The Superhero Saga of Brooklyn’s Weirdest Burger Joint

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When a comic book fiend realizes his longtime dream of opening a superhero-themed eatery, a battle of epic proportions is only just beginning.

I. Call to Adventure

Steve Bala can remember the day back in 1982 when he unwrapped his first two “G.I. Joe” action figures. A few weeks later, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” comic books premiered on shelves, and it felt like destiny. When the Saturday morning cartoon hit the airwaves, the battle cry “Yo Joe!” entered his heart through his eardrums.

Twenty-six years later, the trademark war whoop of the Joes still took Steve’s breath away. He made a pilgrimage every Wednesday to Midtown Comics near Times Square to browse the latest graphic novels and figurines — some “G.I. Joe,” some “Star Trek,” some from the world of Stan Lee or the D.C. universe. He had two “G.I. Joe” tattoos, one a back piece. Gainful employment as a grown man had become a means to fund his toy-buying habits. And his apartment boasted rows of warriors and spaceships. He’d broken up with a close girlfriend a few years earlier when she told him, “If we get married, this stuff has to go.” Steve had responded, “G.I Joe since 1982. You, just a couple of years.”

Yet all this nerd stuff had finally done something more than drain his paychecks and imperil his relationships.

The sign on Grand Street, in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, read “ACTION BURGER,” a graphic splash above glass double doors that seemed ripped from a comic book, a vector art explosion serving as a siren call to geeks: Enter a world of Adam West’s Batman and muscle-green Hulk and Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bodice. It was 2008, and these icons of the Baby Boom generation were long past their dusty stage. Inside the store was a dry erase board with a menu writ in markers — Hero Burgers, Action Fries, Action Rings. It was a comic nerd’s dream, a diner with greasy food and superhero décor fit for a caped crusader.

Standing outside his restaurant shortly before the March 1 opening, Steve shook his head, believing that Action Burger was his dream and fearing his dream wasn’t going to work. He’d spent two years planning and five months building this monument to his one true love: comic lore. Almost finished, the place pulsed with a kind of nerd power. Early press had revealed enthusiasm for Steve’s concept. “This place is going to vibe very well with the Williamsburg bed-head boys,” wrote one commenter on Eater, a website that obsessively chronicles restaurant openings. But the whole thing felt tenuous.

Steve exhaled, thinking back to the day he’d first conceived of Action Burger. It happened one afternoon in 2006 while he was slinging drinks — his favorite in a series of underachieving jobs — at a dive bar on East 6th Street in Manhattan called Cherry Tavern. “I love pop culture stuff,” he’d thought. “And I love food.” He froze, as if struck by a ball of energy. “Why not combine the two?” For Steve, it was a mystic brew of elements that rose up and glistened like a star, better than if the Justice League teamed with The Avengers to join the forces of Iron Man and the Green Lantern.

He’d found his business partners in Joseph Cortes, an original founder of a Manhattan burger chain called Lucky’s Famous, and Victoria “Irene” O’Neil, his cousin. It was them against the world — until it was them against each other.

The restaurant came to life backwards, in many ways. In their eagerness to open shop, Steve, Joseph and Irene rented a storefront at 513 Grand Street and spent two months rehabbing the space before filing the papers to form a company. “At the beginning, it was all very good,” Steve remembered. But as they neared their scheduled opening in March, the dynamics changed. According to Joseph, Irene “tried to push us out after we basically built the Grand Street location.” From Steve’s perspective, “She got it in her head that she didn’t want me as a partner, but I could manage the place.” Irene took a more practical point of view. “I was the sole investor,” she said. “You know what sole means? All my money was in that business.”

Her words echoed in Steve’s head as he stood before the store, admiring his creation but feeling like the hero who’d ridden his horse into quicksand. He’d poured his best ideas into this place…but Irene had ideas of her own. Their corporate documents, which had created 200 private shares of “Action Burger Corp.,” had named Irene as the sole shareholder — a bombshell to Steve and Joseph, who’d lost their legal standing as owners. Brightly lit and ready for business, Action Burger felt like an extension of Steve, but he realized that he soon might be Anakin Skywalker: a hero minus a few limbs.

They opened in the midst of the argument about ownership. Within days, Steve and Joseph had reached their thresholds and agreed, together, to abandon the project. “I took my name, which is Action Burger,” Steve said. “And I took all my stuff.” As customers entered the establishment expecting service, Joseph removed his recipes, and Steve removed his memorabilia, which gutted store and officially severed their involvement. Irene was shocked at her cousin’s abandonment, which left her alone to run the business. “That was my life savings,” she said. “And he took that from me.”

513 Grand remained closed intermittently for the next month, with “Under Renovation” signs posted while Irene struggled to revise the concept, invent new recipes and hire new staff. “She tried to continue it, but she didn’t have the passion for it,” said Steve. “She hired other people that she didn’t know to reopen.”

Watching the fallout from a distance might have proven validating for Steve — evidence that he was a necessary ingredient — if only Irene hadn’t continued to use the name he created. Each misstep sullied the name “Action Burger” and closed the door on his hope that, someday, he’d try this again. By April 11, 2008, Irene reopened the restaurant, and Action Burger received its first review. The critic from Serious Eats began, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling…” and went on to describe the burger as having “an odd smokey flavor and a tough patty.”

Perhaps this reviewer should have waited a few more days to sample the wares. On April 17, food safety inspectors walked into the store and cited a dozen health code violations, from lacking a permit to operate to evidence of live mice and rats on the premises. The ensuing publicity led to Action Burger being placed on New York state senator Jeff Klein’s “Dirty Dozen New York City Restaurants of 2008.” It was this knockout that shuttered the business.

Game over? Not quite. Advertising at New York Comic Con, the massive fan convention that took place in April that year, had always been part of Steve’s grand plan. And now he watched as Irene’s marketing vendor distributed Action Burger fliers to convention-goers — attracting a crowd to the just-closed restaurant. Comic fanatics, some dressed in bulky superhero costumes, cabbed across town from the Javits Center over the Williamsburg Bridge, only to discover the restaurant shuttered. “We were all pretty pissed and wasted a bunch of time and money,” wrote one fan in a comment section. It hurt Steve to see his cousin bungle the tactic and upset the geeks who should have loved his idea.

Steve’s dream had been not only destroyed but dishonored. He couldn’t return to his previous life; the Cherry Tavern had already hired his replacement. Bala family gatherings were now torturous affairs, with Irene present and tensions still high. Steve kept telling himself that if he rode out the drama and made it to GIJoeCon, an annual “G.I. Joe” collectors’ convention he’d attended for seven years running, he’d find some peace. The convention began in Dallas on June 26, and he’d already booked a ticket and set aside the $500 he needed to purchase a box set of action figures only available to JoeCon attendees. Then, shortly before the trip, something exploded in his head.

He felt the shock of it, like a bang from a two by four, and the left side of his face went limp. He couldn’t walk. He slurred his words to the 911 operator. He was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village and diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. As he lay there, fully conscious but phasing in and out of cogent thought, he could focus on little else but the fact that he was missing JoeCon. “That is what I regret,” he said, much later.

Gradually, he regained his speech and relearned to walk. Since Steve and his family had no history of traumatic brain injuries, the root causes seemed a mystery, other than the fact that this happened when everything else went bad around him.

But at least Steve didn’t obsess over Action Burger any more. It’s as if the injury opened a window in his head, and the thought flew out. Steve didn’t dig for information as his cousin moved to reopen the restaurant. He didn’t observe when a profile appeared on Merchantcircle.com for a new business at 513 Grand called “Comic Burger.” He didn’t feel emotion when it became clear that Irene intended to realize Steve’s vision without him. She’d invested too much and couldn’t walk away.

Irene refinanced the mortgage on her residence in the Bronx to free up approximately $150,000 in additional equity. The restaurant reopened and passed health code inspections with a perfect score on November 20, 2008. An article entitled “Second Chances” appeared on Eater about the refurbished Comic Burger. The reporter, Amanda Kludt, noted that the décor looked “exactly the same” as before. With the restaurant reincarnated, unmistakable similarities between Action Burger and Comic Burger made it clear that Irene had been more than inspired by Steve’s idea; the concept, she believed, was hers.

One of the first customer reviews of Comic Burger posted to Yelp was a one-star rating dated April 12, 2009: “The waitress/lady who took our order was really creepy. I couldn’t tell if she’d just blown a bunch of Xanax or had a lobotomy.” Several reviews noted the lack of enthusiasm rubbing off into the customer experience: “what is up with these jokers”…“I really, really want to like this place”…“I felt really uncomfortable eating in there”…“misses the mark HORRIBLY!” The restaurant churned along for another year, and when Comic Burger gave its last gasp and shut for good in March 2010, few mourned its passing.

* * *

II. Crossing the Threshold

Steve hadn’t met anyone who could match his single-minded devotion to fictional characters in far-flung worlds until he met Vlane Carter.

Vlane, who was dating Steve’s sister at the time, was a sci-fi author and fanatic gamer who’d spent a decade perfecting his point-and-shoot skills playing the Xbox video game franchise “Halo.” Indeed, saving the future-world of “Halo” was almost a nightly ritual for Vlane. He’d even bulked up his upper body in subtle emulation of Master Chief, the game’s famous hero behind the golden visor. Through the strategic battlefields of “Halo,” Vlane explained, “I was able to develop my mind over the years.”

So when Steve pitched Vlane about his vision for happy superhero hamburger-land, the project had been on the backburner — almost four years after the Irene disaster. Steve told so many friends about the first Action Burger that it almost became a running joke. No one in his right mind would attempt the same idea again. To them, the possibility of reviving Action Burger was the lie Steve told himself so that he’d never have to leave his job at M&M/Mars, where he now stuffed candies into store displays as a product placement specialist. But something in Steve’s words, perhaps his trove of comic book knowledge, captured Vlane’s attention. And when an idea catches in Vlane’s mind, like besting a new game, it germinates and expands and becomes the only thing that matters. “I get these ideas man,” Vlane said. “So many ideas. But this was, like, the biggest.”

Vlane, above all things, was an implementer, a man who brought business strategies into reality like Master Chief thwarted alien invasions. He ran a street marketing business placing magnetic vinyl posters onto vehicles. Calling his removable ads “truck tattoos,” he sold them with the line: “Turn your naked vehicle into an advertising machine.” Vlane had also MacGyver-ed a method of installing LED signs into the front and back windows of SUVs. That neither of these two concepts had blossomed into profitable ventures was immaterial. Failure was not to be feared but studied like game tape, an attitude that Vlane had developed perfecting his “Halo” gameplay.

Steve told Vlane about Action Burger in March 2012. So what if Vlane had no previous restaurant or food service experience? Steve had bartended at the Cherry Tavern, and that was experience enough for the both of them. Like “truck tattoos” or Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series, Action Burger was now a go for launch. By June, they were scouting for places. By August 1, they’d found the location. By September 1, the site was theirs.

When keys traded fingers and they entered the premises, The Double Rose’s — corner café for the senior citizens of East Williamsburg — ceased to be, and the 800 square feet became Action Burger, back from the dead. Steve, once again, stood in command of his dream. Salivating at the door of this place, which had been closed for just a few days, Steve swore he could “taste the action” in the smells that remained.

Burger in hand, purchased from some unnamed competitor a few blocks down the way, Steve strode heroically across the tiles of his new domain. His body looked pre-molded like an action figure’s: squat and hefty, yet somehow sculpted in the upper body, with a rounded nose, sideburns like Wolverine and hair gelled in place permanently. He wore his trademark outfit: T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Vlane donned the same uniform. Yet Vlane added polish with his weightlifter’s physique, trimmed mustache and clean-shaven head. Side by side, laughing and pushing one another, they resembled Bebop and Rocksteady from “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Steve and Vlane examined the guts of 292 Graham Avenue, which savings and credit and $100,000 of invested risk had bought. Nearly every asset in Vlane’s financial arsenal had been tied into the restaurant. He had sold his 2008 Cadillac Escalade for $26,000 and refinanced the mortgage on his Bronx home to free up $45,000 in additional equity. The rest of the $100,000 he’d pooled with Steve had come from credit cards and personal savings. It was a sum that covered their security deposit and a few months’ rent, plus menus, food supplies and cooking equipment. They each owned fifty percent of the business.

Together, Steve and Vlane were gambling men defying a national downswing in new business entrepreneurship that had reached a sixteen-year low in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to the cultural mythos of the startup and near worship of charismatic founders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, fewer and fewer people were actually going into business for themselves, though many more were playacting by watching TED talks and using words like “disruptive.” As Steve and Vlane high-fived, small businesses around them were collapsing so frequently that the failure rate within three years was at eighty percent.

Surveying the fading navy-blue paint job, which would have to go, over the waist-high wooden paneling, which could stay, Steve could hardly believe all this action had sprung from an idea in his brain. He waltzed into the kitchen, a mash-up of industrial appliances crowding the smoke-stained walls, which must have been white at some point in the last century. The stainless steel of the deep fryer barely shone through the film on its surface, which, if it could speak, would speak of fifteen years of bubbling mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers. Steve lit the grill, the blue flames flickering and forming their gentle cones. The wide silvery surface, perfect for cooking bacon and burger patties, gathered warmth.

Then the grease pan ignited in the far back corner under the grill, and flames spread in waves, catching layers of backlogged grease from decades of diner cooking. Steve’s eyes grew wide as the fire spread from its molten base and danced up a pipe that led to the overhead exhaust system, which clearly hadn’t been cleaned recently. A blaze poured onto the grill like flames from a dragon’s throat.

Vlane smelled smoke and came running. He found Steve standing pensively, considering the situation — and still eating. “I’m a very relaxed person,” Steve explained later. “To overreact, to get paranoid about something, is to invite chaos.” But the kitchen was a firestorm. “What’s happening?” Vlane screamed. In his blitzkrieg effort to open the restaurant, Vlane was tapped out to the fullest extent of his credit. To see the kitchen ablaze, it was as if he’d soaked that money in kerosene. They’d just started paying on their insurance policy, which cost them a reasonable $3,000 per year; imagine what a fire the first day would do to premiums.

“Pull the Ansul!” Vlane shouted, which meant triggering the Ansul chemical fire suppression sprinklers that the previous owners had installed above the grill for emergencies — to avoid burning down the building. Heat made waves in the air that forced them to step back into the other room, but Steve could see, through the smoke, that the fire was contained to the fan and grill.

Steve shook his head no, vetoing the Ansul, and Vlane’s face filled with rage. The Master Chief didn’t appreciate defiance. “It’s only where the grease is,” said Steve. “The kitchen’s all metal and tile.” Steve understood that pulling the Ansul would drench the kitchen in flame-retardant foam that would cost their newborn business about $1,000 to refill. One grand seemed a stiff price to pay just to light the grill.

Steve finished the last bites of his burger as Vlane ran outside in a panic. To Vlane’s relief, no signs of smoke could be seen from the street. Vlane’s instinct was to call the fire department, but Steve told him to quit it. Tossing his wrappers into a wastebasket, Steve noticed a fire extinguisher beneath the register. Luckily for Action Burger, the tank still had pressure. Steve grabbed it like a soldier and stepped, literally, into the line of fire. He wielded the nozzle like A Real American Hero and snuffed out the monster.

Later, as Vlane cleaned the white flakes from the grill and out of the exhaust fan, Steve papered the windows with old comics that he’d found in boxes at his parents’ place. Using faded pages from “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman,” he wrapped Action Burger like a gift and steadied himself for a few weeks of gut-and-build renovation.

* * *

III. The Road of Trials

When the doors opened on September 19, 2012, walking inside Action Burger felt like walking into the bedroom of a ten-year-old boy named Steve in 1985. His dream was unleashed. Walls were painted the fluorescent yellow of Wolverine’s spandex. G.I. Joe figurines stared from behind plastic toy displays. Covers of “Robin” and “Justice League” comics masked the building’s old wooden panels. They were emblazoned as wallpaper beside a sign bearing the restaurant’s official new tagline: “Taste The Action.”

To place their orders, Action Burger customers advanced to a counter the color of Captain America’s body suit. The menu was its own branded adventure. Customers chose between “Villain Food” (burgers, crispy chicken or anything fried) and “Hero Food” (turkey burgers, veggie burgers or anything grilled). “This was my way to try to teach kids to eat better,” Steve said. “Hero is the healthier food, and anything villain is the worst food.”

Trading cards and toys that had previously overflowed in boxes and piled up in the corners of Steve’s apartment…and his storage unit…and his old room at his parents’ place….gained a second life on the shiny tables. “It’s my house brought here,” he said. “And this is only the smallest fraction of what I’ve got.”

Three arcade games, sourced from some corner of Vlane’s garage, dominated the front windows. Vlane, ever the competitor, offered customers a deal to battle him in the 1990s classic “Street Fighter.” Beat him in three games and you got a free order of fries. Days into their opening, Vlane remained unvanquished. “I could play any character except for Zangief,” he bragged. “But I specialize in Ryu.”

As rabid fans displaying their memorabilia, Steve and Vlane had innocently sidestepped U.S. copyright restrictions, which otherwise required written permissions from Marvel, Hasbro and countless other entities whose characters were displayed throughout the store. Several copyright precedents existed to shelter guys like Steve, including his right to display his own memorabilia so long as he wasn’t charging for admission. The core franchise featured in Action Burger was, in fact, their own intellectual property: Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series.

Front and center on the menu were “BIO-Action” food creations — all based on characters from Vlane’s sci-fi universe. Self-published, the “BioSapien” series features Jaden Marino, a teenager who is bioengineered to stop an alien invasion. The crowning achievement on the “BIO-Action” menu was “The Jaden” burger, a culinary interpretation of Jaden Marino’s good and evil natures. The fifteen-ounce foodstuff contained two turkey burger “Hero Food” patties, plus a three-ounce “Villain Food” beef patty placed in the center.

This phantasmagoria of sight and taste and touch may have seemed like play for Steve and Vlane, but Action Burger was not their hobby; it was a business with a federal tax ID number, and the financial risks were very real. The livelihood of the restaurant depended on $500 in daily sales, which was reachable only by achieving a pace of fifty orders per day. Anything less meant going out of business within six months, which meant Steve and Vlane sitting in bankruptcy court.

Although Steve and Vlane had founded a geek oasis that they considered to be “kitsch,” many of the young professionals patrolling East Williamsburg considered Action Burger to be garish. Accustomed to the more subtle design aesthetic of bistros and boutiques that lined Bedford Avenue, some local residents were jarred by the liberal use of secondary colors and Comic Sans.

When Gideon Kalischer, a Williamsburg resident who worked for Google, first saw Action Burger, he became so distracted by the signage that he got into a fender bender; the red-and-yellow awning of the store held his eye long enough for him to plow his 1998 Toyota Camry into another sedan. No one was hurt, and, fortunately for Gideon, the accident went unreported. Nonetheless, the incident sparked a fan-like obsession with Action Burger — an interest, like so many passions of his generation, at once mocking but also sincere. “I’m always ready to talk Action Burger,” said Gideon. “But it’s really difficult,” he continued, “because you have to go into the backstory about how the burgers are based off the comic book that the owner wrote himself.”

Sampling the food and going on Internet adventures to research the “BioSapien” world, Gideon became perplexed as to what an obscure graphic novel series had to do with a pit stop for hamburgers. (Vlane had invested $25,000 into “BioSapien” but, by his own estimates, he’d sold just 600 issues.)

Customer traffic was light in those first few weeks, with Steve reduced to standing on Graham Avenue in his cook’s apron and giving away comics to attract interest. A young cartoonist named Sahve Greef, eighteen, who’d just graduated from high school, passed by and recognized him from a previous Comic Con. She asked about displaying her artwork in the store.

Sahve stood diminutive, almost elfish before him, with an emo-style hairdo that swept over her left eye. Talented and shy, he sensed that she was of his ilk, one of the comic book crowd. “What are you doing with yourself?” he asked. “Do you need a job?” Sahve began working for tips as a delivery person. Within weeks, she was ringing in orders for $8 an hour behind the register. Steve proudly displayed her artwork beside his “G.I. Joe” memorabilia. “She is the son I never had,” he told people.

Steve and Vlane had, in fact, rushed the opening of Action Burger so that they could troubleshoot on the fly and perfect the restaurant by October 11, the first day of New York Comic Con 2012. 100,000 comic fans were expected to swarm the streets of New York. Despite the 2008 fiasco, Steve knew the convention could be their springboard.

To draw pedestrians to their booth, Vlane hired three models to dress as Bellona, the female love interest of “BioSapien,” donning scarlet wigs and silvery jumpsuits. (This gimmick, known as using “booth babes,” is largely opposed by gender rights advocates and has been banned at several conventions. But New York Comic Con hadn’t prohibited the practice, and Vlane couldn’t argue with the results.) Prowling the convention floor, they handed out 20,000 flyers in three days, and, when the doors of Comic Con 2012 closed on October 14, forlorn fans jumped in cabs and headed straight for Action Burger. More than thirty-five people descended on the store and sold Action Burger out of most items. Four groups of people came from Comic Con who hadn’t known each other beforehand. But, by the end of their meals, they were friends and compatriots. For Steve, that Sunday was confirmation of everything Action Burger could be: “A community unto itself.” October 14 also represented the first profitable day for the restaurant.

Reviews started pouring in. “Best. Burger. Joint. Ever,” wrote Thrillist. “Great food, great burgers and comics,” said Tony Tantillo from CBS 2 News. Orders surged. Traffic on Action Burger’s Facebook page spiked, with the total number of “likes” rising from 15 to 380 in days. Negative feedback was confined to mostly Yelp rants, where Vlane posted essay-long responses to customer complaints. “Seriously, you’re leaving drunk reviews on yelp?” Vlane wrote to one customer. “That is so low (like Lex Luther low).”

Following the Comic Con boom, Action Burger averaged fifty-four orders per day. They hired a second fulltime cook and a dishwasher/prep cleaner. Though Steve and Vlane were still treating themselves like free labor, forgoing salaries to invest the maximum back into the business, their gamble appeared to be paying off. They were tasting the action, and it tasted good.

* * *

IV. Apotheosis

By November 2012, Action Burger had emerged as a full-on novelty in Williamsburg — a destination restaurant for both tourists and locals. A geek in London listed traveling to New York and eating at Action Burger on his bucket list. Sahve had been promoted from delivery person to all-around helper: cashier, cook and custodian. Steve and Vlane each continued to give the restaurant eighty to ninety hours per week, but the pace made them proud. Steve could work any job, from food prep to delivery, and so could his partner, although Vlane avoided the grill following his trauma with the grease fire. Through a combination of online orders and in-store traffic, Action Burger posted two consecutive months of profit. The business seemed on solid enough ground for Vlane to lease a new Cadillac Escalade, which he nicknamed the “Action Truck.”

Business crested as Action Burger headed towards the New Year. Confident in their outlook, Steve and Vlane closed the store for Christmas, the first day off since their opening in September. Never ceding to the weather or exhaustion or birthdays or holidays, they’d stayed open even on October 29, 2012, the day of Hurricane Sandy.

Then traffic became scarce, and online orders dropped in the month of January, right as they’d hired a new delivery person and a second short order cook. “We had too many employees and not enough customers,” Vlane said.

As Steve tells it, so long as the money was flowing, the Master Chief could tolerate Steve in charge. “He was supposed to be the back end,” said Steve. “Taking care of paperwork. Taking care of the licenses. Promoting his book through the store.” But when the money slowed to a trickle, Vlane couldn’t let the business flounder. “I had to jump in and change everything,” Vlane said. To float the business through the winter, Vlane invested a sum that he’d received in a recent settlement from a lawsuit.

The Master Chief expanded the menu in January and again in February and again in March — always adding new creations, never taking away. He blazed ahead like Thor with his hammer, ignoring studies that advised restaurateurs never to exceed seven appetizers and ten main courses. Those who contradicted him were “stuck in an old way of thinking.” The most expensive new burger was the $17 “Dark Energy Knight,” which, Vlane admitted, few ordered. Their top seller continued to be the standby: Action Burger and fries, which cost $8.

This empire-like offensive of more Action Burger, and more stuff inside Action Burger, contradicted Steve’s approach to running a restaurant. “You can always add to a business,” said Steve. “You can never subtract.”

With the new movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Dwayne Johnson, set to premiere in March 2013, Steve shifted his focus into making March a themed month at Action Burger for “G.I. Joe.” Steve envisioned the store going through novel iterations in its décor with the release of new movies, like “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in May and “Man of Steel” in June. Sahve posted original Joe artwork on the walls, including an ink print of the ninja warrior Snake Eyes. Steve dusted off his “G.I. Joe” decals and put up his Cobra banners. He dug out his old Joe comics and refreshed the toys in the display cases. “Oh, it was beautiful,” said Steve. “People loved it or hated it. But they came in, and they talked about it.” Announcing his entrance in the store with a loud “Yo Joe!” for a month was enough to distract Steve from the reality that Vlane was now manning the guns on every level of the enterprise.

Master Chief now stalked his menu like a hunter; his passion for reconceiving its entrees, its arrangement, verged on obsession. Putting his self-taught art direction skills to work, Vlane personally designed each menu to capture the attention of any individual who glanced at the Action Burger logo twice. Vlane believed so deeply in his methods that he put the new menus on his credit card and hiked around Williamsburg in ten- to fifteen-degree weather distributing them for eight to ten hours per day.

Concurrently, Vlane launched a street marketing campaign with his Action Truck. He covered his white Escalade top to tail with magnetic decals that screamed the latest updates on Action Burger and “BioSapien.”

“I’ve never seen a restaurant with a moving billboard like that,” said Gideon. Two LED signs blinked and scrolled accompanying messages, which were sometimes hard to read behind the glass. Several of these “truck tattoos” featured artwork from his sci-fi series but many more consisted of pixelated shots of Action Burger entrees. “They looked horrible, the pictures of the food,” said Steve. “And I knew professional photographers who wouldn’t even charge. He just wants to take them all with his cellphone.”

Vlane suction-cupped a dispenser to the Action Truck and filled it with menus. He parked the SUV at strategic locations and counted the number of menus remaining at the end of each day. He documented a dozen spots around Williamsburg where his “hit rate” was highest. The Action Truck gave out, according to Vlane, fifteen to thirty flyers per day, with the most active spots being the street parking areas in front of neighboring businesses like Barcade, a video-game-themed bar.

Owners of these businesses, nonplussed by Vlane’s cleverness, wrote him heated emails asking him not to market directly to their customers. Barcade, by a long shot on a sniper rifle, was the most effective place for Master Chief to park. Patrons of the bar, on average, took more than sixty of his menus in six hours — until Barcade employees expressed a conflict with Action Burger and Barcade both having arcade games. “They just kind of threatened and left hints that they don’t want me parking there anymore or something could happen,” said Vlane. “It became very aggressive in terms of the email conversations,” he continued. (The ownership of Barcade offered no comment on these accusations despite repeated requests.)

Charging headlong, blasting through pessimism, Vlane saw Action Burger franchises in his future. His dream was to get the store featured on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. Vlane felt that his restaurant, his truck tattoos and the “BioSapien” series constituted a triple threat. Legally, he tied “BioSapien” into Action Burger with a 70,000-year contract — in the series, 70,000 represents the number of years that aliens are advanced beyond the human race — mandating that every Action Burger franchisee in the future use his series and its characters. “If the restaurant does well, the books do well; if the books do well, the restaurant does well,” Vlane opined.

Vlane developed a genuine gift for muting outside opinions when, he felt, they constrained his creativity. “He has ideas that really can’t be,” said Sahve. “It’s insane, and Steve kept pushing for practical.” The roof in the basement of Action Burger leaked from the old pipes each day as water backed up from the street. Steve, wary of the health code history of the original Action Burger, wanted to fix the potential hazard. But Vlane preferred more and better menus, additional entrees and new marketing tactics.

By May 2013, their conversations became shouting matches in the leaky basement. Vlane and Steve drew battle lines for their competing visions, and each recruited allies to their sides. Sahve aligned with Steve. Vlane’s new girlfriend sided with Vlane, obviously. And Steve and Vlane both angled for the allegiance of Wilson, the restaurant’s primary cook. “There is no Action Burger without Wilson,” Sahve explained. Steve encouraged Wilson to begin a work stoppage to force Vlane’s hand in rehabbing the basement. Vlane encouraged Wilson to develop a new line of rice dishes and enjoy freer reign in his dominion.

The final battle occurred in the basement on the day that Wilson finally sided with Vlane. Steve sat thunderstruck, stunned like Thor when he discovered Loki (his own brother) behind the plot to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. It was July, not one year from the day they opened, and Steve had lost control of Action Burger. He threw down his apron and left.

Sahve now stood vulnerable, having fought on the losing side of the Game of Thrones. Vlane resented her friendship with Steve and treated her for what he believed her to be: a spy. But Vlane had his own network of intelligence. He had installed an app on his smartphone that pulled a direct video feed from the store security cameras, which gave him eyes on every square inch of Action Burger. To test her loyalty, Vlane told Sahve to text him immediately if Steve returned to Action Burger.

As expected, Steve stepped back into the restaurant about a week after the blowout, and Sahve undermined Vlane’s command. She waited until Steve had left to text the Master Chief. Vlane rewound the security footage to confirm that Sahve had, indeed, defied him — and fired her. “Just to get back at me,” Steve said. “That’s the only reason he fired her.” When Steve returned to hammer out an agreement with Vlane, Steve rehired his protégé. Although she was grateful to have a job again, she sensed something temporary in the arrangement. Slyly, piece by piece, she brought her artwork home.

Steve made Vlane an offer to buy out his shares in Action Burger. When Vlane refused, needing Action Burger to boost “BioSapien,” Steve’s journey as an owner had reached its terminus. Vlane bought out Steve’s shares instead. Clearing out his toys with tears in his eyes, Steve hugged Sahve and walked past the original hero/villain menu placard. “It’s still a beautiful dream,” Steve said. “But it turned into a nightmare.” Parked on Powers Street, the Action Truck flashed its text at no one as Steve turned the corner.

That month, Action Burger received approval from the State of New York for a liquor license. Vlane fired Sahve and moved forward with a new line of liquor milkshakes and infused smoothies. Gideon and his friends gathered to read this roster of new releases in the new menu, of course, which Vlane devoted weeks to fine-tuning. “Just as soon as we forget about Action Burger,” said Gideon, “a new menu comes out or a new item comes out or there’s a new decal on the Escalade.” The milkshake madness, which filled two pages, boasted drinks like the “Gravity Tide,” a thirty-two-ounce blend of Amaretto, butterscotch schnapps and an “action shot” for $24, or the thirty-two-ounce “Ten-Miles-On-Treadmill,” a blend of vanilla ice cream, oatmeal cream pie, strawberry short cake, chocolate chip cookies, Oreos, vanilla cookies, granola bars, pecan pie, butter crunch cookies and Butterfinger candy bars for the price of $19.

* * *

V. The Ultimate Boon

On the evening of June 20, 2014, pulsing fluorescent lights lit Graham Avenue an alien blue. The concrete shook with a bass beat, and one could barely see through the Action Burger windows, which were bedecked with four-color graphic signs advertising the Pretzel Burger Frenzy, the Pizza Burger Parmigiana and the Toragon crispy chicken beef burger extravaganza.

Inside was what Vlane called a “lounge atmosphere,” or a mash-up of battle sounds, projector screens and cords snaking underneath tables to four video game consoles being played simultaneously. He branded this concept “Action Burger After Dark.” Gone was Sahve’s art on the walls. Gone was the comic kitsch, aside from a lone poster featuring a roundup of “X-Men” villains. In their place was a smorgasbord of current and obsolete game systems.

With Steve’s departure, Vlane had developed a new customer base. Dry-eyed gamers had pushed out the former crowd of comic buffs. “His strong point was comics, and my strong points were video games,” said Vlane. “I had to do what’s natural in me.”

In a surprise turn of events, Vlane described how he’d trained himself to cook in the kitchen by pretending it was a video game. “You have to look at it like that, or it’s just an annoying job,” he said. When an order for the Toragon came in, he threw a crispy chicken patty in the fryer like a timed mine and set two beef patties on the side of the grill as ammunition. He’d multitask, careful to never let things burn because burning is losing.

By Vlane’s admission, his vision for Action Burger hadn’t moved past the experimental stage. “Profit is…I don’t know when the profit is going to come,” he said. “It’s just kind of balancing off the big mess from last year. Everything is still at a loss.” Though Vlane’s tactics could certainly grab attention, they didn’t always inspire the intended reaction.

“I don’t want to mock him,” said Gideon. “I don’t wish him bad. I hope he succeeds in business. But it’s just so bizarre.” Where customers like Gideon saw absurdity, Vlane saw his competitive advantage. “I’m about new ideas and new concepts that no one’s trying yet,” he said. Vlane could brainstorm like a virtuoso, but he was also loathe to self-edit, as if editing symbolized an old form of thinking. He piled up his mind like Legos: one idea on top of the next.

In trying every tack, he saw some of his methods succeed. By partnering with Seamless.com and Grubhub.com to create a more competitive pricing model, online orders rose 60 percent between 2013 and 2014. Local hip-hop artists packed his restaurant once a month for the “Saturday Morning Music Live” events, where flows about Superman were met with cheers in the cramped quarters — bodies on laps — as “Star Trek” played in the background. On a Thursday night ritual called “Action Game Night,” Vlane bated customers with the promise of a free round of shots if they beat him in any of the “Halo” multiplayer scenarios. Stacking the teams four players to two in the customers’ favor, Vlane still crushed his rivals.

Action Burger had achieved what Steve once called impossible — lasting a year without him. “That was his mindset,” said Vlane. “And that’s what he believed, and it was like religion or something.” No Steve Bala, no Action Burger; Steve had internalized that conviction through his experience with Irene. He continued to live just two blocks away and sometimes walked past the store. One time, Vlane caught him on the security cameras checking the health department grade in the window. “He just stared at the ‘A’ like he couldn’t believe it,” said Vlane, “like it was a ghost.” According to Sahve, Steve had “kind of called the fire department and the health department” after he left the business to report violations. (Steve wouldn’t confirm or deny this claim: “I’m not allowed to discuss these things due to the agreement Vlane and I signed.”) Vlane ended up paying fines and shelling out the money to fix the pipes in the basement.

Like a tub with a leak, Action Burger was still being drained of funds. But, at the present rate of decline, it would take several years before the death stroke. Vlane had capitalized well, and the cushion bought him time — and a chance to get the enterprise locked and loaded in the style of Master Chief.

* * *

VI. Master of Two Worlds

Steve lives a few minutes from Action Burger in a building that looks like a little red schoolhouse. He answers the door and leads me up the stairs to his Batcave. Here is the stimulus behind Action Burger, the source of personal inspiration that he’s tried, and failed, to recreate elsewhere. His living room stands as a shrine to American gods, with comic books ringing the walls, “Star Trek” figurines and a Cobra banner, the red snake flaring its hood. “It’s still a major part of my life,” Steve told me on the phone a few weeks earlier. “I’m still collecting comics every Wednesday. I’m still going to movies that are based on comics. I just saw ‘Transformers,’ and I completely hated it.”

He opens another door, and it’s like Dorothy entering the land of Technicolor. More than 300 figures, still “carded” in their plastic bubbles, stare back. Toys line every surface of his room like a fresco, floor to ceiling — twenty-fifth anniversary figures on the left; “G.I. Joe” A.R.A.H. (A Real American Hero) sets from 2001 and 2003 in the middle; and original Joes from 1982 to 1984 on the far side behind boxes and boxes of comics.

“There’s not a Joe that is up here that I actually don’t have also loose,” says Steve. He knows their backstories. He knows their favorite weapons. He knows their real names and the origins of their Joe affiliations. “They’re O-ring,” he says. “That means there’s still a rubber band inside, holding them together.” He’s seen it happen, the O-rings burst, and the figures, still mint condition, fall into a mound of limbs. The idea hurts, for some reason. We fill these dolls up with more than we care to admit. On Steve’s futon is a “G.I. Joe” bedspread, and I know without asking that this was his childhood blanket.

His complete sets of “G.I. Joe” figurines could fetch upwards of $600 each. If this entire room burns to the ground, he’ll lose almost $20,000 in tangible assets, mostly stored in those intricately painted statues made of PVC plastic. “I actually want to play with my figures all the time,” he says, “but it’s hard for me to do it.” Being an adult curtails his ability to imagine.

“I would eventually, down the line, like to do it again,” Steve says, bringing it back to the restaurant. “But it’s something I’ll have to do on my own.”

* * *

Robert W. Fieseler is a journalist and essayist who graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School and is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. His work has appeared in The Big Roundtable, The Brooklyn Ink and THE WEEK.

Aaron Renier is a cartoonist living in Chicago, Illinois. He has written two books and is finishing his third. He helped start theinfinitecorpse.com, a growing online comic always open to new submissions.

 

 

Emma Sulkowicz is More Than “That Mattress-Toting Sexual Assault Activist”

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She earned worldwide fame for her campus protest. Now this empowered 24-year-old is getting into S&M – and taking on the art-world establishment.

On the third floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building, a line of guests stretches down a cigarette ash-colored hallway. In an adjacent kitchen area, a captivating, gray-bearded man wearing a black suit and a white tie with WHITNEY printed in block letters splashes cold water on his face. Two younger guys congratulate him on his work this evening. They think they’ve witnessed the end of a performance piece starring the sharp-dressed man and Emma Sulkowicz, the 24-year-old artist most famous for protesting an alleged rape by lugging a mattress through the Columbia University campus for the duration of her senior year. But tonight’s work, conceived by Sulkowicz and titled The Ship is Sinking, is still going.

“Mr. Whitney,” as Sulkowicz refers to him in the piece that debuted last Saturday, is portrayed by the bearded man, an S&M film star known as “Master Avery,” whose Kink.com profile describes his body type as that of a “swimmer” and his cock girth as “thick.”

“So, what was that all about?” one of the guys asks Mr. Whitney, who a few minutes ago tied a bikini-clad, pink-haired Sulkowicz to a seven-foot slab of wood and raised her to the ceiling of the gallery one floor below, while verbally and physically assaulting her.

“Well,” Mr. Whitney begins casually. “I had to kick her ass a little. She’s lazy. I can’t have her thinking she can be an artist.”

The two guys don’t know what to say next. Mr. Whitney keeps the conversation going, asking, “Do you think I was hard enough on her?”

“Mr. Whitney” (left) chastising Emma Sulkowicz (right) during her performance art piece Saturday night in Manhattan. Sulkowicz, in character, is eager to show Mr. Whitney she “has what it takes to be an artist.”

A few days earlier, I sat with a friendly, nervous Sulkowicz at lunch and talked about her latest offering, part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s esteemed Independent Study Program. “At this point I’ve read enough theory and I’m confident enough in myself as an artist to know that I can only maintain an art practice if I’m doing stuff that’s kooky, wacky and fun,” she said, “and that’s why I’m really excited about this piece.” Revealing that she would be dressed in a bikini while hanging from the ceiling in the position of a female figurehead on a ship’s mast, she giggled, adding. “I’m definitely going to be the most naked person in the room.”

Sulkowicz’s carefree demeanor betrays the depth of thought and preparedness put into The Ship is Sinking. It’s inspired by a 1935 Bertolt Brecht essay, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” – in which Brecht compares the Great Depression-era United States to a sinking ship. In taking the abuse from “Mr. Whitney” in her piece, she is questioning her value as an artist while posing the question: “What good is art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?”

During the performance, Mr. Whitney uses heavy-duty ropes to bind the submissive Sulkowicz, clad in spiky, sparkling heels. Drops of sweat trickle off the tip of his nose as he muscles the ropes around her over and over again. He burns her skin while she moans as the tightest of knots is executed. As he raises her off the ground, she maintains a show of stoicism; then Mr. Whitney goes back to perusing the financial section of The New York Times in a nearby chair.

“Mr. Whitney” – portrayed by S&M performer “Master Avery” – ties Sulkowicz up during her performance piece.

Sulkowicz says the piece is part observation on Donald Trump’s America and the place of art within it, part critique of the art establishment, and part personal exploration of her own boundaries as an artist.

“If our country is falling to pieces and you’re like, I’m going to make political art!, you’re just kind of weighing the ship down,” Sulkowicz says. “The only art that’s really going to fix things are going to happen outside the walls of the institution,” meaning, in this case, the Whitney.

Nevertheless, “Every one of the artists in the room that night asked to be a part of this structure, we all want to be bound to the institution,” she continues, referring to her peers in the program. “In spite of all this pain, we still want it.”

“Mr. Whitney” ties Sulkowicz to a seven-foot post that will be raised to the ceiling.

As Sulkowicz hangs several feet above the performance space’s floor – with pink tufts of pubic hair sprouting from the top of the bikini bottom and from her armpits – a woman pushes through the gallery goers. “Do you want me to get you down?” she asks Sulkowicz, looking up at her.

“No, it’s O.K.,” Sulkowicz says. “I have to show Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.” She’s repeated that phrase over and over tonight, even as friends greeted her upon arriving, not realizing that the performance had already begun.

“Excuse me!” Mr. Whitney shouts at the concerned woman, jumping out of his chair. “Is she bothering you?”

Quickly turning his attention to Sulkowicz, he says, “Did you say something bad about me?”

Sulkowicz playfully denies any wrongdoing, but Mr. Whitney’s not having it. He unbuckles his belt and removes it. The audience can guess what’s coming next.

Another woman in the crowd says, “Oh my god,” and Mr. Whitney smacks Sulkowicz’s rear end repeatedly with the belt. As pink welts rise on her right butt cheek, Mr. Whitney asks the crowd if they “think she can take it.” Some nod, one gives a thumbs up, and others remain stone-faced. The woman who offered to rescue Sulkowicz looks on, horrified.

Audience members look on as Sulkowicz continues her performance.

This isn’t the first time Sulkowicz has infused assault into her work. Weeks after graduating from Columbia – and famously walking her mattress across the stage to accept her diploma – she released Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, a video performance art piece in which she filmed herself engaged in a sexual encounter that turned violent from four different angles. She says that work, meant to display in raw detail just how seamlessly sex can turn into rape, was the first time she had to confront the particular ways in which she was harmed while being sexually assaulted in 2012. (The man she accused has denied any wrongdoing, and has repeatedly filed court actions charging Columbia with gender-based discrimination.) In the video, her co-actor strangles and sodomizes her, like she says her attacker did. “I was gearing up for the shoot date so much in my head and [thought] ‘these things trigger me, but on this day I’m just going to have to deal with it,’” she recalls. “This is the most corny thing ever, but art enabled me to face my fears.”

Sulkowicz says that for a long time if anyone touched her neck, she’d be triggered, and become upset. But in part because of Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, and the psychotherapy she’s engaged in for the past year, her neck is no longer off-limits.

Since graduating, Sulkowicz has offered commentary on the rape case through a collection of silkscreened images and newspaper clippings, and dressed up as a doctor and played the role of therapist to see how “art heals in ways that medicine can’t,” as she told The Daily Beast in January. She hopes to restage this collaboration with Master Avery in other venues, and is “always working on something” art related.

During the performance last weekend, after taking a few lashings from Mr. Whitney’s belt, Sulkowicz finally gives in and asks to be taken down.

“Oh, you’re giving up?” Mr. Whitney taunts. “O.K.,” he continues, lowering the wooden post. “I guess you don’t have what it takes to be an artist.”

A silent Sulkowicz lays on the carpet a good ten minutes while Mr. Whitney unties the knots wedding her to the wood. Once she can stand, Mr. Whitney returns to his newspaper.

The attendees offer Sulkowicz a mix of praise and condolences. One girl asks, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Sulkowicz says, undoing a knot. “But I’ve just got to get back up there and prove to Mr. Whitney I have what it takes to be an artist.”

“What’s the bar for that?” the girl asks, oblivious that Sulkowicz has broken free of the wood post, but not yet of the confines of the piece. “How long do you have to stay up there?”

With a straight face, Sulkowicz stops toying with the rope, flips a wrist and says, “I mean, like, forever.”

The girl stares at her blankly.

An eager Sulkowicz attaches the wooden post to the makeshift pulley system hanging from the ceiling, approaches Mr. Whitney and pleads with him, again, to “make me an artist.”

“You know it’s going to hurt,” Mr. Whitney retorts.

“I know what it takes now,” she says, steadfast. “I know what to expect.”

Mr. Whitney goes to work again, but much more fiercely this time, grabbing Sulkowicz harder, tying the knots tighter, making her moan louder.

He moves quicker this time, once again positioning her like a figurehead atop the gallery. He pulls Sulkowicz’s hair, slaps her face, and invites an audience member to join – a heavyset dude, dressed in a black tee and torn black jeans, wearing some lipstick and face powder. He’s been here since the doors opened, and now he and Mr. Whitney are both slapping her ass.

As the clock strikes eight, the gallery’s lights go out, signaling the end of the performance. But Mr. Whitney continues the onslaught, pinching Sulkowicz’s nipples.

Onlookers fire up the flashlight function on their iPhones, once again illuminating the gallery corner.

“Mr. Whitney” continues his verbal assault on Sulkowicz as she hangs from the ceiling.

Shortly thereafter, Sulkowicz “gives up” again. Mr. Whitney takes her down and continuously chastises her as he unravels the knots.

“Ah, this is a waste of my time,” he suddenly ejects. Then, addressing the crowd says, “Why don’t you all untie her instead?”

Audience members untie Sulkowicz at the close of her performance.

Eight or so people surround Sulkowicz as she lies on the ground and pull at the ropes. In a couple minutes she’s free, and everyone applauds.

As the crowd thins, Sulkowicz and Master Avery embrace. With her eyes shut, she smiles widely.

 

 

This Graffiti Fanboy Steals Priceless Street Art Under the Cloak of Darkness

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On the prowl with the Thomas Crown of the New York City streets.

Tommy is a bit jumpy. The six-foot Queens, New York native, his closely cropped, dirty blonde hair covered by a black hoodie, just downed a Red Bull in his car. It’s well after midnight on a weekday and now he’s ordering a can of Coke with two extra-spicy chicken tacos from a food truck.

Tommy, who asked that his name be changed to protect him from retaliatory acts, knows this Bedford Avenue corner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is not the ideal location to commit what many in the street art community consider a crime. The fire engine red food truck has a scrawling LED sign advertising its menu, and there’s light pouring onto the sidewalk from a bodega. But a police patrol car just sauntered past and continued down the block, so Tommy knows they won’t be back for a while. Plus, earlier, New York endured a three-hour downpour, softening the glue behind an indeterminable number of posters affixed to walls by some of the most respected street artists in the world. And directly across from the food truck is one wall with pieces by two of Tommy’s favorite artists sticking to it…at least for now.

As I place my own entrée order, Tommy takes two nimble steps back toward the wall, looks left, then right. He flips around and his fingers go to work on a poster signed in white stencil by the local street artist “SacSix.” Tommy has already claimed a few pieces by SacSix since he began hoarding street art a year ago.

The woman in the truck giggles as she watches Tommy, and I turn to see the outstretched arm of a dancing Mike Tyson being pulled off the brick. Wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, the body of Iron Mike is buckling its knees and striking an Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” pose. Tommy carries a box cutter and a heavy duty, pump-action spray bottle filled with water for assistance on these excursions. But because of the day’s rainfall he doesn’t need either of them now, and once Tyson is secured, Tommy starts on the eight-inch-tall Paris Hilton dancing in line next to him.

Hilton succumbs to Tommy even quicker than Tyson. “Normally it takes me five to ten minutes to take a piece down,” Tommy explains. “But on a great, rainy night they come off like butter and I almost feel guilty. It’s too easy.”

Tommy removes a work of street art posted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The gritty New York graffiti subculture of the ’70s and ’80s was effectively wiped away by the ’90s, due to the city enacting new aggressive train- and wall-cleaning policies. Since then, street art – the more elaborate and nuanced version of the medium – has infiltrated New York, and cities around the world. More recently, high-end galleries and auction houses have included street art among their offerings.

Michael Doyle, director of business development at Julien’s Auctions – a West Hollywood auction house that sells a wide variety of art – says street art, and its acceptance as a legitimate commodity, is here to stay. “It still has that rebel, fringe, controversial” side to it, he says, “but nonetheless we’ve seen a strong, steady increase in demand as well as prices.”

But because of the illegal nature of their work, street artists rarely see direct financial returns from their efforts – unless they’re formally commissioned. Like the London-based, world-famous Banksy, most street artists are anonymous, and the pieces that end up in public galleries and formal auctions are typically served up by lucky building owners who’ve had a noteworthy artist choose their wall as a canvass, or by an art dealer who brokered an agreement with such a building owner. Spray-painted walls targeted by respected street artists have been relinquished from buildings, and more elaborate installations have been plundered. In 2013, when Banksy embarked on a widely chronicled New York residency, he placed a Sphinx statue made of cinderblocks in Queens, and then disappeared as he always does. Soon, several men began to deconstruct the statue and load a truck with the blocks. The majority of Banksy’s Sphinx is now in the Keszler Gallery on Long Island, awaiting a buyer. Portions of its base, though, are in a storage unit rented by Tommy.

Such outcomes irk documentarian Colin Day, whose “Saving Banksy” chronicles the fate of a mural the artist painted in San Francisco. “It’s wrong if street art is removed for the intent of profit,” Day says, adding that, if someone does sell a piece taken from the street, they should at least try to track the artist down and give them a portion of the booty. He also feels it is important that a piece of street art placed on a wall remain on that same structure and, somehow, stay within the community the artist presented it.

A wheat paste poster attributed to SacSix in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Distinct from the ritzy galleries and auction houses, a street art black market has also developed on sites like eBay where authentication isn’t required. There are people who tour city streets, finding the right moments – and practicing the most efficient methods – to remove art.

But Tommy doesn’t consider himself a thief. He says he does not sell the artwork he confiscates from the streets, under any circumstances, and does not intend to do so. His collection is approaching four-dozen pieces, but he wishes to keep them all for himself, simply because he’s a fan.

Propped up next to the Sphinx slabs in Tommy’s storage room are works by New York street artists SacSix, Cost, Dee Dee, Dain and others, as well as the Frenchman known as Invader. There are stickers – some still on city street signs Tommy cut away, others carefully pulled off – and tile designs. Most of his collection is made up of posters known as “wheat pastes” because a flour-based glue is used to put them up.

“I know it looks selfish,” says Tommy, who works as a freelance graphic designer. “But I feel like I’m capturing a moment in a really artistic time. I wish I got my start sooner. It turned into a big hype thing, and now the big artists don’t want to put up wheat pastes because they know they’re going to be torn down and sold.”

* * *

An hour earlier, Tommy and I stood outside one of Brooklyn’s many fenced-in construction zones. On the far side of the plot, fixed to the wall of an as-yet demolished building, was one particular piece Tommy desperately wanted: a cutout poster of the iconic skull logo associated with the horror-punk band the Misfits, except the top half above the jawline more resembles the ’80s World Wrestling Federation star Andre The Giant. Tommy hypothesizes that the piece is by Shepard Fairey, who rose to prominence in the early ’90s by posting tons of stickers depicting Andre The Giant above the word OBEY, then in 2008 found worldwide fame for his Barack Obama HOPE poster.

“I’m going to ask permission [from the construction workers] to save it,” Tommy said, staring at the Misfits-Andre mash-up. He added that many nights he’s thought of breaking into the construction zone to retrieve the piece, but is afraid of being arrested for trespassing. “They’re going to put this building up in front of it and then it’s going to be gone,” Tommy said. “And that bothers me.”

“I’m saving it from its ultimate doom of getting defaced, and, probably, people are going to try and take it and they’re going to take it the wrong way,” he continued, insisting that most others would casually peel off small portions of the poster, possibly on a dry day. “Piece by piece it’s just going to start disappearing.”

Tommy shows off a New York City street sign he removed and the stickers by long-time street artist Cost that remain on the back.

SacSix doesn’t see Tommy’s actions as “saving” street art.

“There has been the occasion where I’ve seen a wheat paste that is essentially off and I’m taking it back to my apartment,” SacSix said during a recent phone interview. But then he added: “I would never go up to a piece that I know is securely wheat-pasted and try and tear it. If you have to wait for rainy days and you gotta go out there with blades and tools, that’s not really rescuing. That’s more stealing.”

He insists a “weathered” poster can be even more alluring than a freshly pasted one, and deserves to endure a complete lifecycle. “Colors fade, corners tear,” SacSix says. “Let it be beautiful in its decay.”

Not all street artists are so strongly against what Tommy does. Los Angeles-based Paige Smith – who goes by “A Common Name” and is best known for her “Urban Geode” street art project – says she quickly came to terms with the fact that people were going to claim her art for themselves. “I kind of consider people forces of nature on this planet. They destroy things; I expect it,” she says. “If anyone is walking through a forest and finds a gem or an arrowhead, they take it. I think it makes sense that they take it.”

Fellow Los Angeleno Illma Gore, a veteran street artist who is best known for her rather unflattering nude portrait of Donald Trump, says, “When you do something in street art, in the public domain, you’re giving it up; you’re saying, ‘This is for you. This is for the public.’” But Gore also feels that, financially, “It’s getting harder and harder to be a living artist, so there’s only a certain amount of art that street artists can give out for free.”

A piece of street art signed in stencil by local artist SacSix, now in Tommy’s possession.

Back at the Bedford Avenue wall across from the food truck, with Elvis-Tyson and -Hilton completely removed, Tommy eyes a neighboring two-by-four-foot poster attributed to Dee Dee. The haunting piece has a soft, pastel purple background with a flock of bats flying behind an Asian woman wearing green and yellow cat ears and a black ball gown. Tommy says he’s prized the poster for months after spotting it on a drive through the area, but the glue Dee Dee used has been too up to the task for peeling. As Tommy scurries to put the SacSix dancers in his car he says, “That Dee Dee is coming down tonight.”

“I appreciate the love for my work, it is very flattering,” Dee Dee wrote to me in an email. “However, it is placed in public for everyone and at a personal risk to myself. I would hope people would consider that.”

Tommy begins to peel off the Dee Dee poster, pulling the bottom corners up. Within seconds the artwork is his, rolled up into a ball and on its way to his car. Later we’ll find a dancing Mel Gibson piece by SacSix as well, and at home, Tommy will unravel them all and let them dry. Then he will mount and seal the pieces in frames.

Tommy takes down a piece by Dee Dee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

A bit of a loner, Tommy says he works long hours in graphic design to make ends meet. He doesn’t show his art collection off much, but says he may commit some of the posters to the walls of a new workspace he’s renting. Of these late nights on street art hunts, he says, “This is the only excitement I have in my life right now.” Typically, he goes out looking for art by himself, though in the past his girlfriend joined, and even assisted him. (One time she videotaped Tommy taking a Sawzall drill to the side of a SoHo building in what would prove to be a jarringly loud and sheepish effort to procure a famous Invader mural depicting the Ramones, which had been whitewashed in paint.) However, he and his girlfriend recently broke up, and Tommy confesses that his obsession with street art may have cut into the time he should have been devoting to her.

Tommy admits to getting an adrenaline rush when he takes street art for himself, dating back to his very first heist. Though he says he’s been a fan of street art since the early ’00s, it wasn’t until May 2016, when Tommy noticed a fluorescent wheat paste posted on a door in Greenwich Village, that he began to build his collection.

“I went to take it,” Tommy recalls, “and some guy asked me not to because ‘some spots are hard to get.’” Tommy interpreted that to mean that busy intersections like that one are marked by law-bending street artists with great caution. Tommy says he respected the message, and let the piece stay put – for a few days. He returned with his girlfriend, placed a large wood board on the ground underneath the poster, and began peeling. Another man approached Tommy and asked him to stop. When Tommy refused, the man took his picture. Then, Tommy stuck the poster to the board, went home and noticed the piece was signed by the artist Dain. He Googled the name and saw scores of pictures of Dain’s work, all of which Tommy loved. “I was just happy to get a cool piece of street art,” Tommy says, “and then the next day the post went up on Instagram and I was devastated.”

The Instagram user @themuseumofurbanart posted the picture of Tommy removing the Dain piece and captioned it: “A thief caught in the act of steeling {sic}.” Liked by more than 1,200 Instagram users, the picture’s comments are overwhelmingly critical of Tommy. There’s a suggestion that Dain should hire a security detail to watch over his work. More than one user wrote “Boooo!”

“I don’t think so much of my work that I’m bothered by it,” Dain responds. On the one hand, he feels complimented when a guy like Tommy takes his work. Still, Dain does admit he would prefer to “get some life” out of a piece and see it remain where it was placed for a time. Should someone truly covet a poster that’s already on the street, so much that they’re willing to go through the trouble Tommy does to remove it, Dain offers: “Just contact me and I’ll try and give you a good price on a piece.”

Looking up through the rain at street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The top set of tiles is attributed to the French artist Invader, while a wheat paste by Cost occupies the space below it.

Tommy recognizes the thought and effort put into street art, and tries to absolve himself of personal guilt by surveying the work over some time before pulling it down. “If it’s new, I usually won’t take it,” Tommy says. He claims he’ll only remove a piece if it has been up for some time, and has already garnered some attention on social media.

Several of the artists interviewed for this article agreed that if their work has been posted to social media, they don’t mind as much if it’s removed, either by rain, a building owner, a city worker, or someone like Tommy. New York-based Hanksy – well known for his “Dump Trump” mural depicting Donald Trump in the form of a gigantic turd – says, “We live in this day and age where everyone has a pretty capable camera in their pocket, so now you can take a digital picture and have [your artwork] spread around the world in a second.”

Hanksy also says, though, that he understands why some, perhaps because they’re from the old school of graffiti writing, would object to premature removal of their work. “Back in the day you wanted a high-visibility spot and you wanted your work to run a long time to get eyes on it.” However, he points out that, today, “a piece can get taken down a day after you put it up, but if you have a nice, digital, colorized photo of it, then it lives forever.”

Prolific graffiti writer Adam Cost, whose work dates back to the late ’70s, firmly disagrees with that contemporary take. “When the focal point of being a street artist is getting a photo of your work and throwing it on social media as your exposure, that’s just not good,” says Cost. “Really, what comes into play is where your work is, the vibe it gives off [and] the way people are interacting with it in the public.” He adds that a photograph will never convey such aspects of the street art experience.

Tommy frequently uses a razor blade to cut through glue behind a street art poster. Here, he demonstrates his method of removing street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Dain says he’s consulted other artists, including Cost, on measures that can be taken to thwart thieves as best he can. They include avoiding posting on mailboxes – because when they get wet, the piece will slide right off it – as well as wood billboards, fences or doors that can be easily removed altogether. Dain also now refrains from signing his street art, which makes authentication far more challenging for black market sellers.

Cost says that when he’s on the streets he’ll place posters in higher, harder-to-reach places; use a stronger homemade glue; and “blanket” an area with numerous identical posters, so that if a fan takes one, plenty more will remain.

Tommy remembers once coming across nine Cost posters placed on a wall, all in a row. “To a person like me that’s like Christmas!” Tommy says. “I went one day with my work ladder. I sprayed them all and I just took them down, one by one. They’re all framed and they’re all sexy.”

Cost questions the sincerity of Tommy’s claim that he’ll never sell the artwork, postulating: “He’s gonna put his kids through college with this stuff, potentially.”

Getting upset, Cost says of people like Tommy: “They’re stealing a part of me, actually, and I didn’t give them authorization to that part of me.”

Still, he recognizes his work was never destined to be permanent, and a moment later he adds, calmly: “The only way you can have any solace with it is in the end you say, ‘well, at least my work is being preserved…for better or worse.’”

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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!

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* *

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

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

 

 

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

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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.