When a Father’s Son Becomes His Daughter

My domineering dad stood by me during my gender transition, but I didn’t truly become a woman until I finally stood up to him.

I called Papa in June 2001, the night before my sister Juno’s sweet sixteen party.

“I’m coming in on the bus around five,” I said. “I’ll be wearing makeup and women’s clothes. I just want to let you know so you’re not surprised. We can talk about it later.”

If I acted as though it wasn’t a big deal, maybe it wouldn’t be.

“Just make sure to be beautiful,” Papa replied.

I couldn’t believe it worked. I didn’t realize how much of an act my indifference was until the wave of relief from his acceptance made it hard to speak, so I quickly said goodbye.

Papa was a social worker for homeless people with AIDS, so he’d been around a lot of queers. But I didn’t expect him to be so unconcerned when the queer in question was his child — his first-born son.

Before he was a social worker, Papa was a taxi driver, going to night school to get his degree. He bragged about his straight A’s while I rolled my eyes about how easy his classes were, not like at Harvard where I went. That’s what it was like between us; he always wanted to prove he was better than me because it was his natural place as a father, and I didn’t let him because he wasn’t. Papa’s insistence on his intelligence was his way of taking responsibility for my success. He didn’t raise me, since he spent most of my childhood in the Philippines as a drunk, but he could claim genetic credit.

His stubborn confidence worked to my benefit when I transitioned. I arrived at my sister’s party, in front of 200 people, in tight black clothing and makeup more elaborate than hers. He simply nodded his approval and introduced me to everyone as his child.

When I came back down to New York from Boston for the weekend a few weeks later, my stepmom told me during one of her bouts of obsessive housecleaning that there were friends and relatives who disapproved. When I asked Papa about it, he said that his attitude towards me was none of their business, and that he didn’t need to see them if they were going to say bad things about his child.

I was in town because I wanted to tell them in person that I had legally changed my name and gender. Nothing was ever particularly formal in our family, so I just mentioned over dinner, while the TV was on, that they should call me Meredith and refer to me as “she.”

“I don’t think it matters that much,” Papa said.

“It matters to me,” I replied.

This is the part of being trans in America that Papa didn’t get, that effeminate men are targets in a way they weren’t back home. In the Philippines there were lots of feminine gay men who wore makeup and women’s clothes out in public without changing their names.

I was too grateful for his support to push him much on the details, so I spent the next few weeks gently reminding him to use my new name. After he told me during an argument over dinner, “You’re a woman now. You shouldn’t be so aggressive,” I realized his acceptance came with a new set of expectations of me. I tried my best to adjust, since this was something I needed to do to make my way in the world anyway.

I tried to argue less, but the fact that he kept calling me by my old name, my deadname as trans people call it, nagged at me and I tried to get him to stop. Thankfully, Tagalog doesn’t have gendered pronouns so that didn’t come up so often. But the more psychologically distanced I became from the person I was before, the harder it became to hear my old name — and the worse it felt that he had the power to make me feel bad just by saying it.

Then he picked me up from the bus station in Manhattan the week of Thanksgiving, and we stopped at a diner on the way home. He was in one of his obsessive fits about what I should do with my life, which was fine, I was used to that, but he kept using my deadname.

“[Deadname], you should come to New York for grad school.”

“[Deadname], you can move back home.”

“[Deadname], if only I had your opportunities, I’d be much better off than you are.”

The waiter passed by; my father raised his hand and said, “He needs more water,” pointing to me. I was in full makeup and heels. The waiter smirked as he filled my glass.

In the car on the way home, I told him he needed to stop calling me by my deadname, and that he needed to remember to use “she.”

“I’m an old man,” he replied.

I told him the waiter looked at me funny after Papa gendered me incorrectly. He said he calls men “she” and women “he” all the time; he gets confused because it’s just one word in Tagalog.

“I will do it if I remember,” he said, his eyes on the road.

At a stoplight, I opened the car door, got out and walked, clutching my too-thin tweed coat for warmth. I hated him, hated his stubbornness, hated myself for being like him, for refusing to let go of this argument even though I knew his stubbornness about gendering me correctly was rooted in the same refusal of society’s expectations that allowed him to accept me for who I am. He followed me in the car, through three blocks of dark residential streets, as I stared straight ahead, stomping along in my heels. There were black and yellow patterns on the ground from tungsten streets lamps casting shadows over trees, and a breeze stirred the world while my eyes clouded over it.

We reached a busy intersection but I was too determined and angry to stop. I ran across the street as a car sped toward the corner. I felt my ankle give way in my heels and had to skip the last few steps to avoid getting hit, feeling the wind from the car graze my back.

“Do you want to die?” Papa yelled. “Get back in the car!”

“You know how you could get me killed?” I yelled back, “Tell people I’m a man!”

I walked the rest of the way. That night was the second-to-last time he would call me by my deadname.

* * *

Papa thought about coming with me to Thailand for my operation, but he couldn’t get enough time off from work. I didn’t see him until two months later.

It was late afternoon when I got to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with my stepmom, my two sisters, and a couple of boarders. The summer light from the windows momentarily blinded me as I came through the door, and I didn’t notice Papa napping on the couch until I set my suitcase down a little too loudly and saw his eyes flutter open.

“You look good,” he told me, his face placid from sleep. He remained lying down as I sat on the floor next to him, the top of my back brushing his leg.

Then he said, “I can’t believe I lost my first-born son.”

There was a tear I didn’t see him shed, but I saw him wipe it. He told me how proud he was of me for taking control of my life even though I didn’t grow up with his love. He said he wished he had more courage like me to have made his own way in the world, to have pursued his ambitions to be an artist rather than being forced to marry when my birth-mom got pregnant with me, which led to his drunken rebellion when I was a child. He told me this is why he has always supported my decisions even if he disapproved, no matter how hard it sometimes was. But he always saw himself in me and my successes, because I was his first-born son.

“I’m sorry to burden you,” he said.

That’s my only memory of hearing my father apologize to me. I told him not to worry and let him go on telling me about his feelings about my transition, which he withheld for so long to give me room to be who I am. To him, it felt different to dream for a daughter than it had to dream for a son. It was different to dream for a man he thought of as the person he could have been if he’d had the same opportunities, rather than a woman who wasn’t like him in fundamental ways, who will live the rest of her life as someone he can observe but never truly understand.

“Papa, I’m still the same person,” I said, as I rested a cheek on his knee. “I’ll still be who I am even if I’m a woman.”

* * *

From that conversation on, I relied on Papa in ways I hadn’t before. A year after my younger brother died, when I suffered from intense seasonal depression and couldn’t go to class my first winter in grad school at Cornell, Papa was the first person I called. He drove the five hours up with my stepmom and sister to take care of me for a few days. I invited him to my readings and events, unlike in high school and college when I kept any accolades from him because I resented his assumption that he deserved some credit for my accomplishments. He still thought I was too independent for my gender, and even tried to convince someone I broke up with to “take me back” because he was afraid I would never find someone. But I didn’t confront him like I would have when I was his son, because what I took as intrusion when I lived as a man felt more like protection after transition and, for the first time, I felt like the credit he took for my success was justified.

What I didn’t know was that during these years of relative calm between us, the tension in his marriage with my stepmom Clara was swirling into a storm. It was hard to notice because nothing much changed between them on the surface. She still did all the chores in the house and worked two jobs while he only worked one. He still spent too much time going out with friends, not enough making sure she felt loved. But one day, after 28 years together, she decided to leave him, and locked him out of the apartment when he refused to accept her decision. He finally went back to the Philippines to live in our old hometown, distraught and confused.

When I went to the Philippines in the summer of 2011, I found out that Papa was leading the life he’d led when I was a child, addicted to alcohol and drugs. He sold some of my grandmother’s land to fund his addiction but refused to take care of her, and refused to let anyone else enter her house, my childhood home, because he feared that one of my cousins would take it from him. So she was forced to move in with my cousin because she was too fragile to take care of herself.

Being the oldest man in our extended family gave Papa a great deal of power, which he refused to use justly even after I implored him to think about my grandmother, his own mother, whose decades of building a farm and amassing land was the reason he had money and property to begin with. But to Papa, all this was a fair price for the life his parents deprived him of when they forced him to marry too young, and refused to support his dreams.

After these conversations went nowhere, I told him I couldn’t be in touch with him anymore. I knew from reading about addiction and codependence that sometimes the best way to deal with an addict is to let him hit bottom. Papa relied on me as a reflection of himself, as an extension of the parts of him that made him proud. I thought that removing myself from his life might force him to rethink his actions.

* * *

Nearly four years later, in January of 2015, Papa and I still hadn’t talked. It was easy to avoid him when he was half a world away and his life no longer had anything to do with mine.

But I returned to the Philippines for work. I visited my grandmother Nanay Coro, who by then was in Manila, where my cousin had moved to a single-story cinderblock house. My grandmother moved there to escape my father, who wouldn’t even let her build a business adjacent to his property. It was a long drive from the home and life she spent decades building. Nanay came from a childhood wracked with images of torture during the Japanese occupation. She needed to leave school as a teenager to work as a subsistence farmer, then found herself, through wit and perseverance, the owner of lands and a large home.

So to see her once again, at nearly eighty years old, reduced to a spare room in the back of a house in a project where she knew no one, forced my heart to encase itself with anger so it wouldn’t break.

“Can you bring me to my house?” she asked.

Nanay knew she couldn’t live there because of Papa, but she just wanted to see it again, to remember her happy years with my grandfather.

I hired a car to drive us to our hometown.

Traffic was brutal so a drive that was supposed to take four hours stretched to seven, ending in our town’s single street as we arrived near sundown.

As I approached the house’s main door, I noticed a big padlock in front, and no one answered when I tried to knock. A visibly tipsy neighbor who looked not unlike my father came over, introduced himself as one of Papa’s friends, and motioned for me to follow him. I asked my grandmother to wait in the car while I tried to get the key.

The mango trees in our backyard obscured Papa’s hangout, but when we walked through them I saw a vast hole in the ground, a quarter-mile long and at least two persons deep, where the rice paddies next to our house used to be — the first land that my grandparents owned. Had I arrived only two hours earlier, I would have heard the roar of industrial equipment, familiar from the time when my grandfather dug distant parts of his land to sell the fertile soil elsewhere. By wounding the fields that my grandmother held so dear, it was as if Papa was avenging the loss of his youth, his life.

I recognized the man climbing out of the hole as an emaciated version of my father.

“Can we have the keys to the house?” I asked. “Nanay just wants to see it.”

He said he didn’t have the keys, and when I asked him who did, he said they were with his new girlfriend who wasn’t there. Then, when I told him I’d break a window, he pulled the keys out of his pocket, held them up, and jangled them in front of me.

“You can’t have them,” he said. “The keys are mine.”

I used the same tired arguments I’d used before, about him kicking out his own mother, whose only wish was to see her home. But as I repeated this well-worn speech, I watched him shuffle his feet within inches of the mammoth hole he had dug, and imagined myself pushing him inside.

“What you don’t understand, Marc,” he said, “is that I am in charge here.”

He used my deadname for the first time in more than a decade, intending to remind me of his power to define my gender. But what Papa actually did was reveal how devastated he was that I, his first-born son who became his daughter, had deserted him, when I’d promised to be the same person all those years ago.

What my father didn’t know was that I was no longer trying to mimic a woman by acting demure. I was sure enough of myself to use my strength. I was taller than him, younger, fitter, my body un-ravaged by drugs. Calling me Marc no longer reminded me of a vulnerability that made me feel unsafe. It reminded me that I could be called Marc, could fight like my father didn’t think a woman should, and still be the woman he witnessed me become.

My muscles tensed as they prepared to wrest the keys from my father’s hand. But Papa shuffled away, down the soft edge of his hole, and took the hand of one of the children playing at the bottom. Papa ambled with him, turned his back to me intermittently, dangled his keys and grinned.

“Look at him,” our neighbor said. “He’s just a child. Just humor him and he’ll give you the key.”

He suggested that I tell Papa I love him, that I use my feminine wiles to coax him into feeling protective and granting me my wish.

Papa wanted me to be the kind of mother he never had, to make up for the son he lost. I learned how to be a woman in the world with his help, but he never quite learned how to be a man. Inside him was a scared boy who hadn’t grow up, a boy who wanted to be seen and held.

But my heart was caged in anger, and refused to propel my feet. I was trapped in my own pride, the same pride that I learned as my father’s first-born son, that I couldn’t relinquish as his daughter.

There was barely light by the time I returned to my grandmother without a key. We rode in silence until I asked the driver to stop at an ATM. I withdrew my meager savings and gave it to her, not enough to restore her self but enough to keep her happy for a while. If I couldn’t be a mother to my father, I could at least be a granddaughter to the mother he didn’t want. This was the only way I could manage to be a woman.

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Meredith Talusan is an LGBT Staff Writer at BuzzFeed focusing on transgender issues. Her essays, features, and critical pieces have appeared in VICE Magazine, The New Inquiry, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Guardian, Matter, and other publications. Keep in touch with her on Twitter @1demerith.

EstherHong is an illustrator + doodler of usually fun + playful things. Find her casual self on Instagram @estrhong and her business casual self at estrhng.tumblr.com.

Meet the Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

Even as he approaches old age and his sport falls into decline, this intestines-eating, sorcery-conjuring “Man of Great Power” still dominates the ring.

With a slow and assured swagger that defies his aging body, Edingwe Moto na Ngenge, the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time, steps into the ring. At about six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds, with a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a mohawk and a large dragon tattoo across the left side of his chest, he cuts an imposing figure. Edingwe, whose moniker, Moto na Ngenge, translates to Man of Great Power, struts back and forth across the ring with his shoulders thrown back, stamping his feet and contorting his face into grotesque expressions, toying with his opponent and whipping his loyal fans into a frenzy.

It’s January 2016 in Kinshasa, the pulsating capital city in the far west of the vast and volatile Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a year earlier, the radio-trottoir, or pavement radio, as the city’s incessant gossip mill is known, spread word that Edingwe was near death’s door, broke and unable to cover the hefty cost of his prolonged hospital stay, finally turning to God in a last-ditch effort to be saved.

Now, with thousands of spectators filling the lower-level stands of the Tata Raphaël stadium and local television crews set up around the wrestling ring erected in the middle of the soccer field, Edingwe’s got something to prove.

However, it’s his challenger, Mal à l’aise, which translates to Ill at Ease, who attacks first. He takes a dead snake from his trainer at the edge of the ring, wraps it around his neck for a moment, then holds it tight with one hand close to its head and the other at the end of its tail, thrusting it repeatedly and exaggeratedly in the direction of Edingwe. The great champion is momentarily stunned by this act of sorcery, and with his eyes wide in surprise he becomes rooted to the spot, rocking back and forth like a tall tree in the wind.

But Edingwe soon grows tired of this impetuous display, breaks the spell, and with a swift extension of his right arm and a raised, open palm, calls on the spirits of his ancestors. The magical powers they have so long bestowed on him send Mal à l’aise tumbling backward onto the mat, where he lies paralyzed. Edingwe kneels beside his hapless opponent, grasps at his midriff and appears to extract his intestines like long pieces of pink elastic. He holds them aloft and then lowers them into his gaping mouth; as he eats them, blood pours from the corners of his lips onto his chest. A government minister sitting near the ring faints. Mal à l’aise, also unconscious, is covered and carried away.

Edingwe is swiftly escorted from the arena by his entourage before his opponent’s angry supporters seek revenge for such a merciless performance. After just a few minutes, it’s all over.

* * *

The unique and wildly popular Congolese variety of wrestling, which bears some similarities to American professional wrestling, took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around this time, a handsome young man named Kele Kele Lituka became Congo’s first professional wrestler and a household name, defeating European champion Claude Leron and celebrated American wrestler El Greco.

Lituka beat his Western opponents by drawing on wrestling techniques that in fact long preceded the influence of the American school. He incorporated elements of a traditional Congolese fighting style called libanda, which is said to have traveled to Brazil with slaves from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo centuries earlier and served as the genesis for the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. (While elements of the matches are clearly played up for dramatic effect, organizers here, like their American counterparts for a time, have long insisted that nothing is staged.)

Edingwe holds aloft what are ostensibly the intestines of his opponent at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Edingwe)

“Since the early days of urbanization, there have been public fights in Kinshasa,” says Katrien Pype, Ph.D., a professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at KU Leuven University in Belgium. In the 1950s, when this sizable swath of Central Africa was still a Belgian colony, a style of fighting called mukumbusu emerged. Inspired by the movements of gorillas and incorporating both foreign and African fighting styles, mukumbusu was a “reaction to the other martial arts that were brought in by the colonialists,” Pype says.

In the late 1970s, a young, cocksure fighter from a poor family in Kinshasa’s ramshackle Matete neighborhood stepped into the ring for the first time. A notorious brawler at school who sometimes even came to blows with his teachers, Edingwe, whose real name is Edmond Ngwe Mapima, had already shown promise in the boxing ring. He would quickly leave an indelible mark on Congolese wrestling, introducing the sport to the aspect of magic and sorcery, known locally as fétiche, with its practitioners referred to as féticheurs.

Fétiche is the foundation on which the Congolese manifestation of contemporary wrestling has been built. Tapping into local superstitions and the widespread Congolese belief in traditional magic, mysticism and the spirit world, Edingwe’s mastery of fétiche gave him an insurmountable advantage over his opponents. As Caroline Six wrote in a 2015 article in the French press: “The success of a wrestler in Congo is often not founded on strength, technique or style, but on his capacity to make people believe in his powers of sorcery.” Edingwe is the perfect embodiment of this claim.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, corrupt and ruthless dictator who ruled Congo — which he renamed Zaire — for more than 30 years until his death in 1997, was a great wrestling aficionado. He used the sport as a focal point for what Pype calls his “authenticity politics,” whereby he shunned and in some cases banned cultural practices deemed to be Western and instead promoted a new, African vision of Congolese national belonging.

“During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was promoted as the national sport. There was a lot of financial support and massive state-organized and sponsored events and tournaments,” Pype says. For the first time, Congolese wrestling was also widely televised across the country. This helped Edingwe become the sport’s greatest icon, equal parts feared and revered. But those days were long ago.

* * *

When it rains hard in Matete, as it does most days during Congo’s wet season, the labyrinthine streets and alleyways — many of which are unpaved and untraversable by car — quickly become fast-flowing red-brown rivulets carrying trash and human waste between the buildings. At such times, this overcrowded and notoriously crime-ridden area is unusually quiet; small groups of young boys huddle outside kiosks that sell cigarettes, soft drinks and basic household essentials, seeking shelter beneath the jagged metal overhangs that jut out over the front stoops. Otherwise, the streets are deserted.

Behind a large red metal gate opposite one such kiosk, Edingwe sits silently with a few friends and family members on pink plastic chairs, while a few laborers in tattered overalls work noisily to cover exposed rafters on the roof with sheets of metal. A light breeze gusts through the empty window frame beside them. One day, Edingwe, who says he does not know his age but is likely somewhere in his late 50s, hopes this building will serve as both a new house for his family and a fitting testament to his long and illustrious wrestling career. In his deep, slow drawl, the great champion says, “My only regret is that my parents died poor while I was still too young. I wish they had still been alive to see this when it is complete.”

Left: Edingwe suddenly transforms once he is dressed in his wrestling attire, striking macho poses for the camera at his home in Matete, Kinshasa. Right: Edingwe demonstrates some of the grotesque facial expressions that he uses in the ring to strike fear into his opponents and whip his adoring fans into a frenzy. (All photos by Christopher Clark)

Edingwe has not had a fight since his famous disembowelment of Mal à l’aise more than a year ago. A few days after the fight, a wildly sensationalist Congolese news site reported that, thanks to a quick visit to both the clinic and a local temple, Mal à l’aise had miraculously survived. However, he complained that he was still experiencing some discomfort in his stomach. 

The pavement radio is buzzing with news that despite Edingwe’s now infamous comeback, he is still barely scraping by financially, paying his bills by doing occasional work as an informant for the police in Matete, where he uses his magical powers to pinpoint the location of alleged criminals.

Local journalist Francis Mbala says that wrestling has been hit hard by the political impasse that engulfed the Congolese capital when beleaguered president Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his two-term presidential limit in December 2016. The impasse has thrust the city, and the country, into a new period of uncertainty, crippling the local economy. Sporadic political protests have been met by an increasingly violent state response, leaving scores of protesters dead. Meanwhile, rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east of the country, while a bloody guerilla war between the army and anti-government rebels has claimed at least 3,000 lives — with gross human rights abuses alleged on both sides — and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

“With the current political and economic crisis, there is a severe lack of sponsors for wrestling,” Mbala says. Official wrestling institutions and federations “almost don’t exist in Kinshasa anymore,” he adds, and big wrestling events have inevitably become much less frequent.

But Pype says that the trials and tribulations of Congolese wrestling precede the current political impasse. “During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was the national sport,” she reiterates, “but unfortunately for the wrestlers, the current government hasn’t recognized what the sport and its practitioners could mean to them and to the creation of national cohesion and unity. Mobutu invested a lot more in the promotion of Congolese culture in general.”

Pype insists that wrestling remains an important part of daily life for the Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, especially for young men in working-class neighborhoods like Matete. For many of these men, wrestlers represent an ideal body image — and they are also emblematic of the possibility of transcending one’s impoverished circumstances.

Edingwe has a more straightforward take on why he hasn’t had a fight in so long: He says that no one is currently up to the challenge. He is not announcing his retirement just yet, but he is already pinning great hope on his eldest son, a 33-year-old who lives and fights in Belgium — and is known as Little Edingwe.

“The powers that I inherited from my grandfather, who was also a wrestler, will gradually be transferred to my son,” Edingwe says. “God has not given these powers to anyone else, so this is what I am counting on. When my son is strong enough, I will stop fighting.”

Other champions of Edingwe’s era agree that the next generation of greats is yet to announce itself in Kinshasa. Mwimba Makiese, who goes by the nickname Texas, shares the sense that the increasing lack of financial incentives has played a role, pushing young working-class men into Kinshasa’s violent street-fighting scene — where they can at least achieve a level of localized fame and notoriety — rather than the official wrestling circuit.

Like Edingwe, Makiese, who claims to have won an impressive 646 out 650 matches in his career, is looking to retire soon, potentially adding to the vacuum. Makiese has long been the leading proponent in Congo of the so-called “classical” American style of wrestling. He has often publicly denounced fétiche wrestling, which he claims has fueled a growing negative narrative that dismisses wrestlers as “brigands.” Makiese is currently training two young wrestlers in the hope that they will fill his considerable shoes and continue to build on his legacy of “clean, technical wrestling,” as he calls it.

Widely known both for his success in the ring and for being the first albino wrestler in Congo, Makiese is also a renowned philanthropist, having created a foundation for Kinshasa’s routinely persecuted and ostracized albino population. Money that Makiese earned from wrestling helped build the foundation, but in recent years he has had to find other means of sustaining it. To that end, he now runs a small shop with his wife.

“Before, I could live solely from wrestling. I built my house with money from wrestling. I educated my kids with money from wrestling. Now, things have changed,” Makiese says. “But I’m like a chameleon — I’ll always find a way to adapt,” he adds.

Back in Matete, Edingwe seems less willing to adapt. Wrestling, after all, is his calling. He believes it was preordained. He believes that only he can save Congolese wrestling from the slump it is currently experiencing.

As if to show his readiness to shoulder this considerable burden, Edingwe goes to get his wrestling attire — high socks, lace-up boots and tight black spandex shorts — from the small main house behind the unfinished outbuilding. When he returns, the short walk seems to have put considerable strain on his body. He struggles to get up the single step back into the outbuilding and has to use the wall for support. He breathes heavily as he slowly and laboriously lowers himself back into his chair, where a young male relative helps him lace up his boots. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Edingwe was proudly strutting back and forth across the ring like a peacock, in front of his adoring fans, as he prepared to disembowel Mal à l’aise.

A young relative of Edingwe helps the champion wrestler, who appears to be in ill health, lace up his boots before he poses for pictures at his home in Matete, Kinshasa.

But as soon as he is dressed, Edingwe transforms. His back straightens, his shoulders rise; legs slightly akimbo, he throws a few slow-motion air punches left and then right across his body while contorting his face into grimaces, the veins in his neck bulging. 

Two of Edingwe’s daughters can’t help giggling at this spectacle. In a mock-aggressive tone, he commands them to come and stand beside him, where he loops an arm over each of their shoulders. The girls grow suddenly shy beside Edingwe’s enormous frame and will not meet his eyes. Imperceptible to them, a slight smile crosses their father’s lips.

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

Edingwe smiles down on two of his daughters at home in Matete, Kinshasa.

“Coming Out” as Face Blind

What it’s like to live with a disorder that means sometimes I can’t even recognize my own family members—and why I’m not keeping it a secret any longer.

When there was a familiar knock on our front door around eight at night on a Friday, I knew it was my dad. But then my mom, in her oversized cat sweater and baggy jeans, removed the door chain from its lock and opened the door, revealing a tall, slender bald man with no facial hair.

Who’s that?” I asked, in my blunt six-year-old way.

“It’s Daddy?” My mom’s voice sounded uncertain for a minute, but then she laughed. “He shaved his head!”

I had never seen my dad without his full, wavy dark brown locks before. They were unlike my mom’s pin-straight light brown long bob with face framing bangs. I looked him over. My dad was still wearing a long-sleeved red plaid shirt, blue jeans with a belt, and heavy black boots. He had a pair of sunglasses sticking out of his pocket.

“Pumpkin, I shaved my hair.” That was my dad’s voice and he always called me pumpkin, so I started laughing, equal parts nervous and relieved. “Are you excited to spend the weekend together?” It took me a few moments to warm up to the idea that this was my dad, but then I launched into a list of things I wanted to do with him for the next two days, and watching both my parents smile at me reassured me that everything would be okay. My parents didn’t notice that my panic was unusual at the time, because it’s common for young kids to learn about permanence when someone drastically changes their hair. But although the panic subsided in the moment, I knew the feeling was probably related to how unsettled I felt when I was looking for my mom at the grocery store or when a neighborhood kid waved at me from the playground.

When I was around seven or eight, we learned that I have mild prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness.” Prosopagnosia appears to be different from other neurological memory problems because it doesn’t cause any other issues with memory and isn’t always caused by brain damage — as in my case, it can be developmental and genetic. I’ve had difficulty recognizing almost everyone in my life from time to time, whether it’s someone famous, like Harrison Ford or Taylor Swift, or someone I know intimately, like my best friend or my own dad.

My face blindness comes with a set of challenges, including the surge of panic I feel when I have to search for someone I know in a large crowd. There’s a deep social stigma attached to not recognizing someone that you’re supposed to know, so I’m often too afraid to admit that I struggle with this, which leaves me vulnerable every time I’m not positive whether or not I recognize someone. 

Brad Duchaine, an associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College who is on staff at the Prosopagnosia Research Centers, says that face blindness can cause social difficulty, particularly because people are often offended when you don’t recognize them. He adds, “It also causes workplace difficulties. If you fail to recognize your boss in the elevator, it’s not going to be good for your career.” When I worked in a mid-sized office with about 150 coworkers, daily interactions like mornings, meetings, and passing people when I stood up from my desk in our open office were hell. When I was preparing my ahi tuna salad at lunchtime in the kitchen, trying not to stare at the redhead man next to me, a flash of panic washed over me when he looked my way. Did I know him? He wasn’t in the small social media and publicity department with me; I’d already memorized the clothing, hair, body language, posture, and voices of everyone on our team. When in doubt, I never explicitly introduce myself or say, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you.” Instead, I opened with, “That looks delicious,” when he removed his croissant from the microwave, searching for signs that he recognized me on his face. Other people’s eyes lit up and their expressions became more trusting when they recognized me, even more so when we were intimately familiar, and I look for those cues during interactions where I can’t recognize someone.

I silently begged that I hadn’t said the wrong thing, that he wasn’t a complete stranger who would find my comment off-putting. I never knew how conversational to be with people if I couldn’t recognize them. Asking someone about their weekend felt reserved for coworkers I had interacted with more than a handful of times, but I often wasn’t aware when I’d crossed that threshold.

Thanks, I got it from South End Buttery down the street. If you haven’t been yet, you should check it out,” he said. Sounds like we haven’t talked before, but he knows I’m fairly new here, I thought, trying to push away my fear. He wouldn’t realize I didn’t recognize him if I didn’t make it obvious.

I know how hard it can be to be open about your differences, both inside and outside the workplace. So I’ve kept my face blindness a secret with the help of some adaptive strategies I keep up my sleeve for moments of awkward interaction, like carefully picking my opening lines, and memorizing hairstyles. Technology has saved me on a regular basis since social media became popular in the mid-2000s, and even more so with smartphones. Before I meet up with someone, especially if I’m likely not to recognize them because they don’t have a unique identifier (like a red beard, a wheelchair, pink hair, or a mohawk), I can study photos of them saved to my phone or posted to their Facebook. I can look for the kind of clothes they might be wearing, how their hair is currently styled, if they tend to smile without teeth.

Duchaine says that most prosopagnosics have alternate systems for recognition. Many study Facebook and photos, while some are even hoping facial recognition apps like the one developed for Google Glass will become widespread. A common tactic (which I also use) is making sure to arrive at a meeting spot before anyone else so we won’t be the one picking out a singular face. People also tend to specialize in particular features. “One guy I worked with focused on people’s jeans,” says Duchaine. “In the town he grew up in, everyone wore the same jeans every day.”

I often rely on hair as my main recognition cue, which is why I’ve mistaken other tall, bald men wearing sunglasses for my own father (never enough to actually say, “Hey, Dad!” to them, thankfully, but I’ve walked up to quite a few bald strangers), and why I didn’t recognize him when he first went bald.

Hair, clothing, and other cues are also central to how I identify myself. I don’t always instantly recognize myself in a passing mirror or a photo, particularly if I’m wearing gym clothing or I’m wearing my hair up, since those are so far removed from my daily look. During my senior year of high school, when I cut eight inches off my hair to donate to Locks of Love, and chopped the rest into a pixie cut, seeing myself in the mirror or a selfie actually made me do a double-take. I hadn’t realized that my signature face-framing hair and blunt bangs were how I recognized myself, and I couldn’t see my reflection as me without them. And more than that, my hair is central to my identity. My mom, who died when I was a kid, wore her hair the same way I do — and without that hairstyle, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see what other people are always saying: “You look just like your mom.” I can’t remember my mom’s face, because I don’t remember anyone’s, but I don’t want to lose the little details I do remember about her, like her refusal to wear makeup, her jean jacket, her oversized green Melrose firefighters’ T-shirt, or her blunt brown bangs hanging above her light blue eyes.

I disliked the change so much that I eventually bought a wig and extensions, and resolved to never change my hair again.

* * *

When I was an undergrad in college, I met the only other person who has ever admitted to me that they have face blindness. We were talking about horror movies when my friend, who spends more time during our regular movie marathons making mile-a-minute jokes than analyzing the plot, said, “I can’t watch movies with a lot of characters because I can’t tell anyone apart. The villain will come on screen and I’ll be like, ‘Who’s that?’ and everyone else will be like, ‘That’s the killer, Jon!’” He and I laughed for almost 15 minutes until we had tears streaming down our cheeks.

A few years later, I came across Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven, and Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby, both novels with prosopagnosic main characters. After reading Holding Up the Universe, I told my girlfriend — who has never heard the inner monologues of panic whenever we’re out at a mall and I lose track of her — how close to reality the protagonist’s daily life is, with the exception that his face blindness is more severe than mine.

Bone Gap was a book club pick at my workplace, and when a coworker brought up how interesting the condition was and that she’d never heard of it, I was itching to say, “Actually, I have it. I wouldn’t recognize any of you outside this office.” I was dying to tell someone that the reason I avoid office jobs with a large staff is how stressful it is trying to figure out if I’ve introduced myself to someone (unless it’s the one guy with a long black pony tail or the woman who wears printed hijabs). But as my coworkers talked about how hard it must be for someone to live with face blindness, I clammed up and kept my mouth shut, not wanting to cross the line from professional into too personal and risk alienating myself.

I sat alone at lunch for half of eighth grade after the school circulated that I was bisexual, and what I love most about my adult life is that it seems I’ve finally escaped that. Every time I’ve revealed something that makes me different — my queerness, the physical disability that I use a lavender cane for — people use it as grounds to harass and ostracize me, or turn me into a sideshow with deeply personal questions aimed at their own consumption and not my comfort. How do I have sex with my partner? What were some ways I was left out as a kid with a disability? Could I play with other kids on the playground? I know people would ask these kinds of questions about my face blindness; they would poke and prod it until they were satisfied. So I’ve always kept it to myself.

I hit my breaking point a couple of weeks ago when my cousin visited from Texas. We’re closely related, since her mom was my mom’s sister and her dad was my dad’s brother, and we look alike. But when she asked me to get dinner with her friends and her at Hooters, I panicked. I got to the restaurant right at seven, wondering: Was she inside yet? Would I see her if I walked around the restaurant, or would I be caught stopping at each individual table, studying its occupants as they awkwardly chowed down on chicken wings? I called her three times to no avail before finally asking my girlfriend if she could take a quick walk around inside, where she quickly spotted Nicole.

“You didn’t answer your phone,” I said to my cousin with a slight hard edge to my voice, looking around the noisy, packed restaurant. There was no way I would have spotted her in this crowd. I thought that I had plans for every contingency, like calling someone on the phone to discern their location — but I had failed. What if my girlfriend wasn’t there to check for Nicole for me? Would I have gotten in my car and driven home, hungry and missing out on a night of her company? Would I, as an adult, have gone to the wait staff and asked them to announce Nicole’s name over the loudspeaker like she was my five-year-old child, embarrassing myself in the process? “I’m not mad at you, but you should have at least told me you were here.”

“I’m so sorry, my phone is in my bag.” Nicole pulled it out to demonstrate and waved in the direction of her other friends at the table. “We were talking and I didn’t hear it ringing. It’s loud in here. You could have just come in and looked for me. I’ve been here since seven.” This wasn’t a big deal to her. She couldn’t see how frantic I felt at the thought of scanning faces to try and determine if I knew someone. That was how the world looked in my eyes, like a sea of blank faces, each ready to condemn me if I couldn’t distinguish them from what looked like an identical face next to theirs.

“You should have just texted me at least once to say, ‘I’m here.’” I was frustrated; not at Nicole, although I wished she’d had the forethought to realize it was past seven and check to see if I’d called her.

As we were moving to a bigger table to accommodate our late arrival, Nicole continued apologizing for not checking her phone. She shouldn’t apologize without knowing what the real problem was, I thought.

“I have face blindness,” I admitted to her, and this was the first she’d heard of it. My heart raced in my chest. I was still afraid she would ask me detailed personal questions or simply not believe me. I was also born without a sense of smell, and throughout my life, I’ve been met with immediate disbelief when I tell people; they think it’s impossible that I can taste and enjoy food but I can’t smell anything at all, whether it’s savory or disarming.

As I explained what face blindness is to my cousin, my heart stopped pumping so fast. She was asking polite follow-up questions because she wanted to understand, not to mock me or put me on trial for experiencing life differently. “I don’t think I would have found you in here unless you texted me to say, ‘I’m in the back of the restaurant, booth near the window.’” I recounted all the times I’d asked her where she was sitting if we were meeting in public, and she instantly remembered telling me exactly what table number she was sitting at so I could approach wait staff and be directed to her.

“I had no idea,” Nicole said. “I swear I’ll check my phone next time so you won’t have to worry.” She’ll never know what it feels like to wander through the tables and booths at a restaurant, searching for a familiar face and making eye contact with parties who want to remain undisturbed, but she’s willing to accept that I know that feeling.   

The next day, she wore a bright lime green skirt and printed shirt with swans on it when we met at the Boston seaport. “My phone is going to die,” she texted me thoughtfully, as she described her outfit in detail. “I’ll be at the docks around 6:30.”

Sure enough, as soon as I noticed a flash of lime green among the crowd, I screamed her name and she turned.

I had admitted my biggest weakness, and the world didn’t fall apart. My cousin accommodated me. She wore something noticeable and made sure to meet me somewhere visible. She didn’t prod me for a diagnosis or medical details, and it was obvious she believed me, even though our abilities differ.

Her lime green tennis skirt told me something I should have known years ago: It’s okay to “come out” as face blind. So what if I thought Daenerys from “Game of Thrones” and Legolas from “The Lord of the Rings” were the same character? That just gives me dozens of inside jokes with the people who know I have a facial recognition deficit, but love me anyway.

A Father Defends His Empty Nest

After a broken engagement, my daughter was just one more millennial moving back into her childhood bedroom. And I was one more aging parent feeling guilty for wanting my humble home to myself.

When I saw my daughter’s car in our driveway I wanted to run the other way — away from my peaceful home, our empty nest that was about to be invaded.

Instead, I braced for her entrance. Rachel, 32, the oldest of Julia’s and my three children, had moved out long ago, like her two brothers. But hours earlier, she had broke off her engagement with her boyfriend of two years. Now, here she was with a car full of boxes stuffed with books, kitchenware, potted plants and suitcases.

She walked in to the kitchen, erupting into sobs. I wrapped my arms around her, unsure how else to console her. I wanted to say that everything would be okay, but knew from past stumbles she would cry harder, as if to ask how I could be so clueless. Didn’t I get what she was going through? I stood quietly, holding her, as she cried on.

“I’m sorry,” I finally said.

She cried some more, like when she was a little kid, longer than I expected, long enough that I felt my patience being tested.

“Can you help empty my car?” she finally asked.

“Sure,” I said, in my most comforting voice, relieved, though dying to learn what the hell had happened. But I knew she would tell Julia and me soon enough, so I kept my mouth shut. Rachel opened the back of her Subaru station wagon. My eyes bulged, stunned at how much stuff she’d crammed in.

This is going to kill my back, I thought as she pulled boxes out, dropping them haphazardly in the middle of the driveway, on the lawn, anywhere. I lifted a suitcase out. It was so heavy; did she stuff it with kettle bells?

“Don’t worry. I’ll bring them up to my room,” she said matter-of-factly, surveying the mounds of accumulations.

When? I thought sarcastically. I know my daughter. If I didn’t bring them in, all this stuff would languish outside for days. What if it rains tonight? Has she thought of that? But another voice reminded me that my job was to welcome her home with an open heart, without judgment, no matter what the circumstances.

I worried it was too late for that. Resentment was already filtering down my gut: My daughter was moving back with no checkout date on the calendar. Over the past several years since our youngest moved out, I’d grown to relish being an empty nester. Life was simpler, a new brand of fun with just Julia and me.

Not that we didn’t love our kids, their visits, or ours to wherever they were calling home. We did. We just also believed that at a certain age, our kids needed to grow up and move out, no matter how much we’d cherished our years all together under one roof.

* * *

Like her brothers, Rachel always appreciated my humor. “Don’t egg him on,” Julia would say, annoyed when I got going with my shtick, riffing on everyday incidents. We watched reruns of “Seinfeld” together, and Rachel and I loved playing with words. She laughed and laughed once when I pointed out that the word “ridiculous” ought to be “redunkulis.”

“Now that’s ridiculous,” I improvised.

And we shared the emotions a good out-loud read can deliver. “Are you crying or laughing?” she asked once when I could barely finish reading a poignant newspaper column to her.

“Both,” I laughed, wiping tears from my eyes.

I also tried to impress on my kids the sacred moments in everyday life. After too much partying in the dorms her freshman year of college, Rachel lived alone off campus the next year, a growing experience though a lonely one. That spring, I flew out to help her move out of her apartment. Before we drove off, I told her to go back into the empty apartment one last time.

“Spend a few minutes. Reflect on what you’ve learned. What it’s been like. Go room to room. Take your time,” I said. “Then we’ll leave.”

She returned a few minutes later, teary-eyed and grateful for the ritual.

Rachel’s move home felt like one step backwards, compounded by how her healing process rubbed me. She lived not only out of her old bedroom her first month home, but also her brother’s, because she wouldn’t sleep in her bed, which she and her now-ex-fiancé, Noah, had slept in when they’d stay over.

At night, she burned Palo Santo incense sticks to help “purify the energy.” The scent seeped into the hall, annoying me as I passed her closed door, feeling like the vanguard of Burning Man had moved into the neighborhood.

Rachel sought out all kinds of healers to help her process the breakup and her future. She saw a life coach, a shaman, a psychic, a tarot-card reader and an astrologist. She did somatic experiencing and neuro-feedback.

Through high school and even in college, Rachel never dated; instead she clung to the safety of a group of friends. After college, she tried online-dating services like OkCupid and JDate, but none of those encounters jelled. When I heard she was seeing Noah, a guy she’d known since middle school, I was surprised. I hardly knew him, but hadn’t she dismissed him as too flaky? Was she settling too easily?

A year after their first date, they moved in together. I had to admit they seemed great together. They got each other’s idiosyncrasies. He was kind to her, and to Julia and me. He was charming, passionate about his work, and often told me about cool innovations, foods or social movements he’d read about. But he didn’t want kids.

* * *

Rachel and I were hiking our favorite trail, past stands of red maples, oaks and hickories, a glistening reservoir to our left, a blue sky above. Mostly she talked; I commented. Big topics: their career plans, where they would live, finances, if and when they might get a dog.

“What about when you have kids?” I asked at a moment when the question felt relevant.

“Noah doesn’t want them,” she said, like it was a closed case, a tone that surprised me.

“Whoa! Really?” I asked, stunned.

“Well,” she said pausing, without a trace of regret in her voice, “if it means not being with Noah, well, I guess it’s no kids,” she said. I felt sadness rubbing against my heart. Was she so willing to give up that desire? It didn’t compute. She loved playing with kids, had always talked about one day having them.

I let it go as we hiked on, but later I felt regret. I’m at that age when friends are having grandchildren. “There’s nothing like it,” they say, brimming. When I think about it, I get this image of lifting a little one onto my lap, reading a picture book together, feeling the warmth of a snuggle. I imagine I’d be a great grandfather.

But it was out of my control, I told myself. So what if my vision failed to mesh with her reality. Life takes twists and turns. Hadn’t I disappointed my father by not going into the family business he so wanted me to join? She had to make her own decisions.

More importantly, Rachel looked happy. We’d meet them for dinner, have them over. Noah would stop by if he was in the neighborhood. We’d hug hellos and goodbyes. He came for Thanksgiving along with his parents. And when we took a big family vacation with our three kids, including our middle son’s fiancée, we invited Noah to join us. He was becoming part of the family.

Then he surprised us, and Rachel, by proposing to her during that vacation on the beach — swept away, I thought, with all the love our family imbued. When he made the announcement that night over drinks, everyone leapt out of their chairs and hugged. Except me. I couldn’t get out of my low-slung beach chair, as if a gravitational truth was holding me down. No one noticed by the time I managed to stand, toast and hug the newly-engaged couple. Nine months later, they nailed down venue details for a wedding a year off, but they didn’t sign a contract.

Then one early weekday morning, after getting my blood drawn for a routine cholesterol screening, I climbed up the stairs to check on Julia, sitting in bed, reading the paper, drinking her coffee, and waiting for me.

“Sit down,” she said. “Rachel just called.” Those were ominous words, I thought. What was wrong? Rachel never called this early. Had their apartment been broken into? I had no idea, but I felt dread.

“She and Noah broke up,” Julia said, a stunner I had not seen coming. “She’s packing her stuff and coming home.”

“What! Are you kidding me?”

Over the next few days and weeks, Rachel leaked information about what happened. Yes, they often were the happy couple they looked like, but each had deep concerns too painful to admit to one another. Until they finally felt compelled to share them, forcing the realization that they weren’t meant for each other. It had been bubbling, she told us. That morning of the breakup had started early. Neither of them could sleep. So they got up and started talking and talking in the morning darkness. By daybreak, it had hit them both. They weren’t getting married. She returned his engagement ring, and over the course of several hours, moved out of their apartment and returned home.

I knew I needed to act the role of a father whose daughter has undergone loss, but my default position was too farsighted. All I saw was her move encroaching on my empty-nester life.

I loved my new relationship with the woman I married thirty-five years earlier, now without the demands of raising kids. We would get dinner out; catch a movie or play, knowing our children could handle the challenges of growing into adulthood. We talked openly about how we felt, without being on guard. And with no kids in the bedrooms next door, we didn’t have to be discreet about our own amorous adventures.

It took months to get over my resentment of Rachel’s move home — until one night when I noticed the hard-edged feeling softening when she arrived home after a few days away. When work required her to be out of town, she would stay with friends. Earlier that day, she texted us to say she would be home for dinner. I felt delight, like company dropping by, as I rushed to whip up a meal I knew she would love. More than that, I looked forward to catching up on her insights. And that’s when I got that this was her way of moving forward: talking with friends on the phone for hours, her New Age therapies, even the mindfulness-meditation course she was taking. Far from moping or feeling victimized about the circumstances she was dealt, she was handling them.

To my relief, she moved her boxes, suitcases and plants out of the dining room, hallway, mudroom and kitchen and into her room and the attic, though I still bumped into signs of the breakup now and then. Up in the attic, her unworn wedding dress, zipped in a garment bag, hung like unclaimed luggage. She had bought it at a sample sale, too good to pass up. Another time, I happened on a Shutterfly picture-book our kids had made of that big family vacation. It included photos of the then-newly engaged couple.

Eventually, she made a plan with a move-out date, still several months away. And we gradually found ourselves cultivating a nourishing routine. Rachel would arrive home, join us in our basement den, where Julia and I were catching up on recorded television shows. We’d hit pause, and an hour would go by as we talked. Or I’d be up in the kitchen, chopping vegetables or grilling chicken. Rachel would come in and join me for a glass of wine as she shared reflections or thoughts about life. By then, months into life with our adult daughter, I finally hit my stride with my current role: to be there for her, to listen to the inevitable plot-twists of her life, challenges and triumphs; in short, to continue to love her unconditionally. I did so the way it came naturally as in times past: playing music cuts I thought she’d like, sharing great reads with her, passing on emails I knew would touch her.

As head family cook, I made sure plenty of meals were at the ready for my gluten-free daughter. But mostly, I grew to appreciate her time at home, knowing she’d be gone before we knew it.

* * *

Leonard Felson is a Hartford, Connecticut-based freelance journalist who writes personal essays and features about the struggles of change in the lives of people and communities. Follow him at leonardfelson.com or on Twitter @leonardfelson.

Kassia Rico is an illustrator currently based in Los Angeles. She earned her BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where she found her interest investigating the links between the human and non-human, especially their interdependencies. Follow her on Instagram @kassiarico.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

A Super Strange True Love Story: My Disappearing Fiancé

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes, but he lives in India.”

“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”

“Yes.”

“In Italy.”

“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

And it was all we needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”

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

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

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

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

He was ready.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was disgusted by my own thoughts.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Something was wrong.

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

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

I was paralyzed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swear I heard my heart break.

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

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

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

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

He was moving in with her.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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