The Greatest Bourbon Ever Stolen

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When $50,000 worth of Kentucky’s most coveted bourbon suddenly goes missing, a few determined detectives spend years trying to crack the case of the AWOL alcohol.

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

When Franklin County, Kentucky, Sheriff Pat Melton heard news of a theft at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, it barely registered. He had a two-hundred-square-mile county to police, nearly fifty thousand souls. A burgeoning heroin problem had been responsible for twenty overdose deaths over the previous two years. It wasn’t until a local newspaper reporter called the next day, asking for details of the heist, that he pulled the case file.

On Oct. 14, 2013, according to the police report, more than two hundred bottles of one of the world’s most sought-after bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle – valued between $30,000 and $50,000 – were reported missing from the distillery’s inventory.

Melton had been a cop in Franklin County for 22 years – long enough to smell an inside job when he saw one. Nobody just sneaks into an iconic plant like Buffalo Trace and hauls away that much bourbon unless they know people in the facility.

“It’s a simple theft case, completely solvable,” he told the reporter.

It would be years before Melton realized how right – and how wrong – he’d actually been.

* * *

On March 11, 2015, nearly two years since the first reported thefts of Pappy had emerged, Jeff Farmer, a detective with Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, received a text: “You might be interested in whiskey being stolen in full barrels.”

After the initial report of the Pappy theft, the story had gone viral, known worldwide as Pappygate. Reporters flooded Frankfort. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post did stories. TV news vans camped at the distillery’s entrance; workers had a hard time driving into the employee parking lot.

All photos courtesy MEL Magazine
All photos courtesy MEL Magazine

Despite the universal attention, a $10,000 reward and police interviews with more than one hundred employees at the distillery, nothing solid came back. The case went cold. Until now.

According to the text received by Farmer, a longtime employee at Buffalo Trace, Toby Curtsinger, 46, and his friend, a delivery driver for Wild Turkey, Sean Searcy, 49, were responsible for stealing large quantities of whiskey. Police had no idea if these men were related to the earlier heist, but it was worth checking out.

The two men were born and raised in the general area, a sleepy southern town, ringed by thick forests, winding rivers and families who trace their bloodlines to the pioneers who settled these isolated hillsides. Both men were married with kids in grade school. They played softball with buddies on the weekend and pumped iron in a local gym.

The tipster said Searcy stopped at Curtsinger’s place along his delivery route between the Wild Turkey Distillery, in Lawrenceburg, and the company’s warehouse in Nicholasville, 25 miles away. During the stop, Searcy and Curtsinger unloaded five, 500-pound American White Oak barrels. Each held as much as 53-gallons of Wild Turkey whiskey.

Farmer grabbed a fellow detective and their supervisor, Captain Ron Wyatt. The trio drove out of town to the address registered to Curtsinger – a white rancher with maroon shutters and a fenced-in front porch.

As soon as they stepped out of their vehicle, the trio eyed one another. The smell of bourbon was distinct – sweet and strongly alcoholic, with a note of yeasty caramel.

Image via Carl Wycoff / Flickr
Image via Carl Wycoff / Flickr

On the edge of the property the men noticed a pair of tire tracks leading into the woods. From there detectives could see the backside of the house, a small shed and a bourbon barrel lying on its side on the ground – a potential smoking gun.

Beside it, beneath a gray tarp, were shapes that distinctly appeared to be a number of other barrels.

In short order, police returned with warrants and soon found five oak barrels containing an estimated two hundred fifty gallons of Wild Turkey bourbon. The distillery’s branding was coated in black paint. The officers soon learned that the barrels had come from the Wild Turkey Distillery in neighboring Anderson County, just as the tipster had said. Unexpectedly, police also found a large stash of illegal steroid pills, steroid solution, human growth hormone and eighteen firearms.

Later, when Farmer conducted an initial interview of Curtsinger, Curtsinger said his pal Searcy had taken the barrels from the Wild Turkey distillery and that he was only storing them as a favor. It was all a big mistake, Curtsinger said.

Furthermore, Curtzinger volunteered, any text messages found on his cell phone that might reference stealing Pappy bourbon were “just joking.”

* * *

Bourbon is a type of whiskey that was first created in America. It traces its lineage to Scots and Irish settlers in Pennsylvania and Appalachia who brought whiskey-distilling with them from their native lands. In the old country, distillers used barley to make scotch. Finding rye abundant in the new world, early settlers in Pennsylvania began using it instead; the result was rye whisky. In the south, where corn was plentiful, they used corn. The result was called bourbon, which was noticeably sweeter than its cousins.

Bourbon grew popular after World War II, as soldiers arriving home sought out a potent spirit that went well with tobacco. The ensuing twenty years were golden times for bourbon and other traditional whiskies.

When baby boomers came of age, tastes changed. The dark and rich liquors of their parents’ generation were exchanged for vodkas, gins, tequilas and wines, gobbling up whiskey’s market share, a slide which continued into the 1970s and 1980s.

Meanwhile, in 1984, at the George T. Stagg Distillery, master distiller Elmer T. Lee began experimenting with a new type of bourbon that was aged longer and provided a smoother, deeper flavor. The Pappy sought after today is a descendant of this longer aging process that began with Lee’s work.

What makes Pappy different from other bourbons is the recipe, which is called a mash bill, the combination of grain ingredients that are distilled to make the liquor.

To qualify as bourbon, the mash bill must have at least 51 percent corn. After the corn requirement is satisfied, the rest is up to the distiller. Barley and peat are the key ingredients in scotches, hence the drink’s dry, malty, smoky flavor. Rye-heavy whiskeys bring a spicier flavor.

Pappy’s secret is wheat. A wheated bourbon has a smoother profile and slides across the tongue with a lighter and cleaner finish. While there are other wheated bourbons, none have caused as much buzz as Pappy.

3

There are six types of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on the market, ranging in age from ten to 23 years and priced between $50 and $250 per bottle. Due to its age, 23-year old Pappy is the rarest type distilled, considered the “white whale” of bourbon whiskeys. According to the results of the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Pappy twenty-year-old variety was the highest rated bourbon in the world, scoring 99 out of one hundred; it has become as nearly hard to find as the 23. Nearly all of the missing bourbon was the twenty-year-old variety.

The Buffalo Trace Distillery, which makes Pappy, only produces about 84,000 bottles of all Pappy varieties combined each year. Traditionally, stock was distributed only twice annually, always causing a consumer frenzy. More recently the release has been reduced to once a year, in November, when true fans in Kentucky camp out all night in front of their local liquor store, to be first in line when the doors open for business. Last year the entire supply at one store, at $250 a bottle, sold out in 42 minutes.

Thereafter, online auction prices ranged from $1,500 to $3,000 a bottle.

* * *

One week after Curtsinger’s arrest, a local businessman named Mark Rutledge came to the prosecutor’s office and told investigators that in early February, two months before Curtsinger’s arrest, he’d bought one bottle of Pappy from Curtsinger for $850. In March, a few days before the raid, Rutledge said, he’d purchased nine bottles of Pappy for $3,000. Rutledge also said Curtsinger offered to sell him a single bottle of the 23-year-old Pappy for $1,500. Nearly all of the bottles Rutledge turned over to police matched bottles in photos found by police on Curtsinger’s phone.

As word spread, more calls started coming into the sheriff’s office from other bourbon buyers who said they’d bought bourbon from Curtsinger or others connected to him. All of the callers claimed they didn’t know the whiskey had been stolen.

From what police could piece together from a search of Curtsinger’s electronic devices, Curtsinger had participated in thefts of multiple barrels and bottles of bourbon. It also became clear that the 2013 heist was just the tip of the iceberg. If what they were finding out was true, alarming amounts of whiskey were being stolen from Buffalo Trace and at least one other distillery in the area. Also buried in the digital evidence were multiple references to Curtsinger’s illegal trade in steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

Most alarming, perhaps, was Buffalo Trace’s corporate reaction. To local sources, at least, it seemed curious that this big company, Sazerac, continued to show an alarming lack of interest in keeping track of its valuable inventory.

As part of his investigation, Detective Farmer called Searcy’s supervisor at the Wild Turkey distillery, who confirmed that the company was unable to readily account for each barrel Searcy transported. The detective would find out later that practices on the loading dock were so casual that drivers could simply tell the dockhand how many barrels to put on the truck. Without a stringent inventory control system in use at the plant, a driver could easily inflate the order. No one was even checking.

4

Over the next month, Farmer discovered an open secret in the culture of the bourbon industry: Employee pilfering was the norm. Many distillery workers thought nothing of regularly filling jugs and bottles from barrels and taking them home, mostly for personal use.

But the scale of Curtsinger’s apparent ongoing operation was something else again.

Farmer and other sheriff’s officers tracked down and recovered stolen bourbon in six counties, uncovering a network of dozens of people who were connected. Some worked at Buffalo Trace; others were recreational softball players; others knew each other through a shared babysitter. All of them were funneling stolen bottles, jugs and barrels of bourbon throughout the state and beyond.

A former Buffalo Trace employee told police she’d reported to management that the metal cage at the plant where the Pappy is stored had faulty hinges, and the door could be removed by simply popping out the bolts. She said she suspected that the theft reported in 2013 had actually occurred over a number of years because the bourbon was inventoried when it was put in the cage but not counted again until it was sold. There was no telling how much had been taken in total.

The bourbon that customers waited for all year long – standing in lines with raffle tickets in hand or paying ten times the retail price in online auction bids – could be removed from the distillery with little more than a screwdriver.

* * *

As recently as 2008, even the oldest Pappy, the 23-year, could be found on some shelves in bourbon country. The younger varieties – twenty, fifteen and twelve, were easy for consumers to purchase. Since the 2013 thefts, however, Pappy has become so rare that it is almost impossible to find using legal channels.

“No one should be paying the price they are paying for Pappy, but they are,” says bourbon aficionado and blogger Tom Fischer. “Pappy represents something beyond itself. It’s not just bourbon, it’s a status symbol.”

Rachael Peake agrees. In 2006, she opened Capital Cellars, a liquor store in downtown Frankfort, after years working as a national sales rep for the Sazerac Company. “When we first opened, we would buy the twenty- and 23-year-old Pappy and it would sit on the shelves for weeks,” she said. When she wanted an order of Pappy, she’d just call her distributor and tell them the number of cases. In the past she’d order up to 36 bottles at a time.

These days, Peake says, she doesn’t have a choice about how much Pappy she gets – there’s a number worked out between her distributor and the Sazerac Company. She gets what they give her – the company is now down to one shipment each November. In 2014, she was allotted only 13 bottles.

Due to the lack of supply, Peake says, customers come to her with an air of desperation. “Looking for Pappy. Please call me. Getting married,” said one recent message. Another message she got this year noted that a dying man’s final wish was to have a bottle of Pappy, any age available.

Sazerac Company lists this year’s suggested retail price for a bottle of the 23-year-old Pappy at $250. Peake says she could charge whatever she wanted but keeps the markup fairly low, charging about $300. Not long ago a man came into her store and showed her $3,000 cash. He wanted three bottles of Pappy.

She turned him down.

* * *

As detectives continued their investigation, a picture of Toby Curtsinger emerged. The 46-year-old had worked more than half his life at Buffalo Trace Distillery, since before it was bought by Sazerac. He’d risen to a senior position, where he had access to nearly all parts of the property. According to police reports, the 240 pound Curtsinger was known to take target practice, with a silenced .22 caliber pistol, near a pile of trash at the work site, a few hundred yards away from where tourists were being led around the facilities.

According to police, Curtsinger made a sideline of loaning money to co-workers. When some were unable to repay him, Curtsinger would press them into stealing bottles of Pappy from the plant. If a defaulting co-worker failed to play along, police said, Curtsinger was known to sabotage their work, so that factory officials would reprimand or fire them.

Austin Johnson, another Pappy employee, whose kids played with Curtsinger’s kids, told police that Curtsinger would often brag to him about all the bourbon he was stealing. Curtsinger described how he and Searcy would unload the bourbon from the back of trucks with an aluminum ladder as a ramp and store them at Searcy’s stepfather’s home or at Curtsinger’s. He bragged that he had shelves of the rare Pappy bourbon in his basement and could drink any age of the seemingly rare liquor whenever he wanted. One time, Curtsinger boasted, he and another man had taken a forklift and moved a pallet of Eagle Rare – about four hundred bottles of premium bourbon – over the factory fence and onto the bed of a pickup truck. The pickup was so heavy with the load, according to police, that the truck bottom dragged on the ground. The load was hauled about one hundred miles to Somerset, Kentucky, and sold to one man for $27,000, a discount from the estimated retail value of more than $32,000.

In late 2014, Curtsinger started telling Johnson he wanted him to help steal some metal barrels of bourbon from building 3 at Buffalo Trace, where barrels of aged, pre-bottled bourbon was stored. Initially, Johnson told police, he said no. But when Curtsinger showed up one night to do the job, according to police, Johnson went along.

As visitors were walking the main grounds of the plant, taking a special nighttime tour, Johnson hid under a tarp in the backseat of Curtsinger’s truck, and they entered the property. On the first trip, according to police, the two men used a forklift to take six barrels. On another occasion, they took five more barrels in the same way. When police later searched Curtsinger’s laptop and phone they found pictures of 11 metal barrels, more than 250 gallons of bourbon valued between $250 to $500 per gallon, depending on the age of the liquor, which was not listed in police reports.

* * *

On April 21, five weeks after Detective Farmer got the first text tipping him off to Curtsinger’s involvement, Sheriff Melton stood at a podium in the basement of his headquarters and announced the arrest of ten people and the recovery of more than $100,000 worth of bourbon. The investigation, it was announced, stretched into six Kentucky counties and states as far away as Texas.

Curtsinger’s mugshot.
Curtsinger’s mugshot.

The Kentucky prosecutor on the case has characterized Curtsinger role as the nexus between all of the accused. He is charged with engaging in organized crime, theft of stolen property, illegal trafficking in anabolic steroids, and “trafficking in intoxicating or spirituous liquor.”

Police also charged nine others with varying levels of involvement in an alleged criminal syndicate, including Curtsinger’s wife, Julie, a personal fitness trainer; a security guard at Buffalo Trace; and, Searcy, the driver from Wild Turkey and softball teammate. If convicted, Curtsinger and his co-defendants could face up to twenty years in prison. Since May, at least four have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Each of them faces a year in jail if they commit another crime, but otherwise will remain free.

The original trial date for Curtsinger and the others was September 2015, but the case has been rescheduled after a series of motions filed by Curtsinger’s attorney, one of which seeks to discover the identity of the tipster whose text re-opened the investigation.

The trial date is due to be scheduled at a hearing in early 2016.

* * *

While evidence in the criminal case against Curtsinger traces thefts back to 2008, investigators now believe it’s possible to trace some of his thefts back to 2006 or perhaps further.

Based on the investigation, and information from multiple witnesses, police think Curtsinger may have hauled pallets and barrels of bourbon out of the distillery for at least five years prior to Pappygate.

Sources in Frankfort in September said they’ve heard that the distillery was being audited by federal tax agents. Buffalo Trace representatives declined to comment on their inventory practices or on any specifics involving Pappygate or the current case and investigation.

In an email, company spokeswoman Amy Preske told MEL, “We have made adjustments and improvements to our security program which we are obviously not prepared to discuss in public.”

Local sources, who wish keep their names off the record, wonder out loud just why there has been so little accountability at the distillery for so long. (The problem appears to persist to this day: during a reporting trip to Frankfort in September, I drove through the gates at the Pappy distillery and poked around the property for nearly thirty minutes before being questioned by a security guard.)

While the scope of the thefts will probably never be known, records show that during the months of March and April of 2015, police recovered 28 bottles of Pappy, nine stainless steel barrels from Buffalo Trace, 22 wooden barrels, nearly all from the Wild Turkey Distillery barrels and the equivalent of five more barrels of Pappy in various containers – about one thousand gallons. One stainless steel, 23-gallon barrel of bourbon has a retail value of about $11,000.

While some of the recovered bottles, with legal stamps and seals still intact, may be eligible for a charity auction, the majority of the recovered bourbon – which sells at a stylish bar in Lexington, Parlay Social, for $225 for a two ounce shot of Pappy 23 – cannot be sold.

Instead, it will be burned in a training exercise for firefighters.

* * *

Todd South is a journalist based in New Jersey.

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.”

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

A Second Super Strange True Love Story: I Was The Other Woman

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When I met my one true love, I was so enamored with him I overlooked the fact that he had left a jilted fiancée behind. I was in way too deep before I realized that I was headed for my own nightmare.

Note: Read the prequel to this story, “My Disappearing Fiancé.”

I was wearing a burning red fur coat I received from a world-famous ballerina. He was wearing a purple, green and yellow-dotted Muppets coat recently salvaged from storage. We had about ten minutes to buy two rings and arrive at our destination. We ducked into various trinket markets with heavy metal merchants, examined rings with snakes and inscriptions in foreign languages before realizing we were late to our own wedding. We ran off to Toronto City Hall, holding hands, ringless. It was the winter of 2011; we had just come back from the Middle East and were on our way to South America. On the second floor of City Hall, in a small room with empty chairs and two dear friends as witnesses, a vampire-like librarian who spoke in deep poetry married us beside a vase of plastic flowers. I was weeping with joy — and I was seven months pregnant.

* * *

In the beginning, it all happened so fast I could barely breathe. After a few intense days of being together, one night, at the back of a tiny basement apartment looking out at a linden tree cracking in the wind, I was told: “I waited my whole life to find you. I want to go with you.” There had been a longing in me since longing was a possibility: to run off with my love into the world, untethered, eyes wide open. And here it was, that longing materialized into a living creature. This man who wanted to go with me. Nomadic freedom without the loneliness of a solo traveller was suddenly a possible reality.

“I want to go with you.”

Everything inside me liquefied. It was so easy to swallow these words, to get lost in them, to let all of my being fall apart and surrender to this one true love, yearned for since inception.

I followed my heart without a second thought. The wind crushed caution, and I smoked it under the hazy night skies. Ideals trumped reason. Living purely, freely; bravely going into vast territories of the heart was all that mattered to me. I was drunk on living.

That there was something broken, someone harmed and left behind, was invisible; collateral damage. I wanted to believe in this one true love so badly that I ignored the inexplicable, as well as my own principles of loyalty to fellow women. The details were murky anyway. When they emerged, they were carefully managed. A broken engagement was revealed. Turned out his fiancée wanted to end it anyway. Turned out the wedding had to be canceled, because it was unaffordable. She was controlling and manipulative. He’d been dead done with her for years. Turned out it would be better for all, especially her, if he didn’t go back to the other side of the world, to end things in person and move his belongings out of their once shared apartment. We had to act on our love now or we would forever live in the dark shadows of regret, unable to breathe.

I met an excellent salesman who sold me a beautifully bound Book of Love. When I opened it, all the pages inside were cheap photocopies of my romantic dreams.

* * *

He moved into my apartment long enough for us to pack up and take off for New York. Our ride-share driver Rami hit a car two minutes after we got on the road.

The fat warning finger of fate, gloriously ignored. Around midnight, we rolled into Manhattan and accompanied Rami to the top of the Empire State Building. It was his first time in the city. My true love and I found a place together on Second Avenue where the walls were pink and we ate nothing but coconut cream doughnuts for days. I saw him and me, holding hands in the reflection of a 1957 Russian Sputnik at the Library of the History of Human Imagination. From that moment we were never apart. Never further than two meters from each other. He came with me to my work meetings. We lived at night and slept in the days. I began to lose friends. “They could never understand our love,” he said. He told me my friends were using me, never cared about me anyway. I believed it all and yet none of it mattered. I had true love.

By the end of that summer I managed to find us two projects that took us to India. He wanted me to see India because for the last eight years it had been his home. Now he needed to close that part of his life, and I was happy to help.

We arrived at night, into the rain. Every once in a while, the rickshaw driver reached out to wipe the liquid light off the surface of the window. There were sleeping bodies everywhere, like trees and stones. As the sun rose, I saw India. I saw her in a glowing old woman with strings of marigolds around her neck, crouching in the middle of utter chaos, observing a white bull pissing in the middle of the road.

But something was not right. I was slowly unable to breathe. On some days, the man I loved oh so much would become stone cold heartless; the words coming at me twisted me, confused me, hurt my lungs. I never knew sentences could be hammers and blades. In these moments, it seemed as if a bomb exploded inside his brain and the eyes were blown out to look into an empty world with a cruel gaze.

One moment still cuts me:

Majnu-ka-tilla, a Tibetan colony in New Delhi. I’m sitting beside a stall selling plastic tennis sets, flip flops and knock-off Adidas pants in dark blue. There’s mud on my feet and I dangle them above a puddle in the shape of fried liver. I’m drinking sweet butter tea and something inside me is trembling. I’ve just been raped by my true love and I don’t know where to put my thoughts. Face down on the narrow bed in the windowless room, hand over my back, still wet from a shower, towel on the floor, the cold, tiled floor and the hot sun scraping the roof above. My tears are silent, his movements, in and out, in and out, are deafening.

But my heart stayed with him, it was not going anywhere. You see, my true love, he never had a real family. He was abused and discarded by his parents. Alone in this world. I felt so much love and compassion for him, I was overwhelmed. That liquid feeling…I wanted to hold him, to be with him, to show him my own family, my eastern brew of unfiltered and unconditional love.

We kept going together.

We rode north on the back of a Yamaha RX-135. Somewhere in rural Punjab, a tire blew. The motorcycle was wrapped in burlap and loaded onto the train, taking us four hours further away. At the end of that road, by the base of the Himalayas, inside a cheap room overlooking a garden of cucumbers, I begin to think of her. The one before me. My thoughts were like prayers and they went like this:

“I live my guilt for the pain we caused you. But oh, you kind, beautiful woman…What gives me joy is knowing you were spared this awful fate.”

An old Tibetan man passed me. He carried a tray of elaborate butter sculptures surrounded by flakes of color and white silk. I followed him through winding alleyways, curious about where he was going and what he might do with his tray when he got there. In the end, he stopped at the edge of a path, spilled the butter sculptures to the ground and walked away.

* * *

November 10, 2010, 7:20 A.M.

From me to him:

In one way or another, pressure is always part of life….You have me, your life partner, who can handle pressure. You can rely on me. We can find a way. I ask you to change your attitude from complaining and rejecting to working together, building and being positive… Negativity comes from fear. Positivity comes from freedom. You are the free-est man I know, my beautiful love. Don’t betray that.”

We had $650 in the bank and I was running out of ideas to keep us afloat.

It took four and a half hours to reach the top of Triund Mountain. The first things we saw atop it were a rainbow, a Danish man named Kettle and two mating dogs stuck to each other, one of them frothing at the mouth. Then came a herd of goats, some of them transporting biological formations of moss and seeds on their coats, standing calmly on scattered stones. They stared quietly at the setting sun as clouds cavorted below in the valley, like cream invisibly whipped by a wizard. A man named Sunhil made chocolate pancakes and I was never so hungry in my life. I was two weeks pregnant. The joy of carrying a life, a little being from places unknown inside my belly, punched all the gloom out of my spine. I stood up straight for my little family.

* * *

Flying from India to the Middle East was like crawling towards the light. I was certain salvation would come from family.

I never imagined my parents would meet my true love for the first time while I was carrying our three-month-old baby in my belly. They moved out of their small apartment and into a shoebox so we could have some privacy and slowly grow as a family. They tried so damn hard. My dad told endless bad jokes and showed us secret nooks inside the earth. My mother quietly loved and observed, breaking the silence with stories of the old world. They were adorable and so kind, their worn hands extended so far towards him they almost fell out of their sockets.

But worry was on the horizon. My true love desired for our baby to come into the world in space, or, in the absence of a spaceship that would take on a pregnant woman, in South America — the closest earthly approximation of the mesosphere. I tried not to imagine how it would be, giving birth in a foreign land, without close friends and family nearby, without a common language spoken. There was no use arguing. I surrendered and trusted. His exuberance had always overjoyed me.

At the end of February 2011 we arrived in South America and saw heavy traces of a million people running around on busses, searching for a lifeline. This period is a blur. I remember sequences. Beautiful people I now feel so close to, they are family. A magenta dress I wore to give birth in, needles in my ears and my feet soaked in flowers. My doula in a stripy shirt and the midwife, her hair like straw, her hand is dry and so steady. I remember the feeling that changed my blood the moment I held my child. The little being, arrived from places unknown like a fearless cosmonaut. I made a promise to him that day: to raise him free to be his own man, to flourish on his own terms without the burden of expectations; light and blithe, trusted and believed in, loving and loved, open to the world. I gave him my word I would always try to understand his heart.

And I remember this, vividly, as if it happened this morning:

I’m in small bathroom, tiled with lifeless beige and coldness. I am on the floor, bleeding heavily. My baby, who came into this world yesterday, after twenty hours of natural birth, is asleep on the other side of the wall. I’m in pain. I’m weeping. I yearn for my true love to come, to get inside the shower with me naked and lift me up and hold me close. He’s nearby. I know he can hear me cry. I remain wet and bloody there, on the beige tiles, for forty minutes, waiting for him. He never comes.

* * *

July 2, 2011, 12:48 P.M.

From me to him:

My love,

We do things for each other all the time. And we depend on each other – by god we do – we are a family, we are in love, we are a unit….I would do anything for you and our son. If you could just understand that when I’m severely tired and saddened by what I perceive as coldness and disconnect from you the only thing that can help me is love. Less talk, no logic, only love. Please don’t leave me alone when I’m in tired and worried and sad. Don’t go tough love on me and talk sense into me. Love me. Eye contact, a tickle, a wrestle, a “love you,” an “I’m grumpy but know I love you and want to be with you,” or even a fart in my general direction.

But I understand I need to depend on our bond less, and be less needy. I will try.

I love you.

* * *

We vagabonded back to the Middle East then, to be close to my parents and partly because we were desperately poor. Although he loved splurging on quality clothes for himself, gadgets and knives, I was yelled at if I ever bought anything for the boy or for me.

On the last day of our five-month stay the bomb exploded inside his brain. The cause was an odd news item that I translated jokingly. I was a clown at the wrong time, at the wrong place.

I remember the dark light of that rainy evening, the red outfit my son was wearing and the tears in his eyes.

I’m running after my true love. His eyes are staring into a cold world. He is a stranger, the ice inside him foreign and frightening. He is holding our little boy. Our little boy, just a year and a half, looks terrified and confused. I’m crying. I’m pleading. I’m silent. It’s cold and getting dark. He wants me to find gas masks, but everything is closing. We keep moving, from buses to trains to foot, searching, paranoid, desperate. I want to scream; it feels so hopeless. I want to tell him there will be no war between now and tomorrow, when we will leave this country. I call my father and ask for help. Hours later he finds us wandering the road by rows of palm trees bending majestically from their yellow fruits. My father shows my true love two gas masks in the trunk of his beat-up car. But it’s not good enough. They’re not new enough. I don’t know. It all ends badly. My father hits him, my father nearly has a heart attack, my son and I are cold and go where he goes, my true love, late into the night, aimless.

A good friend took us into his hut above the valley of minarets. There, my true love forbade my parents to see our son till further notice, possibly never.

* * *

New projects came to life and my work brought us to Canada. I was like a fish, flapping on sand. I tried to accommodate him, I tried to protect my son, to help my parents in their desperate need to see the little boy, bewildered by the possibility of it never happening. I failed. The sand flickered in front of the sun and I closed my eyes.

After another storm of violent words cutting the skin, I finally revealed the worst of it to a close friend. She told me to call the police. I hung up and distanced myself from her. How could I call the police on my true love? On the father of my child?

I went into the no-man land of silence. The united states of confusion.

There are many creative ways to be poor. This time, we moved to an island connected to a medium-size city by a ferry that runs every hour, on the hour. There were apple orchards and bicycle trips and my son feeding three yellow chickens, and a large lawn I had to mow on a tractor. We came here for a year to take care of a home at the edge of the island village. This paradise of a house, belonging to a virtuoso family on sabbatical, was often a prison. Winter came slowly and relentlessly. Ice coated every surface of trees and power lines, and in the wind it sounded like a symphony of crystals.

I’m sitting on the stairs. My son is beside me. My true love is speaking to me, speaking at me, raging for hours now. I say: “Please stop.” I say: “Please have mercy.” It only makes things harder and louder. I say nothing. My child is in my lap. Plumes of snow strike the window. My mind is buzzing with practicalities: If I leave now, he won’t let me take the boy and will wrestle him out of my arms. But I cannot walk away without the boy and leave him alone with this angry man. I stay put. I wait for his storm to be over.

My hips are the sturdiest part of my body. But it is my shoulders carrying all this weight, full of tiny fractures by now. I’ve been the sole breadwinner all along. I have all the responsibility for taking care of this family. I look at my true love and search, so desperately, for a partner. For someone to have my back.

He tells me if I leave him he’ll prove I’m crazy and take our son away from my care. Am I crazy? I’m silent. I feel ill from the stress. I live in fear now.

One morning, broken and hopeless, I set out to speak of the hell I’m living to a friendly neighbor. I make it halfway to his house before turning around in regret, for I believe in true love. My true love. Our true love. I have plenty of love left to give. As much as it takes, in the name of true love.

* * *

February 12, 2014, 8:40 P.M.

From me to him:

“Do you understand how much I love you? Especially when it’s fucked up, is it not clear that all this happens because the love is vast and neverending?”

Three months after this, work took us back to Europe. We found a home in the countryside, sturdy, made of ancient stones, standing next to undulating hills. The doors were painted blue and the hydrangea bloomed into a blinding purple. This is my last memory of us as a family:

I’m sitting in the garden. In the meadow before me a lone horse grazes. I’m weeping again. At 9:36 this morning, June 11, the worst thing happened. My son was grabbed violently by his little arm. He was held hostage as my true love screamed at me from the top of his lungs and called me ugly names. A door slammed into my face and my foot. My baby boy extends his arms to come to me but he’s held back tight. Thirty minutes of hearing that little child sobbing in a way I’ve never heard before, so deeply frightened, and I’m locked out, unable to come to him, useless, hopeless.

As I sit at the edge of the meadow, crying, the horse comes to me and stands close, his large, wet eyes staring into mine. The horse stays there, looking into me, until I calm down. It occurs to me that this animal just gifted me the only compassion I have experienced in a long time.

* * *

Do you want to know how it ends? I got lucky.

While I was working, my true love went away to a weekend wedding in Portugal and came back to tell me he met the new true love of his life. The one he wanted to go with. He was so happy speaking of her, beaming with joy and love. I began to shake. It seemed completely alien to me to be able to throw away a family for a three-day-old acquaintance. “My heart simply took a new direction,” he said proudly, as if singing a beautiful song.

My son ran to me and embraced me tightly. He and I, we have always understood each other’s emotions so truthfully. And here he was, nearly three years old and protective of his mother, when it should have been me being protective of him. I lifted him into my arms, said a quiet goodbye with an “I’ll be in contact shortly,” and walked out. My son in my arms, holding me tight, in the most loving embrace I’ve ever experienced, as we crossed the big river and walked to my friends’ apartment. When I entered their home and understood my new reality, I made a promise to my son to never again be a weak piece of shit.

Strange, erratic emails begin to come. I ignored his whining and demanding to meet and come back to me. His declarations of the light having gone out of his life without me were now transparent for their emptiness.

My true love. I thought he loved me so much, as I loved him. But it was his own reflection he loved in me. When the reflection became unflattering, I was of no use any more.

The man I loved was fiction.

* * *

Over the next year, life cross-faded into surreal tragicomedy. My true love moved in with his new true love after days of knowing her and expected to pay for his new life from our limited family budget. My true love spoke to me in cold, heartless legalese; ignored my extended peace branches and acts of forgiveness. My true love went to Canada and as his final act, asked to take things. Take it all, I told him, I don’t care. Just leave the boy, be in peace.

People who truly knew him and spent months and years with him suddenly came forward and exposed the lies about his parents, about his past and his true self. My true love sued me for half of my future earnings and charged me with kidnapping our son from his home, which was variably stated to be a gym, a non-existent address, and finally an apartment he shares with his new partner. My true love sent the police my way to interrogate me for illegally keeping my son. I was ordered to face a judge, then another, and upturn the life of a little boy who had just begun to speak in a brand new language, after being mute for five months. My true love told anyone who would listen that I’m crazy and manipulative. That he had been dead done with me for years.

* * *

June 29, 2014, 12:48 P.M.

From me to her:

Dear Annalisa,

Forgive me for writing to you. I’ve been meaning to for many years. The first time I wanted to write to you was in the winter of 2010, when I realized I was with a monster and all my sense of guilt over what happened between the two of you turned into a kind of relief that at least you were saved from a life of hell with him and are now free of him. But I was pregnant with his child and intent on raising this baby with a father. How wrong I was.

He lied to me when we met and he convinced me that our love was a once-in-a-lifetime love that must be heeded to at all costs. I was naive and misguided. All along, for the four years I’ve been with him, I questioned why he didn’t end things with you properly and why he treated you so callously, so cowardly. I forced him to write to you, I gave him money to pay you back. I do not understand how I was able to stay with him and love him, seeing how he treated you. I was duped. But I take my part in the responsibility and I have now gotten my karmic retribution I so well deserved.

Two weeks ago he informed me that he cheated on me and is now in love with another woman. She is his true love now, just like it was with me when we met.

I am so devastated I can barely breathe. I haven’t eaten in days. But at the same time I’m relieved the nightmare is over. I have a hard battle before me. I fear he will manipulate me and use our son to avenge me. I am terrified of him. I pray for a swift divorce and hope that this new woman holds onto him. At the same time, I wonder if she is being duped as I was, and if the fate awaiting her is as grim.

Forgive me for contacting you – I have no right. But I wanted to tell you how much I thought of you over the years, how bad I felt for what he did to you. From the little bit I understood about you I feel that you are an amazing person and all I can say is I am grateful that you were spared a marriage with this man. Perhaps one day we can meet and have a cry face to face and confront everything we have been through.

I wish you nothing but love and peace and once again, accept my sincere sorrow for everything.

* * *

June 29, 2014, 1:01 P.M.

From her to me:

I didn’t even have to read all of your letter. I am so, so sorry. I really hoped [he] had changed—for you, and (my goodness) for his son. I know exactly how you feel, it’s utterly devastating. But, believe me when I tell you it won’t be long before you see it is a blessing.

Please call me if you want to talk. I should have trusted my instinct long ago and warned you about this. I questioned whether it was the right thing to do and gave myself the wrong answer.

Following this exchange, Annalisa and I spoke often. Sometimes I would sit under a dying pine tree, desperate to get a phone signal, drowning in fear and sorrow, finding a lifeline in her words. She gave me comfort and hope and made me laugh when I was terrified and destroyed by his actions, unable to recognize the man I once loved.

I did experience true love. Not in the way I thought I would, not as written in that simulacrum of a Book of Love I bought, overpriced. But in a way that came to be much deeper and truer.

True love is in the letter M when my son calls, oh so sweetly, for his maman.

True love is there in the palms of his hands, holding onto mine, as we walk through fields, and forests, and parking lots, and vast spaces together.

True love is there in the heartbeats of my parents, who dropped all to come and stand beside their daughter and never let her dissolve into the pain of betrayal, pushing away the relentless tank plowing into my soul.

True love is in the laughter and joy of my beautiful family, who kept me going with their very being.

True love is in the acts of dear friends, former strangers, neighbors and proprietors who showed me what love and loyalty is, what someone having my back feels like.

True love is in the kindness of the former fiancée, the invisible collateral damage, a sister I betrayed, who chose to join in and hold up the skies from falling down on me. More than ever, I believe in true love.

* * *

Author’s Note: My estranged husband has vehemently denied any acts of neglect, abuse or violence towards me and towards our son. As of last Friday, his various charges against me were dismissed and I’ve been granted full custody of our son. The name used here is a pseudonym. I would have liked to tell you my story in my real name. I hate secrecy and I’m forever done with all that is opaque and cowering. But there’s an innocent little guy I need to protect.

* * *

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A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé

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After years of avoiding love, I found a match that seemed almost too perfect. We were practically walking down the aisle before I realized it really was too good to be true.

“So let me get this right. You’re Italian but you’re a resident of India.”

“Yes.”

“And your fiancé is Canadian. Resident of Canada.”

“Yes, but he lives in India.”

“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”

“Yes.”

“In Italy.”

“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”

“That doesn’t matter to us. It’s a parish matter, they take care of the paperwork. Did you discuss it with your Italian priest?”

“My parish is in Delhi because I am a resident here. Anyway yes, we have permission to have the ceremony in Italy. We still need the bishop’s permission for the mixed religion marriage, but that should arrive soon.”

“So all we need is a certificate that says your fiancé has never been married before. A nulla osta. And then we can process the documents.”

“See, that’s why I called. Canada doesn’t really have that certificate.”

“Did you check with the Canadian embassy in Rome?”

“Yeah. They say they have nothing to do with this.”

“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”

The lady at the Italian embassy in Delhi wasn’t able to help. She’d never seen this before. Our wedding was just like us: Unique, unconventional, and a little all over the place. It looked impossible. Four months from the day and nothing was confirmed.

“It’s not going to work. Nothing’s ready.” I called him in a panic as soon as he woke up, in Canada. In India, it was evening already.

Amore mio, that’s not true,” he replied. “Everything’s set. We’ll get the paperwork done.”

He was right. We had a venue, a fairytale-like villa on the Amalfi Coast. I had a dress — an expensive affair that looked just understated enough: When I tried it on I teared up immediately, surprising my cynical self at the belief that it was “the one.” The invites, designed by a talented friend, were about to be printed. Save the dates were sent — all our favorite people couldn’t wait to be there.

We had even received our certificate from the church after a two-day intensive course instructing us on how to start a good Catholic family. Not that we were going to be a Catholic family, but the course was compulsory to get married in a church —which I wanted, not for religious reasons but because I liked the tradition — and he had accepted to do, to please me. The course was on the outskirts of Delhi, and for two days we stayed in a nunnery with other couples, sleeping on different floors (the men upstairs, the women below) and attending classes on family values and conjugal duties. A foreign couple wasn’t the norm, and we were the center of attention — particularly when questions about sex came up and everyone assumed, despite our amused protesting, that we knew more about it than the teachers.

“So, where does sperm come from? Maybe you know?” I was asked.

“Nope. No idea.” I’d reply as the class burst in laughter. “Maybe he does?”

He looked at me smiling, shaking his head. “Why would I know? I don’t know!”

We were warned that the Holy Spirit was not going to attend the ceremony since we weren’t both Catholic, but then his being Jewish — as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, which was the case for other mixed-religion couples there — gained the staff’s sympathies. He was labeled “almost Christian.” We joked that we didn’t have money to feed the Holy Spirit anyway.

I needed to calm down. It was all working out.

But we did need the papers. And we didn’t know how to get them.

“Maybe it’s a sign? Maybe this wedding thing is a bad idea?” I whined. I was tired, and insufferable.

He laughed. “Aaaamore,” he started, in a sing-songy way. His funny accent on the few Italian words he knew would lighten up the darkest rooms of my soul. “Listen. Getting married is the best idea we’ve ever had and we’re going to do it. It’s all going to work out. I promise.”

* * *

He was so certain about us. He had been unfailingly so since our engagement, which caught me by total surprise. We had been living together for a couple of years in India — where I had followed him looking to start a career, and finally be with the man I loved — when he proposed.

Before moving in together, ours was the erratic, long-distance relationship of two people who never seemed to be in the same place. We met in Italy, fell in love and spent the summer of our lives on intense weeks together and long stretches apart: He worked on a photography project that took him to Alaska, Japan, Congo; I went to Kosovo, volunteering and looking for stories, then moved to Paris to complete a master’s. His work took him there, too, and we spent a couple blissful months together. For the first time since I could remember, I felt beautiful; I was loved and desired. We’d dress up and walk out in the middle of the night to have French onion soup in 24-hour restaurants. We shared a studio that was too small for one, let alone two plus too many cameras.

Before I’d met him I kept joking that “love is overrated.” But it wasn’t; It was perfect. When he had to go back to India, where he’d been living for years before moving to Italy, I worried it’d be the end.

It wasn’t. We spoke whenever we had a free minute. It was never enough. We were so different that our attachment was a mystery to both of us: I loved studying, he had hardly finished high school; I was all about manners and rules, he recognized none; I worried about everything, he never did. At times, our love for each other seemed to be the only thing we had in common.

And it was all we needed.

On spring break I went to see him in India. I landed, terrified and drenched in mosquito repellent, in the fog of Delhi’s February nights. In the arrival hall, he was waiting for me in the neon light, holding a sign, just like the hotel chauffeurs. It read: Amore Mio. My love.

Everything in India frightened me. The smell. The noises. The light, so different from anything I had seen before. Even the peacocks, flying on the rooftop terrace from the park nearby, were wonderful but so foreign. I followed him to Calcutta on assignment. In the teeming backstreets, electrifying and overwhelming, I looked upon poverty and dirt, equally horrified. Once I cried a whole night about not being able to afford anything better than a filthy guesthouse. I returned to Paris relieved.

We managed to meet wherever and whenever possible. In Paris, London, Italy. In New York — where we both thought we’d eventually end up. We spent Christmas together, my family now his. He had been estranged from his parents for many years, and while on my insistence he had resumed contact with them, it didn’t look like there was real hope of saving their relationship. They had been demanding and cruel to him in his teens, kicking him out of home before the end of high school, and still refused to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it. As someone who counted on her family for anything, it was impossible to even imagine how hard that must have been, so it filled my heart with joy hearing him call my mother “mamma.”

A year after my first visit, I moved to Delhi. I planned to stay a few months, but I began the adventure of a lifetime.

We got an apartment and decorated it with colorful fabrics. I struggled to keep the dust out of the house, struggled with everything that didn’t work, struggled with the scorching summer heat, struggled to get work. I struggled, struggled, struggled. I packed my bags at least twice, shouting at him that I was going back home. He’d been in India so long he could no longer remember the hardship of the beginning, and he was traveling so much for work that I was often on my own. I got mad at him — now that we could be together he was off to Africa or China or wherever, prey to a wanderlust I failed to understand.

All I wanted was for him to be around for me, because when he was, things were pretty wonderful. We had so much hunger for time together that nothing seemed trivial: We’d explore the city on his motorcycle, go on holidays to remote places, turn any and every bit of daily life into an adventure.

But a couple of weeks here and there were not enough. I felt like all I did was wait for him. Finally, shortly after he came back from a long trip to visit a dear, sick uncle, I broke down. I felt horrible — this trip was not for fun, how could I get mad about it? — but I just couldn’t help it. I told him we’d better split up, that he had no space for me in his life. I screamed, he screamed more, the neighbors came to check if I was O.K. In a country where women are common victims of domestic abuse, it was hard to believe that it was me who always raised her voice first. We resolved that we should part.

* * *

I was on my way to work, late and unspeakably sad, when I realized I did not want to leave him. I wanted to stay. I loved him, and our life.

I went back to our apartment. He was sitting on the couch, exhausted as I was from so much fighting. I hugged him, sat on his lap.

“I’m sorry. This was terrible,” I apologized. “I don’t want to go away. Never.”

“I don’t want you to go away either. I want to be with you forever.”

“Yes. Forever,” I said, and I meant it. Yet I was shocked when I saw in his eyes the resolution of a question I didn’t know he had in him, and I wasn’t ever expecting him to ask.

“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”

“What… You don’t… You don’t have to — I’m not going anywhere. You need to think this through.”

“But I have! I have. Look—” he reached for his backpack, me still sitting on his lap, and took out a small box. “I even have a ring! I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”

“Well this is pretty right,” I joked. “So how did he propose? Well, we had a massive fight and nearly broke up, but got engaged instead.”

“So. Will you marry me, amore mio?” He was serious.

He was ready.

It was a gorgeous ring, an Art Deco family heirloom — Canadian, as guilt-free as diamonds can come — and hard not to notice. People did notice: the excitement about our engagement was so genuine and overwhelming, everyone pointing to what a romantic story we had.

It was, indeed, the most romantic story I had ever heard.

* * *

It was all unbelievably sweet, yet I couldn’t shake the looming sensation that something was going to go wrong. It came out in my dreams. The fear of losing everything would turn into nightmares, and cropped up at every big step we took.

I loved him, and the unexpected certainty that he, too, truly loved me gave me a happiness so enormous it frightened me. My father had died too early for me to believe happy endings were possible, let alone feeling that I was destined for one.

I looked everywhere for signs of an impending disappointment. We had to leave our apartment, and our landlady insisted we owed her several months of rent. He was in charge of making the deposit but couldn’t find the receipts to show we had paid — that was enough to infuriate me. He was irresponsible, I said – how could he be ready to be a husband? We should call the whole thing off.

We looked for a new place, and I cried like a spoiled child when faced with the reality that his priorities were different from mine — he wanted to save money on rent, and on everything really, to be able to invest in his work. I saw myself as shallow and materialistic for wanting a place that was nice and comfortable. Again told him, “See? This is why we should not do it.”

I would cast doubts over us and our future, which I so wanted and so feared.

But for all my questions, he had answers. “It’s us, amore,” he’d tell me, his voice always so calm and kind. “I’m not letting you get out of this.” His certainty seemed to grow as mine withered, and the way he dealt with my actions, minimizing my fears, showed me time and again the depth of his love.

We finally found a place that worked and bought new furniture. We didn’t have much money — I worked as the editor of a small online publication and had been supporting both of us on my Indian salary while his work was slow. He had a few personal projects to pursue, and I was determined to help him see them through. His assignments had always been sporadic, but a day of his work often paid ten of mine, and something always came through when our funds were nearly gone.

But this time seemed different — I was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford the fairytale wedding that I, who had never actually thought I’d get married, discovered I wanted. My mother was covering most of the costs, but I insisted we at least pay for a few things: The flowers, the invites, the favors. As the weeks, then the months, went by, I grew worried we wouldn’t have enough.

One thought, in particular, made me panic. If he didn’t get any work soon, I’d even have to pay for his suit and his ticket to Italy for the wedding. I’d have to pay for my own bouquet. Something about the image of me buying myself my own wedding flowers was unbearable to me: Was this the life I was signing up for? What if he never actually had a breakthrough? I looked up what would happen if we divorced, if I had to pay him alimony.

I was disgusted by my own thoughts.

I hesitantly suggested he look for assignments from publications less prestigious than the ones he usually worked for. He was hurt, and saw that as a lack of belief in him, pointing out that he could have gotten work in Africa had he been free to move there, but I didn’t want to leave my job to follow him around — that had its costs.

But my faith in his talent was blind — it was destiny I didn’t trust.

* * *

We were over the rough patches, though, when the issue with the papers came up. It appeared we were in a bureaucratic loophole and none of the puzzled officials I contacted were able to figure our situation out.

“That’s why we’re so special,” he said. It was a fact.

He had gone to Canada to renew his visa — his trip home drained my account, but some work had finally come through for him and he was going to be paid soon. We were back on our early-days routine of long-distance phone calls. For the first time in our many goodbyes, I hadn’t cried when he left. As he told me that he’d be right back, his happiness was so visible it gave me goose bumps, and a newfound feeling of safety.

But then, when I tried to reach him the day he was meant to go see about our documents, I couldn’t get through to him. He would not pick up his phone. He was not online — which he almost obsessively always was. I emailed him. No reply.

Something was wrong.

Whether it was some sort of sixth sense or just my constant fear of the worst, I started to worry. I called the friend he usually stayed with, trying not to sound paranoid; after all, it had only been a few hours since I had heard from him. He was not home. As the night became morning in India, a day was passing in Canada. I called, and called, and laid awake waiting. Sleeping was out of the question.

Finally, I got a two-line email. He said he loved me. And that he needed space.

I was paralyzed.

The following days were a game of waiting. I checked my phone and my email compulsively. I stared at the screen to see if he was logging onto Skype. No sign of him. I told myself I should not try to contact him, that he needed to be left alone, though I did write to him that we could postpone the wedding if he wanted to, and that whatever problem there was we were going to work it through. I knew we could.

I blamed myself for having so many doubts. Had I ruined everything? I kept going to work to be around people, but I was numb.

As the date of his return trip approached, I tried to be calm and focus on the fact that I was about to see him again. We had never been out of contact this long, and I missed him terribly. I tried to be patient, but when I saw his name go online on Skype in the middle of another sleepless night, I couldn’t resist.

Amore mio,” I typed. “I am so happy you are coming back next week. We’ll make things right, I promise.”

“Yes,” he replied. “We have a lot of work to do but we can make things right. Things will be right.”

But he was not coming back. Not yet anyway. His birthday was coming up, and he didn’t want to spend it with me.

“I don’t want to resent you,” he typed.

He wasn’t going to discuss it further, but I convinced him that he owed me an explanation. He promised to get back online soon, and he did.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, sweetly, when I answered the video call. “I missed you.”

He looked beautiful, too, in his light blue collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves and messy hair.

He started explaining what was going through his head: He needed to be free to travel and work, and I wanted security — we were just too different, there’s no way it was going to work.

As he was speaking, gently, his words started losing meaning to me — it all became white noise, and I interrupted him.

“Oh my god,” I said. “You cheated on me.”

Something in his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he replied.

“No, not again,” I begged. I knew it was true, again.

I hadn’t thought about it for years — the memory of betrayal buried deep under the illusion of the most wonderful story that had ever happened to me. I had found out about his infidelities before I moved to India, when we lived apart. Infidelities and lies: a girlfriend hidden from me when we first got together, who he moved back in with after he left Paris; an older woman he had even thought he was in love with; adventures around the world as he traveled for work.

But we had worked through it all. He had begged me to stay with him when I found out, told me I was the love of his life and the last chance he had of having a happy life, of changing. He had blamed distance and so had I, and it had worked for years — so well, too well. I had worked so hard to get past his infidelities that I had actually forgotten about them — the truth, of the past and the present, felt heavy on my burning sternum.

“Yes, again,” he said, suddenly cold. There was something in him, something in his voice I could not recognize. He was a stranger.

“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I found her.”

I swear I heard my heart break.

He told me he’d just met her. A few days had been enough to know. He had given up thinking he could find the one. But there she was. They were going to travel together, see the world and be nomads, as he wanted. And she wanted. And I never did.

“I bet she dresses terribly,” I said, heart yolk leaking from my smashed chest, making an ugly mess already.

I became a monster; I could barely speak, filled with anger as I told him, shocking myself with the violence of my own words, hissing at him, shaking, that it was not true that he felt sorry — that he felt good and not sorry, that while fucking this woman he didn’t know, in and out and in and out of her, he did not think of me.

“You want to make me feel guilty because I am in love.”

He was moving in with her.

“Are you going to marry her?” I was crazy. It was crazy.

“We’re not planning to get married at the moment.” He was crazy, too.

The conversation lasted through the night, through bouts of anger, tears, words of love. At the end, I asked him if this was the first time that he’d be unfaithful since we’d been living together.

“No.”

“Is it because I was not enough?” Isn’t that what every rejected lover dreads?

“Yeah. I was always looking for something better.”

“Something or someone?” I couldn’t stop digging.

“Something, someone, I didn’t know. I thought it was as good as it got, with you. Now I know it wasn’t true.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am not in love with you. I don’t think I ever was.”

Outside, it was dawn. The sounds of India waking up were a loud sign the conversation had to end. We — “us” — had to end.

“I will miss you so much,” I muttered before I hung up. I wanted him desperately. But he was unrecognizable, someone else. Happiness and love were a dark force in his gaze. They were pulling him away from me, taking him some place frightening and far, a place my arms couldn’t stretch to.

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel anything other than terror. Who was he?

* * *

When I landed in Milan I was a ghost. I hadn’t eaten in days; I had no feelings other than sorrow. My sister picked me up from the airport, and as she hugged me, without saying a word, I cried. I cried when I saw my mother. My grandma was visiting — usually the simple sight of her would be enough to put me in a good mood, but I just kept crying, incapable of anything else.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was all I could say, whisper really. I was sorry I had trusted him, that I had followed him, that I had brought him home. I was sorry I was so embarrassingly heartbroken. I was sorry I messed up, sorry I failed, sorry about the embarrassment of a wedding to cancel. That he had not only lied to me, but to my family, caused me unbearable pain. I blamed it on myself — all of it.

I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.

I walked straight into my mother’s bed and laid there crying for days, getting up only to check my emails for signs of him, and sit at the table for lunch and dinner, unable to touch my food.

As I stared into my plate, the Italian mothers of my life — my own, and my mother’s — discussed me, and him, as if I weren’t there.

“She isn’t eating.”
“I can see that.”
“What are we going to do about this one?”
“I don’t know, I can’t force her.”
“Look at that. Not one bite.”
“I know, Ma. She doesn’t feel like it.”

My belligerent grandma had been through a lot — her father dying as a kid, the war as a teenager, her husband leaving her a widow in her early thirties, an earthquake destroying her home and her town in her late forties — far too much to concede to a romantic heartbreak.

“That guy had always been a bit strange,” she offered. “Remember how he stopped eating meat?” She had always treated his vegetarianism as an exotic disease.

When I finally had the strength to leave my bed, I started trying to put together the pieces. I was obsessed with understanding, and the more I obsessed, the more it all seemed terrifying.

I went back to Delhi, leaving behind a family worried sick about me, determined to save the salvageable: A job I loved in a country that was going to save my life.

My pain was enormous, kept alive and stinging by a succession of small new wounds.

I had to cancel the wedding, let all the guests know on my own, as he was far too busy with his new life to even tell his own family — who called me seeking explanations, unable to track him down.

* * *

In all of this, and despite my rational self, I still madly loved him. I hoped he would come back. Once I woke up convinced I heard him ring the bell in the middle of the night. It was a dream.

A recovering patient, I put one day in front of the other, waiting for my love to go away. Like a famous Italian poem says, it was like quitting a vice. Come smettere un vizio. It was a daily exercise in abstinence — from calling him, wanting him, loving him.

Before I knew it, it had been a month since I had last seen his face, on a computer screen. Then two, then a whole summer.

On August 26, when our wedding was meant to be, the sun was shining over the Amalfi Coast, but I spent the day in rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, on my own, hanging out with the monkeys at Pashupatinath Temple — the Temple of Shiva.

I was glad there was a god I could thank for destruction.

For a long time afterward, I was obsessed with this story. Obsessed with his lies. I uncovered countless more: about his family, his past, our relationship. The more I found out, the more the hurt gave way to relief.

I wrote to the woman he had left for me way back when — to let her know it didn’t work out with us. Somehow, I felt it was right for her to know, that I would have wanted to know, if I were her. She was understanding, forgiving, and helpful — knowing far too well what I was going through, she repeated to me countless times I had not lost someone worth keeping.

Years later, that’s what I told his wife, when it was she who wrote to me.

Read the Sequel: A Second Super Strange Love Story: I Was the Other Woman

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Annalisa Merelli is an Italian writer living in New York. She is a reporter with Quartz and tweets at @missanabeem.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

My Roommate the Prostitute

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At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

* * *

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” will be out in March from Graywolf Press. Follow him @shdeen.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog Fox, he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.