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.

 

 

Sorting Through a Hoarder’s Lifetime of Clutter, We Learned the Meaning of Love

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When my boyfriend took a job helping a widow clean out her house, among the urine-soaked rugs and years-old piles of laundry, I saw our relationship in a new light.

David Murphy rang the doorbell of a typical suburban house, set far back from a busy street amid trees and shrubs. An older woman opened the door, accompanied by a short, elderly dog and a tall, scruffy, younger one. “Come in, dear,” she said, leading him into a sitting room. Everywhere he looked, piles of clothes and bags of papers lined the walls. She’d used all the wall space and started hanging pictures from the bookshelves. Thick dust coated everything. And then, the smell hit him: dog urine.

Her name was Sandy Edgerly. Her gray hair twisted on each side of her head and met in a bun. Her shirt was buttoned to the neck, and she slid the house slippers from her feet the instant she sat down, pulling her legs up under her. As she explained the job – yard work, projects around the house, and some light housework – David surveyed the chaos surrounding them, considering the disconnect between what she was hiring him to do and what actually needed doing. She wanted someone for about ten hours a week and she could pay twelve dollars per hour.

David had just moved to Chapel Hill. In Fort Lauderdale, he’d worked at an eyeglass office for two years. He hated it. He hated wearing dress shirts and slacks and ties. He hated selling and managing and sitting in an overly air-conditioned office. So when he moved to North Carolina he wanted a different life.

This was exactly what he was looking for.

* * *

In the month between turning 25 and starting my first grown-up job as a middle school teacher, I met David. It was the end of a solitary year that followed four years of back-to-back relationships. When he pulled back from our first kiss on a windy Fort Lauderdale beach, he looked toward the dark sky and said, “I think I’m in trouble.”

I’d never experienced the luxury of being certain how much someone liked me. When David looked at me, I could feel interest emanating from him. He touched me as though I was the loveliest woman he’d ever come across. Nine months in I bought him a thrift-store hand-blown glass vase – a vase I liked so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it.

“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t have to if you moved in.”

With him, I learned how to be in an adult relationship. We spent time together and time alone. Our stuff merged well and we had a room of our own in the apartment we shared. When we fought no one yelled. Instead we talked and worked to put us back together. I was happy, secure, safe.

I was also doubtful and afraid. Someone said to me, “We don’t go into relationships expecting them to end.” But, I did. They always had an expiration date. My parents divorced when I was seven and the only happy long-term couple I knew was supposedly a sham – the man was rumored to be gay.

With David, I went through phases. Unsure, especially in the face of his certainty. Then I’d focus on my desire to be with him for that day alone. The days added up and I forgot about my doubts for a while.

 * * *

On the second day, Sandy gave David a full tour of her seven-thousand-square-foot home. She’d dressed to work in a ball cap and noticed that he did, too, in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. With evident embarrassment, she led him deeper into the house, where she never allowed anyone to go. They walked by laundry baskets that had been sitting beside the front door for six years as she talked about how she and her husband liked to collect things with a history. Over 41 years they’d amassed a large collection of books, figurines, art, furniture, dishes, and clothes. Art leaned against walls, lurked under beds, hid in closets. They’d been meaning to do a thorough cleaning when John was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2006. By September he was gone. Friends washed her clothes and brought them back in those laundry baskets, but she hadn’t put the clothes away or even moved the baskets since the funeral.

Sandy and John on their wedding day, November 1965. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Edgerly)

She showed David the garage, so full they couldn’t walk into it. The basement and an accompanying apartment were cluttered with not only clothes and papers, but also archaic electronics, obsolete health care items, and old office supplies. David got to work without awaiting instruction, excavating walkways mid-tour.

Soon they were working forty hours a week. And they had some disagreements. He pulled up the oriental rugs that old Lucky had coated in urine and took them to the cleaners. He wanted Lucky confined to one room, but Sandy wanted him to roam. They compromised: the bedrooms were off limits and the clean rugs would remain in the basement until Lucky went to his heavenly reward. David sorted everything into categories: Keep and Put Away, Give to Charity, Throw Away.

Each day Sandy started off with David, telling him what pile each object belonged in. But she often got tired and had to go rest in the living room. Then he grew bolder, sorting on his own. She always checked the trash after he’d gone and if she saved anything – a piece of ribbon, a Halloween decoration – she jokingly chided him for getting rid of it the next day.

* * *

I heard about Sandy for months before I met her one October night. David and I sat on one side of a booth, with Sandy on the other, at a K&W Cafeteria. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, spinach, macaroni and cheese, coconut pie, cornbread, and biscuits were arrayed on the table between us.

Sandy talked about her childhood in Tennessee and about meeting her husband at college in Knoxville. It was an accident – she hadn’t even wanted to date. She was working full-time as the fashion coordinator at Sears and planned to stay in that world. She only went out with John as a favor to a friend. At dinner they had so much to say to one another that she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. From then on that’s the one thing she knew: she wanted to be with him.

When they discovered that their jobs were incompatible – his stable and needing roots, hers ever changing and requiring frequent moving – she gave up her career for him. When they couldn’t have children, she decided he was enough. When they ended up having a son anyway, she stayed home with him. When she was sad she wanted John; when her mom was sick she wanted John. She was proud of him. After he was gone her world fell apart.

A photo in Sandy’s den, of Sandy and John at their son Nate’s rehearsal dinner, in 2004. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

Sandy talked so much that night she hardly touched her food. David picked up the conversation so that she had time to eat. I reached for his hand under the table and pressed my leg against his. I thought about our love. I was an anxious person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by the world. When we first started dating I tried to shield him from that. If I started “feeling funny” when we were together, I’d go home. But over time I came to rely upon his love. The way he’d just comfort without trying to fix me. I squeezed his hand. Hearing Sandy talk about John reminded me of the safety I felt with him.

I looked at him. He was dark-haired. Narrow, but not exactly slim, with rounded shoulders and a head that jutted forward slightly when he wasn’t thinking about it. The expression on his face was either obviously charmed by what he heard or his lips were slightly pursed in what looked like bewilderment, but was usually concentration. I thought about how we’d moved to Chapel Hill so that I could attend graduate school. I loved coming home to him in our old rented farmhouse and feeling his warm body against mine, but I also judged and questioned him. At a department party I worried about what he would say and do, what my new colleagues would think of him. It took him three or four sentences, punctuated by pauses, to answer a question. These slow and measured responses frustrated me. Was I ready for this to be the person I would choose?

* * *

Sandy and David spent most days together. Now the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window knew not only her name, but his, too. They were parked in her minivan under a tree when she told him about the accident. One night after work seventeen years before she was standing at the post office counter, below the half-lowered metal door, rummaging through her purse when someone yelled “Ma’am!” She heard a terrifically loud noise and felt a blow that started in her head, traveled down her spine and into her feet. She thought, I’ve been shot.

She’d actually been hit on the head by the 884-pound metal door above her. After that everything changed. It marked the beginning of her second life. Her memory suffered. She couldn’t retain information that she read. She couldn’t drive because she couldn’t gauge the distance between her and the cars in front of her. Her body wouldn’t do what her mind told it to. She slept for twenty hours a day.

Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. John called this “laying-a-bed” and would often take her to breakfast, to visit a friend, or to her favorite antique store as a remedy. By the time David met her, a lot had changed: she read all the time and she drove just fine. But she still slept a lot, had difficulty remembering and sorting things, and sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. Without John, she didn’t know what to do with herself when she felt this way. Her house was full of her and John and their life together. She didn’t know how to attack it, so she just moved around it – adding to it over the years until it was unbearable.

Sandy hosted Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the first time in six years that the house teemed with people. Sandy and David had done so much work that Sandy’s granddaughter was allowed to roam free. Sandy told her son, “You can even look in the closets.”

* * *

After our dinner at K&W Cafeteria I started thinking about Sandy and the stories David told me. Her laying-a-bed reminded me of the way I felt sometimes and how David tried to cajole me out of it, just like John. But did I love David the same way that Sandy had loved John? With a devastating, messy, no-doubt-about-it love?

Sandy’s den, shortly after she and David made the house presentable, 2012. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

One day while sitting next to her fireplace she told me about their wedding night. They’d gone to Gatlinburg for a weekend honeymoon and after John fell asleep she thought, “What in the world have I done?” She didn’t know how to be a wife. Before she met John, she had not even wanted to marry.

John woke in the middle of the night, and saw her packing a bag, preparing to leave him. He suggested she wait till morning, because it was snowing and they were both tired. At breakfast she said, “The best I can offer you is one day at a time.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

At first this story relieved me. Her early uncertainty legitimized mine. She brought me into her bedroom and opened the closet. David had pushed her to get rid of John’s clothes, but a few items remained. She ran her fingers down the arm of a shirt. Sandy was aware of the importance she placed on belongings. She realized that her house and her stuff told the story of who she was not only to others, but also to herself. Her belongings reinforced her identity.

With David, through cleaning, sorting, and decluttering, Sandy renegotiated her identity. She didn’t need to keep everything in order for her to know who she was. Select items allowed her to hold on to a sense of her history, her accumulated identity, while also discovering a new version of herself. A version that put new wallpaper in the kitchen – wallpaper not for John, not for her son, but for herself. She decided that this marked the beginning of her third life.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized she had been sure of John. She’d doubted him that night, but she’d been sure from that first date when they had so much to say to one another, she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. With David and me, talking was something I worried about. Sometimes when we sat silently in a restaurant I thought it meant we weren’t right for each other, but David felt it was a sign of comfort and love.

Sandy gave up everything for John. And because of the life she got in return, she had few regrets. I was afraid to give up my alternate realties, the other versions of my life, of myself. David promised that I could hold onto his certainty, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.

* * *

David helped Sandy over the next year and a half in a reduced capacity, which was more like the job as originally advertised. She still bought more stuff than most people – QVC boxes showed up on her doorstep weekly. Most of the time she was unapologetic about this, but sometimes she hid things from David. One day she placed the winning bid on an oil painting showing a harbor scene at an auction. When she picked it up afterward she realized it wasn’t painted as well as she thought. On the way home she decided she wouldn’t tell David. She’d touch it up with some paint herself and then hang it on the wall surrounded by other, better paintings. Then she’d show him. That way she could skip him giving her a hard time.

David now lives in Columbus. I live in Pittsburgh. Moving across state lines together again felt like marriage, like forever. And I couldn’t promise him forever. That glass vase I bought him sits on a bookshelf in the apartment he lives in alone. He spends Thanksgiving with Sandy every year. Her house is full, but she isn’t hoarding papers in bags. The aroma of dog piss cannot be detected. Her grandkids are allowed to wander and she’s not ashamed to have friends over. This house, that they put so much work into, holds all her selves: her childhood, her life with John, her son, the accident, John’s death, and her by herself. For the first time she’s living a solitary life, and she doesn’t hate it.

 

 

Inside the Surreal, Offensive Tradition of ‘Bavarian China’

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Each year this small German town has a 'Chinese' parade, complete with an emperor in yellow-face and paper dragons galore. As an outsider looking in – and one of Chinese heritage to boot – I didn't know what to think.

Dawn is just beginning to tinge the horizon blue when a cannon blast shatters the quiet of the small Bavarian town. I shuffle from my bed to the window, pushing aside the paper garlands of yellow Chinaman figures to gaze blearily at the wintry landscape. The tourism office has dubbed Dietfurt, population 6,084, “Bavarian China” and “Town of the Seven Valleys.” The apartment I’ve rented for the week looks out onto one of those valleys, an expanse of untrodden snow fading into a dark hollow cloaked with bone-chilling mist. Were it not for the town’s pride and joy, the annual Bavarian China parade taking place this afternoon, I can’t imagine any reason I’d ever come here.

Fifteen minutes and one coffee later I’m tiptoeing down the icy front steps, following my ears toward the booms. After a few turns, there they are: a motley crew of thirty bedraggled clowns shuffling toward me like zombies. Between them they’re heaving a noise cannon, a marching band’s worth of instruments, and a wagon of booze they’ve been nursing since two a.m.

Morgen,” I mumble, and fall into step. We proceed down the road, trombones and trumpets ablaze, stopping a few minutes later in front of a tidy house on a cul-de-sac. The door swings open and out steps a rotund, sixty-something white man clad in a floor-length robe of gold lame. It’s Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, the star of today’s festivities.

“Come in, come in!” he cries. We pile into the kitchen, where his wife and daughters are passing around glasses of fizzy wine, coffee, and doughnuts. A stick of Chinese incense sends pungent curlicues into the air. It’s a well-deserved break for the clown wakeup crew, which is tasked with getting the town in partying spirit right from the crack of dawn on this most important day of the year. It’s Unsinniger Donnerstag – Nonsensical Thursday –, the beginning of Carnival Week.

In Dietfurt, the occasion is marked with a massive Bavarian China parade that draws fifteen thousand drunken, Chinese-costumed spectators. It’s a proud local tradition every Dietfurt native holds dear. It’s also the weirdest and most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever witnessed. “What the hell am I doing here?” I think to myself as I, a writer of proud Chinese heritage, watch the jovial man next to me, an emperor of fake Chinese heritage, sweep aside the tassels on his chintzy headdress to take a bite of jelly doughnut.

* * *

I first met Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, a.k.a. Fritz Koller, the afternoon prior in the town’s one-room museum dedicated to Carnival, or Fasching. We sat under the gaze of his emperor predecessors whose portraits and gibberish names lined the walls. A display case held memorabilia from parades past, like a pin depicting a buck-toothed Chinaman caricature riding a panda like a bucking bronco. In one corner hung an embroidered robe of yellow silk, a gift to Emperor Boo-Dah-Washy (reign: 1976-1999) on a Chinese-government-sponsored visit to Beijing.

Being emperor is a big responsibility, Fritz told me. Behind his prim, rimless glasses, his eyes were weary. His parade float and costume took months of work. The bar has been set high: In 2000, he made his debut hatching out of a giant dragon’s egg. Here he paused and cast a studied glance at me.

“And where are you from?” he asked politely.

I knew what he was getting at. “My mother is Chinese.”

“Chinese roots, thought so,” he said placidly, and carried on. “So as you know, the dragon symbolizes good luck.”

I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but that reaction wasn’t it. Some enthusiasm at encountering some actual Chineseness, maybe, or a touch of humility about explaining Chinese symbolism to a Chinese person.

The parade’s “Dragon Troupe,” waving banners and mock kung fu swords.

It was strange to see my culture crudely caricatured and commodified into a hokey party gimmick and to keep my mouth shut. But I came out of curiosity – about what this ritual means for its believers, and how small towns can become incubators for the most oddball behavior. I’m in Dietfurt as an intrepid social anthropologist, I told myself, to observe the locals in their native habitat, withholding judgment.

And it was hard not to be impressed by Fritz’s dedication. He’ll ride in the parade drawn by a massive dragon, then climb up a towering pagoda for his grand finale. To an outsider it sounds purely absurd, but behind the shenanigans is a nostalgic reverence for tradition, even a sense of identity. “Some of my most wonderful childhood memories are of Fasching, Fritz said wistfully. “This is a tradition we grow up with. Bringing up the next generation of Bavarian Chinese is very important.”

Nobody can say for sure why, but Dietfurt has been nicknamed “Bavarian China” for centuries. The legend goes like this: During the Middle Ages, a bishop became angry the town wasn’t paying its feudal dues. When he sent over his treasurer, the townspeople shut all the gates to the little walled town. He reported that the Dietfurters had barricaded like the Chinese behind their Great Wall, and the reputation stuck.

Carnival is a big deal throughout the west and south of Germany. In Catholic Bavaria, it’s a chance for the straight-laced populace to let loose. But nowhere, as any Dietfurter will proudly tell you, does Carnival quite like they do – that is, in yellowface makeup and Confucius beards. It was back in 1928 that someone, no one remembers who, suggested the local brass band take inspiration from the town’s nickname and wear Chinese costumes in the Carnival parade. The idea caught on, and a tradition was born.

* * *

After parting ways with the clown crew, I soon find myself wedged onto a pub bench with the emperor and his entourage. Pia, the bubbly young blonde who runs the Dietfurt tourism office, invited me here for a press breakfast, but I seem to be the only journalist who showed. The emperor’s right-hand man, Kai-Ho-Gei, is decked out in a maroon velvet outfit that I can only describe as campy kung fu warrior. On his head is a gold-painted hardhat, dripping with tassels and topped with a red lampshade. Then there’s Kai-Ze-Mei, clad in Tibetan monks’ robes with a shaved head to match.

Breakfast is a pretzel, grainy mustard, and bulging weisswurst sausages. Tradition mandates eating these by biting a hole at one end and sucking out the filling like meat Jell-O, but I choose decorum over street cred and use knife and fork. Kai-Ho-Gei, the one with the lampshade on his head, nudges over his weissbier and insists I drink.

“I have to pace myself,” Fritz says. “A drunk emperor would not be tolerated.”

Kai-Ho-Gei, the Diefurt emperor’s right-hand man, has a beer with breakfast.

Here’s Pia, clad in a silky black top with a Mandarin collar. Swishes of makeup shape her eyes into almonds, and a rhinestone sparkles on one of her front teeth. The emperor has pre-ordered her a beer, which she throws back in a few gulps. I finish my sausage and decline more beer. Time to parade: T-minus three hours.

Back on the square, men are barricading the bank with planks. On the pavement, vendors are frying spring rolls and stacking doughnuts, each one daubed with chocolate icing to give it a slant-eyed Chinaman face. I spot a group of Chinese twenty-somethings and make a beeline for them, the first actual Chinese I’ve spotted since arriving in town.

“Those lions look weird,” Wang is saying, pointing at the papier-mâché animals flanking the square, which look like a preschool craft project. Along with his friend Qiling, I soon learn, Wang is studying for his master’s outside Nuremberg. They’ve come here with three friends after learning about the parade on Facebook. Unlike Yin, who’s darting around taking selfies with the Germans, Wang doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun.

“Why do they think this stuff looks Chinese?” he gripes to me in Mandarin. “They’ve mixed up stuff from the Qing and Ming dynasties. And why all the pointed hats? Nobody in China wears those anymore.”

“We have Oktoberfest in Shanghai,” Qiling reminds him.

“At least people there don’t dress up like Germans,” Wang retorts.

A couple walks by, she in Japanese geisha attire and he in a Genghis Khan getup, with a full face of yellow makeup.

“They think we have yellow skin,” Wang says, bemused. He points at his winter-chapped face. “But I’m more red than anything.”

We duck into a pub to escape the February chill, and before the door has even swung shut, the room falls silent and swivels to face us. It’s like a slow-motion scene from an old spaghetti western. “The Chinese are here!” a voice cries.

Servus!” Yin calls out cheerily, the informal Bavarian hello.

Servus,” responds a jovial chorus.

We scrounge seats in the back room, across from an oma and opa who stare in stunned rapture. Yin offers them a Prost, and they break into grins. Unlike me, my Chinese blood diluted with WASPy Canadian-Britishness from my dad, these “real” Chinese kids are the celebrities of the day.

As Wang plows through a currywurst sausage, he takes the opportunity to pick my brain. How did I learn Chinese, he wants to know, and what was it like growing up in Taiwan as a mixed-race kid, caught between cultures?

“Like, what if I marry a German woman?” he asks between bites. “And we had a kid? They wouldn’t really belong anywhere, not here in Germany or in China.”

What I don’t say to him because it’s not the time or place, and because my Chinese skills are not quite up to the task, is that he’s right: Sometimes you end up not belonging anywhere, neither in the country where you were born or the ones your parents came from, and at some point you have to accept that your identity will be forever complicated. But then again, maybe it’s always complicated, as illustrated by Exhibit A, an all-white town in the Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria, where the people have built their identity upon pretending to be Chinese.

Instead of saying this, I tip back the last of my beer and reluctantly say goodbye. I’m due at a reception hosted by the mayor, which turns out to be a dud. I head back into the cold alone. The parade is about to start.

* * *

After a long morning of beer-swilling, I’m ready to get the show on the road. And then, with a sudden cacophony of cheers, we’re off. Here they come, the brass band in coolie hats trailing one long, faux braid each; the ninjas; and the “Chinese from Mars” wearing beer mugs on their heads. Here they come, the “Chinese Indians” in feathered headdresses. A dragon fills the air with belches of yellow smoke. A bevvy of blondes sashays along in dirndls fashioned from Chinese brocade. The spectators press in; they cheer and roar and swig beer. I spot the emperor’s daughters, grinning ear-to-ear as they twirl orange parasols.

The local soccer team and hip-hop dance group are in the parade, the bikers’ club and the youth gun club too, and the town kindergarten. They keep on marching past, one costumed group after another, though my ice-cold feet are aching by now for the parade to be over. I duck inside the town hall to warm up. A drunk couple makes out furiously next to me, smearing his Fu Manchu beard across his chin.

I’m back outside just in time to see another dragon peering around the bend, this one drawing a tall wagon on which the emperor rides, raising his arms benevolently like a pope in his popemobile. He looks beatific and even through the torrent of streamers dangling from his headdress, it’s clear he’s beaming with pride.

His wagon halts on the square, where he climbs the steps to his throne with great ceremony, heralded by oom-pah-pah music and flanked by the dirndled dancers. This is the parade’s climax, but rather than a regal speech, what comes next is a call-and-response performance, something like the chants I learned at summer camp when I was ten. The music swells, the emperor delivers a few rhymes, the crowd roars and drinks, and so it goes, one boozy verse after another. I want to feel the reverence for tradition that Fritz enthused about, but this is actually reminding me of a Halloween frat party. Wang, Qiling, and their Chinese crew are nowhere to be seen.

The crowd in the town’s main square awaits the emperor’s speech.

By the time nightfall descends, Dietfurt is absolutely heaving. Security guards frisk passersby, and an ambulance stands at the ready. Teenagers skulk down dark alleyways, emptying bottles of vodka down their gullets. At the entrance to one party, a sign announcing the entry fee, eintritt, spells out “eintlitt” instead, replaced the “r” with a big, mocking “L” in red marker to make sure no one misses the racist punchline. For the first time, I feel a hot surge of anger. This anthropological experiment is over.

Thankfully, there’s wine waiting in my apartment. As the people of Dietfurt drink their way into oblivion in their silk pajamas and pointy bamboo hats, I fall asleep on the couch, Merlot on my lips and Steve Urkel dubbed into German on the TV.

Next morning, I’m up early again. The town is dead quiet as I walk to the bus stop, treading on sodden confetti and sidestepping a Chinese takeout box, its noodle innards splayed out like greasy roadkill. Everyone is still in bed, nursing hangovers and dreams of next year’s parade.

I didn’t finish that bottle of wine, but I’ve got a different kind of hangover. Smiling gamely in the midst of madness takes a lot out of a person, and I’m more than ready to flee this Twilight Zone where cultural appropriation is a way of life. Still, I got what I came for: a culture-clash encounter like none other. Also, the confirmation that however complicated my mixed Chinese identity can sometimes feel, there are people out there – namely a town of 6,084 people in Bavaria – who are far more confused than I will ever be.

It takes two trains and a plane before I’m back home in Berlin, and throughout the journey, the refrain from the Dietfurt anthem repeats in my head like a broken record: Chinesen aus Bayern, wir wollen immer feiern… We Bavarian Chinese, we always want to party.

 

 

As My Face Disappeared So Did My Mother and Father

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When a horrifying bacterial infection disfigured my newborn face, my parents abandoned me right there in my hospital bed. The only thing more painful than knowing they left me behind was finding them 38 years later.

Three days after his birth, a perfect baby, the carrier of his young parents’ dreams and ambitions, became what some might call a monster. Like ants on honey, a bacterial infection consumed his face, and as quickly as his face disappeared, so did his mother and father. The newborn that his parents had expected to take home and raise as their cherished son was no longer the child they had the courage to claim.

I was that baby.

Despite their valiant efforts, the doctors, with their arsenal of antibiotics, proved unable to push back the bacteria’s devastating aggression. When it had finally run its course, my nose, lower right eyelid, tear ducts, lips, and palate had been eaten away, leaving behind a gaping hole.

Abandoned by both parents and stripped of any family, I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, identified for the next eighteen years of my life as case number XUG-905.

Perhaps my parents assumed or even prayed I would not survive. Or perhaps they believed that without a face, I had become something less than human, incapable of loving and being loved. Whatever the basis of their decision, I don’t know anything about it except that I was abandoned.

What I do know of those first years has been reconstructed in the manner of my face — bit by bit, stitch by stitch. I know that with my lips and mouth eaten away, I was unable to nurse so was fed intravenously. And I know, given the scores of operations I endured — ultimately perhaps as many as a hundred — that I was tethered for much of my childhood, my hands tied with strips of cloth to my hospital crib so I couldn’t tear at my bandages and stitches. But most damaging of all, the one person in the world I most wanted to reach out for had long gone.

* * *

The state of New Jersey, no doubt concerned over mounting medical costs and the ill effects I might suffer from long-term institutional living, placed me in a foster home when I was three. The family’s adjustment to having me in their midst must have been daunting; a scarred freak of a child with a stretch of patched-together depressed skin in lieu of a nose, no lower right eyelid or upper lip, a gaping palate, and behavior severely lacking in social skills.

The first time I can recall being part of a family I was sitting on a hardwood staircase and peering down through white banisters at the living room below, fascinated by how different the view was. This was a real house, in Morristown, New Jersey, and my new mom was tying my shoelaces while I looked down at the place I would come to call home. Obediently, I held out each foot in turn as she tugged on my laces and I scanned the puzzling scene.

I was now the Mackeys’ foster child. Big Ed; his wife, Shirl; their daughters Robin and Lisa; and their oldest, Frank, were my new family.

For the most part it was a happy home in the suburbs — a white clapboard, two-story colonial with a large yard, lots of trees, and two cars: Shirl’s blue Valiant and the family car, a wood-paneled station wagon. Ed, who had to commute each day into the city, was ambitious and, knowing he wouldn’t get any unearned breaks, often worked evenings and weekends doing construction. Despite his habitual bitching about how rotten his day had been and his quick temper that could flare like a brush fire, all of us admired him.

Shirl, in an effort to help me make friends, convinced me to join Cub Scouts. That lasted one meeting, when I got booted out for punching a mean Scout who picked the wrong person to bully. Only rarely did I participate in group activities, except for occasions like trick-or-treating when everyone was caught up in the excitement of Halloween and had their attentions elsewhere. Masked, I could be forgiven my freakishness, but the irony was that my own face would have been a far more frightening costume. Still, for one short glorious night I could escape my reality.

* * *

“Howard,” Shirl announced one day, “Dr. Gratz thinks it’s time for you to have another skin graft for your nose — because you’re growing so fast,” she hastily added when she saw my face blanch with terror. I wasn’t one of those kids who love to hear about how tall they are getting, proudly stretching themselves to full height against the doorframe to measure how much they’ve grown. This was not one of those charts.

Calmly she assured me this surgery was necessary and gently broke the news that I would have to be hospitalized for a few days. Crestfallen, I slumped in my chair and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Shirl did her best to convince me that it would all be worth it. I understood full well that a stay in the hospital meant pain, lots of it.

A large nine-by-eight-inch patch of skin was excised from my chest and shoulder, the graft then rolled up and stitched along the seam to create a headless snake of raw, living flesh. One end was then attached under my chin and the other to the tip of my reconstructed nose. This appendage, left to dangle in front of my face for the next six weeks, constantly reminded me of what I had gone through but gave me no idea of where I was going.

With strict orders not to bathe or shower, and allowed only a careful wash in the sink, I gingerly padded to the small bathroom adjoining my hospital room to dutifully wash up. When I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I froze. Staring back at me was a creature more gruesome than the late-night horror-movie monsters I watched on TV. That the alien in the reflection was me, Howard. It was too much. I felt my blood plummet to my feet and slid helplessly down the wall to the cold tile floor. “Why me? Why me?” I sobbed, over and over. God must hate me. What terrible thing did I do to deserve this? Bone weary when I returned home, I dragged myself into the den and collapsed on my beanbag chair to wait for Robin to come home. There, stuck to the vinyl with sweat and tears and cradled by thousands of beans molded to the shape of my body, I cried myself to sleep.

* * *

By the summer following my freshman year of high school, even Shirl was at her wit’s end. Both she and Ed decided for everyone’s sake it was time I try another foster home. “Howie, you’re not happy. Let’s just see how it goes for a while.”

On a sad June day just weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a state worker picked me up to deliver me to New Jersey, where I was temporarily placed in the home of a German woman, one whose feet were so swollen she could barely navigate her way around the house.

Next was a placement with a nice Jewish family who said blessings in Hebrew before each meal. That lasted a week.

Oddly enough, it was Dr. Gratz who intervened. During an examination he determined it was time for another skin graft. Realizing that I had better use the state’s medical funding while I still could, I went along with it.

When the state found a temporary placement for me close to the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx where my operation was slated, I felt I’d come full circle, back to the very borough where all the pain and loneliness had started. With yet another new face in a long line of state social workers, I drove to my new home where I would stay for the duration of my surgery and recovery.

I became a bit concerned as we drove past abandoned warehouses and graffiti-covered walls, the smell of garbage rotting in the summer heat filling our car. We soon pulled up in front of a block of identical brick row houses. I hadn’t finished knocking when the door opened and Vito and Mary Signorelli stepped out to welcome me. My caseworker, anxious to get out of the neighborhood before the sun went down, hastily departed.

First-generation Italians, my new interim foster parents greeted me enthusiastically. Vito, gray haired and grizzly, appeared not to have shaved for a week and wore his baggy, black-and-white-checkered kitchen pants loosely cinched below his large belly. Over a stained white V-neck T-shirt hung an impressive collection of gold chains that made faint clanking noises whenever he moved. Mary, her black hair thick with ringlets, was short and stout like a tree trunk. On each of her short fingers she wore several inexpensive gold rings, outdoing Vito with his one pinkie ring.

Feeling awkward and out of place, I made my way into the living room. Everything was covered in plastic: the chairs, lamps, sofa — even the carpet was protected with plastic runners. Plaster statues of the Madonna, Jesus, St. Francis, and St. Christopher cluttered the room and decorated the turquoise walls. In the dining room, a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hung opposite a giant crucifix.

“Anthony, get-a down here!” Jolted from my culture shock by Vito’s bellowing, which made Ed sound like a choirboy, I turned to see a slovenly dressed, overweight boy appear on the stairs. Scarcely bothering to lift his head of long, stringy hair when we were introduced, Anthony struck me as someone lost in his own home. Moving like a sleepwalker, he showed me to my tiny room with a daybed (over which hung another cross) that filled the space. In the time it took for me to throw my bags on the bed, Anthony was gone. All I heard was the door closing behind him, then the sound of rock music pulsating through our common wall.

I returned downstairs to rejoin Vito in the living room. Pensive, his head tilted as he studied my face, he asked, “Howard, you-a Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had guessed correctly. In reality, I had no idea what my background was and always tried to avoid any such line of questioning.

“That’s-a okay. You-a hungry?”

I nodded, whiffing the tantalizing aroma that filled the house. “Good, Mary make-a lunch for us. I make-a fresh bread.”

* * *

Finally, the day for my surgery arrived. I was sixteen now, and though I understood the progression of each stage, I felt I was repeating the same old story but with a different body part. This would be another serious surgery, and to lower the chance of infection, my stay this time would be two weeks.

Dr. Gratz’s plan was to attach another headless snake of skin to my nose, only this time he’d take a twelve-by-fifteen-inch graft from my left thigh. It would be, I hoped, a stepping-stone toward the final act when the curtain would close on my resentful relationship with Dr. Gratz. After the surgery, I was overjoyed when Ed and Shirl, Robin, Frank and Lisa showed up to visit me. If only for a few hours, I was with my family again and didn’t feel quite so alone in the world. They seemed happy to see me, and their news of home helped ease my homesickness. Even Vito and Mary visited me, bringing me fresh cannoli when I was able to eat solid food again.

Discharged, I returned to the Signorellis, where everyone was taken aback at the sight of my bandages and swelling. It wasn’t a coincidence that they spoke more often in Italian than they had before my surgery. Ordered to stay out of the sun, I spent my entire summer indoors watching Yankee ball games or “Bowling for Dollars” while Vito yelled at the TV as though the contestants were with us in the living room. Attentive to my every need, they did everything in their power to help me.

Mary decided that food was what I needed. “Howard, manga, manga, you need-a strength.” Between her pastas, sausages, and minestrone, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. But their insistence that I not lift a finger left me with too much time on my hands. Vito, seeing me depressed and limping around the house with my leg still sore from the graft, tried to cheer me up with Italian ices he bought on the street.

When I returned to Dr. Gratz a few weeks later to have my bandages removed, I felt the old anxiety I always felt in his presence. Tense, I lay back on the rustling paper.

“Howard, relax. I will take this off, yes?”

I nodded, not the least concerned about so simple a procedure. In one fell swoop, he ripped the tape off my leg without even giving me time to scream. My whole body went into shock. In the moment it took my mind to register the pain, I didn’t cry, I screamed. “Fuuuuuuuck!”

Dr. Gratz’s head jerked back like a chicken’s, his eyes bulging like headlights. Furiously I glared at him, seething with contempt at how cavalierly he treated me, as if he were pulling a Band-Aid off a finger. “Howard, Howard, it’s fine, it’s over.”

It wasn’t fine. I looked down at the droplets of blood floating above a sticky yellow pebbling where the skin had been removed from my thigh and thought of the yellow fly strips dotted with insects that hung in my old neighborhood’s backyards. I wanted to jump up and smash his face in, not for what he had done, but for his complete lack of sensitivity. With great effort I resisted the urge, consoling myself with the fact that we would soon part ways.

My stay with the Signorellis was over, and though they had been kind and generous, it was time to move on.

“Howard, you are a wonderful boy!” Mary said as we hugged goodbye. “God bless-a you. I will-a pray for you.”

* * *

One night, some two decades later, after hours of trying to fall asleep, I turned on the TV and mindlessly watched From Here to Eternity. Just as I was drifting off, a commercial roused me: “Find your long lost loved ones! Call now! 1-800-SEARCH.”

Half asleep, I fumbled for the remote and turned up the sound as smiling men, women, and children ran toward each other across the screen. Radiant with joy, they embraced in a meadow of wildflowers, the empty void in their hearts filled. “Call now and find that special someone today!”

I scrambled to find a pen and jotted down the number.

The next morning when I saw the number lying on the coffee table, I sat down and eyed it warily, as if it were some creature that might bite. My mind raced as I stared at it, wondering what I would do. Call? Toss it in the trash? Tuck it away and let it nag at me like a splinter? An unpleasant tightness in my chest made me realize I was holding my breath. Do it!

If only to end the suspense, I picked up the phone and dialed. Casually, I gave the information requested: social security number, place and date of birth, my biological parents’ full names as stated on my birth certificate, and my credit card number for the $50 service. After informing me that I would receive the results by mail within six weeks, the operator wished me luck. In a daze I hung up and began pacing my apartment, pausing every so often to stare blankly out at the city.

I had never intended to track down my birth parents. Apart from desperate times in childhood when I had ached for my birth mother, I had mentally banished her and my father from my life. My attitude was, if they didn’t care enough to seek me out, to hell with them. But now, with that one call, I began to imagine my parents. What would they be like? How would they react to my contacting them? Did my mother have an emotional breakdown over my disfigurement? Had it psychologically incapacitated her? Had my father forced the decision to abandon me? A “him or me” ultimatum?

Imagining one scenario after another consumed me, each playing out in my head until finally, overloaded with pointless speculation, I put it out of my mind.

Weeks later the envelope I’d been waiting for arrived. I anxiously tore it open and pulled out a short stack of computer printouts. It was an almost out-of-body experience to gaze down at columns of Shulmans listed in New Jersey, along with their phone numbers. I was thirty-eight years old and had never before met a Shulman, and now, somewhere among the names I held in my hand, there might be the ones I sought.

Ed and Shirl, from the time I was old enough to ask, had given me what information they had, which was little more than their names. Knowing that Leonard and Sarah were my parents’ names, I focused my search on the L. Shulmans and S. Shulmans. I began dialing the first L but abruptly hung up when it occurred to me that it would probably be best if I had an opening that didn’t make me come across as weak or needy.

“Hello?” I practiced, clearing my throat to find the right pitch, “Is Leonard or Sarah in? Please, may I — my name? It’s Howard, your biological son.” No, too contrived. “Excuse me, my name is Howard and I’m looking for my biological parents.” No, too abrupt. “Excuse me, my name is Howard. Did you by chance leave a baby in the hospital?” O.K. Again. “My name is Howard Shulman. I’m looking for a Sarah or Leonard Shulman. I was wondering if you might be my birth parents?” This was ridiculous!

On the first call that someone answered, angst set in. The woman said she knew of no such people. The relief I felt made me wonder if I was ready for this.

Determined, I took a deep breath and dialed the next number, and the next. With each call I made, I received the same reply. I expanded my questioning, asking if they might be related to anyone named Leonard or Sarah. “Sorry, no,” they each answered. After a series of dead-end calls, my anxiety began to subside. I was becoming resigned that my search would lead nowhere and was thinking I might just forget the whole thing, when a young woman answered.

“Who’s calling, please?”

I had to grope for words. “Um, well…my name is Howard Shulman. I, uh, got your number from a family search agency, and I was, well, put up for adoption, well, sort of, and now…”

“Hold on a minute, please.”

I held my breath. In the background I could hear voices, an exchange with another woman, which I strained to hear. An eternal moment passed.

“Hello?” a woman answered, her voice cautious.

“Is this Sarah Shulman?” I asked.

She knows who is on the phone. I can feel it. Suddenly I was wary.

“Yes?” she replied, holding her breath. “I’m Sarah.”

“I think you may be my birth mother,” I said, my voice quiet. Time slowed down as a deafening silence filled the connection between us. I waited, every fiber of my being tuned to the other end of the line. In my state of hyper-awareness I could hear her strained breathing and the unmistakable sound of tears choked back. Gently, I broke the silence.

“Are you O.K.?”

After a long pause she answered, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I don’t want to disturb you.”

After a lull, I heard her whisper, “I always knew you would call.”

I was stunned. Unable to respond, I could only listen to her faint crying.

For the first time it fully dawned on me that this was more than just about me. I wanted to say that I hadn’t meant to upset her. How could I tell her I had never intended to make this call in the first place and was no more prepared than she?

Unprompted by me, she began talking of Leonard, who had passed away a few years earlier.

“I’m sorry, I would have liked to meet him.”

“He was a good man,” she said, her voice trailing off.

My mind raced full-throttle. How good of a man could he have been, being party to giving his own son away?

She regained her composure and opened a floodgate of questions about my life. “Are you married? Any children?”

“No, no. I’ve had wonderful women in my life, but no.” I needed her to know that I wasn’t a social outcast and functioned fully in the world. Suddenly, fearing she might hang up at any moment, I blurted out, “What’s my heritage?”

“Why, you’re a Russian Jew.”

“Russian Jew?”

“Yes, on both sides. Third generation. Your father’s side was in the garment trade.”

Well, I thought, at least my call has been worth something.

At her urging, I briefly touched on the main events of my life while conveniently omitting the nefarious details. More than anything, I thought it odd that she had not asked a single question concerning my health or medical status. Were the words “face” or “nose” taboo?

And then, without intending to, the question that had festered inside me my entire life blurted out of my mouth like a micro torpedo. “Why did you give me up?”

I heard her breath catch but she made no response. When she didn’t answer, I broke the tension by suggesting a reason. “I understand it was a different time, with all my medical issues.”

“No, it wasn’t that,” Sarah answered, retreat in her voice.

“What then?” I asked, desperate to understand.

“It was a very difficult decision. Please, don’t make me feel guilty.”

I decided it wise to back off if I didn’t want her hanging up on me. “Do I have any siblings?”

“Yes.” Relief and pride filled her voice as she began to speak at length on a subject obviously dear to her heart. “David, the oldest, is a lawyer. He’s married with children and …”

Her words became a blur I could hardly follow and made me begin to wonder what had been the point of initiating this surreal conversation. So that I could feel invisible? A nonentity? Are you that insensitive? Don’t you realize the more you praise your “true” children, the more you exclude me? Bewildered, I hardly knew how to respond. I could feel my anger rising but held my tongue.

“My daughter, Linda,” she continued, “is also married and is now expecting, and Joseph, my youngest, is a lawyer as well, still single.” Her voice trailed off, as if Joseph’s bachelorhood were the only thing that marred her contentment.

Struggling to disguise the hostility I felt, I asked, “So David is my older brother?”

“Yes, he’s always been aware of everything. The same with all the other children.”

Exasperated, I still needed answers and returned to the only question that mattered to me. “Why did you give me up?”

I thought I would crush the phone her pause was so long, my hand turning white as I waited for her to tell me the truth.

Finally, in a voice unsteady and barely audible, she answered. “We couldn’t handle it.”

Couldn’t handle it! What the hell was “it?” Social stigma? Financial? Medical? Family pressure? Maternal guilt? What? Was I even human to her? She couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?

I was shaking, enraged.

I had never cared before; survival had always been my focus for as long as I could remember, but now I had to know more. I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. If I didn’t regain control, I knew what little headway I had made would evaporate. My next question was nothing I had intended, but just flew out of my mouth. “Can we meet sometime?”

She hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m quite busy right now.”

“I understand.” I didn’t, actually. Her dismissal felt like another abandonment. I let it go and thanked her for her time.

“Call me again if you wish,” she said. Then the line went dead.

* * *

By the time we pulled up in front of the deli, my heart felt as if it would leap out of my chest. I took my time paying the fare and, as calm as I could be under the circumstances, stopped to peer into the chrome interior, my misshapen nose all but pressed to the window. Seeing no one that fitted her description, I took a deep breath and entered. Inside, I scanned the diners and immediately settled on a petite woman halfway down the aisle, seated alone and facing the entrance. Without looking at her clothes, I knew in my heart she was Sarah.

As I approached her I was startled to see she was older than I had imagined. What had I expected? Sitting straight, her shoulders back, she sat stiffly waiting for me, her face tense. Noting her tailored light-brown jacket and white satin blouse, I immediately thought that she shopped at Saks or Ann Taylor. Almost four decades since the day my fate was sealed, the day when I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, and I’m critiquing her wardrobe? My attention shifted to her dark coiffed hair streaked with gray, and at that moment realized that she, too, had spent time preparing herself for the occasion. “Sarah?” I heard myself ask.

“Yes?”

“I’m Howard.”

“Yes, I know.”

How could she not? With her eyes absorbing my face, I could barely follow what she was saying. We tentatively shook hands.

Facing Sarah, I settled myself in the booth and took measure of the stranger sitting across from me. Tired and drawn, with deep shadows under her eyes, she betrayed her studied composure by nervously fidgeting with her coffee cup.

“You look good,” she said, her voice quavering.

I’m sure I do, compared to the last time you saw me — bandaged, hooked up to tubes, fluids, and God knows what else. “Well, I’m still here,” I retorted, immediately on the defense.

She sighed but kept her eyes on me, then acknowledged my cutting attempt at humor with a wistful smile. As she searched my face I got the distinct impression she was evaluating my surgical alterations, comparing what she saw seated before her against what she remembered of me at birth. Her expression hovered somewhere between stoic and vulnerable, like hot and cold water running into a plugged sink—a lukewarm mix that could go either way.

She took the plunge. “I want you to know I never hid anything from my children.”

At “my children,” I sucked in air, cut to the quick.

I changed the subject and launched into bits of my history she’d already heard from our phone conversations. But the burning question of why she had abandoned me refused to stay bottled up and was making my stomach churn. Before I even knew I was forming the question, it slipped off my tongue. “Why did you give me up?” I asked again, the urgency I felt evident in the force of my question.

She dropped her head and stared unseeing into her untouched coffee.

“Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?” I asked. “Why, since your family knew about me?” Saying “your family” to the woman who gave birth to me was surreal in itself.

“I thought it would be best for you that you start over with a new family,” she said, her shoulders sagging.

“My new family? I don’t understand.”

She looked confused. “You were adopted, right?” she asked, leaning in toward me, holding my eyes in hers.

“No,” I answered haltingly, “never formally.”

A shocked look came over her face. “But . . . but they told us you were adopted!”

“They? Who’s ‘they’?”

“The lawyer.”

“Lawyer?” Now I was totally confused.

Sarah’s hands lay still, as if what held her up had deflated. Shaking her head, she finally continued. “Leonard and I hired an attorney to look after you,” she explained. “He told us you had been adopted by a nurse, a nice family in the Midwest.”

“Midwest?” I had to laugh out loud. “No, the family I was placed with was in New Jersey.”

“Where?”

“I lived in Morristown, Summit, Randolph.”

Her eyes widened. It was too much for her and she slumped back against the booth. In some detail I told her of my childhood, growing up in the Garden State.

“You lived in Summit and worked at the Office restaurant?”

“Yes.”

She covered her face with her hands, her fingers splayed so I could see her eyes tearing up as she stared at me in disbelief.

“You know it?” I asked.

After some time she lowered her hands and placed them palms-down on the table. When she spoke her words were tremulous and distant. “We…sometimes Leonard and I would eat there on occasion.”

Her words trailed off.

It was my turn to lean back and catch my breath. I saw my dishwasher self, washing their dirty dishes, the closest I would ever be to them since the day I became an “it” to her. The irony of my scraping their discards in the back room, bussing their table, or redoing an order they might have sent back to the kitchen — just like they sent me back for failing to be good enough — made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to walk out then and there, leave her like she did me. Instead, I resolved to finish what I had started.

We sat some moments in silence, each pondering our likely crossing of paths, when she began to speak of Leonard, how he was a self-made man who owned a clothing store with his brother, and what a hard worker and honorable man he was. More than ever I wanted to meet him so I could ask him just how honorable he was that he could abandon his second-born son.

When Sarah told me how she and Leonard had started a program to help Jewish children in need, I was dumbstruck by her callousness — cruelty, really. Proud of her charity, she prattled on. My body temperature soaring, I abruptly rose and excused myself to go to the men’s room. Reeling, I dropped my forearms to the rim of the sink and cradled my head in my hands, utter disbelief at what I had just learned sucking the wind out of me.

Get a grip, I told myself. This was her guilt, trying to save thousands when she turned her back on saving one. Little good it had done me. My jaw clenched, I returned to our booth for round two. I needed to rise above her insensitivity and regain my composure. How could I fight with an elderly woman? But sadly, my anger got the better of me. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked, my voice steely.

Without emotion or hesitation she answered, “No, I don’t. I did what I had to.”

Oddly, that was the only thing she’d said since I laid eyes on her that I could relate to. But that she could see herself as a proud mother, benefactor, and devoted wife and still look me in the eye, refusing to give me any real explanation for her decision to walk away from me, her baby, her blood, and expect I’d be satisfied, incensed me.

Her lips quivered as tears resurfaced and streamed down her cheeks. “Howard, I can’t do it anymore,” she cried. Tears, Sarah? You have no idea the tears I cried for you when I was a child. Suddenly indignant, she straightened up and declared, “I will not relive this again. What’s done is done.” I nodded in complete agreement.

Having now exhausted any lingering shred of mercy, I was incapable of holding my peace after so many years of pent-up anger, and pressed on. “How could you have done that to a baby? Forget me — any baby?”

“Howard, I’ve punished myself enough. No more.” She was now in full retreat.

I felt no satisfaction in seeing her cry. The woman who had been in control was gone, and in her place sat a pathetically guilt-ridden one, burdened by a lifetime of crushing denial. At that moment the depth of her distress suddenly struck me, and I apologized over and over, swearing to her that it had not been my intention to hurt her. My quest had gone from curiosity to attack — with an aging woman who could never defend her actions and could never dare to revisit the past.

The table between us seemed to broaden as the distance between us grew, the air suddenly as stifling as our conversation. I made a feeble attempt to reach out to her. “I’m having a hard time understanding this, you know.”

Like the stranger she was, I thanked her for her time and escorted her outside, where I flagged down a taxi for her. There was no feeling between us — nothing. The ties of blood were evidently not enough to bridge the gap. Drained, we could do nothing more than shake hands and say our good-byes. Alone on the sidewalk, I watched her taxi pull away.

Our meeting replaying in my head, I struck out towards home. I had poured my heart out, venting frustrations buried so deep I didn’t believe anything could ever have awakened them. I had barely refrained from lashing out that she was a God-fearing, synagogue-attending, do-gooder, Jewish hypocrite, all of which would have served no purpose and would have done nothing for the anger I felt. Emotionally and physically spent, I arrived at my apartment exhausted, taking no comfort from the thought that blocks away she was probably experiencing similar emotions. Sarah, too, I realized, had suffered her own torment. How had she always known I would call?

* * *

Howard Shulman is the author of Running from the Mirror, a memoir to be released by Sandra Jonas Publishing House on October 5, 2015. This story is a condensed excerpt from that book. Preorder the book now and receive a 25% discount: http://bit.ly/1L4mcCE. Goodreads members can enter to win an advance reading copy.

Lee Lai is from Melbourne and other places. She makes comics and illustrations.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

My Roommate the Prostitute

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

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

“Sweet,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

How dare she — in my home?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

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

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

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

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

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

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

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

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

Two days later, her aunt came.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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