Tales from Two Wheels

Unruly traffic. Careless pedestrians. Omnipresent thieves. Disappearing bike lanes. Despite it all, five New Yorkers explain why they'd rather ride here than anywhere else on earth.

Bicycle Thieves

By A.P. Smith

Not long ago there was some guy in Portland who had his bike stolen, and then he found a Craigslist post from someone in Seattle who was selling his bike. So he wrote the guy, said he wanted to buy the bike, arranged to meet at a grocery store for the transaction and called the cops. And of course he filmed it, it’s on YouTube and it goes something like:

“That’s my bike, he stole my bike, officer.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Cops stand bewildered, or maybe just bored.

“It’s my bike dude.”

“Sorry, man. Not your bike.”

And yes, it’s very clear: the bike is his stolen bike. But what can he do?

I’ve had two bikes stolen in the thirteen years I’ve lived in Brooklyn.

The first bike I had stolen is an embarrassing story. I had gone into the bodega for just a few minutes, leaving my bike unlocked outside, and when I returned it was gone. In fact, no one, nothing was on the street; no one on the sidewalk, not as far as I could see, not a car, not even a breeze. I could hear the streetlight click from green to yellow to red. It was as if the whole block was in on the theft. I turned on my heels, went back into the store and told the clerk that someone took my bike and that I’d like it back—I’d pay for it even. He wouldn’t even take down my number. He just kept saying, “I didn’t see nothing.”

That was my fault, I told myself. And I still believe that. But I didn’t quite learn my lesson. A few years later, around 2008 or 2009, I repeated my mistake. I owned and operated a speakeasy music venue in Bushwick. Needless to say, we dealt with a wide variety of clientele, ranging from affluent collegiate kids to punks to the neighborhood pushers and even New York’s finest. Some nights, 400, 500—one time more than 600—kids passed through the door for an all-night sweatbox with live bands and a basement dance party.

Back then I biked between my apartment in Greenpoint and the venue in Bushwick every day, sometimes many times a day. And the tiny BMX bike I had just wasn’t cutting it. I needed something that could make the journey, something with gears, something that could handle the chaos and potholes of Broadway.

“Yeah, you can borrow my bike,” my friend Alex said. We were playing chess at his apartment on University. “I haven’t used it since I broke my arm. But it’s a really nice bike, man.”

“I really appreciate it, “ I said. “I’ll take special care of it. And you let me know whenever you need it back.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Alex said. “Just don’t ride it to the Laundromat.”

And we laughed. When Alex broke his arm, he had been biking to do laundry and the tie string on his canvas laundry bag came loose and fell into the wheel, tangling around the spokes and sending Alex over the handlebars into the sidewalk.

But the bike was amazing: Light, fast, kempt, it was a dramatic upgrade from my stocky BMX. I loved that bike, my white steed. And then you know what happened?

Some motherfucker stole it.

He stole it straight from inside my speakeasy, where it rested behind the front desk.

The next day I went door-to-door in Bushwick, knocking hard like the cops and demanding I get my bike back. And they took me seriously! Eventually I went from one recommended name and address to another, to one who said, “I’ll show you what I got and you can take a bike but I ain’t got that bike you talking about.” We walked through the building into the backyard where he had a huge inventory of bikes, probably close to 100, all sizes and colors. I walked the yard but didn’t find Alex’s bike. And at risk of being seen riding someone else’s stolen bike through the neighborhood, I politely declined his offer of another bike.

When I finally confessed to Alex, he was pretty upset. But we worked it out and after we established a value for the bike I made a down payment and we went double or nothing on the balance over a game of chess. We played a lot of chess back then. Sometimes I won. Sometimes he won.

But that’s what it’s like having a bicycle in the city: sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Every so often it’s both, like the time when I stole someone’s bicycle.

This was well before any of these other stories, around ten or eleven years ago. I had just moved to Brooklyn and all of my friends were in the same boat: art school freshmen new to the big city. We drank in bars at eighteen years old. We took drugs on the campus lawn. We rode bikes on hot summer nights, sometimes until dawn. It was incredible.

At the time, I rode a wide handlebar Schwinn beach cruiser with a small cassette player in the basket. Billy rode a bright yellow Mongoose BMX. Sam had a cute roadster. And Jake had a slick, brown and cream 1970s racing bike.

We loved our bikes.

“That’s an awesome bike,” I told Jake one day.

“Yeah,” he said. “I love it.”

And then someone stole it.

One day Jake told me that he was leaving the studio very late and his bike just wasn’t where he left it. No bike, no lock, like it was never there.

For days afterwards we all lamented Jake’s loss. Of those of us in the group he was the most studious, the most generous, and he had the nicest bike. One night we tried to raise money at the local bar to buy Jake a new bike but could barely pool together sixty dollars.

A few nights later Billy and I were walking home from that bar and suddenly Billy yelped my name. He stood frozen on the sidewalk staring at the street.

“That’s Jake’s bike,” he said.

Locked to the signpost, indeed, was Jake’s brown and cream 1970s racing bike.

We both stood there staring at this bicycle, trying to find a specific detail, some kind of marking on the frame that would guarantee it was Jake’s bike. Finally Billy just said, “It’s Jakes bike and we’re taking it. We’ll come back with my bolt cutters.”

So we did.

We cut the bike’s lock and started walking it home. We were heroes.

“Imagine Jake’s face!” Billy yelped.

“He’s going to be so surprised!” I said.

“Oh my god, Andy!” Billy said. “We should just take it to him now!”

And suddenly we’re on our way. “We have a surprise for you, Jake!” we both said.

“Can it wait until tomorrow?” Jake asked.

“We’re on our way over,” Billy said.

We howled and giggled the whole walk over. Oh the stories they would tell of how Andy and Billy rescued Jake’s bike!

Reaching Jake’s building and shhhhing ourselves, we silently carried the bike up to Jake’s fourth floor walk-up on Lafayette and Franklin. I somehow managed to talk Jake out of his bedroom in his boxers and had him cover his eyes as Billy carefully slipped into the room and positioned the bike on display.

“This better be good,” Jake said, a sober man talking to a pair of drunks.

“Ok, Jake!” Billy said. “Open your eyes!”

Jake took his hand away from his face, squinting. He was not impressed.

“That’s not my bike,” he said.

“Of course it’s your bike,” Billy replied. “Look at it!”

“Billy,” Jake said sternly. “I am looking at it. And I’m sorry, guys…not my bike.”

Billy and I stood in silence, processing the situation. Jake had to have been mistaken.

“I’m going back to bed,” Jake said, turning, rubbing his head and sauntering back town the hallway, leaving Billy and me in the living room with his bike.

But it wasn’t his bike. It wasn’t his bike? We looked at each other, fallen heroes. I let out a chuckle.

Jake, from his bedroom down the hallway, called out, “Looks like you assholes stole someone’s bike!”

Andy P. Smith is a published author, former speakeasy owner, and avid record collector. He enjoys collaborating with artists and musicians by curating exhibitions, concerts, discussions, and workshops both independently and through his work as Creative Director at The Yard, a coworking space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. 

*   *   *

The Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Bike

By Chris Chafin

At the tail end of this past winter, I went to a concert that I was anxious to see and like and tell my friends that I had seen and liked. As is often the case in Brooklyn, the show was supported by a dizzying latticework of sponsors: Brands, publications, concepts, and individual practitioners thereof. “VICE AND ABSOLUT BRING YOU DIY DAYS FEATURING THE BEST CRAFTERS AND SMALL-BATCH CANDY PRODUCERS IN NORTH BROOKLYN,” that sort of thing.

As it turned out, the event was celebrating bike culture, and in kind of a weird way: not advocating for bike lanes, encouraging driver awareness, or watching “Premium Rush,” but by giving away bikes for free. In total, four custom hand-built bicycles made locally in Brooklyn (of course) were being raffled off. During the show (which was good!) they were propped up on tables in the far corner of the room. Due to the crowd, I could only see the first: a whisper-thin, midnight-black road bike. I was in love.

In blatant disregard for the laws of probability, I won one of those bikes. I was ecstatic. I yelled. The casual acquaintances who’d gathered around me during the show laughed and patted me on the back. I ran to the front of the room! They interviewed me on the microphone! I was beaming.

Then the crowd parted and I saw the actual bike I’d won. My heart sank. I ran over in my mind the order they’d announced the winners, and compared that to the order the bikes were lined up in, pacing back and forth in front of them. Perhaps there had been a mistake?

There had not. My new bike was a cruiser, also a popular body type for late-middle-age people shopping for matching bikes at Wal-Mart. It was bright yellow. It was covered in blue flowers and bumblebees. A honeycomb pattern popped up here and there, on the rear reflector and on the front fender. To really be au courant, you want a thin bike with razor tires that look like they’re as likely to slice open the blacktop as glide along on top of it. This bike was wide. It was long. It was very heavy. It was everything fashionable bikes are not in Brooklyn in 2013. It looked like the kind of bike you can only ride if you wear white tank tops under open Hawaiian shirts, have a tiny straw fedora, and make most of your money by selling weed.

It was one of the ugliest bikes I had ever seen. I stood staring at it in disbelief.

“I can’t believe we won!” a young woman who had won one of the beautiful black racers on the adjoining tables said to me.

“Yeah,” I murmured distractedly as all this was running through my head. I was also trying to decide whether I’d walk out and leave the thing sitting there.

“You don’t seem too excited,” she said, extremely astutely.

“Oh, no, it’s great!” I said, for some reason lying to a total stranger. I left with the thing, gawked at all the way to the G train, resolved to find a way to make this turn out in my favor.

While I have a bike already, I would have gladly traded up. This one, however, I could not imagine keeping. The very next day, I contacted the bike shop that had made it. Perhaps we could come to some kind of arrangement? So I dialed them up, thinking I could strike just the right tone of good humor, pleading and level-headedness over the phone. The very helpful salesperson who answered listened to my case and seemed to sympathize, but told me that, sorry, the owner wasn’t there, why didn’t I email him?

*

From: Chris Chafin

Date: Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 5:05 PM

Subject: Magazine event

To: “info@[bikestore remaining unnamed].com”

[redacted]—Hi. My name is Chris Chafin, and I’m the guy who won the custom bike you guys made at the party last night. I was really excited! I just called the shop, and they recommended that I reach you via email.

I think that the bike you guys made is beautiful, and so well-crafted. I’m sure there’s someone who would be thrilled to have it. I just don’t know if it’s really my style. I would hate to just have it sitting around and not use it like it deserves. So, I was wondering, could we explore some kind of exchange? Doesn’t even have to be of equal value—I’m happy with less than I’m sure this beautiful custom is worth.

I hope this isn’t insulting to you. Again, I think the bike is beautiful! I just don’t think that I’m the person to appreciate it like it deserves. Looking forward to hearing from you, and thanks.

sent, mobile

*

Disgustingly obsequious and blatantly full of falsehoods. I hoped, desperately, that it would work, ridding me of my cornflower albatross. It did not.

*

From: “info@[bikestore remaining unnamed].com”

Date: Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 5:17 PM

Subject: RE: Magazine event

To: Chris Chafin <chrischafin@gmail.com>

Hey Chris

We would be unable to exchange the bike as per the agreement we have with the event organizers…you may have luck contacting them.

I am sorry, and please dont take the tone of this email as “insulted”…we are reasonable guys, its just that my hands are tied.

*

It had taken basically all of my courage to do something as obviously dickish as to return a free bike, and in the process basically tell the person who made it that I thought it was ugly. I knew I was being an asshole, and I was ready to read negative emotions into this guy’s reply, whatever it had said. This one made it easy, though.

Reading over the email now, it’s not as bad as I remember it being in that moment, Still, putting quotation marks around the word ‘insulted’ is pretty obviously thinly veiling something: hostility? Sarcasm? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly nothing positive. I pretended not to be bothered by this and replied, politely asking if he knew whom among the event organizers I could contact. He promised to check. I never heard from him again.

As I told my friends the story in the following days and weeks, they smiled good-naturedly, but could barely wait for me to finish speaking to lay out the obvious solution: just put it on Craigslist. Obviously. Why had I not done it already?

I have spent a not-small amount of time poring over bike postings, daydreaming about new rides or helping friends post their old junkers. My current bike is a Craigslist find. I paid 100 dollars for a 30-year-old Schwinn with broken handlebars, bent wheels and another person’s name carved into the frame. If I paid that much for something so near-terminally useless, I thought I could ask a bit of a premium for the unique piece I was going to sell.

Cycling isn’t even ascendant anymore in New York – it’s arrived. Visit any park, pool or outdoor Shakespeare reading between May and September and you’ll likely have to walk a few blocks from your actual destination to find an empty street sign or young tree to chain your bike to. Surely someone here would want a drastically undervalued custom-built bicycle, even if less-than-fashionable?

*

CL new york brooklyn for sale / wanted bicycles – by owner

Posted: 2013-03-16, 1:53PM EDT

Brand-new, one-of-a-kind custom bike, handmade in Brooklyn – $400 (Bedford-Stuyvesant)

This is a custom-made bike from [bikestore remaining unnamed] here in Brooklyn. This piece has some amazing components:

1) Shimano Nexus 7, internal hub shifter. This means that on the outside, you’ve just got one loop of chain, but you’ve got seven gears on the inside. Just this bit retails for around $330.

2) Brooks Flyer Special Saddle and grip tape — saddle goes for around $150

3) Hand painted, one-of-a-kind design.

4) Kickstand, bell, cool reflectors — everything!

And then there’s this whole bike attached to those things! It was a present (which I unfortunately can’t return), and I’ve literally never ridden it. It’s beautiful, but just not exactly my style. Hope to find it a good home!

*

A good posting, I thought. Note how I coyly cite its “hand-painted, one-of-a-kind design.” Strictly true, if slightly misleading, like saying that being executed is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I sat and waited for the replies to roll in.

Later that same day, there was a freak March snowstorm. No one was thinking about buying bicycles, it seemed, or even going outside at all. I got no replies. I resolved to wait until the weather was better, and try again. I would have more personality next time, I told myself. I would also lower the price.

*

CL new york brooklyn for sale / wanted bicycles – by owner

Posted: 2013-04-27, 10:33AM EDT

**Sweet Custom Bike. Do people still say “sweet”? – $250 (Bed-Stuy)

Holy shit! It’s finally nice out! Weren’t you going to get a bike this year?

May I suggest this particular bike? I think you’d be way into it.

It’s a custom bike which I recently won at a concert. It was exciting! I never win anything! But, I already have a bike, so here I am offering it to you.

It’s a cruiser, with some really neat custom touches — fancy internal shifter, Brooks leather saddle, and a custom paint job. Never ridden! Adorable! Summery!

Send me an email, let’s talk it over.

*

I eased up on the technical mumbo-jumbo. No bragging about what the parts are worth. I felt as if I’d done much better. Sill, not a single email. These posts expire after a week, when you have the option of renewing them. I did this as soon as I could.

And then, deliverance! A man named Gustavo, whom I must assume is handsome, charitable, and kind, reached out.

*

From: Gustavo

Date: Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 5:44 PM

Subject: Interested in bike

To: [redacted]@sale.craigslist.org

Very interested in the concert bike, I would like to set up a date so I can actually see the bike in person and if it fits my girlfriend, if it does then we’ll buy the bike asap. Thank you for your time, I will be looking forward to your response.

*

“Interested in bike”!! Just the subject line sent my heart soaring. I practically dropped my phone in my excitement to respond.

*

From: Chris Chafin

Date: Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 6:12 PM

Subject: Re: Interested in bike

To: Gustavo Lopez <915638d497b4302ab9a9cfe1dfb5cff5@reply.craigslist.org>

Cc: “ssx7v-3757170265@sale.craigslist.org” <ssx7v-3757170265@sale.craigslist.org>

Hey, Gustavo — Great to hear from you. How’s tomorrow, after-work-ish? I’m flexible. Let me know what works for you.

sent, mobile

*

This was the last I ever heard of Gustavo. His girlfriend, whom I can only assume is terrible and taking advantage of a man with a kind heart and the monetary liquidity to spend $250 on a gift, must have seen a picture of the bike, and said something along the lines of “Eww! No, gross! I am a terrible person and I have terrible taste. And yet, somehow, not terrible in the way this thing is terrible. Does Ed Hardy make bikes? Get me one of those.”

The thing is, these days a bike has to be just so, or you might as well light it on fire and throw it off of a building for all the use you’ll get out of it.

Take, for example, this bike. It works fine, sure. Its weight might make it a little challenging to ride for long distances, but other than that it could take me around the city perfectly well. And yet, I will never, in a million years of Sundays, ride it. Ever. But, as long as no one ever sees me so much as touch it, I’m getting used to sitting on it in the privacy of my darkened apartment. I gingerly move its handlebars when I need to walk past, instead of the annoyed swat it got from me at first. I sometimes catch myself admiring its heft and solidity. Sometimes I just sit on it and bounce around, imagining I’m selling dime bags on the boardwalk in some early 1980s, “Fletch”-colored California. I am beginning to feel affection for it, but one I would never display in public because, well, I have a reputation.

Although, dear reader, if you’re looking for a bike, I have one you might like. Let’s say $200? Get in touch.

Chris Chafin is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering things you can listen to, play or attend for places like The Awl and The Village Voice. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Leah Lin is a Manhattan-based illustrator and graphic designer who loves pad thai, streaming docudramas, bezier curves, blooper reels and collecting cats on the Internetz.

*   *   *

On a Bike, After the Storm

By Kyle Ayers

I lived in New York for over a year before I finally rode my bicycle in Manhattan. I would traverse Brooklyn (and occasionally Queens) with no trepidation, riding from Williamsburg to Park Slope, back through Fort Collins and out past Bushwick. But I heard the horror stories of riding in Manhattan. Cars cutting you off, other cyclists weaving through traffic as though laws don’t apply to them, pedestrians existing.

Now, I’m not a hardcore cyclist. Until recently I had no idea why people rolled up one of their pant legs when cycling. I still don’t understand the benefits of only having one gear, except for the fact that people will tell you that you have a sweet fixie. I have lights for riding at night, and they are gripped to my handlebars and frame via some painters tape that I had sitting around my apartment.

I work in Midtown and had always tossed around the idea of cycling to work from Williamsburg by trekking north over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, then crossing into Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge. But I never made the trip, citing nowhere to lock up my bike and not being in shape. Then Hurricane Sandy hit, closing down my access to Manhattan. Due to the uncertainty of public transportation (and the uncertainty of the status of the city after the disaster) my job did not require that we come in immediately after the hurricane. They did, however, ask that you come if you could, proposing a small bonus for those who could lend a helping hand. I committed, deciding that this was the perfect opportunity for this fledgling cyclist to experience Manhattan (or what I knew would be a much more vacant version of it) for the first time on two wheels.

I got up very early and made it to work with no hang-ups. The trip barely required me to ride in Manhattan, since my office is only six or so blocks from where the Queensboro Bridge touches down. It was after work when I got adventurous and decided to adjust my route and go 65 blocks or so south through Manhattan, to the Williamsburg Bridge, and cross to Brooklyn that way. I knew a good part of the city was out of power, especially the southern portion, and I thought I would see it for myself. Traffic was sparse. I was not facing the fearsome foe so often referenced by cyclists I know. I was cruising down Second Avenue, stopping occasionally for a car, and slightly more often for a group of people or a dog walker. Then, more abruptly than I imagined it could happen, I hit the powerless zone. There were people, sparsely strung around, but not a single open business. I had left the busiest city in the world and entered “I Am Legend” territory in a span of four blocks. Police tape, covered storefronts and a general absence of life or movement.

I pulled up to a street light and stopped. An elderly woman was working her way slowly down her brownstone steps. I said hello. She smiled, waved, and responded. She was toting one of those reusable canvas shopping bags halfway up her arm, nestled at her elbow.

“A bit eerie, huh?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like a movie,” I replied.

She hugged her railing and when she reached the sidewalk from the bottom step, she stretched for her fence while keeping her other hand gripped to the auburn rusted handrail that led up her stoop. One hand, then the other, on her small wrought iron gate.

“How are you holding up?” She reached out for conversation.

“Good, good. We didn’t get much damage over in Williamsburg. You?”

“No power over here. Making the runs.”

Making the runs can mean a lot of things, I thought. I asked her what she meant.

“Grabbing my prescriptions. A Duane Reade is open up around 30th Street.”

She introduced herself as she swung the gate closed. Carol was her name. She was maybe five feet tall, in her seventies or eighties. She was wearing a baggy sweatshirt with birds embroidered on the front.

Carol sauntered over, telling me that she had lived in the same neighborhood, the Lower East Side, for forty years. In two different apartments, a couple of blocks apart. She had never seen anything like this.

“Do you want me to run up and fill your prescription? Is that a thing I can do?”

Is that a thing I can do? I’ve always had a way of terribly verbalizing what I want to say.

Illustration by Jon Chad
Illustration by Jon Chad

“I don’t know, would you? Give me a second.” She smiled and pulled out her iPhone, turning away to make her phone call. I finally dismounted my bike and set it on the curb.

After a few minutes Carol turned back around. “They (meaning Duane Reade’s pharmacy) said it would be more than O.K. You’re a gem.”

I took her papers for the prescription and some cash to cover. The ride, thirty-five blocks north, to a Power Zone (a term I coined for areas of Manhattan that remained on the grid after Sandy) seemed immediate. The pharmacists were expecting me. They were glowing, and thanked me numerous times. What a great thing I was doing, they said.

When I rode back to Carol’s she was waiting for me on the stoop. She hugged me and said, “This you will learn, the city is so kind. You’re part of that. We always grow stronger.”

“Is there anything else I could run and get for you? Anyone else in the building need anything?”

Carol smiled and laughed. “Young man, young man,” she said to herself. She sent a text message and two older men came down, handing her their prescriptions.

“And some groceries, if it’s not too much?” she said, “I’m on the fourth floor, and our elevator is out. I can’t go lugging stuff around like I used to.”

“Of course,” I told her, “why do you think my bike has this rack?”

After getting back, I hiked up the four floors, with Carol following me at a surprisingly quick pace, rarely lagging no more than a few steps behind. She gestured to her apartment, its door slightly ajar. I shouldered it open.

“That one is mine,” Carol was behind me, “The red one.”

Leaned against the wall was an old (1950s, Carol said) Bianchi road bike.

“Though I don’t get it out much anymore.” She laughed.

I told her about my dad, how he had retired and started rebuilding and refurbishing bicycles in his spare time back in my small hometown of Lake Tapawingo, Missouri.

An ironworker for thirty-five years, my dad found himself restless, looking for a way to keep his hands busy. He refurbished a broken bicycle that he unearthed at a flea market, gave it away to a neighbor, and was hooked. Dozens and dozens of bike fixes later and my dad is now a staple of the local Craigslist, listing bicycle after bicycle, delivering them around the area in his van, buying low and reselling still pretty low, not interested in a profit.

Carol talked about riding her bike to Central Park in the summer while growing up, and riding to Coney Island with her friends. She told me she never wore a helmet, but was glad I did. Around the apartment were some bicycle wheels, a paint-less frame that she couldn’t remember the origin of, and a few piles of bike pedals, chains, and various other parts.

“I used to like to play with these things, my husband and I, but now the stuff is just sort of around,” she said.

I told her it made a nice decoration.

“If your dad ever brings up some bikes, you two look me up,” she said. I told her we could all go for a ride, and she laughed, thanking me one more time.

As I pedaled home, I thought about us riding together, with nothing in common, and yet so much. Carol and me and my dad and our bikes.

Kyle Ayers is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of small-town Missouri. In addition to writing, he performs live comedy around New York city on a regular basis.

Jon Chad lives and teaches at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. He loves biking, hiking, drawing, and pinball!

*   *   *

The Law of Attachment

By Suzanne Guillette

Three and a half years ago, on a chilly November night, I received an early Christmas present: a black, European-style bicycle. I had first spotted it at a bicycle fashion show, which happened to be next door to my apartment, where models wore long, flowing dresses and suits as they pedaled around a cavernous bike shop in the West Village. Not long after, I was home getting ready for bed when my boyfriend called me and said, “Can you come downstairs for a minute?” I didn’t let the fact that I was barefoot and wearing a paper-thin silk robe deter me from taking my new bike for a quick spin down the block.

It was instant love. Even though it was practically winter, I rode the bike everywhere: to Tribeca, where I was teaching; to the pharmacy only a handful of blocks away; and along the Hudson River bike path, where I could see chunks of ice floating atop the water. My boyfriend insisted I park the bike inside every night so it didn’t get stolen. I complied.

Six months later, the bike and I were officially bonded, but my boyfriend and I were not. I packed up my half of the apartment and went to stay at a friend’s place uptown, leaving my beloved bike behind until I could find a more permanent place. A month later, when I was moving into a sublet, I picked up the bike from my old place and put it in a taxi with the rest of my belongings. When that taxi got into a car accident at the base of Williamsburg Bridge, I stepped out onto Delancey Street, barely able to balance the bike with the rest of my belongings as I inched my way toward the sidewalk. The hour nearing midnight, I couldn’t find another cab large enough to fit my bike, but the thought of leaving the bike locked on a signpost was unfathomable, so I stood there, for an hour, until a white stretch limo pulled over and offered to take me and my bicycle home.

Soon after, though, I realized that my overprotectiveness of the bike was not practical. I had to carry its heavy frame up two flights of stairs, which cost time and energy. One night, I threw caution to the wind and locked it on a signpost outside. When I peered out the kitchen window the next morning, I saw the bike, waiting for its next spin over the Williamsburg Bridge.

One month later, I moved to another apartment, where storing the bicycle inside was not an option. There was no room. Bike-riding friends urged me to find somewhere secure to leave it. Otherwise, they said, I would lose it—no question. I just shrugged and thought, maybe that’s not a bad idea. At this point, the bicycle was the only remaining link I had to my ex-boyfriend.

The end had been a long time coming, and by now I had successfully rid myself of other relationship remnants: hand-written cards, a souvenir from a fundraising event, pictures on my computer. All I had left was the bike. I didn’t feel the need to get rid of that, but I decided that if it got stolen, that would be O.K.

My blasé attitude didn’t diminish the pleasure I got from riding it. In fact, this may have increased my joy. Every morning, when I would walk to the place where I’d locked my bike, I had no expectation that it would be there. Zero. But it always was, and when I spotted it, I’d cheer a silent, “Hooray! No subway!” before hopping on it and sailing down city streets. Once, when running a quick errand near Canal Street, I saw a group of men clustered nearby. One whispered, “Chanel, Prada,” as he pointed to a black plastic bag at his feet. “No, thanks,” I said. “But can you watch my bike?” Only when I went inside did I realize how absurd this was, entrusting the care of my bike to a man selling stolen goods.

Illustration by Joseph Lambert
Illustration by Joseph Lambert

After that, I started just leaving the bike outside, unlocked, whenever I was running errands. I don’t know how to explain it, but I always had a sense, even when stuck in a long post office line, that the bike would be there when I came out. And it always was. Maybe would-be thieves saw it and assumed there must be secret cameras rolling. Why else would someone leave a nice bike unattended in New York City?

Another time, I lent it to a friend while I was away. When I came home, she told me that she left it in Union Square, an area known for bike thefts. Sure the bike was a goner, I went to check on it anyway. And there it was.

Last fall, I left it outside Penn Station for a couple weeks. I walked there with a friend, again thinking, There’s no way it will still be there. Sure enough, my bike was propped up on a street sign, right where I had left it. I turned to my friend and said, “This is proof positive: the things we don’t cling to never leave us.” My ex might not have belonged to me, nor I to him, but that bike was unequivocally mine.

But then one day, after visiting a friend for a few hours, I stepped on to Sixth Avenue and looked around. My bike was nowhere to be found. I checked and double-checked the post where I usually lock it up. No bike. This was bound to happen sooner or later.

I thought of all the great adventures I’d had with the bike. Once I even got a ticket for riding outside of the bike lane on Sixth Avenue. What should have been annoying—getting stopped on my way to an important meeting—seemed like a grand adventure. That day, all day, I had an ear-to-ear grin, telling anyone and everyone I met that, for a split second, I thought my bike violation was going to send me to jail (because I’d received another ticket months earlier).

This bike had carried me over three bridges, on countless trips down to Battery Park City, down country roads in Long Island. Apparently, our time had come to an end. C’est la vie, I thought, shrugging, before turning my attention to my hungry stomach.

Then I walked by down the block, where weeks earlier, a friend had whizzed by in a cab and spotted me smiling widely on my bike at a stoplight. I couldn’t recall why I was so happy that day. She said, laughing, “I think you just love your bike.”

I sure did.

I remembered that episode, contemplating spaghetti and meatballs, then walked down the block, toward a grocery store. I looked across the intersection, and, surprised, saw my bike. It had never left, I had just forgotten that I had locked it in a different spot.

That was funny.

Suzanne Guillette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.

Joseph Lambert is a cartoonist and lives in Vermont. He is the author of I Will Bite You!, and Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. See more of his work at SubmarineSubmarine.com.

*   *   *

Training Wheels in the Big City

By Molly Korab

As many who have experienced it know, living in New York can be a stressful form of existence. As the cliché wants, you work, sleep, consume overpriced coffee, commute. That last activity—commute—was what I, as a newbie New Yorker, dreaded the most. Snaking underground, two hours every day (from Gates Ave in Brooklyn to 68th Street in Manhattan and back), at the mercy of the glaring, hot breath of strangers—I dreaded the long, claustrophobic periods when the train would stop dead in the tunnel, and practiced my breathing techniques as time seemed to stand still in between stations.

I had originally moved to New York to attend Hunter College, expecting to love the busy and the crazy of everything, having lived a smaller piece of that in my hometown of D.C. But I was wrong. Not long after I moved to the city, I found myself steering clear of the subway, and soon thereafter, perhaps by virtue of the fact that I found the subway to be a near-perfect expression of the city as a whole, I somehow withdrew from New York. I only caught glimpses of the city from the walking portions of my commute, or from the windows of a Greyhound bus on my way out on the weekends.

The subway was a small and stifling space that activated my panic center, but so was the city. Tall buildings blocking out the sky, constant buzzing on the ground, a horizon of concrete and steel framing this never-ending chaos—the city was getting under my skin, gently tugging at my neuroses to come out and play.

So I decided to find some alternative to the tortured commute. My salvation lay in an old, rickety bike from Target that had been gathering dust in my closet, never before used.

My first day on the bike I started at six in the morning without any sort of breakfast, and ended up nearly fainting in Midtown Manhattan. But I was ready to try anything aside from the subway, and so kept on biking with a fierce determination.

Huffing and puffing my way across a city of snarling traffic was somehow, in my twisted perspective, a welcome relief compared to two hours underground. My commute went through Brooklyn, straight down Broadway, battling delivery trucks, potholes, and exhaust with the train rattling overhead, until the Williamsburg Bridge (which turned out to be a welcome breath of fresh air and skyline every morning). From there I went up First Avenue (whose bike lane mysteriously disappears somewhere around the exit ramp of the Queensborough Bridge, leaving you in the midst of screaming traffic) until I landed on the Upper East Side.

Scary? Mind-numbingly. Exhilarating? Absolutely. Being sideswiped by delivery trucks can only happen so many times before you stop worrying about imminent death and instead start thinking about how to mark your territory.

I soon grew more comfortable with the city’s streets, finding myself bending the rules of the road, running red lights to get ahead of traffic in order to ride in the middle of the street, and avoiding the long line of potholes on the side that I would otherwise be delegated to. I stopped getting so annoyed at delivery men going the wrong way down one-way streets, because I did it too. Taxis and pedestrians became my mortal enemies.

What I discovered—after my legs grew stronger and the initial exhaustion wore off—was The City. What I once saw as a mess of crowded and stifling streets became, from this new perspective, my playground.

Such a thrilling adventure on a daily basis opened up New York in ways that riding the subway or even walking could never do for me. Neighborhoods change quickly as you zoom down Second Avenue, from the controlled chaos of Midtown to the unprovoked merriment of the East Village. The world slows down as it speeds up; details pop, the scenery softens—the rhythm of the city becomes far more apparent.

Illustration by Naomi Elliott
Illustration by Naomi Elliott

I even started to feel a kind of camaraderie with my fellow bikers. Sometimes I engaged in imaginary races with them, seeing who could get to the next light first. Another fun one was seeing who could manage the traffic better. Waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic around the Queensborough Tunnel, I liked to see if I could weave through the cars better than others (usually I couldn’t, although my finesse did improve over time).

New York, instead of a vague and distant threat provoking my long-dormant neuroses, became a lively and unpredictable force of personality (another cliché that people love to roll out, but that holds its own). Occasionally the city can bite back. But once you’ve fallen in love with it, as I did, those bites don’t hurt for too long. On my way to one of my final exams, I fell off my bike as I was zooming down the Williamsburg Bridge in the rain, normally one of the most pleasurable parts of my day. An older man ran over to pick me up, fixed my chain, and checked out my arm, as well as assessing my psyche, which was pretty shaken up. He later walked me down the bridge, telling me stories of his upbringing in Brooklyn and all about his landlord. I ended up late for my exam with a bruised arm and damaged ego, but love for the city intact.

In an odd way, biking in the city became a means of escape from its chaos. When I found the madness and constant movement of New York to be overwhelming or stressful, instead of shying away from it as I once did, I jumped right into it. I became part of the madness—another asshole on a bike, indiscriminately whizzing down the street with little regard for traffic laws and cursing all those standing in my way.

I couldn’t love New York in the way I had dreamed of. Instead, I ended up loving it by becoming part of it, by being the city I once hated.

*  *  *

Molly Korab later moved to Montreal for love, where she is now a student at McGill University. Write her at mollykorab@gmail.com.

Naomi Elliott is a freelance illustrator and lover of paper who lives and works in London. She studied at Goldsmiths College, University of London and since graduating has been working on lots of new and exciting projects. 

 

 

In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”

 

 

This Comedian in a Wheelchair Kept Crowds in Stitches…Until a Lack of Health Care Sidelined Her

Ally Bruener used comedy to express what it's like to live with muscular dystrophy. But now she spends all her time battling Medicaid just to take care of her basic needs.

Ally Bruener starts her set bluntly: with a joke about suicide.

“I’ve realized I’m the worst degree of disabled,” she says, “because I’m too crippled to kill myself but not crippled enough to convince someone else to do it for me.”

On stage, Bruener stands out from many other comics. She’s 29 and hasn’t walked since she was seven, due to congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD). She has a wheelchair that she stays in 24 hours each day. She uses comedy as an outlet, a chance to talk openly about what it’s like to live with a disability.

Bruener came to comedy at a difficult time; she’d just dropped out of college, and she was unsure where her life was headed. She took a stand-up class at a comedy club in Louisville, thinking it would be a short-lived indulgence. Five weeks later, the class held a graduation show, and she was hooked.

Audiences may come to her shows with preconceived ideas about disability, and Bruener’s aim is to challenge those perceptions. Whether it’s sex or dating or relationships with parents, her comedy sheds light on the richness of disabled people’s lives.

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

“It’s always been important to me to make a point to make sure people know I’m not who you would expect me to be, and I’m proud of that,” Bruener says. “So I like to use my comedy to make people a little bit uncomfortable, because I think you have to be a little bit uncomfortable to open your mind.”

Suicide in particular became a personal challenge in her comedy. In 2009, she lost one of her best friends to it. Here was this topic that was suddenly not funny at all, she says, a test of her philosophy that humor could be found in anything. As long as suicide was untouchable, then that idea was false. So she started joking about her own suicide as a way to prove that anything can be funny.

Bruener poured herself into comedy in the years that followed that first class, traveling from her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, across the Midwest and as far as New York City to perform, with the help of her dad, Ron.

CMD is a degenerative disease that keeps muscles from rebuilding, primarily affecting the skeletal muscles. As a result, Bruener has severe scoliosis, diminished lung capacity, and can’t achieve basic tasks without support from another person. Ever since she was a kid, Bruener’s dad has helped her get up in the morning, use the bathroom, get dressed, and move about her daily life. For the past six years it’s just been the two of them, since her mother left.

“He’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met, I can definitely say that,” Bruener says. “He’s very dedicated to his family and his community; he always wants the best for everybody. He’s the kind of person that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So if he’d do that for a stranger, imagine what lengths he’ll go to for his own kids.”

But last year, Ron started having knee problems, and he needed a hernia surgery, leaving him less capable of helping his daughter. He’s a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, and due to his own health problems, can only now work part-time. It became clear that just getting through the day-to-day would be a challenge for Bruener, let alone traveling for shows, which she put on hold.

* * *

Bruener decided it was time to apply for Medicaid-funded home health care. What followed was a long and still unfinished battle to receive even basic help, a process that has left her feeling helpless. While the country has debated loudly about health care in recent months – and repeated announcements from the Congressional Budget Office have shown that tens of millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under Republican plans to repeal Obamacare – Bruener’s story is indicative of what happens when funding is inadequate for even some of the most clearly established recipients of Medicaid.

Even as dramatic Senate scenes have played out, ultimately killing promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid beneficiaries like Bruener are already struggling with an underfunded system.

People with disabilities are clearly covered under Medicaid for home health care, but Bruener has run up against considerable problems in receiving basic assistance. She’s dealt with overly complicated applications, a lack of information, unreliable services from nursing agencies and a lack of options for caregivers. When Bruener calls the state, people taking the calls can’t even understand her well because of her breathing machine, which affects how she talks.

Lately, Bruener has been stuck at home while all of this plays out, unable to leave the house or even use the bathroom and shower regularly.

“My health is on the line because only peeing five times a week is going to result in internal infections, kidney disease, and probably pressure sores,” she says. “Beyond the medical issues, I am losing every sense of myself. I have no access to my community. I have no way to contribute to the greater good. I’ve invested so much of myself to building my comedy career and it’s feeling irrelevant. It’s left me questioning my value and purpose. If nothing changes, I will be in a nursing home before I turn 30. If it comes to that, I fear for my mental and emotional health.”

Her fight has been underscored by a lengthy political showdown in Kentucky over the state’s application of Medicaid, the government-subsidized program that supports health care for low-income people, pregnant mothers, elderly adults, children in foster care, and people with disabilities.

Months before President Donald Trump was elected to office and Congressional Republicans began a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin released a controversial Medicaid plan that would cut some entitlements and refocus the program around “personal responsibility.” At the time, Bevin, a Republican, was rolling back a Medicaid expansion that had been put in place through the ACA by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.

While Bevin has suggested that his plan is aimed at getting able-bodied adults to work, disabled people are losing access to care, as well, because home health agencies have seen a cut in their funding from the government.

When she began looking for help in the spring of 2016, Bruener couldn’t get straight answers on how to apply for the service.

“I’d call the numbers the state had listed online and would get transferred multiple times before ending up back at the person I had called initially,” she says. “I submitted my online application in mid-July and never got a response.”

A couple months later, she was told her application was effectively invalid because she hadn’t included newly required paperwork that no one had asked her for. Her application was eventually approved in October, and then she had to set about finding an agency to take her case. She waited for information from the state, but got none. But by that point, her dad needed surgery and couldn’t assist her anymore. She had to use her savings to pay strangers from social media to help her in home, and quickly ran out of money.

“It’s hell. It just is the closest to hell I’ve ever felt,” she says. “There’s no faster way to feeling like you don’t have control of your life than dealing with the government. When I started the process to try to get help, I was optimistic. I thought if I took a few bullets, it wouldn’t be this huge headache or this huge battle. And I wasn’t mentally prepared for what it turned into and what it’s still being.”

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

After talking to a network of people with disabilities, she found out how to receive care, but was told she only qualified for nine hours of care each week. When she signed up with a home care agency, she found that understaffing meant assistants were only available for about an hour each day. She’s since become eligible for up to twice as much assistance from her agency, but says it’s irrelevant because the nurses can only come when their schedules allow. But that covers only the most basic needs – as she puts it, enough just to not die. And as a person with a disability and no college degree, job prospects are limited. Comedy doesn’t pay that well, she says, unless you have a massive fan base.

“I mean, one thing is, I could decide to do porn. That’s not out of the question,” Bruener says somewhat jokingly, referencing GimpsGoneWild.com. “It could be kind of poetic, actually, if it came to that – in my mind, the handicapped girl who can’t get adequate health care doing porn just so she doesn’t die. That would be a good slap in the face to all the good Christians in our government.”

But beyond being stuck at home, unable to move around and take care of errands, let alone take care of herself, Bruener is also having to forgo her main creative outlet. Without comedy, she can’t interact with her community or support friends who are chasing their dreams. She can’t vent through stories she tells on stage to turn hardship into humor.

“My voice isn’t one that gets heard all that much,” she says. “[Comedy] was a way of kind of coping with that fact of making myself heard, making myself be listened to by a bunch of strangers, just because I never really had a lot of normal human interaction… It was kind of a way for me to fill my quota of feeling like a part of the world.”

Most days she stays home and uses the computer, waiting for either one of the home care workers or her dad to help her achieve some basic chores. She uses Facebook and writes about her situation, shares articles about Bevin’s health care plans and tries to stay connected to her friends.

But until she can get back on stage, she’s stuck fighting to get the assistance she needs just to get through the day.

Recently, she was able to make a trip to the state capitol addressing expected changes to the home care program. Despite having limited mobility lately, she managed to travel the nearly two hours to Frankfort for a public meeting, where she said the government was acknowledging that the system is broken.

Bruener says they were taking their time with a decision, trying not to make mistakes with any new changes. At the meeting she attended, administrators simply listened to people’s stories. Kentucky is already plagued by a contentious health care debate as Bevin attempts to cut Medicaid for poor adults in the state.

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect changes to come any time soon or to improve her situation too much.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “But society continues to allow this sort of behavior, and they don’t see the issues and therefore they don’t see the need to fix the issues. Even though there’s been a lot of back and forth about how society views people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go. I’m still not seen as socially equal as an able-bodied person. That’s not saying there aren’t people who do see me as equal, but society as a whole still sees me very much as a second-class citizen.”

Bruener posted on Facebook recently that she’s decided to leave Kentucky in search of a state that will better meet her needs. She’s narrowed the list to six states, all of which have favorable Medicaid rules and more opportunity for her to get the help she needs and, hopefully, get back on stage.

 

 

Babies For Sale: The Secret Adoptions That Haunt One Georgia Town

In midcentury Appalachia, an intrepid doctor sold newborns to desperate couples. Today they’re all grown up, and seeking answers.

On a humid August day in the small mountain town of McCaysville, Georgia, Sandy Dearth stands in front of the building where, 53 years ago, a nurse secretly and illegally handed her out a back window to a pair of eager and nervous adoptive parents. Sandy, who has not been back here since that day in 1963, is holding her husband Bill’s hand tightly. A lifetime of searching has led her to this moment.

The building she faces is divided into several units: at one end rests a BBQ joint, at the other a pizza place. In between, poison ivy grows along the peeling painted brick walls and a faded FOR RENT sign hangs in the window. This forlorn space is where the Hicks Community Clinic once operated. In addition to providing standard healthcare for members of this declining mining town, the clinic offered clandestine abortions and adoptive services to desperate girls and young women. Sandy’s biological mother was one of them.

Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption.
Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption. (Photos by Matthew Steven Bruen)

“The person that bore me,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining, “how must they have felt? Were they scared? Did they have to? Did they want to? Were they forced to? Why didn’t they abort me? What happened? Are they alive?” She pauses, catches her breath. This is the closest she has ever come to this phantom woman. Despite a gulf of fifty-plus years, Sandy feels her presence here.

She walks around to the alley behind the building and pauses in front of the window where she was passed to her now deceased adoptive parents all those years ago. Tears again fall down her face. She breathes deeply, and steels herself.

“I can’t believe my parents actually came down here and did this.” She laughs. It is a light-hearted sound, one full of love. “Knowing that this was all illegal. I mean, I know my parents. My parents would not do this, OK? They wouldn’t even throw a piece of paper out the window of their car. No way. And they drove down in the middle of the night? Only had this many hours to come get a baby. Got me through a window! Holy cow. ‘And do not contact anyone,’ they said to them, ‘we’ll forge you a birth certificate.’ And they did this?”

Indeed they did, along with the adoptive parents of approximately 212 other children who have become known as the Hicks Babies, after Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks.

Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.
Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.

Starting in 1955 and running through the early 1960s, Hicks offered secretive abortions and adoptions here. Eventually, in 1964, he was caught performing an abortion and was summarily stripped of his medical license. He died in 1972 and it took three decades before Hicks’ actions were brought to light. In 1997, news of the scandal broke, as several Hicks Babies began digging into their past. The story made national news, resurfacing again in 2014, when the Babies teamed up with Ancestry.com and ABC News to conduct DNA tests on themselves and members of the nearby community. The researchers made several matches, and the Babies met many long-lost cousins and siblings. A very small number were reconnected with their birth parents.

Although their search for their origins has been documented – some might even say exploited – what remains unseen is the powerful relationship the Hicks Babies share with each other and to the place that is and isn’t their hometown. It is a story punctuated by emotional reunions with individuals who have spent decades helping to undo the damage caused so many years ago. And it is a story of the unique and deep comradeship that has arisen amongst this most unusual of groups.

* * *

When Dr. Hicks began his illicit practice, abortions were illegal in the United States. The poverty here in the Copper Basin of southeast Tennessee and far north Georgia, which includes the town of McCaysville, often meant that pregnant women couldn’t ask a relative or friend to help raise their children. The extra mouths to feed were simply too expensive. Stories of young girls dying from botched abortions in the early ’50s still exist in the living memories of those from the region. It is possible that deaths like these convinced Dr. Hicks that something needed to be done.

Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)
Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)

“Hicks was providing a service,” says Ken Rush flatly. Rush is the director of the Ducktown Basin Museum, a small institution devoted to preserving the history of the area. He sits at a table with his hands resting calmly in front of him. Directly behind him is a display case filled with the various chemicals manufactured in the factories that once served as the area’s primary economic engines.

“If there was no demand for the service,” Rush continues, “Hicks would not have been doing it. He wasn’t going around knocking girls up and holding them hostage in his apartment until they delivered their babies so he could sell them.” Like many people who live and work in the Copper Basin, Rush is frustrated by sensationalist portrayals of Dr. Hicks.

“But people believe that.” His voice drops and he imitates a morally outraged newscaster: “‘He’s sellin’ babies!’ No, he did not keep records. Why would he keep records? The second the adoption was completed and the family took the child he got rid of any paper trail.” It is this gap that fuels the conspiracy theorists, according to Rush.

Rush rejects the rumors that Hicks intentionally impregnated young girls, put them up in his home, and then sold his own children for profit. He rejects the claim that Hicks became incredibly wealthy because of his actions. And he rejects the belief that Hicks hid his records somewhere and that they are out there, waiting to be found.

The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).
The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).

“Look,” he states, “it’s all very simple. Word got out. There’s a doctor in the mountains. Call him, he can help you. It’s not exciting. It’s not scandalous. And what do we like as a society? We like scandal. We like dirty laundry. We like it to be nefarious.”

* * *

After she pauses for photos in front of her birthplace, Sandy Dearth huddles with her daughter Crystal and two fellow Hicks Babies, Melinda Dawson and Cyndy Stapleton. They have returned here for Sandy, to show her where she came from. “There’s someone I think you should meet, Sandy,” Melinda says gently. “It’s just a short walk from here.”

Melinda, 53, is the de facto leader of the Hicks Babies. She is tall and redheaded, the product of an ancestry she does not fully know. Perhaps more than any other adoptee, her life has been marked by tragedy. Not only was she illegally adopted out of the Hicks Clinic, but her adoptive mother was murdered in 1998. Her husband at the time, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of the slaying. But through the use of DNA evidence, Elkins was exonerated and the real perpetrator was ultimately discovered. Melinda has also survived a bout with cancer.

Melinda leads the way to a small white house that sits on the banks of the Toccoa River. She walks around to the back, where a southern-style screened porch is adorned with rocking chairs and vibrant plants. She rings a bell and waits. A graceful 88-year old named Doris Abernathy appears. Melinda’s presence on the porch comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise. As the visitors take seats on the porch, Melinda introduces Sandy. “She’s here for the first time since her birth, Doris,” Melinda says.

Doris’ thin body shakes with emotion. She embraces Sandy like she would a long-lost relative, clutching her tight, eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve seen your picture before,” she says. “I’m so glad you came.”

After releasing Sandy, Doris takes a seat and begins to hold court, telling the women, “I have enjoyed all of you. I am so proud of all you.” Doris explains that her kin were close with the Hicks family, that they were neighbors and friends. She is one of the only people still living who was a contemporary to Hicks and knew him well. She also knew some of the birth mothers who gave away their children at Hicks’ clinic.

Like Ken Rush, she expresses dismay at “newspaper people” who are only interested in “sleaze” and have misrepresented him. “He was a very generous person. He and Mrs. Hicks were so kind to so many people. I never knew anyone so generous. He did a lot for this town,” she pauses and looks up at the Hicks Babies. “I saw him do more good than I think he did harm. I’m not saying he was perfect. I’m saying I saw the man do a lot of good.”

The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.
The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.

Melinda speaks up, and softly pushes back: “I just wish he would have gave us a future to come back and be able to find our history.” Doris shakes her head and explains, “Honey, he would have been put in prison.” The answer does not sit well with the Hicks Babies. The lack of records is the most significant hindrance in their search for their origins. Either Hicks didn’t keep any records at all, or he destroyed them. To this day, none have been discovered. The only paper trail he left were the falsified birth certificates, which of course do not include the names of the babies’ biological parents.

“With us, we weren’t given a chance to find out who or where we’re from,” Melinda says.

“You go through life thinking, ‘who do I look like?’, ‘why do my kids have this disease?’” Cyndy says, echoing her sentiment. “The medical situation. It’s terrible. We are all getting to the age when this really starts to matter. And we don’t know what to expect.”

Sandy’s daughter Crystal, who has spent years working to uncover her family’s history, steers the discussion back to the birth mothers who came to McCaysville to have their babies – or to abort them.

“A lot of girls that came weren’t connected to the people in the town, were they?” Crystal asks.

Doris’s answer surprises her. “I’m sure there were people away from here that found out about Dr. Hicks,” she says. “But now, I’d say the majority were local people. From my experience. They were from around here.”

Sandy contemplates the notion that she is sitting in her mother’s hometown.

“Someone was kind enough to give me life,” she says, her voice choked with an amalgam of sadness and love and pain and hope. “And I want to thank her.”

“Think of it this way,” Doris says in response. “You had someone who didn’t have an abortion. They had their little baby. And you were fortunate someone came and got you. You have been loved twice. You’ve been doubly blessed.”

Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.
Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.

Doris Abernathy is not the only member of the Copper Basin community who expresses a positive opinion about Dr. Hicks and his actions – something that has seldom been explored by news coverage of the Hicks Babies.

“I liked him. He birthed me. I came into the world in his hands,” says Bill Dalton, who sits at a long table in the special collections of Young Harris College’s library, surrounded by rare volumes of books while he looks through old photographs of the institution from back when he was enrolled here.

“He made contributions to almost all of the charities in town. He was a leader,” explains Dalton, who grew up in Copperhill, the town adjacent to McCaysville. He goes on to offer words of encouragement and love toward the Hicks Babies: “I would never fault anyone for searching for their origins. I feel for them. I hope they are successful.”

* * *

“It’s not about Dr. Hicks anymore,” Melinda says, “it’s about us.” The Hicks Babies and their supporters sit around a table at a local restaurant. They are tired and hungry following their emotional return to McCaysville and need some time to recharge. “We have become our own family. We may have lost the ability to contact our birth parents, but we’ve gained each other.”

The entire group echoes her sentiment. “The connections I’ve formed to these women and the others who are not here today is one of the most unexpected and lovely outcomes of this horrible situation,” Cyndy declares. Unlike Sandy and Melinda, Cyndy was reunited with her birth mother. But instead of providing closure, the reunion opened up more questions than answers. “I did get to meet two of my birth brothers. But my mother didn’t give me the full story,” Cyndy says, “apparently, there are three other birth brothers out there. I never got the answers I was looking for.”

The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.
The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.

“Oh!” Cyndy exclaims, “Linda is going to make it. She’s only a few minutes away.” Sure enough, Linda Davis arrives shortly thereafter. She is a small, grey-haired woman who is vibrant and exceptionally witty. After doling out several hugs and smiles, she takes a seat at the table. Linda was the area’s probate judge when the Hicks Babies story first made national headlines in the 1990s, and she aided the Babies in their search. She has since maintained ties with them for over twenty years.

“Although I sometimes feel like I am not necessarily welcome in town,” Melinda says, “support from people like Linda shows us that a large segment of the community cares, that they accept us as their own. And we are.”

The subject changes to the group’s final destination: Crestlawn Cemetery. This is where Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks is interred. “Is it true that authorities opened the Hicks mausoleum to search for records pertaining to the Hicks Babies?” asks Crystal. “Oh yes,” answers Linda. “I was there.”

“I was convinced something was in there,” Linda states. “It is so odd that Hicks himself is not in the mausoleum. He is buried right beside it, but not in it.” An empty tomb. Missing birth records. Decades of uncertainty. It is easy to understand why people believed something was behind those doors. “When they opened it up there was great excitement. But there was nothing in it. There’s nothing there,” Linda says definitively.

For her part, local resident Theresa Starnes offers a plausible explanation. “I heard that at the time of his death there was concern that in the future people would want to break in and either steal or desecrate his body. That could be why he isn’t in the tomb.”

As the group finishes lunch, Melinda says, “Are we ready to go to the cemetery?” Everyone nods and moves to their cars. Like a funeral procession, 44 years late, they all follow each other to the graveyard.

* * *

Crestlawn Cemetery rests on the top of a hill overlooking the blue-green peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a stunning place, offering peaceful views to those who mourn their dead. Two mausoleums rise above the simpler graves. One of them is the empty tomb of Thomas Hicks. It is not lost on the women that the money Hicks made from selling them as babies might have contributed to the purchase of this unused place of repose.

The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.
The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.

Once the entire group has arrived, they congregate around the tomb. It shows signs of damage since their last visit. “It looks like someone tried to break in,” says Crystal. “Maybe teenagers, or maybe opportunists who still think it holds those records.” Despite their mixed feelings toward the man who guided them into the world, the Babies espouse disgust at this vandalism.

Sandy asks to see Hicks’ gravestone. Melinda points it out to her and brushes away grass clippings from the cemetery’s recent mowing.

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

It is telling that the stone describes Hicks as having an “astute mind” and a “heart that was gentle and kind.” To those standing around his grave on this hot August day, these lines are a subtle gesture to the actions that brought them into the world.

“I still don’t know,” Melinda says. “I owe my life to him, but he has also been the cause of so much pain and suffering. I don’t know. He let loose some real chaos into this world.”

* * *

If anyone has any information pertaining to the Hicks Babies and their continued search for their birth parents and related family, please visit their Facebook page for more information.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch