Tales from Two Wheels

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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. 

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

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

This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For methamphetamine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

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

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

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

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spot-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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