When Home Finds You

Transplants to the Big Apple reflect on their very different journeys toward becoming New Yorkers.

Before I moved to New York City in 2003, I dreamed often of exchanging my Somerville, Massachusetts, apartment for a creaky old farmhouse by the ocean, where I would spend my days writing, basking in the sounds of near silence.

Where I ended up a year later was a sunny two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, on the second-to-last stop on the 6 train. Instead of ocean waves, the subway lulled me to sleep. The Italian-American neighborhood had an overabundance of bakeries, all-night diners and funeral homes. Once, when I was heading down to my neighbor Jimmy’s barbeque, I heard a fight break out in the alleyway, just below my living-room window. Above the clatter of trash cans, I heard Jimmy scream, “Your wife’s a crack whore. Where’s my five thousand dollars?” Then I heard the sound of a car peeling out. That night, I stayed in.

The strangest part of my new existence was that I liked it. In fact, I don’t even remember a transition period. Instant love, that’s what it was. I found myself talking to everyone: on the streets, on subways, in the park. Hunkering down into a writing routine felt natural; with the ever-present hum of the city, I was never alone.

So how did I move away from my fantasy of an idyllic rural setting to the reality of this noisy, gritty metropolis? Well, when I told Ted, my then-boyfriend of four years, that I needed an exit plan from Boston, a place I had never quite felt at home, he said reluctantly, “Okay. But the only place I’ll go is New York City.”

That’s funny, I remember thinking, because that’s the only place I don’t want to go. I shared with him my vision: the farmhouse, daily walks on the ocean’s edge, lots of time to make art. Ted, however, was firm: New York or bust.

With my desire to leave Boston outweighing all other concerns, I started researching graduate programs in the New York City metropolitan area. I applied to Sarah Lawrence, a school just north of the city with an exceptionally green campus. Commuting to the “magical Tudor world” (as an alum once described it) would take the edge off urban life.

When I received my acceptance letter, I turned to Ted and exclaimed, “We’re going!”

“That’s…awfully soon,” he said, drawing out his words. Explaining he wanted to apply to graduate schools and wrap up his music project. “I won’t be ready for the fall, but you should go ahead and I’ll join you next year.”

Before I knew it, I’d settled on the Bronx, for its proximity to school and Orchard Beach. And that is how I came to call this “glorious diva-bitch of a city,” as one friend labels it, home.

Ted and I ended our five-year relationship three weeks before he relocated. Nine years later, he’s still here, and I’m still here, too, grateful that he pointed me square in the direction of where I clearly needed to be.

My own story of landing in New York City is not unusual. Lots of transplants stumble upon this city by accident, and before they know it they are asking, how did I get here?Given the intensity of life here, part of living in New York is how one constantly confronts this notion of “home.” If the day-to-day existence in a city with nine million other inhabitants requires so much work, what brings people here? And why do they stay?

Last year I began polling strangers, acquaintances and friends, including Ted, wanting to know: What makes you feel at home? Why New York? And what about your physical home makes you feel rooted despite the sense in this city of endless possibility?

It’s my hope that the cumulative effect of these stories will nudge New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike to expand and refine their own conceptions of what it means to feel at home in the world, what it means to return to a favorite block or restaurant or apartment or person and feel a relief that runs bone-deep: This must be the place.

*   *   *

Name: Chloe Garcia, 37
Occupation: Buyer/seller of beautiful objects for Matta, Visual artist, Herbalist/healer www.nomadicsonglines.com
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Item to Save in a Fire: Her childhood photos, especially those of her father, Luis Alberto, who passed away when she was eight.

Chloe Garcia (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Chloe Garcia (Photos by Jessica Bal)

When Chloe Garcia was growing up, she paid extra careful attention to the decoration of her bedroom. A trained dancer, having studied ballet at the Princess Grace Dance School in Monaco, Garcia meticulously lined pairs of her pink satin pointe shoes along the wall. Obsessed with Degas, she surrounded herself with the Impressionist painter’s soft images of tulle skirts, dancers with gracefully arched backs and airy, sun-stippled studios. These objects, they were home — and for Garcia, the stepdaughter of a Mexican ambassador, home mattered.

By the time she’d turned seventeen, Garcia had lived in three countries: her native Mexico, Switzerland and France. With every country, she and her two sisters would acclimate to a new home, a new language, a new school, a new culture. If she had no say over her family’s address, Garcia reasoned, she could at least control her environment.

But Garcia’s decorative urges preceded her life as an ambassador’s stepdaughter. When she was six, her father took a celebratory fishing trip after sealing a promising business deal and had a tragic accident, diving in the dark into a waterless pool, a move that would leave him paralyzed. Subsequently, the family could no longer live in their multi-level home in Mexico City, because it was too difficult for him to navigate with a wheelchair. “We had to change the space according to how he would live,” she says.

As he became progressively ill and spent more time in hospitals, “We got used to making the hospitals feel like home,” says Garcia. When Garcia was eight, her father passed away.

As time went on, she yearned more and more to put down roots. In 1993, after six years in Paris, Garcia, then a high school senior, came home one afternoon to a surprising announcement from her mother, who sat her and her sisters down and said, “Girls, our term here has ended.”

Though these words were familiar, Garcia didn’t take the news well; this time she’d have to leave her boyfriend, her first love, behind. She recalls the dramatic show of protest she and her sisters displayed. “We were screaming and crying. I was devastated,” she says, grinning as she recalls the “Mortified“-worthy adolescent angst. And thus began Garcia’s twenty-year (and counting) stint in New York City.

Her first address in Gotham was the Mexican embassy on tony East 72nd Street. She’d never been to New York and only knew it through Hollywood depictions. “I was scared,” she admits.  Despite the elegance of her stately brownstone, she missed the cafes, antique stores and flea markets of her Parisian years. By contrast, everything on the Upper East Side felt new and modern. “Money and status were the cultural statement,” she says. To feel at home, Garcia would frequently visit museums, such as the Met and the Frick, a tradition she sustains to this day.

Garcia’s home in Brooklyn
Garcia’s home in Brooklyn

Beyond whatever culture shock the Upper East Side held, the embassy still represented Mexican soil, which grounded Garcia. “We were with objects that had followed us through every city,” Garcia explains. “This is why I am attached to material things, because they bring me nourishment.”

The following year, Garcia enrolled as a painting student at New York University, in an area where she felt more at home, with its bohemian flair, cobblestone streets, beatnik history and community gardens.

The early ‘90s East Village offered her a lesson in New York’s unique sense of community. Often, Garcia would leave an extra set of keys to her apartment at the deli on the corner, which was owned by an Indian family. “They saw me grow up,” she says, recalling how, if she was short on cash, the owners would let her take a carton of milk or box of cigarettes and pay them the next day. “That’s the magical part of this city. You can form these relationships; people really do want to trust,” she says.

If she never thought deli owners could be like a second family, she really never thought she’d meet lifelong friends in bars, never mind her future fiancé. Twenty years ago, Garcia met Federico, a native Italian, at Buddha Bar, and the pair became instant best friends, traveling together and organizing dinners with their ever-widening social circle at places like Bar Pitti and Indochine. Ten years into their friendship, they went to an Erykah Badu concert, followed by a late night at Dezibel and Nublu, and decided to gamble their friendship for love. “We’ve been together since,” Garcia says, “for ten beautiful years. You never know when you are going to meet your soul mate. I met mine in a dark, smoky bar!”

New York gradually won Garcia over for the freedom it brings to her life. “I never feel confined to a single neighborhood or group of people,” she says. While a college student, if yearning for a taste of the posh life, she would occasionally leave the East Village to throw lavish parties at the Mexican embassy, complete with Mezcal and mariachi bands. As an artist, her first internship was at Sotheby’s, which provided an entrée into the world of auction houses — quite a distance from her downtown digs.

Today, as an herbalist and Reiki practitioner, Garcia taps into the city’s rich healing community by taking classes at the Open Center and Integral Yoga. She’s also been studying to become a curandera, or folk medicine woman — all while nurturing her career as a buyer and seller of beautiful objects (most recently for Matta, a home and apparel retailer). “In New York, I am not labeled as one thing, and that allows me greater creative expression,” she says. “I am a work in progress.”

In her role as a buyer, Garcia travels often, trekking off to places like the mountains of Chang Mai, Thailand; the lush archipelagos of Saco de Mamangua, Brazil; and the sprawling, urban landscape of Jaipur, India. She spends time at out-of-the-way markets and with indigenous tribes to find handcrafted work. Though her job is the pursuit of aesthetically-pleasing items, Garcia finds so much more in her interactions with weavers, healers and the elders.

Garcia shows off some of her collection
Garcia shows off some of her collection

“I’ll go to a tribe to buy objects and end up tapping into history and wisdom,” says Garcia, who values the non-verbal communications in these interactions, the kind that are spoken eye to eye. “Every piece is a prayer.”

Two years ago, Garcia and Federico moved to Boerum Hill, marking Garcia’s inaugural foray in an outer borough. Every time she returns home to their two-bedroom, high-ceiling apartment, Garcia brings something back from her trip. “The carpet, the photos, the textiles, they all have an emotional connotation.”

In her bedroom, Garcia displays a beaded leather medicine pouch, a gift from her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. A painting of white doves, made of recycled materials, hangs on the wall, representing the Brazilian conception of Divine Spirit. In another image, there is a painted tiger, made of Sanskrit words. A pillow with a silkscreened image of Frida Kahlo rests on her couch. Of the Mexican surrealist artist, Garcia says, “Her art is tormented, but through her pain she found beauty. She reminds me that you can have struggle, but there is always something beautiful in it.” On her coffee table is a rare book, The Spiritual Significance of Flowers, which was given to Garcia by a friend who knows she loves plants. “That’s the thing about life,” she says, raising her index finger skyward. “You can’t always get everything on Amazon.”

Garcia is mindful of her space, right down to the aromas. She uses sage as an air-purifying agent, to protect the home. Other favorite scents include ginger, cinnamon, basil, rosemary, lavender, thyme, grandmother’s cedar and germanium. “Oh, and fruit,” Garcia says, explaining that fruit reminds her of her maternal grandfather, a Russian immigrant who built up a successful produce business in Texas. “He’d bring us boxes of strawberries, melons, raspberries. If I don’t have fruit, I don’t have my grandfather.”

The instinct to create a home-away-from-home has stayed with Garcia. Whenever she travels, she brings candles, sage and small statues of Buddha and Ganesh — peacemakers and removers of obstacles — to create makeshift altars in temporary rooms. “I always cover the televisions with fabric,” she says, “anything that could obstruct good energy.”

As much as physical objects can provide her with spiritual sustenance, when it comes to the most elemental foundation of a home, Garcia can’t help but think of her mother, Rhonda, who made an effort to entertain without pretension, welcoming guests into the embassy, a space which, fancy trappings or not, was always filled with laughter and the tight-knit closeness of family.

The most beautiful homes, Garcia has learned, are the ones full of happy people.

*   *   *

Name: Simon Alcantara, “Ageless”
Occupation: Jewelry designer, Founder of Simon Alcantara Jewelry
Neighborhood: Financial District
Item to Save in a Fire: A deep red abstract painting by Helen Laflamme, half of a set he bought while visiting Paris for a collaboration with Balmain Haute Couture. (His ex has the second painting.) “We always said if anything happened to one of us, the other could have the painting,” he explains.

Simon Alcantara (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Simon Alcantara (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

You could say that Simon Alcantara landed in New York City by default: he was born here, to Dominican parents. But Alcantara grew up between two places: his mother’s apartment in Inwood and his father’s place in Providence, Rhode Island. (His parents divorced when he was young.) As a boarding student, he lived in Massachusetts; then, as a classical ballet dancer, lived out of suitcases while performing all over the world.

After stints dancing with companies in New York, Cincinnati, Orlando, Jacksonville and New Orleans, Alcantara settled in South Beach, where he joined the Miami Ballet. Following a period of going back and forth between New York and Miami, he stayed in Florida after he stopped dancing, living with his first long-term boyfriend, working as a personal stylist and focusing on his jewelry business. Alcantara had been making jewelry since he was a teenager, even selling pieces to his fellow students at ballet school, as well as ballerinas at the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. But it was only after a dance injury in the late 90’s that he got serious about creating fine jewelry. He collaborated with Oscar de la Renta, Balmain Haute Couture Paris and others, before launching his namesake line in 2002.

Although the water-loving, introspective Alcantara relished his daily morning swims in the ocean, he eventually felt New York beckoning him. Since work in South Beach was too seasonal, he and his then-boyfriend decided to move back north, settling in Riverdale, in the Bronx. Though they broke up two years later, Alcantara has lived here full-time ever since. That was nineteen years ago.

“You can be whoever you are,” he says of New York. “As a gay man, that is really important to me.”

An avid explorer of New York on foot, Alcantara appreciates just how much the city, block by block, can change over relatively short periods of time, as marked by construction, new restaurants and shuttered storefronts. Because he’s a native, the idea of this teeming city being foreign is, well, foreign: “I’ve always wondered what the city is like to people who weren’t born here, what it feels like,” he says.

Even after spending the bulk of his life here, Alcantara occasionally forgets how much sensory overload New Yorkers can experience in a single day. Recently, he returned from his friends’ peaceful home in the country and was struck by the bustle of Grand Central Station: the commuters rushing to and from their trains; vendors selling pretzels; people lined up to buy tickets; the unmistakable honking of horns and siren calls on 42nd Street.

Since he travels often for his jewelry business, Alcantara has been mindful about turning his apartment into a sanctuary.  Feeling at home, when at home, became all the more urgent when he first moved into a 615-square-foot Financial District studio, a change of residence prompted by the amicable dissolution of his thirteen-year relationship with his live-in boyfriend; the couple had lived in the same building, only in a much larger space. So, when it came to establishing his new home, Alcantara mapped the dwelling pre-move in date.

Alcantara’s apartment
Alcantara’s apartment

For inspiration, he pored over a book called The New Apartment: Smart Living in Small Spaces (a book that now sits on his coffee table.) Then, he studied feng shui techniques and laid out every inch of his new apartment accordingly. (“Even the printer blends into the wall,” he says.) His brightly lit bedroom space is the “money” area of the apartment. Above his bed hangs an orange, seventies-style (swirls included) painting of a pregnant woman, a symbol of fertility he bought from an eighty-year old artist in the Dominican Republic. “Some people hate this,” he notes. “But I love it. It reminds me of a Georgia O’Keefe.”

He worked to create the illusion of more space with mirrors and by hanging Photoshop-manipulated images of open landscapes: a photo he took in Telluride, where a store stocks his jewelry, and one he took of a temple in Kyoto, which he “mirrored” digitally and then set three of the resulting images side by side. Some of his biggest fashion covers are framed above his desk, including his first, an ELLE magazine with Christy Turlington donning one of his bold red designs around her neck. They serve as inspiration in his live/work space, “a reminder of what I have accomplished.”

Alcantara created nearly every piece of artwork in the apartment. As a child, he took art classes at the Cloisters. When he gave his mother a painting for Mother’s Day, her friends said they liked it, prompting the future entrepreneur to reply, “I’ll make one for you for ten dollars.” Before long, the young Alcantara had a mini-business going. “I’ve always been creative. Growing up, I didn’t know you could do that as a career,” he says. “As long as I am creative, I am happy.”

His first year in the apartment, Alcantara was traveling nearly every week. Egypt. Japan. Colorado. Although he says it helped him move past his break-up, now he is eager to nest.  Since his job often requires him to be out, meeting-and-greeting with editors and clients, Alcantara savors home entertaining. The most people he’s had around his dining room table is seven. That dinner, someone brought a Dominican chicken from uptown, and Alcantara made rice, lentils and salad. One of his friends, who lives in a significantly more spacious home, remarked, “Wow. You’ve managed to accomplish in limited space what I haven’t been able to do in a five-thousand-square-foot house.”

Alcantara concedes, “This is my life, in 615 square feet.”

*   *   *

Name: Poppy King, 40
Occupation: CEO of Lipstick Queen, Author of Lessons of a Lipstick Queen 
Neighborhood: Nolita
Item to Save in a Fire: The Bang and Olufsen stereo she received as payment for an ad she did for the company in Australia in the nineties.

Poppy King (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Poppy King (Photos by Jessica Bal)

When Melbourne native Poppy King is asked about the first time she recognized New York as home, she says, “The second the airplane wheels hit the tarmac at JFK.”

That moment was in 1991, when King was just eighteen. Though she’d visited Manhattan as a child with her mother, something clicked into place when she saw the city on her own, as a young adult.

She would soon visit often, thanks to the runaway success of her own lipstick brand, which she’d launched when she was eighteen, after a light bulb moment in a department store. At the time, shiny lips and crimped hair were in vogue, a look that didn’t suit the striking teenager, who’d always had a love of old Hollywood glamour (and looks as if she could have stepped off the set of a Golden Age 1940s film set herself.) When King asked a saleswoman at the makeup counter if she had any matte lipsticks (opaque colors, sans shine), the woman replied, “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that…”

Recognizing her cue, the young King, who’d been raised by a single mother and had no assets of her own, launched her own company six months out of high school. She found a manufacturer to blend her desired product, linked up with a business partner and started approaching stores. Poppy Industries was born. In 1992, she started traveling to New York regularly for business, one year before Barney’s, the Manhattan-based luxury retailer, started stocking her lipstick.

Ten years, innumerable trips to New York and many entrepreneurial lessons later — as detailed in her disarmingly candid memoir, Lessons of A Lipstick Queen — makeup conglomerate Estee Lauder bought King’s brand, which she had already sold at that point, and brought her on to develop others. As far as the transcontinental move, King’s new employer did all the heavy lifting, arranging for her visa, shipping her furniture and matching her with a broker.

Grounding her to the city, King found a tenth-floor one-bedroom apartment in Nolita with an open-sky view of the Puck Building, an 1885 landmark that has housed several printing companies and made appearances in pop culture, including regularly on the television show “Will and Grace.” (“New York is my roommate,” King says of her view.) While the vintage-loving King wasn’t crazy about the “cookie cutter” exterior of her new dwelling, she instantly felt settled in the apartment — partly because she’d brought a host of meaningful objects from her life in Australia. One such item, a dresser paper mached with fashion shots from Australian Vogue, had belonged to an employee of King’s mother, who worked in fashion. When the young King visited this family friend’s house, she would admire the dresser, covered with images of late ‘70s/early ‘80s models. “I thought it was the height of glamour,” she says of the dresser, which her family friend eventually gave her.

King’s apartment
King’s apartment

Early on, King bumped up against that old New York cliché: there’s always someone more beautiful, more successful, wealthier, someone doing something more interesting. Maintaining a healthy self-esteem became very important for King, who found a good local therapist and got rooted into her yoga practice. As she puts it, “When I arrived, I felt like I could go one of two ways: I could get more invested in my problems or get more invested in solutions.”

As a result, she views her dwelling as a spiritual space, one that’s provided the container for her triumphs as well as losses, including leaving her job in 2006 (due to dissatisfaction with the corporate world and the distance it creates from the consumer).

Following her stint at Estee Lauder, King spent a year writing Lessons, a book that’s part-memoir and part-how-to manual. “I adored the year of working on my book,” King says. “I spent a lot of time staring out the window and writing.”

Even when she is woken in the middle of the night, King is excited to be in her place, listening to the ambient, urban landscape just ten stories below. “Sometimes, I hang out the window and see who’s walking by at three a.m.” she says. “I can feel the life outside, but still have my sanctuary at the same time.”

The year after she completed her book, King launched a new brand, Lipstick Queen. Now, her apartment is both live and work space, but that may change. As attached as she is to the apartment, after all the transitions she’s been through in this space, she is ready to start a new chapter by finding a new residence. She’ll likely stay downtown. In the ten years she’s lived here, she can count the number of times she’s gone out to dinner on the Upper East Side: three.

“I live my life in such a small area, a radius of ten blocks each way,” King says reflectively. “Everything, my whole life happens in such a small space from a physical sense, but in a psychological sense it’s much bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

 *   *   *

Name: Steve Anthony, 49
Occupation: Programmer, Storyteller, Recovering Banker
Neighborhood: Lower East Side
Item to Save in a Fire: Unused $100 gift certificate from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, unredeemed since 2002.

Steve Anthony (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Steve Anthony (Photos by Jessica Bal)

Growing up, the bulk of Steve Anthony’s knowledge of Manhattan came from watching Kojak, the gritty mid-‘70s TV show in which Telly Savalas’s detective character braved the city’s dangerous streets, defusing bombs and uncovering bodies in the back of Rolls Royces, all while sucking on lollipops and throwing around his signature line, “Who loves ya, baby?” The crime-ridden New York City depicted on television wasn’t exactly appealing to a kid in a quiet Illinois suburb. “I had nightmares about it,” says Anthony, who certainly never saw himself living here.

Anthony’s hometown was more Caddyshack than Kojak. Oddly similar to Caddyshack, actually. During high school, he caddied at Indian Hill, the country club that inspired the eighties film, and then — just like Danny, the main character — Anthony, who wasn’t from a “college family,” won a scholarship to Northwestern, marking the beginning of the end of his life in the ‘burbs.

The lanky, brainy and occasionally scattered Anthony always planned to settle in the Chicago area after school, but his rapid career trajectory had other plans. By 1988, at age twenty-five, he had completed a doctorate in mathematical economics at Harvard and landed an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the position of ‘Economist B.’ While Anthony had spent a previous summer in Manhattan, as an intern at General Motors, the tension of this particular visit was high. Taking a taxi to the Fed’s Financial District offices, Anthony felt utter stress as he watched the cab fare rising quickly. “Ever notice how the meter is always running in this city?” he recalls. “It wasn’t a place I felt I could ever really plant myself.”

But the job was too good to turn down, and by twenty-seven he was the Fed’s youngest department head, even spending a day with then-Chairman Alan Greenspan, an unusual opportunity for such a young employee. His first apartment — a fully-functioning SRO in the East Village, save for Anthony’s garden apartment, which had its own bathroom — wasn’t exactly a Wall Street tower of power, but he recalls it fondly. The SRO also had a backyard space, perfect for hosting parties, including one where he met the woman who would eventually become his fiancée. (Among his other memorable moments is the afternoon when, while digging to plant roses in the backyard, he came across hundreds of cat graves. “I tried to put boards over it to fill it,” he says. “But I couldn’t get enough dirt.”)

Anthony left the SRO for a rent-controlled place on 38th Street, which he ended up handing over to a friend after he landed a second rent-controlled spot on the Upper West Side. But things went awry in his friend’s apartment; while showering one day, a large piece of glass from the shower door fell and hit her on the head, breaking in two. She sued the building, and Anthony, feeling guilty for having sublet the substandard spot to her illegally, helped her move out. That experienced bonded them; soon they were dating, and not long after, engaged.

Hoping to gain private sector experience (“I had a five-year plan for greatness,” Anthony recalls) he transitioned to a job at JP Morgan, where he learned he didn’t like banking much. He found the company “overstaffed and pointless,” and took a side gig in a biology lab, just for fun. He began looking for a way out of banking. One of his coworkers, a hotshot named Kevin, told him about a woodworking business based out of Hawaii, run by Kevin’s father. Anthony trusted Kevin, perhaps a little too much. After Anthony made a few short jaunts to Hawaii and invested some money, Kevin’s father took off with everything, leaving him $700,000 in debt.

Now in a financial mess, Anthony took a job with Vanguard Mutual Fund, located in Philadelphia. His new boss, eager to keep him around, kept trying to set him up on dates with local women — an ineffective strategy, since Anthony was still dating his fiancée in New York, whom he traveled to see every weekend. (“I don’t think I ever woke up on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia,” he says.) The engagement didn’t last, but surprising himself, his attachment to New York did.

In 2005, after six years at Vanguard, Anthony’s debts were finally paid. He moved back to New York, where he found a basement apartment on West 22nd Street, formerly the building’s laundry room, with a wraparound moat-like courtyard — again, large enough to throw social gatherings. By now, Anthony’s linear life planning had given way to his more adventurous side. He started working in computer programming, creating artificial intelligence programs, which he still does. He also began competing in storytelling slams, telling humorous, first-person tales in front of live audiences at the Moth—and winning, a lot.

He soon traded up to a three-thousand-square-foot loft in Union Square, where he hosted after-parties for storytellers, stringing up paper lanterns on the roof and serving home-cooked food. Despite being the perennial host, Anthony never truly felt at home in the Union Square pad, mostly because it was just too big.

When it comes to his aesthetic, Anthony is a fan of the “Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” meaning places that have “some great romantic element that other people don’t necessarily see.” He often aims for faded beauty, buying furniture from second-hand shops and flea markets.

Anthony’s apartment
Anthony’s apartment

Four months ago he moved into a one-bedroom loft on the Lower East Side, close to Chinatown.  His landlords are artists who bought the building for $20,000 in the 1970s. This space has been an art gallery, a synagogue and a Vaudeville theater. As a veteran mover, he’s well aware of how much his life in the city changes based on his neighborhood. In Union Square, he cooked a lot. But now he eats out more frequently because the food options, including lots of Cantonese seafood restaurants, are copious.  But more notably — six New York apartments, three careers, one broken engagement, one disastrous investment and one aborted stint in Philadelphia later, the caddie from Illinois finally feels at home in New York.

“We’re spoiled here,” he says, referring to the wealth of cultural opportunities and the overall “energy.” And, he adds, “Someone has to say this: the women are a lot more interesting here than elsewhere.”

 *   *   *

Name: Ted Riederer, 42
Occupation: Art handler, artist, founder of Never Records — part love letter to record stores and part-art installation; www.secretshape.com.
Neighborhood: Long Island City, Queens
Item to save in a fire: An acrylic seascape with sharks in the foreground, painted by his grandfather in the early to mid-seventies. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘You’ll never be as good a painter as your grandfather,’” Riederer recalls. “I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but now, I love this painting.”

Ted Riederer (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Ted Riederer (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

Technically speaking, Ted Riederer is not a New York City transplant. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland, but was born at St. Vincent’s and spent the first three years of his life in Manhattan with his parents and older sister. His father, a first-generation American born to German parents, was raised here, save for a handful of years in rural Germany during World War II. (Unable to find work here, his grandfather took the family back to his native country on what was supposed to be an extended vacation, but turned into a much longer trip.) The younger Riederer grew up visiting his father’s family in Long Island City, where his grandfather would pace the sidewalk waiting for his son’s family to arrive, a tradition Riederer’s own father continues to this day. Years before he finally decided to make his leap to the Big Apple at the age of thirty-four, Riederer would often say, “New York is home. 

Riederer took a circuitous route to return to his roots.  During the summer of ’86, when he was sixteen and his mother had been in the hospital for a year, he spent a summer here with his grandmother while attending a program at Parsons School of Art. Seeing the disruptive effect his mother’s absence had on him, his teachers had pooled their money together and invented a “scholarship” to send him to the city.

He remembers bringing his grandmother fresh bread from a bakery around the corner, and, on occasion, picking up flowers, too. His Uncle Alfred was also living in the family brownstone, and Riederer remembers sneaking into the living room and playfully pedaling backwards on Alfred’s stationary bike to change the number on the odometer.

Despite these ties, after graduating from high school, Riederer enrolled as a freshman at Tufts University and ended up weaving a strong network in Boston, with friends he met through music, art and his job as a bike courier, which sometimes required riding as many as thirty miles a day. During evenings Riederer would head to his band’s studio, located in a desolate area of Boston, sidestepping the “parking lot calamari” (leftover condoms from industrious prostitutes), to reach their second-floor studio. On weekends, he worked on his oil paintings, including a series of pop culture figures as religious icons, i.e. Don Knotts as San Sebastian. With sixteen years under his belt as a near-Bostonian, Riederer says, “I was ensconced in my life there.”

His then-girlfriend of four years, however, wasn’t. Eager to leave Boston, she started talking about living somewhere else. (When asked why he moved, Riederer says, “Basically, my girlfriend gave me an ultimatum.”)

Since Riederer had previously felt the siren call to New York, the pair agreed to move to the tri-state area.  “I’d reached a point where I couldn’t deny the fact that I wanted to be a visual artist, and this city was the place to come,” he says.

Riederer’s girlfriend moved a year early to start her graduate program, while he stayed behind in Boston to apply to art schools. Though they tried to see one another every two or three weeks, less than a month before his scheduled move, in August 2004, he says of their relationship, “That thing blew up completely.”

Nevertheless, Riederer stayed true to his plan. “I packed all my shit in my rock-and-roll van and moved to New York City, completely heartbroken.”

He calls his first year, enrolled as an M.F.A. candidate at the School of Visual Arts, “the most amazing dark and light year I’ve ever had. I painted seventy hours a week. I painted myself cross-eyed.”

His first apartment was a share with a set dresser in Greenpoint. “We had machine-age furniture,” he recalls of the space, which he loved, despite its proximity to a schoolyard, where rambunctious kids started making noise as early as 7:30 a.m. “Even when I went to bed at 5:00 a.m.…”

His landlords, an older Polish couple, had just lost their son in a car accident and would often have him over for dinner. “The fact that I was a young man filled a void in their lives,” he explains. “That was the most loving place I ever lived.”

One year later, Riederer had recently finished helping his uncle Alfred refurbish the family brownstone, turning it from the single-family Alfred had lived in for years, into a rental-ready duplex, when he received an unexpected phone call from his father.

“I want you to live there,” his father said of the apartment, located just one block from MoMA P.S.1 in Queens.

Riederer had painted the walls and sanded every inch of the ceilings, thinking that “some lawyer would be moving in.” (The market rate for the two-story apartment, with a garden and high ceilings, exceeded his artist’s budget.) When his father said, “I’ll do whatever I can to get you in there,” Riederer held the phone away from his ear. I must be hearing things.

After his father agreed to put his share of the rent from one of their other buildings towards the family home, Riederer returned to his ancestral roots, relics of which are scattered throughout the apartment. The coffee table in the living room, for example, is the trunk his grandmother used to ship her belongings when they moved back to New York after the war in 1951.

Riederer found a black-and-white graduation photo of Alfred’s class, from when he attended P.S. 1, and immediately hung it by the front door.

“On my way to my art studio, I pass by PS1 (the art museum that now resides in the former public school),” says Riederer, and I think of my uncle’s short walk to school. This helped my feel instantly rooted in Long Island City.”

Aware of his good fortune, he says, “We were an immigrant family who moved to the only neighborhood they could afford, back in the early 1950s. They worked their asses off for decades, and now the next generation needs a refuge to make art and can really enjoy being here. You don’t hear about that very much. Most people are trying to move away from their roots.”

While Riederer uncovered a deeply personal sense of home in his physical dwelling, the city itself took more time. “It’s a very unforgiving place,” says. “There is a simultaneity of warmth and coldness here, because things turn over so rapidly.”

Nonetheless, Riederer forged friendships with his grad school colleagues and other art pals, helping found the Art Handling Olympics, a community event for the folks who haul art for gallery shows, and contributing to the underground Antagonist Art movement, a group that used to run a weekly night at Niagara, an East Village bar.

His community has grown larger since the 2010 launch of Never Records, an art exhibit held in the vacant Tower Records Building on Broadway and 4th Street, with more than forty artists and musicians. Riederer invites musicians to perform on site, records their sets and cuts them onto vinyl, giving one copy to the artists and keeping one record for his archives.

Since its inception, Riederer has traveled with the project to Derry, Ireland, Liverpool, London, Lisbon and most recently, New Orleans. His global travel makes his home, which he shares with his girlfriend Rose, and a roommate, all the sweeter.

When he’s in town, he sweeps his stoop only occasionally, as compared to his elderly neighbors, who perform the duty with an almost religious regularity. Riederer still likes that when he’s out there with the broom, the old German lady from down the block always comes by to chat. “It seems really natural that I am here,” he reflects. “Come on. I’ve been coming here for forty-two years.”

*   *   *

Name: Sheba Remy Kharbanda, 34
Occupation: Documentary filmmaker; astrologer and healer; www.shebaremy.com
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Item to save in a fire: Daybed, one of the first pieces of furniture that Kharbanda bought, because it’s a favorite of her houseguests.

Sheba Remy Kharbanda (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Sheba Remy Kharbanda (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

When Sheba Remy Kharbanda was twenty-three years old, she found herself unexpectedly contemplating a transatlantic move to New York City, the last place the Londoner ever thought she’d live. The reason for her change of heart? Well, this is where Charlie Moss, her soon-to-be husband and a committed New Yorker, lived. After a mutual pal had introduced the two in Cuba in 2000, Moss, a Rome, Georgia native, had doggedly pursued Kharbanda, eventually convincing her to meet him in Spain for New Year’s. Within months, the two realized they wanted to be together, a decision that took precedence over other factors, such as where they would live. After they decided to get married, Kharbanda said, “Well, I fucking hate New York, but let’s give it a go.”

The question of feeling “at home” is a serious one for Kharbanda, who’d always known London as an anchor, but not necessarily the place she’d stay forever, despite having been born and raised there. In contrast, her mother, who had been born in India, always had a strong conviction that London was her permanent home, and Kharbanda, for her part, envied her mother’s certainty. “That generation is so sure in a way that mine isn’t,” Kharbanda says.

Her first job in New York brought her into contact with other New York transplants, who, like her mother, had no qualms about where they belonged. Employed by Amnesty International USA, Kharbanda was responsible for monitoring U.S. government action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She interviewed post-9/11 detainees in jails and listened to stories from friends and family members of people who’d been caught up in immigration sweeps. From other immigrants, people who had built homes and invested time in this country but faced the prospect of deportation, she heard again and again, “But this is our home…

“I wished I could have that kind of confidence about where I belonged,” Kharbanda says.

During that initial period, when she felt increasingly out of place, the sensitive Kharbanda began sensing her grandparents’ ghosts around her, especially in the fraught aftermath of 9/11, a time when some South Asians in New York were distancing themselves from the Muslim community.

Both sets of her grandparents had been uprooted from their respective homes during the Partition of 1947. “Seeing South Asians distancing themselves from each other, adopting American symbols as protective measures, and reflecting on how different it is for our community in the UK had me reflecting on the loss of home and center my grandparents, and I guess my parents, too, must have experienced,” she says.

Her mother’s parents had moved from Pakistan to India; her father’s from Afghanistan to India. Her maternal grandfather wandered the globe looking for a new home, spending time in Chile as a farm laborer, before moving to England. Her maternal grandmother, for whom the displacement had taken a physical and emotional toll, died at the age of fifty “of a broken heart.”

“They stayed unsettled their whole lives,” says Kharbanda.

It wasn’t until two years later, during the blackout of 2003, that Kharbanda finally found what she’d been looking for in New York: a sense of community. “All of a sudden, everyone thought it was 9/11 all over again,” remembers Kharbanda, but when people realized that the blackout wasn’t terrorist-related, she sensed a collective sigh of relief on the streets. On Eighth Avenue, people barbequed, offering food and bottles of water to passersby. “Then I saw New Yorkers,” she says.

Kharbanda’s home
Kharbanda’s home

Kharbanda remembers going into her apartment that night, after walking home in a “sea of humanity” to Red Hook, lighting candles and “laughing my ass off” that this crisis was the key to her warming to New York City. She recalls thinking, “If this is New York, this is a place I want to belong to, where people say ‘We’re not dying? Alright, let’s party like we are.’”

In 2006, Kharbanda and Moss, who run a film company together, began looking to buy a home large enough to include an office for their newly established business. Two years later, they laid eyes on a three-story building on a side street in Cobble Hill. The asking price was too high, though. Although it needed a lot of work, Kharbanda remembers thinking, Wow, whoever gets this space is going to be so happy. This is a home.

Six months later, Kharbanda and Moss were still on the hunt, when a friend suggested they make a modest offer on the dream house. “We low-balled them,” says Kharbanda, who soon took off to London to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. When she was walking through the British Museum with her brother, Moss called and asked what she wanted for her birthday. “I want a fucking house,” she cracked. When Moss told her the owner had accepted their offer, she started shrieking.

Kharbanda and Moss experienced their fair share of bumps when they began renovations: unannounced inspections; issues with the contractors; never-ending piles of sawdust.  Other obstacles included a mortgage that fell through at the last minute. Kharbanda saw these challenges as a test. “For two wanderers to commit to home-owning, it was like we were being asked, How bad do you want this?

After returning from a trip to Georgia in 2009, the pair expected the space to be ready. The consummate hosts had even planned a party to inaugurate the home. But when they walked in, they saw that the construction wasn’t finished. Fed up, Kharbanda and Moss cleared the basement, strung up lights and cued up the salsa music. The party would go on.

Fast forward three months. Just before New Year’s Eve, Kharbanda and Moss returned home from another trip to Mexico City, only this time the house was quiet, no construction materials, no unfinished work. Instead of feting it as the fun-loving pair normally might, they lit some candles and cooked a low-key dinner in their new kitchen. After two years, their house was complete. Finally.

As she’s settled into her external space, Kharbanda has also become more at home with her metaphysical talents. Though the former law student is shy about this facet of her personality, she says her healing work calls to her more urgently now that she’s in a space conducive to it. “There’s a powerful energy in this building,” she notes.

She holds healing circles in their house to coincide with cosmological events, such as new and full moons, and also performs astrological and tarot readings. Though her office is in the basement, she gravitates toward the open living room and airy kitchen, the latter of which has a greenhouse-like glass ceiling. At night, Kharbanda and Moss can see the moon and stars from the comfort of their rustic kitchen table.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Kharbanda’s take on New York City has a distinct correlation to her metaphysical work.

“New York can’t expand,” she says. “Where are we going to go? Instead, the city is constantly transforming from within.”

*   *   *

Suzanne Guilette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.

Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.

Sophie Butcher is a freelance writer, photojournalist, illustrator and designer who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places. She is currently working in the photo department at TIME Magazine.

Memoir

Secret Life of an Autistic Stripper

I've always had trouble reading social cues, but in the strip club, where rules and roles are crystal clear, I finally learned to connect.

I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole.

I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. He was also more animated than the others.

“Do you want to try?” I asked her out of a sense of politeness.

“You go,” she said, waving her hand.

I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second – best not to terrify him. After three minutes, I transitioned to more personal questions, moving steadily through the formula I’d perfected to curate conversation with customers.

He started complaining about his recent breakup, but it didn’t feel genuine, his eyes twinkling with eagerness. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.

I could tell he was interested in spending money, but he’d be hard work. It was time to either close the sale or walk away. He’d take advantage of my time otherwise.

“Ready for fun?” I whispered in his ear to avoid his eyes.

I didn’t bother mentioning the private rooms. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in – not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.

* * *

Before working in strip clubs, I struggled to read people’s emotions through cues like facial expressions, postures, and tone of voice in real time. I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night. I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself.

One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. My voice was loud, a  pitch you use at a concert, not inside. I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent. Their distaste didn’t register until my sister pulled me aside and asked as kindly as possible to keep to “lighter” topics.

After dinner, we dispersed to the living room and I attempted to talk to my sister’s colleague, but I forgot to break eye contact, continuously staring wide-eyed while she spoke.

“You’re certainly a character,” she remarked, exiting the conversation. I didn’t realize until later that I’d made her uncomfortable.

I didn’t know what slow processing was then, but I was aware I felt embarrassed a lot, and lonely. Facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are the bones of communication and it’s quite difficult to build and maintain relationships without the ability to read them.

So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk. The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else.

* * *

I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Australia when I started dancing. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours.

When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: women approaching men. I was intrigued, but confused – how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?

The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: “Go get ready in there. You get one free drink. Don’t be late for stage. No sex. No drugs on the floor.” Simple enough, but nothing on how to monetize my time. I handed over my $40 house fee and walked into the sea of hairspray and naked bodies.

Hundreds of customers came and went during the 10-hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. I approached 10 guys, mirroring my colleagues’ coy smiles, suggestive body language and light conversation starters, but I couldn’t tease out who wanted to spend. All but one dismissed me.

I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne. One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. She wasn’t the most glamorous, but every guy she spent more than a few minutes with agreed to get a lap dance, like she had sprinkled them with fairy dust. A few times, she walked away from customers within seconds, once even waving her hand in a man’s face to dismiss him.

From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. She was taking a moment’s respite after a dance to count her money before securing it around her wrist with an elastic band. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar. It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. So far I’d brought in just $50, meaning a $10 profit after the house fee. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. My student loan wouldn’t magically go away.

She took one look at me and asked, “Your first time?”

“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.

She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.

“How do you know who wants to spend money?”

She turned around and outlined her lips with a beige pencil in the smudged mirror, advising in her Bulgarian accent: “I don’t always know, but here are a few things I’ve learned after five years in the industry: Don’t spend more than 10 minutes with them if they haven’t spent money. Five minutes if it’s busy. You’re not a free therapist. Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. Walk away from customers who want to get to know the ‘real you’ right away. They’re usually creeps.”

Before she left the lap dance area, she turned around and said, “And quit this nice girl bullshit. You sound like a child. Don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not, just be a hyped-up version of yourself.”

As she sauntered off, she looked back once more, “I’m Claire by the way.”

Her words wounded me, but I was impressed. She saw right through my mask. The rambling girl at my sister’s house was a distant memory, but, strangely, Claire must have seen who I was before I tried so hard to appear normal.

After we spoke, I didn’t reincarnate my older self, but I did carve another persona, Piper. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer. It seemed practicing social skills paid off – I became a deft conversationalist, sometimes earning my night’s wage just from talking. I moved beyond the foundation I hid behind, laughing, smiling, and chatting more brazenly than before, enjoying eye contact with customers I trusted, dismissing ones I didn’t. Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging.

That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. Slowly, Claire’s rules taught me how to read customers for signs of interest by attaching meaning to their words and actions, something most people learn unconsciously, but that I’d always struggled with.

The club gave me a controlled space to decipher the crinkle around people’s eyes for eagerness or raised eyebrow for arrogance, as if I was reading a script from a teleprompter. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me. Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.

* * *

Eventually I moved back home to New York and started stripping full time. After two years of practicing by trial and error in the world’s most social job, the tricks I learned in the club seeped into my social life outside of work, and it got easier to notice social cues and use the same formula I used with customers to make small talk with anyone.

Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled, so I let very few people get close to me – better than anyone finding out that I couldn’t really socialize, that I was a fake.

Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: a dinner party with unknown people. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous – too many subtleties to keep track of. But I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and I missed her. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.

The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I can’t remember the other people’s faces or even what anyone spoke about. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions.

“Sarah tells me you just got home from Amsterdam,” my friend’s brother said politely, turning in my direction. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat.

“I am sorry, what?” I asked.

He repeated himself. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.

Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: “Were people bored when I spoke?”

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. But I have to go. I’m sorry, I have work.”

She looked confused as I hurried out the door. I didn’t really have to go to the club. I’d made enough that week to warrant a night off with my friends, but work felt easier than this social performance. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge.

I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? Surely work shouldn’t be more comfortable than a night out? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape.

I spotted a man at the bar – alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away.

“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.

“It’s an underrated drink.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Can I get you another one?”

Ten minutes passed. I suggested the private room and he agreed. The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club.

There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours – something I was never able to do before. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before.

“You have a strange rhythm about you,” he remarked, smiling as I cradled him. Customers who spent money like water didn’t care if I was odd; they wanted an experience. My weirdness was worth their paycheck.

After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Miss you. Wish you didn’t have work. It’s not the same without you.

Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.

Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Maybe I was just being stupid because I was drunk, but I wanted to be an active participant in my life instead of walking around confused all the time, experiencing my days after they’ve happened, passive from the sidelines. I wanted connection.

Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in.

I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. When I got home, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, my sheets disheveled with self-loathing.

Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.

“What is ASD?” I asked.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

I scoffed, but after I read articles on how autism manifests in women, there wasn’t room for doubt – the evidence was clearly outlined in the bullet points on my laptop.

Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. Many autistic people can’t filter out information, which makes it difficult to zone in and focus. All those years, I couldn’t read people’s cues because I struggled to cancel out the world around me. At my sister’s house, the background music, the forks scraping on plates, the blue walls, all swam in front of people’s facial expressions.

But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact.

Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over. Scrolling through were women like me: sex workers, performers, artists, writers, all struggling to make sense of our invisible differences in our own socially awkward, wacky, and beautiful way.

I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. I stopped punishing myself when I got overwhelmed in conversations, stopped beating myself up when bright lights blanched out facial expressions and background noise canceled out people’s words. I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: “Can you say that again?” without apology. I forgave myself when I slipped outside of social norms and said something weird.

No more being sorry for things I can’t help. People would love me or not – frankly I was okay with the risk.

* * *

A few months later, I stood outside the club with a cigarette in my hand, looking over the busy highway at the deserted factories.

“Piper, you leaving?” my bouncer nudged in his Queens accent.

“Yes. I made enough tonight. I’m going out,” I said, smiling back at him.

He waited outside with me until Sarah pulled up in a rideshare.

“This is where you work?” she asked incredulously, her mouth ajar in the window of the car.

I laughed. She knew I was a stripper but had never been to the club. From the outside, it looked grim: tattered brown building on the edge of town. But it was home to me.

“I never said stripping was glamorous.”

I kept the window open as the club disappeared, letting the cold air whip my face, feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. Forums for autistic women advised pulling off masks that many develop to pass as non-autistic. The effects of camouflaging are toxic, they warned. I wasn’t sure I could go back to who I was. The rambling autistic girl at my sister’s house was dead, buried under years of performance.

“Did you have a good night?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I’m ready for a night off though.”

Who could I have been if I didn’t try so hard to pass? I’ll never know, but stripping provided a portal to who I might be without fear of rejection – a rare glimpse of the affectionate, brash, and funky edges of personality. But I still had so much to learn. There was vast, dormant space to grow into beyond my work persona.

The twinkling lights opened the doors to Manhattan, my body still moving from the music of the club. The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them.

Hidden History

The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own”

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did everything it could to keep lesbians off the diamond. Seventy-five years later, its gay stars are finally opening up.

Josephine “JoJo” D’Angelo was in a hotel lobby in 1944. An outfielder for the South Bend Blue Sox — a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.), founded the year prior — she had dark, curly hair. Even if you didn’t know her last name, her looks hinted at her Italian heritage.

The hotel was likely decorated with muted colors in the modernist style of the previous decade. Thanks to World War II, there were supply shortages and rations, which put a hold on new design in the early ’40s. All available supplies needed to go toward the war effort.

The story was similar in baseball. With most of the Major League Baseball players deployed, executives decided to fill the gap with female players, paving the way for the A.A.G.P.B.L.

But in the hotel that day, D’Angelo was approached by one league executive and told that she was being released from her contract. This was devastating for the right-hander who’d batted .200 in her two seasons with the Blue Sox. She’d been playing since she was a little girl, and had spent her days working in a steel mill in her hometown of Chicago while devoting evenings to playing ball, before attending a tryout for the league at Wrigley Field. That scene was made famous by the film “A League of Their Own,” with hundreds of women traveling from around the country to the brick ballpark with the ivy-covered outfield wall.

Why was D’Angelo being cut from the thing she loved most in the world? When she told the story later in her life, she gave the reason: “a butchy haircut.” It was a haircut she says she never even wanted, one she was pressured into getting by the hairstylist who assured her she would look lovely with her dark curls trimmed into a bob.

D’Angelo had broken one of the cardinal rules of the A.A.G.P.B.L.: “Play like a man, look like a lady.” But she wasn’t the only one. Connie Wisniewski was told she’d be kicked off her team if she chose to get a close-trimmed cut. Multiple recruits were immediately handed tickets home after they showed up to spring training with bobs, and “Dottie Ferguson was warned by her chaperon against wearing girls’ Oxford shoes, because they were excessively masculine-looking,” writes Lois Browne in her book Girls of Summer: In Their Own League.

Members of the Fort Wayne Daisies baseball team, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

Players had to attend charm school and wear lipstick on the field. Their uniforms had skirts instead of pants — not great for sliding, but deemed appropriately feminine by league owner Philip K. Wrigley. All of this was chronicled in “A League of Their Own.” But there was one thing the movie left out: the reason for these requirements.

Though it was never explicitly stated, historians and players alike say the rules were in place, in part, to prevent the women from being perceived as lesbians. Many of the women actually were gay, including D’Angelo, which is another part of the story the movie didn’t tell. By not including a gay character’s story in “A League of Their Own,” the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.

* * *

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Donahue was in Nova Scotia for the winter when she met Henschel, who was 19 at the time. The two women hit it off, keeping in touch when Donahue moved back to the U.S. to play for the Peoria Red Wings. “She was a utility player, and the catcher on her team broke her thumb or her finger,” Henschel says. “The manager came up to her and said, ‘Have you ever caught?’ And Terry said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going in tonight.’” The first game Donahue ever caught ended up being a 19-inning game. The next day was her birthday.

“The only things [women] can’t do, we can’t hit as far and we can’t throw as hard, but we certainly can make all the plays that you see in the Cubs’ ballpark. Or the Sox,” Donahue told the Kane County Chronicle in 2010, referring to the Cubs and White Sox, Chicago’s two major-league squads.

Left, Terry Donahue’s baseball card. Right, Peoria Redwings team photo in 1947 – the year she met Pat Henschel. Donahue played in the team from 1946 to 1949. (Photos courtesy All American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association)

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

In the ’40s and ’50s, homosexuality was not discussed much; it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the list of mental illnesses. The players could have lost more than just their baseball careers if they had been open about their queerness. They could have lost their families, occupations, and reputations, too. In those days, “you had to be very discreet, and we were,” says Henschel. “No one was even aware of it because we got so careful and no one would have even imagined anything at all.”

That stigma has carried on for decades. As Ila Borders, the first woman to play for a men’s professional baseball team since the Negro Leagues, wrote in her memoir, Making My Pitch, “I remain certain that my professional career would not have been possible had I come out.” In 1994, Borders, a left-handed pitcher, became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship. She was the first to start an N.C.A.A. baseball game and the first woman to get a win in collegiate baseball. She then played for the independent, otherwise all-male St. Paul Saints and Duluth-Superior Dukes.

“In 1994 few in baseball — or in the country — were ready to accept a gay player, male or female,” writes Borders. Indeed, that same year, the book SportsDykes: Stories From On and Off the Field was also published. In her essay, “The Lesbian Label Haunts Women Athletes,” Lynn Rosellini writes, “To most lesbian athletes … coming out is not yet worth it.”

“If a woman plays hardball, people figure she’s likely gay,” writes Borders. It’s why, during her baseball career, she constantly had to answer questions about whether she dated men, and had to reassure the public that, despite the fact that she played ball, she was not gay. She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

“I was deeply ignorant of my small place in the history of women athletes and the whole gay rights movement,” Borders writes of her playing days as a closeted homosexual.

But this stereotype existed long before Borders was even born. Some A.A.G.P.B.L. players cited masculine clothing or appearances as tipping them off about a woman’s sexual orientation, a stereotype that still exists today and may or may not be accurate. “The lesbians, they dressed like men with those big pants and big shoes, most of them. … [T]hey had boyish bobs,” Dottie Green, a former A.A.G.P.B.L. player and chaperone told Susan K. Cahn in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Sports. Or, as Dottie Ferguson Key put it, “tomboyish girls” who “wanted to go with other girls” signaled it with their “mannish” shoes and clothing.

A.A.G.P.B.L. players (left to right) Daisy Junor, 27, South Bend; Dorice Reid, 19, Chicago club member; Dodie Healy, 19, Chicago club member; (top) Gene George, 20, Peoria club member, fraternizing in a bunk room over a sports magazine, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

It was this perception of female athletes as unfeminine and unfeminine women as lesbians that led Wrigley, a chewing gum manufacturer and president of the Chicago Cubs, to insist that his players be appropriately feminine in appearance.

But the A.A.G.P.B.L. went even further than that, instituting a policy against fraternizing with other teams. The given reason was “to sustain the complete spirit of rivalry between clubs,” but Browne writes that the real reason that teams imposed stiff fines on players who violated this rule was the fear of lesbianism. When the affair was between teammates, chaperones would refuse to let the suspected couple room together and gauge the reaction of the players to confirm their hunch. In one case, the suspected lovers were so angry about being barred from becoming roommates that team manager Johnny Gottselig considered it proof of the affair. One manager released two of his players because he thought they were gay and was worried they would “contaminate” the rest of the team.

In another case, a married player was rumored to have fallen for one of her teammates. “That player converted this young married woman in just two weeks,” said Fred Leo, who was the League’s publicity director and, later, its president. Another time, Leo said that a married player was discovered to be in a relationship with a woman who was unassociated with the league. Leo claimed he notified her husband, who came and took her home.

“Knowledge of gay women in sport ranged from a hazy, unarticulated awareness to an informed familiarity or personal involvement,” writes Cahn. “Often an athlete’s initial awareness of lesbianism developed from seeing women ‘pairing off’ or getting ‘very clannish’ with each other.”

However, many of the players came to the league quite sheltered. They often arrived from small towns or rural areas and were quite young when they left home. As a result, it was not uncommon for new or younger players to be completely blindsided by the relationships between their teammates. Dorothy Hunter entered the League in 1943, when she was 27. Hunter, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, said she had “never heard of lesbianism,” so her teammates regaled her with tales of lesbian love affairs. “They told me they had wedding ceremonies. Well, I just thought they were giving me the gears because I was a green Canadian.”

But many of the players were unattached. If straight players were married, many of their husbands were off at war or were left back at home on farms or in factories. The players’ grueling schedule and constant travel made dating difficult. It was in many ways the perfect environment for gay women to become involved with each other. But in some cases, the near-inability to date was a welcome reality. It made staying in the closet easier, because there was no time for dating and so there was no need to make excuses. This was something that Borders discovered, too, when she was playing ball in the 1990s.

“Playing baseball allowed little time for dating,” she writes. “When people tried to set me up, it was easy to say, ‘No thanks, too busy.’”

These restrictions kept some women out of the league altogether. One of those women was Dot Wilkinson, often regarded as the greatest softball player of her time — and perhaps all time. Wilkinson was a hard-playing catcher for the Phoenix Ramblers. She joined the American Softball Association (A.S.A.) team in 1933, when she was just 11 years old.

“Softball has meant more to me than I can ever tell anybody,” Wilkinson says in the documentary film “Extra Innings.” “I love that game. I never thought about anything else.”

Wilkinson was recruited to play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. “They came to Arizona to offer us some contracts,” Wilkinson said. “They wanted to give me $85 a week [equivalent to $1,240 today] to catch. I didn’t want to leave the Ramblers and I don’t like being away from home so I didn’t go.”

But it was more than that. Wilkinson didn’t want any part of the curfews, the charm school, the chaperones, or the mandatory dresses. She played in Levi’s or her shiny satin uniform shorts, and she liked it that way. She also knew that the league was actively discouraging players from being perceived as exactly what Wilkinson was — gay.

“Softball was my first love and it still is,” said Wilkinson. But she had another love, too. In 1963, Estelle “Ricki” Caito, a star second baseman, joined the Ramblers. Wilkinson and Caito played together for two seasons, until the A.S.A. disbanded. But they also began a relationship that would last 48 years, until Caito’s death in 2011.

“We were born at a time when we were all in the closet and that was just the name of the game,” Wilkinson said. “And you had to live with it and that’s what we did.”

* * *

It is the obituaries that offer the most publicly available clues to some of the players who spent their lives with other women. The most telling evidence is often in veiled language or titles that are open to interpretation. In at least one case, a player had a “special friend.” In others, their relationships are more explicitly acknowledged.

Mabel Holle played third base for the South Bend Blue Sox, and like teammate JoJo D’Angelo hailed from Illinois. Holle’s father was a semi-professional pitcher and she grew up playing ball with her siblings. She attended the mass tryout at Wrigley Field, becoming one of the original members of the league in 1943. During the season, she was traded to the Kenosha Comets. Her contract was not renewed in 1944, forcing her to try out again. This time, she didn’t make the cut. After leaving the league, she became a physical education teacher. In Holle’s 2011 obituary, written after she died at 91, there’s this: “Holle is survived by her longtime partner, Linda Hoffman.”

Babe Ruth and Millie Deegan, 1938. (Photo courtesy The Diamond Angle, via Archive Today)

Mildred “Millie” Deegan played 10 seasons with the A.A.G.P.B.L., from 1943-1952. She is rumored to have impressed Babe Ruth with how far she could hit a softball, and it is said he squeezed the biceps on her arm when he posed with her for a photo. In 1944 the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Deegan and two other women to their spring training camp. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, told the Daily Oklahoma in 1946, “Deegan spent a whole week training with the Brooklyn Dodgers at their Bear Mountain, NY camp. If she were a man, she no doubt would have been a Dodger.”

Deegan died of breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 82. Her obituary in the New York Times mentions Margaret Nusse, “Ms. Deegan’s companion and her only survivor.” Nusse, known as “Toots,” was a softball legend herself. According to the now-defunct NJ Divas Fastpitch site, Deegan and Nusse were partners for almost 50 years. The two shared their passion for softball: Deegan was the coach for the Linden, New Jersey, Arians and Nusse was the manager. Nusse passed away just six months after Deegan died, at age 85.

June Peppas was a pitcher and first baseman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who played in the A.A.G.P.B.L. from 1948-1954. The player known as “Lefty” had spunk. Fort Wayne Daisies manager Harold Greiner relates a story in Browne’s book Girls of Summer: “Once there were some men out in the street, and some smart aleck said something. I didn’t hear what it was, they’d watched till I wasn’t nearby. Anyway, all of a sudden I hear ‘Wow!’ I turned around and saw that June Peppas had decked the guy — and I mean she really decked him. He crawled away.”

The A.A.G.P.B.L. meant a lot to Peppas. She was the first chairperson of the Players Association Board and two-time A.A.G.P.B.L. All-Star. Polly Huitt was Peppas’s partner for 46 years before she passed in 2007, nine years before Peppas died at the age of 86. The two operated a printing business in Allegan, Michigan, called PJ’s Printing, from 1975-1988. They sold the business and retired to Florida where, according to Peppas’s obituary, they enjoyed “golf and an active social life.”

Fort Wayne Daisies player Marie Wegman arguing with umpire Norris Ward, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

One of the best pitchers to ever play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. was Jean Cione. The girl from Rockford, Illinois, played 10 seasons in the league. In that time she threw three no hitters, had three 20-win seasons, and had an unassisted triple play — something that has only happened 15 times in Major League Baseball since 1909. Cione spent her rookie year in 1947 with the Rockford Peaches and finished with an astonishing 1.30 ERA. “She was a lot fun to be with,” Cione’s partner Ginny Hunt told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after her death in 2010. “If you didn’t ever experience watching a baseball game with her, you really missed something. It was a treat to watch a game with her. She analyzed every play.”

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

* * *

“Our relationship is one of the best,” Pat Henschel says of her partnership with Terry Donahue. “We’re very lucky and we know it.”

Photos of the women throughout the years give a glimpse of the life they’ve had together. In their younger days, they look like they could be sisters as they pose in front of a Christmas tree in a picture that might have been taken in the 1960s. They each sport short, dark hairstyles and wear sleeveless turtleneck shirts. In another, they are perhaps in their 60s and they dance together in front of a fireplace. They are both laughing. Their hairstyles have not changed in the decades between the two photos except to turn from brown to gray.

Members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and an umpire, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

They are ready to tell the world the truth about their relationship. Donahue’s great nephew, Christopher Bolan, is working on a documentary about their life together. Another photo shows the two of them doing what they had only ever done behind closed doors: they hold hands, weathered and wrinkled by the years they’ve spent together, and they kiss each other on the lips. Their eyes are closed. It is sweet. It is intimate. But they hid this truth for as long as they did because, for most of their lives, they had too much to lose by coming out.

But today, Henschel says, “They either accept it or they don’t.”

* * *

Fifty years after the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended, Ila Borders was making history. She had ascended to a level that no woman ever had before. She was playing — and succeeding — in men’s professional baseball. And then, she quit.

We are sitting together in the stands at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida. We’re watching a group of women play the championship game at the team’s Women’s Fantasy Camp, where Borders is coaching. “It got to me,” Borders says about being in the closet. “It’s why I quit. It’s the worst thing on Earth to hide who you are.”

That, Borders says, is why she ultimately came out — for the next generation of girls who want to play ball, so they can be themselves, no matter who they are, and so history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

Borders looks out onto the field of women whose uniforms are streaked with dirt. “If you are a ballplayer, it’s O.K. to play hard and just be yourself,” she says. And she’s finally at a place in her life where she truly believes it.

Memoir

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. 

My Daughter Is Trapped Under Five Feet of Snow

In the remote mountains of Norway, a father claws himself out after an avalanche….then starts frantically searching for his daughter.

My Daughter Is Trapped Under Five Feet of Snow

In the remote mountains of Norway, a father claws himself out after an avalanche….then starts frantically searching for his daughter.

 

Narratively is thrilled to present the English-language debut of this interactive story, produced by Bergens Tidende newspaper.

Originally published in Norwegian, it was a viral hit and recently won the “Best Storytelling” prize in Scandinavia’s prestigious Schibsted Awards.

Memoir

My Roommate the Prostitute

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

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

“Sweet,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

How dare she — in my home?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

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

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

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

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

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

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

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

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

Two days later, her aunt came.

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

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

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

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

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

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