, but I hadn’t yet learned the no-eye-contact rule. If you take one thing away from this story it should be that.

The guy bent forward so I could get a good look and turned his head slightly. What was that on his earlobe? I actually leaned a little closer. Wait…part of it was missing. Wait…were those teeth marks?

Guy: Yeah, she bit it clean off.

A wittier person would have had a snappy comeback, maybe some kind of Van Gogh reference, but I did the worst thing possible. I continued to stare at him.

Illustration by Melissa Mendes
Illustration by Melissa Mendes

Girl, still moaning: Why don’t you say why I bit it? Why don’t you say why?!

Guy: That was like a week ago. But this morning…she’s crazy.

The guy turned his back toward me. I sneaked a look around, hoping someone would help a girl out, but the “Punk’d” crew from MTV was nowhere in sight. There were only my fellow commuters, snickering, either at me or the guy. Probably at me.

He lifted his shirt to reveal a small incision about an inch above his left kidney. It was still bleeding. The blood was dripping down the small of his back and pooling around his waistband. The wound was the size of a pocketknife.

Me: I think you need a Band-Aid.

The guy swiped at the cut with his grimy hand and saw the blood, maybe for the first time.

Guy, gasping: Bitch!

Girl: I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry. I think I’m gonna’ be sick.

Guy: I mean, this’ll leave a scar.

Girl, summoning the courage to stand up: Baby? I’m sorry.

She leaned her head on his shoulder. The train pulled into a station while she was cooing and apologizing.

Guy: All right. Just don’t do it again.

Girl: Let’s go home.

With that they got off the train, hand-in-hand. Ahh, love.

Jacquelin Cangro is the editor of The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York, which contains 27 essays about the NYC subway system written by notable straphangers, and the author of The Subway Chronicles: More Scenes from Life in New York. She is looking forward to the publication of her first novel We Happy Few.

Melissa Mendes is a cartoonist and illustrator in western Massachusetts.

*   *   *

A Subway Runaway

By Arvind Dilawar

During my freshman year of high school, in 2002, just before spring semester concluded and summer vacation began, I ran away from home. I made the decision suddenly, at 74th Street, or maybe Junction Boulevard, or one of the stops in between on the local 7 line. My reasons were a combination of the usual suspects, generic enough to be drawn from a Lifetime made-for-TV movie—parents, friends, school, alcohol, drugs, punk rock. I ran away for the same reason all angsty teenagers run away: Because of everything and because of nothing at all.

I had, at the absolute most, maybe $10 in my wallet. But more importantly, I had a student Metrocard. From Monday to Friday, that white-and-green sliver of plastic awarded me three free rides daily. I had already spent one ride that morning to get to my high school in downtown Manhattan and another in the afternoon to bring me here, a few blocks away from my house in Jackson Heights. I hadn’t yet exited the subway station, so I still had a transfer and the third swipe remaining. I could go anywhere.

I got off of that homebound 7 local, walked down into the station and reemerged on the other side of the platform, where I caught another 7, this one heading the opposite direction and, I imagined, away from my home forever.

Illustration based on photo courtesy of Arvind Dilawar
Illustration based on photo courtesy of Arvind Dilawar

Because I had been riding the subway for less than two semesters and was therefore a woefully inexperienced straphanger, I took the 7 to the G to the F to the W (which no longer exists, replaced in 2010 by the Q and the D). That elaborate trip brought me to Bensonhurst and the apartment of a friend whose single mother was away at work. There, I announced my flight to an assembled group of friends. Many of them, despite having families and homes of their own, had spent nights on the street. They recommended the East Village or Central Park. When the host’s mother arrived and refused to let me spend the night there, I was forced to choose. I wasn’t excited about sleeping outdoors, so I got in touch with another friend who said I could crash at his place. His mother’s apartment in Park Slope had two floors, so I would be able to sneak in and out without her noticing.

From a payphone, I called my mother and told her I wasn’t coming home, at least not yet. I didn’t know how to explain myself, so I said, “I need time to think.” She chortled and said something like, “Yeah, right.” With my last allotted Metrocard swipe of the day, I got back on the subway, taking the W to the R to Union Street.

I was able to stay in Park Slope for only one night. The next day, my mother, who had somehow divined that I was with that particular friend and was also by some means able to obtain his phone number, gave him a ring. She managed to trick him into admitting I slept there the previous night by claiming I had told her that I was staying there. (My mother was both clever and tenacious; she would ultimately find me the following afternoon, walking to another friend’s house in Bensonhurst. She simply drove up beside me on Bay Parkway, slid open the back door to our forest green minivan and told me to get in, which I did because at that moment it became painfully obvious that the jig was up.)

But until then, I was on my own. After the sun had set, I decided that rather than eke out the night in the East Village or Central Park, I would take to the subway. It was early June, but that night was remarkably cold on the above-ground W train platform and even worse in the oppressively air-conditioned subway car. At times I was close to shivering, with only a hoodie that was annoyingly small. I took the W up to 34th Street-Herald Square and got off in that deep, subterranean station, where it was faintly warm. There, I sat on a wooden bench on the platform for an hour or two, trying to sleep until one of those ghostly yellow maintenance trains rolled in and planned work commenced.

I was one stop away from 42nd Street-Times Square and the crosstown course of the 7 line. Whether it was the desire for a familiar setting or a practical concern for the warmth offered by those older, poorly air-conditioned “redbird” subway cars, I spent the rest of the night riding the 7 line back and forth from Times Square to Flushing. I awoke as it climbed from the underground Main Street station to cross the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, opening my eyes to the orange haze of morning sun streaming through the scratched windowpane I rested my head against. I felt warmer from the inside out as the 7 barreled on, through Flushing, Corona, Jackson Heights.

No matter how naive the notion, New York City’s magnitude then seemed to hold infinite unknown promise. Indeed, the city has never felt larger than it did during those few days, when it was span-able only by the number of subway lines and hours of time—when the route running away and the one coming home shared the same pair of tracks.

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.

*   *   *

Moving, Together

By Sara B. Franklin

It was the weekend before Christmas, 2010. I was sitting on the 4 or 5 train, one of those on the green line, making the trip from Cornell Weill Hospital on the Upper East Side back to my Crown Heights apartment. I’d spent the previous two nights sleeping at my dad and stepmom’s apartment on the Upper West Side, too tired to make the long trip home, too fragile to be far from my family.

My dad was dying. Cancer. No one had said it aloud yet, but I knew. The leaden feeling I carried in my gut was proof enough, too reminiscent of the way I felt just three years previously when my mom’s oncologist had suggested she give chemo a rest, give her body a break. It was as gentle an urging to let one’s body give out as I can imagine, though at the time it ripped me straight up the middle. It was a similar sense of dread—dread on the brink of searing pain—that I carried around that afternoon as the train rumbled south. I had decided, after two days trying to carve out a sacred space in the sterility and hustle of a hospital room by reading to my dad, rubbing his cracked feet, cracking jokes that weren’t funny, that it was time to go home. Take a shower. Get some fresh clothes.

It was warm on the train, but I was too weary to pull off my red winter coat. I unzipped it and unbuttoned the cardigan below. I felt completely at odds with the bustle and cheer of the colorful shopping bags and flushed cheeks accompanying me on the train. I felt pieced-together, picked apart. Disgusting.

Illustration by Gigi Rose Gray
Illustration by Gigi Rose Gray

I took out a book, tried to fit in. I was reading The Life of Pi, gobbling down anything with a spiritual bent to it those days. Somewhere around Bowling Green, the train started to halt and lurch. Across from me sat a startling young man. A knit cap, somewhat pointed, sat just above his ears, revealing the bald sides of his head. The skin there was a deep milk chocolate, coffee with a splash of cream. His face was smooth and clean, his forehead and cheekbones strong. He wore a navy blue woolen jacket with a stiff collar turned up, gold stars emblazoned near the lapels. His coat was unfastened like mine, and a matching navy sweater with a luxurious rolled neck underneath.

He, too, was trying to read. A hardcover book without a jacket. We kept glancing up at one another as the train’s fits and starts toyed with our anticipation. After a while, though, he set his eyes on his book, focused. Maybe he knew I was watching, maybe he was just that intent on his subject. I tried hard to concentrate on my own, but could only think of catching his eye again. I wondered where he was going to get off, assuming Lower Manhattan. He seemed like a City boy. But when the train crawled under the river to Borough Hall, he was still in his seat. He remained as we passed through the bustling Atlantic/Pacific hub and began up the slope toward my neighborhood. At Franklin Avenue, we both stood up abruptly, I gathering my frayed backpack onto my shoulder. He tucked his book under one arm and raised his eyebrow at me as we moved toward the open door and nearly bumped into one another. I smiled.

It could have ended that way. Just day-to-day, life brushing up alongside millions of other souls, walking that tightrope between anonymity and desperation for connection. Communion. But it didn’t.

On the platform, I stopped him. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but wonder what you’re reading,” I weakly offered.

He asked if I really wanted to know. I didn’t, but I nodded, and he launched into a long description, something about Eastern spiritual philosophy. We talked for a few minutes. I don’t remember much, only that he mentioned graduate school. He had studied math, had a keen interest in finance. At some point, he asked my name and we shook hands. I heard him introduce himself, a name beginning with a D, but couldn’t catch the exact word, even after he repeated it for me.

“Are you getting back on the train?” he asked. I chuckled. Of course not. Even for a beautiful man, I wouldn’t have gotten off at the wrong stop, not in my state. Together, we climbed the filthy steps to the turnstiles. He asked if he could walk with me, and I complied, trusting him implicitly, though I didn’t know why. Maybe I just needed to practice faith in something.

We walked the two and a half blocks down Franklin Avenue, barren in late December, save the garish mural on the corner of Eastern Parkway. He chatted on, pointed out a building a block from my place where he had lived until recently. When we reached my door, I told him I needed to go up, that I had things to do. The short conversation had exhausted me. I was so withdrawn from everything by then, having retreated into a world of sitting and waiting. We stood there at my door in the raw cold. He asked if there was a way to reach me. I gave him my number. He had been gentle, and I was craving softness.

One sticky afternoon the following July, we were lying in bed together, naked and languid. One of us brought up that day, our first meeting. The cold that had shrugged our shoulders up to our ears seemed an impossible memory in that heat. We argued over which of us had initiated the conversation, who started making eyes at whom. We wondered about the nature of our books that day, both of us seeking to make some sense of the senselessness of life. Two months after our subway meeting, we didn’t have a living parent between us. We talked lazily, using words like serendipity and coincidence, not caring much to parse their meanings. It was a gift of the city, we agreed, a product of the strange alchemy of the underground. Where we’re all moving through it together, really.

Sara B. Franklin is a Brooklyn-based writer, cook, and multimedia storyteller. She’s currently working toward a doctorate in food studies at NYU.

Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator, designer and overall image maker, born, bred and working in New York City.

*   *   *

Patient Zero

By Daniel E. Slotnik

I am generally pretty jaded about crazy subway stories. I’ve seen my share of car-clearing, passed out, incontinent, stink-so-bad-it-clings-to-your-clothing homeless folks; witnessed brawls in trains and on platforms; and have even been denied a seat and nearly pushed down the stairs when I had a broken ankle and shoulder. New Yorkers like to think of ourselves as a hardy, almost callous breed, unfazed by disruptions that would horrify people from more tranquil locales. I was secure in my hubris and inability to be shocked by the subway, especially after I experienced the shirtless, pantless guy swinging from bar to bar over a lumpy puddle of his own vomit on a downtown F train (I calmly made my way to another car at the next stop), and another incident involving what seemed to be  a rather large piece of human excrement lying daintily next to a corner seat on a crowded 6. (People would walk toward the seat, begin to sit down, realize what it was and recoil. The whole thing was actually kind of funny and I became suspicious that it was perhaps a practical joke or a piece of performance art.) After that, what could possibly upset me on the subway?

Then I bumped into a woman I’ll call Patient Zero.

I first made Ms. Zero’s acquaintance on a regular commute from my Spanish Harlem apartment to work in Times Square. The first leg of the journey, to 59th Street on the 6 train, was very crowded but otherwise ordinary. I was listening to music and reading The Times on my phone, but I recall hearing someone sneezing violently nearby and seeing a small space clear on the train. No matter—I rushed out the door to transfer to the N-Q-R line below. My new train was held momentarily, and I was able to press my way to an open spot next to the door between cars. I refocused on the paper and had successfully tuned out when two new passengers squeezed through the closing doors.

The first was a tall man in shabby clothes who stood near the center pole. The second was a woman wearing ratty green Syracuse Orangemen sweatpants and a long, shapeless jacket. She shuffled unsteadily onboard, dragging a two-wheeled handcart stacked high with disarrayed packages. Lank hair the color of dirty snow hung around her face, which looked wizened and wrinkled but oddly plump, and she clutched some well-worn brown paper napkins in the hand that wasn’t pulling the cart.

She pushed towards the center of the car, stopped, and, as if on command, launched a forceful, spittle-y sneeze full into the face of a man wearing a red skully cap and leaning against the door. No napkin, no hands—just pure snot all over him.

“Jesus Christ!”  He exclaimed.  “What the hell is wrong with you, lady?”

The woman, who you’ve by now realized is Patient Zero, did not reply. She started making a dry hacking sound and, doubled over from the force of the sneeze, began to shuffle towards my corner of the train. The train’s inhabitants recoiled like water from a drop of oil. Ms. Zero bumped into me, and I heard her making quiet snuffling sounds. She was shaking slightly, and seemed on the verge of sneezing again—she was clearly not well. I stepped around her and pressed towards the middle of the car. The tall guy who’d gotten on with her pushed closer to where she was standing.

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

She started to sneeze again, wracking, doubled-over and spraying in a wet circumference, splashing everyone near her. Between sneezes she hacked and spat with an audible, plosive “PUH!”—bystanders be damned.

We hadn’t even gone a stop when the murmurs that had begun after the first sneeze escalated into a full-scale evacuation. The people in the seats nearest her stayed for a second, but soon got up and pressed as far away as they could. The man who had gotten on with her sat down in the empty seats, and most people left the car at the next stop.

Patient Zero was still hacking and sneezing. I began to wonder if maybe she wasn’t exaggerating, and immediately felt guilty for the thought. She opened the door between cars and leaned out, spitting and coughing even harder. She was basically slobbering now, spraying phlegm all over the place.

Those of us who stayed in the car looked at each other, sharing a grim camaraderie. There was a lot of shrugging of shoulders, head shaking and smiling.  People looked incredulous—this was a bit much, even for New York.

“I’m going straight to the doctor,” the guy who was hit first said.

None of us went over to ask if she was alright.

Patient Zero closed the door and walked back towards the vertical pole in the center of the car. All of us shrank away like she was a leper. The sneezing stopped. And then, for no apparent reason, she started to scream.  She was shrieking with so much effort that she doubled over.

At the third stop she ceased screaming, took her cart and walked off the train matter-of-factly, as if she had reached her destination—normal commute complete, just like the rest of us. Her companion got off with her, and the two walked away calmly, as if nothing unusual had happened.

When I got into work I rubbed Purell all over my hands and arms.  I’m not usually a hypochondriac, but I felt like I’d been exposed to Ebola.

I wish I could say that was the end of it, but I’ve actually seen Patient Zero twice since. Once, I was walking in the 80s on 2nd Avenue, with headphones on, when I heard a shockingly familiar sneeze over the sound of my music. I looked to my right, and she was standing in a phone booth. Her companion was there, too. She was sneezing and spitting again, and passersby were ducking away from the booth as they realized what was happening. I sped up and think she still might have hit the back of my coat. Then I saw her once again on the same train line another morning. I hightailed it out of the car.

Every time I see her, part of me wants to ask why she was screaming on the train that morning, how she came to be doing this and how she’s connected to the man who stays with her, but I haven’t yet, and probably won’t. The incident stuck with me—as much as I love New York, it can be a hard and unforgiving place. How far is each of us from screaming nonsense at commuters on the yellow line?

I do hope that she feels better, and that whatever she has isn’t contagious.

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

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.

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Alphabet City, Alphabet Soup

By Daniel Scheffler

My sneakers peep and grind as I run down to the bottom of the smallest steps in the world at the 2nd Avenue F stop. Why are these steps so tiny? Some town planner must have forgotten that the city is not just made for kids. The hot August air clouts me straight on the nose, and then coats the rest of my body as I journey further into the bowels.

Backpack on and endowed with headphones, I have made a conscious effort to always stay stationary near train tracks. “Mr. Clumsy,” I say to myself with what I’m told is my signature eyebrow tilt. I halt and find a pillar to lean on. A heart with two sets of initials is wounded through the paint—D.S. and J.T.—one of them matching my own.

Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn
Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn

He is definitely staring. No doubt that’s a stare. But at me? Really? Just me, silly, rough-and-tumble me? Yes, definitely. He is jabbing my eyes with his darker-than-Heath-Ledger-as-Joker peepers as he leans too deeply back against the platform wall across the tracks. Moisture runs down my cheek as I fight the perspiration and struggle to ignore the subway system’s signature miasma.

But I don’t stop rubbernecking the well-over-six-foot blonde. I think out loud, “you have to be a Dutch athlete with a body like that.” I think he hears me as he smiles that Euro-trash peek-a-boo my way. He throws himself across the subway station and all over me just with his goggle. It jars me, and I feel like I’m falling through the floor.

Arriving trains bring release from the heat, and release from the stare, as simultaneous machines nearly headbutt between the platforms. I mount the machine, as my mirror does too from the other side, regaining the stare. Doors slide, lives change. Our faces are now a few feet apart but double glass prevents me from speaking, or breathing for that matter. He kisses me through the glass. A sucker punch.

My fingers look for a writing instrument, a way of giving him my number, my name, my heart, but he beats me to it. He starts to write the letter J, the letter T…the initials on the pillar I call to mind; the other set matches his. The train rattles and without warning disappears in its usual way.

Daniel Scheffler is a writer living in the West Village, Manhattan and Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently obsessing about, and totally consumed by, his first novel.

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

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Making all Stressful Stops

By James Folta

I am particularly prone to vivid stress dreams, even when my life is relatively stress-free. It seems my body’s natural resting position is stress. But this one stands out as the worst my unconscious mind has yet concocted, and I think it’s no coincidence it took place in a subway station.

In the dream, I found myself in front of a turnstile, nervously watching the track, and trying to get the system to recognize my Metrocard. I am greatly ashamed when I can’t show my native status by nailing my first swipe, so I emoted with a series of can-you-even-believe-this-I-mean-come-on faces. Of course, there were lots of people waiting to get through. I estimate that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands crammed behind me. I was occupying the only turnstile and I could feel their judgmental, sharpened glares: who is this guy, with his fancy suit (I was urgently rushing to a posh event) and his bad Metrocard skills? I was trying so hard, but in a stress dream, sweat counts for nothing.

The stakes climbed higher; the station rumbled from an incoming train. I redoubled my efforts: “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN,” again and again and again. My zeal was so great that the card slipped out of my hand and fluttered to my feet. A groan from the onlookers. I quickly bent to retrieve the card but my slick suit leaked like a dapper sieve and everything began falling out–my keys, my wallet, my phone, as well as miscellanea I didn’t even know I owned. And they didn’t merely fall out, but completely deconstructed themselves. My wallet emptied far and wide, my keys individually disentangled from the ring, and my phone exploded in a cloud of chips, springs, gears and other tiny parts that my dream mind thinks cell phones are made of.

Illustration by Andra Emilia Fenton
Illustration by Andra Emilia Fenton

Before I could even stand up to stop this rain, before I could even register the depth of the clean-up job before me, my clothing followed suit and fell from my body. Another groan from the crowd. And the final shame, as I struggled to redress myself and refill my pockets, was seeing the train’s doors open and close. I watched it leave, tangled and bound both hand and foot in a chaotic heap of turnstile, clothing and belongings.

And then I woke up, with the familiar dread of being late.

In hindsight, my dream logic perfectly chose the setting for this tale of stress. At that moment in my life, I was preparing to move across the country to San Francisco–a new coast, a new city, a new job and only a half-contact of a friend waiting for me there. Freshly graduated and leaving behind many knowns for many more unknowns, I was a teetering pile of anxieties. I never do well with change and it was pouring change that I didn’t completely want. I was caught in between, like a straphanger on the subway.

The subway is a pressure cooker, a stress accelerator. When you’re in the subway, you’re always anxious to be leaving. The subway is a state of anticipation. You occupy a space on the spectrum of missing where you left and dreading where you’re headed.

James Folta lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he work as a carpenter, comedian and writer.

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

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Off the 6

By Jennifer Mascia

In 1999, Jennifer Lopez named her first album “On the 6,” after the train that runs from the Bronx to Brooklyn Bridge, because it represented the artery that took her from her working class roots in the Bronx to beckoning stardom in “The City.” And it worked—I doubt JLo has seen the inside of a subway car in at least 20 years.

The next year, in 2000, I found my first apartment, a rent-stabilized one-bedroom in East Harlem, two long avenues from the 6 train. When I got the phone call from the management company accepting my lease application, I ran out of my Russian History class and jumped up and down in the hallway, howling and whooping, shocked and exhilarated that I had finally found a place in “The City” to call my own. I was moving to Manhattan from my parents’ apartment on the North Shore of Staten Island—quite the leap.

In the weeks leading up to the move I’d sit in classes I should have been paying attention to and whip out my notebook—the one emblazoned with the Manhattan portion of the MTA subway map—tracing the green line from my new apartment on 2nd Avenue and 103rd Street to Hunter College: four short stops on the 6 train. Seven minutes. My old commute had been an hour-and-a-half.

I was in heaven.

Suddenly, I was as cool as JLo, taking an iconic line every day. Even Mayor Bloomberg took the 6, making a big show of standing alongside his fellow commuters. (Of course, that image was tarnished when the Times revealed he cheated and drove partway.)

What I didn’t quite realize is that the green line is the sole artery shuttling thousands and thousands of people north and south along the East Side every day. Full-to-the-brim trains routinely skipped my local stop because service was backed up on account of the sheer mass of people. A few months later, when I graduated and entered the workforce, my seven-minute commute evaporated and I was left at the mercy of a train line that could either shuttle me to civilization or leave me stranded. Because when you live off the 6, you become a slave to it.

When the system is deluged by a sudden rainfall, the train shuts down, and then what? A West Sider could simply walk from the C to the 1, but what other options are there for us, save an expensive taxi—if we can find one?  No, to access the West Side I had to take a crosstown bus, and those are notoriously slow. When I attended Columbia for graduate school, the M96 routinely took 45 minutes to chug west through Central Park, packed as tightly as sardines, a mass of humanity fogging up the windows and turning my commute into a sauna, even in the winter.

Oh, how I’d gaze enviously at the other side of the subway map, with its orange and blue and red and yellow lines, and wonder what the East Side did to be cast aside so casually. We needed a reprieve.

Illustration by Melissa Raimondi
Illustration by Melissa Raimondi

Mid-decade, rumors bubbled up that the long-abandoned 2nd Avenue subway, first proposed in 1920, would finally be resurrected. One morning in 2007 I awoke and gazed across the street to see then-governor Eliot Spitzer posing for photos atop an old subway grate with a shovel in his hand. Suddenly, it was on.

And it was loud. Five years of bone-shattering construction followed at all hours of the night. Suddenly I didn’t care about the needs of the Straphangers Association—I wanted out. So when my management company called in October and told me they had “other ideas” for my building— read: demolition—I jumped on the chance to transfer to one on 124th and Madison.

So now I’m off the 6—kind of. I still have the option of walking two blocks east and taking the 4, 5 or 6, but I can also walk two blocks west and take the 2 or 3 line, which gets me to work in 17 minutes. After a decade of longing, I finally have West Side access. I’ll take it over sardines any day. But still…

There’s something about the 6. It was the first line to get the sleek new trains that replaced the old redbirds, a concession, perhaps, for being the sole East Side line. The stations along the 6 were the first testing grounds for the countdown clocks that cities like San Francisco and London had already enjoyed for a decade. The 6 was my foolproof excuse for being late to work; “I live off the 6” was enough to elicit a nod of understanding from every restaurant manager and newspaper editor I toiled under. The 6 was where I’d doze on my way home at 4 a.m., the dependable ride home I could always count on, even if I was on tipsy autopilot and counting the stops in my sleep. The 6 was where I hid behind big black sunglasses and wept after my father, then my mother, passed away, my only comfort being Dr. Zizmor’s gentle, ageless face offering me the smiling prospect of acne treatment. When it was empty in the middle of the night I’d swing on the poles like an exotic dancer, giggling and breathless. The 6 was my constant, just as much as my little apartment was. Because of its shortcomings, it was an underdog. Perhaps only a New Yorker could romanticize that.

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

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

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

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

When someone goes missing on a frozen mountaintop or in a wildfire, my team heads out to help when no one else can — even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

Three kids are missing on the mountain. They missed their check in, and search and rescue (SAR) has been tasked with finding them. It’s what we do. We track down the lost and injured and bring them home. I’ve been a member of this unit, primarily based around Mount Hood, Oregon, but working wherever we are needed in the Pacific Northwest, for about three years. Given my profound lack of experience at the onset, I’ve only actually been useful for about a year, maybe two.

We have a general idea of where the three kids are, or at least where they are supposed to be. At the base of the mountain, where most climbs start, is a climbers’ register where parties write down their intended route, expected return date, and what equipment they have – vital information in just this type of situation.

It’s cold and windy. Visibility is low. No one wants to be in the field on days like this. But, as Rocky, a veteran member once told me, only half joking, “We’re mountaineers. We suffer. It’s what we do.” That suffering is accepted because this is what we volunteered for (and almost all of us are truly volunteers – only the sheriff and a few others are paid). It’s made tolerable knowing that there is someone worse off, someone who needs us.

We will trace the most likely path and hopefully find them hunkered down in a snow cave or some other shelter, but alive. Bringing a victim home alive is why I go up. The satisfaction is like no other. After more than a decade in medicine, as an EMT initially and now as a physician assistant in a busy urban ER, I have revived cardiac arrests, treated trauma and dealt with just about every other medical calamity, but mountain rescue is different. People get injured in the mountains and back country, we get them when no one else can or will. Even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

And I know how important that can be.

On the night of my first high school dance, the police showed up bearing somber news to my mother. She took me into the back room of the house. “There’s been an accident. Dad’s dead,” my mother told me, barely a quiver in her voice. She was trying to hold it together, but saying that out loud, she couldn’t. My brother, mother and me stood in that back room, with the lights off, and hugged and cried and lost track of time.

He fell while out hiking two states over. Local SAR was bringing the body out of the canyon. They couldn’t save him, but they could return his body to his family. We grieved while we waited for his return, which would take a day or two. It didn’t become concrete or tangible until we had the body. A tremendous service was done for my family by strangers.

Now it is my turn.

I will do for others what had been done for us. I will bring them home, do what I can to prevent further backroom suffering. Paying a debt to the universe makes the insufferable tolerable.

* * *

We are a team of 15 – physicians, general contractors, business executives and even an animal chiropractor, with personalities as varied as the professions. But there is a core tenet among us all: to help those in need.

A resort at the base of the mountain provides a Sno-Cat that transports us up through the groomed ski fields. National forest regulations prohibit mechanized travel beyond certain boundaries, but occasionally, we get permission to ignore them, to save a life. The driver takes us up as far as we can go before the Cat starts to backslide.

This is where the hard work starts. From here on out, we will be on foot. Once over the ridge and onto the next glacier, we break into smaller teams of three or four and separate to search different areas. Bob, a tall, slender guy who made some wise business decisions and retired early, is my team lead. He is tasked with interacting with the other team leads and Incident Command, as well as making sure all of us come home alive. Then there’s Keith, an engineer who makes dad jokes without being a dad; Christopher, an occasional school teacher who’s fond of instigating shenanigans and watching his work unfold; and me, the newest member of the team – the low-man on the totem pole.

The winds are up. The temperatures are down. Visibility is minimal. Freezing fog deposits a thin layer of ice on clothing. Beards freeze and develop icicles. Any exposed skin quickly turns red and raw. The moisture from my breath freezes my goggles. Periodically, I use the rubber handle of my ski pole to scrape the ice out of the goggles. This only provides a brief window of clear vision.

We follow the kids’ intended route up the mountain, up the gentle snow slope, bearing west. It’s a short distance, but it takes us an hour in these conditions. We come up into a bowl, relatively protected from the wind. The route travels up from the bowl and over a ridge. Once on the other side we must be hyper-vigilant. We will be travelling across a large crevasse field, hidden in dense fog. The route leads up a snow and ice gully from the far end of this crevasse field. This is one of the two more common routes for teams to take after they have previously completed the standard route. It represents a step up in technical difficulty, presents complicated route finding, and is an overall longer route. Most of us on the rescue team have climbed this route before, individually or as a team, but not in these conditions.

A fall from their route could have spit the kids out onto this crevasse field. We must search it exhaustively. First, we rope up – tying ourselves together so that if one of us falls into an unseen crevasse, theoretically, the rest of the small team can arrest the fall and retrieve the teammate. A rescuer becomes a liability if he is dead. As the newest, least-experienced member, I’m in the middle of the rope. Bob, on point, has to choose a path around the crevasses. The man in the back is the last hope if the first team members can’t arrest their own fall. Bob scans the snow for signs of weakness indicating a crevasse. I follow the footsteps exactly.

Slowly, methodically, we spread out to search the area. Ice axes are at the ready in the event a rope mate goes into a crevasse. My eyes strain to look for clues through fogged-up goggles. Even a light snow can cover vital clues. We move westward toward the terminus of the route the three kids were attempting.

“I need to search that area down by the big crevasse. Keep eyes on me,” Bob says. Rather than continue with our roped travel, Bob will move more cautiously down towards the crevasse on his own. I head up a ridge and plant myself in a vantage point where I can maintain constant visual contact. The area looks lousy with crevasses, with more likely hidden. Bob is belayed down into the field by Keith, who is anchored to the snow. Any fall should be terminated quickly. Should be. Our gloves have a layer of icy grime, so holding the rope during a fall would require more effort than in more pristine conditions.

He goes out, searches, and returns. No incident, but no evidence found of our three kids either. We’re preparing to keep moving when our radios start crackling and we hear someone from one of the other teams say, “I think I’ve found something.” We all stop and put lift our radios to our ears.

“Should we head up to you?”

Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”

My team was searching the lower end of the glacier, so we are some of the last to get to the scene. As we approach, I see the other teams standing around a body. If it weren’t for the people standing around him, I might have walked right by; he was nearly invisible in the waning day, under a fresh layer of snow. I see that no one is frantic. No one is pulling a medical kit out. Our kid must be dead. His mouth is open, in the shape of an “O” and full of snow. I get to him and place my hands on his body. He is stiff and frozen. His base-layer shirt and soft shell jacket are unzipped. There is blood on his thigh, though no obvious deformity or injury. I see no grossly apparent signs of blunt trauma. Some distance away, there is climbing gear strewn at the bottom of the route. One of the other teams had continued searching and found it. It looks like he walked some distance away from the debris field.

Maria, a newly minted ER doctor, digs a little bit of the snow out of his mouth. Not much, just a little. I’m not sure why. It is an image that will stick with me.

“Hey, why don’t I package the body? Not everybody needs to see this,” I offer to the overall rescue leader. Some of the team members have never seen a dead body before.

He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, do it.”

I’m new to mountain rescue, but seasoned to life’s grim realities. The body must be packaged for extrication. He will be covered with a protective plastic tarp and placed into a litter. The litter is like a backboard with small walls and rails. It proves difficult to package him. He is frozen and did not have the foresight to die in a position conducive to packaging. But, I make it work. I have to.

Looking at what’s in front of me, I know what is ahead for the family. I know the sound. I know the dark, backroom scene, huddled in a private anguish that comes after the authorities deliver the news. There’s a wail that comes with unexpected death. It comes from the gut. It’s a sound I heard time and again in those first few days after my father died. I lost a parent, but they have lost a child. I package him as gently as I can. We will get him back to his family. The importance of our task is visceral. I cannot fathom what mourning without the body is. This family will not have to try.

* * *

The radio crackles again. The sheriff is thinking that we should package the body, anchor it someplace safe, and mark the location on GPS. This would allow us to keep searching for the other two. The freezing fog has turned to heavy snow. It was early afternoon, a time in the Pacific Northwest when the sun begins to set, and we are worn. We wouldn’t have more than a few hours of daylight left and still had to get off the mountain.

This is a dilemma. He’s dead, but the other two kids may not be. Until we find them, there’s no way to know. The weather forecast calls for continued lousy conditions for the rest of today and the next few days. Extrication is a lengthy process. Under the best conditions, in more easily accessed terrain, extrication by foot takes half a day. Do we begin the extrication of the body and leave our other two kids to try to survive another night? Do we try to place our first kid somewhere we can find him later and keep searching? In these conditions, among the crevasses, with the accumulating snowfall, it’s unlikely we would be able to find him again. Even anchored in a corner somewhere, location marked on GPS, any manner of event could prevent us from retrieving him. Avalanches could change the landscape of the entire field. There is the risk of continued snowfall and burial. An anchor could fail, leaving the body free to slip into one of the crevasses below.

It’s unbearable, in my mind, to leave him to keep searching. The thought of having to tell the family that we found the body, but left him on the mountain, is crushing. It seems inhumane. But then what would we tell the families of the other two kids if we left the mountain without knowing whether they were alive or dead?

I’m supremely thankful not to have to make that call. There are benefits to being a rookie.

The medical team, my other team, has setup nearby, in an area safe from crevasses or avalanches. There is a tent to escape the wind and warm drinks are being brewed. The medical team is solely concerned with the living. In the absence of proof of life of the other two, the medical team bears watch over the rescuers. The tent is for the rescuers. The warm drinks are for us. Periodically, people have to take a breather, to warm up and mentally recharge. It’s amazing how beneficial something as simple as a warm cup of tea can be in these situations. As one of the new guys, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I stay in the crevasse field and suffer.

Conversations between the rescue leaders in the field and the sheriff’s SAR deputies have been ongoing since we packaged the body. I haven’t been listening. I have no input to offer. Just feet to carry me to wherever I can be useful.

“The sheriff wants us to keep searching.” Word is spreading. My heart sinks into my stomach. I am exhausted. There is no good decision to be reached. I look at my teammates and can tell many are feeling the same. We don’t want to keep searching, but we will.

“SAR base from Team One.”

“Go ahead Team One.”

“Yeah, hey it’s Rocky. We’re not going to do that. It’s cold, it’s late. We’ll never find the body again. We’re bringing the teams in.”

A respected member and veteran of decades of mountain rescue has shut down the sheriff’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the sheriff’s call, but a good leader knows when to listen to experienced heads.

“O.K. Team’s coming in.”

We re-cross the crevassed glacier, this time with a sled with a body in it. Once at the eastern end of the glacier, we raise the whole package up and over the ridge, which is accomplished with ropes, pulleys and brute force. Eventually, we reach the waiting Sno-Cat. The packaged body lies between two rows of bench seats. The seats are full of rescuers. The layers of ice that had been our constant companions begin to melt. Steam rises off each living person’s head. Some people are looking through the camera we found among the scattered belongings. Perhaps a clue will be found to lead us to the other two kids. Perhaps there will be some indication as to what went wrong.

We reach the familiar transition point at the base of the glacier. We get out of the Sno-Cat and unload the package. A short distance below, snow meets parking lot. Rescuers meet sheriff. I head inside. There is to be a debrief. We are reminded of the resources available to us, should we need them, if anyone is experiencing grief or stress from recovering a body.

The body is brought inside the lodge. I can hear the family. By the end of the debrief, the family of our first kid should be well on their way to the city with the deceased. They are not. Word is traveling. The family of our first kid is staying on the mountain to support the families of our other two kids. I can’t imagine how they came to that decision. Their boy is dead. Yet, they remain with the other two families, while the body of their boy travels back to the city.

When I hear this, I remember that the ache I’m feeling all over is just physical pain. It is temporary.

* * *

I return to my warm apartment. The two kids are still up on the mountain. I’m mentally preparing for a return to the cold and misery tomorrow when the page comes through. We are grounded. No searchers will be deployed tomorrow on account of the horrendous conditions. Officially, this is still a “rescue.” The longer our other two kids are out there, the less likely they are to survive, if they are still alive at all. But they are up there, somewhere. I have little faith that this is going to be a rescue.

I feel utterly helpless, sitting in my kitchen, in a worn-out old chair, head back, staring at the ceiling. The debt I set out to pay remains. I am unable to provide the service that was done for my family. Logically, I understand it is out of my hands. The dangers and risks are real. This is a rational decision. In my gut, though, I have failed. This was my task. Bring the bodies home. Yet they remain on the mountain. There is only failure now.

So, I get drunk, the only solution I can think of.

Over the next few days conditions continue to deteriorate and eventually I have to go back to work. Finally, the search gets called off completely.

The following summer, I’m returning from a wildfire when the text comes through from my good friend Bob G., a member of the medical rescue team.

“multiagency effort. found the other 2.” He gives me no context. He doesn’t need to.

There is a great deal of discussion and speculation as to what happened. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t particularly care how they got there, just where they end up – back with their families.

How It Feels to Be the Biggest Woman at a Clothing Swap

Great, actually.

My bedroom is completely ransacked – clothes are thrown everywhere, purses piled high on my bed. I’m frantically throwing nearly all of my clothes into large plastic bags. Some are still wrapped in the plastic they came in, hanging from metal hangers, as if embalmed and exempt from the passing of time. First to go are the tight designer t-shirts, then the dresses – so many dresses. The black satin cocktail number that once made me feel sexy, but that I could never zip up now. The turquoise one with animal print from Century 21 and the red flowered dress that knocked everyone’s socks off at the company party ten years ago. I used to be so audacious with my wardrobe. Now, I want fewer eyes on me.

I planned on walking, but the load becomes more than I can carry. Instead, I throw the clothes in my car and take off, headed for my first ever clothing swap – where women get together to trade things they no longer want. I’ve been invited by my new friend Sarah to participate in this feminine ritual. This is more than the usual spring cleaning for me; I need to get rid of these painful reminders of the woman I outgrew, literally and figuratively. I no longer want to feel body-shamed by my closet, which is stuffed with clothes that are literally six sizes too small, some that have hung there, unworn, for over a decade while I tried to convince myself I could be someone else.

As I schlep my bags of clothes up to Sarah’s pre-war walk-up, I start to worry that, as a size 12, I’ll be the biggest woman there and nobody will want my offerings. But there’s no turning back now.

* * *

My obsession with fashion started when I was a teenager, when adolescence brought with it a horizontal growth spurt. I didn’t object to my new breasts and butt, but the rapid increase in my thighs and belly made me want to buy every piece of fabric ever made just to cover them up. I was convinced that buying the tightest jeans possible could stymie my out-of-control thighs and shrink them back to their original size. If my clothes were cool enough, stylish enough, expensive enough, everyone would just focus on them and not the fact that I had blown up underneath them.

At 16, the author playing dress up at a friends’ house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photos courtesy the author)

By the time I was 14, I was a size 12, and no fashionable clothing could hide the discomfort I felt. It wasn’t enough to have nice clothes, I still wanted to be thin like the other girls. To be what I thought was normal. Through my teens and 20s, I tried every trend: cleanses, the lemonade diet, the cabbage soup diet, no carbs, low carbs. I tried taking diet pills, Dexatrim every morning with endless glasses of water, but it only gave me headaches and constant trips to the bathroom. Nothing worked.

Finally, I spent one full year when I was in my thirties eating pre-portioned frozen food out of a box and getting up every day at 5:30 in the morning to work out. It worked. I dropped to a size six; in certain styles I was even a four.

I had always hated dressing rooms – the bright lights zooming in on my imperfections, the dread of nothing fitting right. But then, the first time I went shopping after the weight loss was a revelation. Almost everything fit. I remember the moment I pulled a red cotton Brooklyn Industries dress over my head and caught sight of my new self in the mirror; it was as if it was made for me, and I looked incredible. Even though I was thinner, I still had feminine curves, and this dress brought out every one. The cleavage, the thin waist. I wore it out of the store, crumpling up my old clothes and having the cashier cut the price tag off of me at the register. I felt taller, sexier. I bought a whole new wardrobe for my new start. At 38, for the first time, I began to love the warmer months, when dress season was in full bloom.

But the sacrifices I made to get into those dresses meant, ironically, that I rarely went out to dinner or parties because I was afraid of gaining weight. It’s amazing how often people commented about me not drinking or eating, often making me more self-conscious. When I did give in and go out I’d gain weight instantly. Every single time. It was a total Catch-22. The whole purpose of those clothes was to show myself off, to push me to socialize more, but in reality, they kept me in my studio apartment, away from the world, afraid to live.

The author, far right, during the last week of senior year in college.

Eventually I tired of the restrictions and disappointments and took a break from a life of deprivation. The weight crept back on and then some. Most of my favorite clothing no longer fit, regardless of how many pairs of Spanx I wore. Still, I held onto them for over ten years, hoping to someday return to that size, that woman. I had tried to stick to discipline, but eventually being a certain size just wasn’t worth how hard I had to work. It was one thing to say no to dessert or put the bread basket away, but to constantly be hungry and depleted felt at odds with my energetic personality. I wanted to go out, socialize, travel and taste different foods, have different experiences. Being thin without enjoyment defeated the purpose of trying so hard to look the part. I wanted to be part of my own life.

Now, at 47 I’m packing up all of these dresses that belonged to a woman I’m no longer trying to force myself to be. A woman who needed to give up everything for how others might see her. A woman whose biology was never destined for the petite rack. I still miss how I looked in those years of denial, but I don’t miss how I felt.

* * *

I carry three large bags filled to capacity; the plastic handles digging into my skin, turning my fingers red. I walk up four flights of stairs to Sarah’s apartment, where there are tall green plants in every corner and books falling off the shelves. Sarah comes to greet me, her brown hair flowing down to her shoulders, bouncing as she cheerily introduces me to her friends. My heart sinks as I realize most of the women here are in the size six range, a zone I hit just once, and briefly, in my life. I doubt there’s going to be anything here for me.

Sarah pours wine into small glass jars and spreads out homemade pesto sandwiches with brie and bacon marmalade. As we sip our wine and scoop up the melted cheese, the swap begins. Each woman takes a turn presenting her items to the group. Even though everything is being donated, you still want to make sure someone takes home your once-treasured goods with a little pitch. Great color but I have outgrown it. Perfect for summer but too revealing for me. It says, “Love me I’m a Vegetarian,” but I eat meat now so…

A thin brunette with a lot of energy bolts up to the front of the room. As she begins to describe her clothes, all the attention is on her. People start raising their hands and laughing, this is actually kind of fun. “This is the one I got when going to the holiday party last year,” she explains. “And this one my mother-in-law got me but is clearly not my style.” Some of the women talk of ex-boyfriends as they explain the stories behind their clothes. Some of their new jobs. Everyone here wants to get rid of their pasts too. Hearing each story – vignettes about their items, their lives, brings me closer to the women. I feel connected. While they physically appear different than I, they too have stories of wanting to move on in their lives and away from a time that has passed. The clothing swap allows us all the opportunity to release our nostalgia.

I’m surprised at how comfortable these women are in their own bodies. One short woman with a black long bob actually takes off her blouse and begins to try on the clothes right in front of us, her white cotton bra bright like neon lights. She throws on blouses, sweaters and even dresses as if no one is watching. Some of the women know her and her fashion show just blends into the background for them. But I can’t stop staring. I am no prude, but how can she take off her clothes in front of all of these people like she’s in a Loehman’s dressing room? What is that like, to be confident enough in your body to strip down in front of strangers like it’s no big deal?

Eventually it’s my turn to present. My palms begin to sweat. I want the ladies to love my clothes as much as I once did, to realize how important these items were to me in my life – my nostalgia, my years of trying to change myself, and this final moment of release as I let all of that pressure go. Each garment on display represents my sense of self when I bought them. I almost feel like if they reject my clothes, they will be rejecting a part of me. I’m afraid they might ignore me because of my current size, like some men do when we meet for the first time.

The author today.

I take a deep breath and go to the front of the living room. I open up my shopping bags and begin with an apology. “I used to be a variety of sizes from six to 12, so hopefully you will find something you like,” I say, as I start to pull out one meaning-laden item after another. I take out long flowy dresses that I wore when I first lost considerable weight in my 30s, when friends had asked if I had an eating disorder, but it was a combination of Jenny Craig and 5:30 a.m. workouts. I pull out my favorite red dress and it’s snatched up immediately. I feel much better about being here. Then I pull out a black strapless dress I never even wore. It was my “just in case I get invited” dress for parties I never went to, wanting to be someone’s plus one but often being passed over for a younger, more petite date. Someone takes this one, too, and I can feel the load lighten, all of those years of watching and wishing, falling away as I give away one too-small dress after another.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to let them go, knowing that I bought these clothes hoping for a different type of life. Now I am saying goodbye to the woman who wore them, or hoped to. Maybe wisdom really does come with age, but whatever finally let me let go of the insecurities of my youth, I’m no longer willing to base my self-worth on an arbitrary standard that I’m biologically incapable of attaining. All of my old insecurity isn’t going to disappear overnight, but passing along my clothes, my past, and my younger self feels noble, graceful, and it leaves room in my life for me, the real me.

I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.