Memoir

Snapshots from the Trail of The Last Picture Show

Following a literary legend to the dusty small town that gave him his fame, three budding writers learn Texas-sized lessons on love, loss and lament.

Larry McMurtry wrote the novels “The Last Picture Show” and the Pulitzer-winning “Lonesome Dove,” along with the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” and numerous other books and essays. Much of his work is inspired by Archer City, his small hometown in West Texas, where, fittingly, a small group of storytellers gather for a writers’ retreat each year, hoping to establish their place in the literary world. Along the dusty trails of this forgotten hamlet, they work to find their voices, confront their fears and find home in the backyard of strangers. For the three writers below, their stories may have started at the Archer City Writers Workshop, but their experience in West Texas changed something deep within them.

‪‬‬Jumping off the Truck

By Madiha K

The chill of the winter night air cut through my thin black pashmina shawl as I walked from the car park toward the international departure terminal of the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore. At the counter I handed over my passport and an admission letter from the Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism in Denton, Texas.

The immigration officer looked at my ticket. “Aamreeka?” he asked gleefully. “Un huh” I said. Pakistanis have this fascination with America that borders on obsession. It’s America’s affluence and the attainment of “the American dream” that Pakistanis hope to achieve some day.

“Thomp! Click!” The officer banged the pre-inked stamp against my passport.

A dotted red rectangle surrounded the text:

Immigration Officer

Exit

23 Dec 2009

After a twenty-three-hour flight, I landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. My parents had moved to America three months earlier. As members of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, they had faced years of state-sanctioned persecution. Death threats and political instability were always a looming threat. My watch was still set to Pakistani time; I didn’t have the heart to change it. It felt like the only link I had to home. Changing the time would somehow mean I had abandoned home.

*

On a dorm room door a paper cutout of my name greeted me. As I began to unpack, tears rolled down my cheeks. So this is the American dream? Downsizing from the family home? Living out of five boxes? My house in Pakistan was an old Army garrison built by the British before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Vivid and painfully tender memories of my mother and home filled my empty room.

I opened the first box and picked up the mattress pad. I struggled to put it on the twin size mattress. Standing on top of the bed frame, I stretched the white mesh, tussled with the elastic but it quickly scrunched back. My hands gave way and the mattress flopped on the bed frame.

Failure.

I repeated the process.

Failure again.

Frustrated at my inability to do something as simple as putting on a mattress pad, I realized how ill prepared I was for life, how dependent I’d been on other people for my existence. It was my first understanding that life here will never be like Pakistan. No one will make the bed for me, cook for me or clean after me. I will have to leave my upper class Pakistani habits at the door.

*

On lonely evenings, the beauty of the sinking Texas sun sprinkling crimson dust into the vast skies made me think of Lahore and of all the times I had chai in the garden. We would sit barefoot in our lush side garden around a low table on white lounge chairs. The setting sun signaled the call of the Maghrib prayer. Loudspeakers punctured the serenity of dusk as nearby imams competed against each other in out-of-tune voices calling the faithful for prayers.

“Haya alas Salah.” Come to prayer.

“Haya alal falah.” Come to success.

A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.
A heifer decomposed in a mesquite thicket near a dry water tank on the Seven Bar Ranch in Archer County, Texas, on August 24, 2011. Seven Bar Ranch owner Abby Abernathy said the drought had depleted the area’s grass of nutrition and that his cattle had to walk up to five miles to eat and another five miles to drink. “They’re literally walking themselves to death,” he said.

I had not come to success. A friend told me what one of our professors thought about me: I would start projects but never finish them. I would plunge into a project with great zeal only to abandon my drafts. I always felt my work wasn’t good enough or at least not as good as my peers. Am I kidding myself? I wondered. Do I really have what it takes to be a writer?

A few days before the semester ended, a professor asked me to take a class in Archer City. “You need it,” he said. I quizzed former students on what to expect. “It’s a life-changing experience,” they told me. “It will help you find your place in the world.” I agreed with my professor. I did need it. After coming to America, I felt “my place in the world” was disappearing faster than dust in a windstorm. Would Archer City really be the life-changing experience students had assured me of? All I knew was that I had to go and find out.

*

So the journey began on a scorching July afternoon in Texas, with a full tank of gas in a 2004 butter yellow convertible Volkswagen Beetle, a roll-on hand baggage, and an empty navy blue journal bought minutes before the journey.

I had considered driving solo but had never driven alone anywhere more than half an hour from home. What if the car broke down? What if I had a punctured tire? What if I got lost and no one could find me? A part of me wanted to get lost, forcing me to take control of my life and find my way back. Taking a solo road trip had lingered in my imagination ever since I had learned to drive. In my imagination, I would drive solo in my yellow convertible on Route 66, one of the most famous roads in America that had been a symbol of freedom and independence in popular movies and songs. But a bigger part lacked the gumption and courage to make even the two-hour drive to Archer City alone.

I tuned up the radio to drown my discordant thoughts. But the radio couldn’t suppress the memories of friends I had lost contact with and dashed hopes of becoming the writer I dreamed of becoming. All my failures – as a person, as a writer – stirred in my head, competing with the voices on the radio. When the afternoon stock report blasted through my speakers “The Dow Jones…..” I abruptly turned off the radio.

My sobs punctured the silence. Somewhere along the double-lane road, I confronted my biggest fear: America might be home. My parents made an abrupt decision: to choose life over home. They chose life, and moved to America while I was still clinging to memories of home. Yet over time I began awakening to a harsh reality: my home no longer existed. Lahore, Pakistan: the flimsy brown gate of my house, the Neem tree that bent over the verandah, white chairs in the backyard, the orange wall in my room. That house was empty now. Everything packed and taped, sealed with ropes and plastic for a who-knows-when time in an uncertain future.

*

I parked my car outside the Spur Hotel in Archer City. Eight strangers had signed up for a writers workshop designed to bore deeply into the lives of the locals, unearthing the stories that spoke to them. Just before sunset, about the same time the students finished unloading their suitcases and filling the refrigerator with basic supplies for the week, my professor showed up. “We’ll go to the dirt roads tonight,” he said. “We’ll follow Crystal.”

Crystal was a tomboy and a cowgirl who lived with a pretty blond named Fonda. That made them outcasts in Archer City. As in Larry McMurtry’s screenplay, “Brokeback Mountain,” gay relationships are not accepted in the cowboy culture of Archer City. Maybe that’s why Fonda and Crystal loved hanging out with “the writers,” as they called them.

Crystal wore a big smile and a messy, wavy bob. She had no makeup and it was hard to understand her through her thick Texan twang. But she and Fonda opened their heart and home for us strangers as if we were longtime friends.

We separated into two groups: One group rode in Crystal’s truck while the other climbed into the bed of my professor’s silver Ford Ranger. No streetlights lined the roads. Only the headlights of the trucks offered limited visibility as we moved off the paved streets of Archer City onto the dusty back roads. Loose gravel crunching beneath the tires, the truck caravan navigated the chalky trails surrounding Archer City. Dust blew, making it hard to breathe.

I thought of my childhood in Lahore; a seven-year-old me, chasing lightning bugs. I wished I could see them now. But the darkness was absolute. Crickets sang their song and the night sky twinkled with constellations. We slowed down and came to a stop. In the darkness, only our silhouettes were visible.

A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A yearling strayed onto FM 2178 in Archer County, Texas, on May 20, 2011.

Country music floated over our conversations. Through the worn-out speakers of Crystal’s truck, the local radio station blared one song after another mythologizing the cowboy culture, cattle, and the love of the land.

I was standing next to a fellow writer when he offered me a beer.

“No, thanks. I don’t drink,” I said.

“You’ve never had a drink?”

“No, it’s forbidden in Islam,” I said. “But I’ll try it some day. Just once.”

“You should do it today. I’ll get you one,” he wandered off in the darkness towards the cooler.

A minute later he came and handed me a beer. “Here you go!”

Reluctantly, I held the bottle, giggling. “What am I supposed to do? Just chug it down?”

“No, let’s have a toast.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, raising his voice above the others. Now all eyes were on me. “We have someone here who’s never had a beer in her life.”

“How old are you?” he asked me.

“Twenty-five,” I said.

“Twenty-five and never had a drink? Get on the truck. Come on, stand up!”

I climbed onto the back of Crystal’s truck and stood, holding a bottle of Shiner.

I pressed the cold glass bottle against my lips and tilted, threw back my head and gulped the liquid. One small sip and I swallowed. All Pakistani conventions shattered, all religious dogma abandoned.

The crowd cheered.

I dedicated my toast to my professor and our tribe of writers.

I had done something no one in my family had ever done. I had done something that would embarrass them.

Yet I didn’t feel it was wrong. In defying my religion, my culture, my entire past, I felt relieved of heavy baggage I had been carrying all my life. As I jumped down from that truck, I felt a rush – of falling and scrambling to stay afloat. In that moment I decided I would rather be the writer who tried and failed and rose up again rather than the writer who never tried. That day on the dirt roads I gained my rite of passage as a writer. A member of a tribe. A writer who jumped.

*

On our second day, we met Jackie. An aging, arthritic cowgirl with a biting wit, she seemed to see right through us, as if she possessed in her head x-ray images of our minds. She was such a brutal and honest critic of our writing, such a shrewd judge of personality, that we all swore she was an oracle, possessed with amazing psychic powers. We sat in a semi-circle in her backyard, the night stars game to our confessions. The only source of light was a bright yellow bulb and each time someone read their piece, they had to sit near the bulb. In reading our raw and often emotionally-charged rough drafts aloud in Jackie’s backyard, we exposed ourselves to Jackie in a way penitents expose themselves to a priest.

To one writer, Jackie said, “You are hiding from your true self.” She correctly noted that another was raised by a single mother even though that wasn’t revealed in his draft.

To me she said, “You’ve overcome your fears. You’ll be an amazing writer.” I wanted to believe her. But I was disappointed. She didn’t see through me deep enough to see that I was not an amazing writer. I cried as I read my piece.

Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her "the last real cowgirl." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Jackie Lane watched her horses feed in Archer City, Texas on June 1, 2011. Larry McMurtry called her “the last real cowgirl.”

*

Earlier that day, gathering under a gigantic antler chandelier in the hotel lobby, my professor instructed us: “Images are doorways to your imagination,” he said. “Find an image that speaks to you and write about it.”

I didn’t know where to go. Everyone seemed to have a destination in mind. I stood still at the entrance of the lobby. Where was my image? Where was my imagination? I remembered seeing a sign pointing towards the Archer City cemetery. A low terra cotta wall marked the front boundary of the cemetery. I stood still at the gate and said a little prayer in Arabic. “Assalam-o- Alaikum ya eh lal qaboor.” Oh inmates of the graves, blessings on you. My mind went back to Pakistan.

I sat for hours on a concrete bench gazing into the scattered graves of people I didn’t know. I stared into the nothingness and slowly I could feel calm. I felt it was okay to walk alone. Mom and Dad might not always be there. I’ll be okay, I whispered to myself. I’ll be okay.

*

I know why I was drawn to Archer City. In so many ways it was like Lahore. You didn’t need to call before showing up at someone’s house. You ate and sat in the garden for hours and no one was in a hurry to leave. You shared stories and everyone listened because deep down, we all have a story we are yearning to tell and hear. In Archer City, the spirit of the Old West lingers on. Men wear cowboy hats and drive their rugged Rams and Silverados. They drive slowly through the blinking red light on the square. Amid the locals of Archer City, I found home. In the backyards of strangers on moonlit nights I found my voice. It’s been two years and a lot has changed. I have graduated. I finished the piece I started in Archer City and I went back again. This time I rolled down the windows, cracked up the music, sang along to songs and laughed at my old self.

Madiha K graduated with a masters in Journalism from the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Born and raised in Pakistan, she currently calls Texas her home. She is fascinated by human stories of migration and concepts of home. Her work has been published in Warscapes.

* * *

How the Hell Did I Get Here?

By Alicia Auping

Dust swirls. It’s a staring contest, and I’m losing. My opponent’s eyes are pools of black bulging from his head. His head is the size of my entire body, and he lowers it, swinging it back and forth. Never mind the horns.

How the hell did I get here?

Even though I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, for almost ten years, astonishingly I never stepped foot into the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. The closest the annual rodeo ever came to affecting me was the overflow parking that invaded The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, where my dad is chief curator. That’s my world: art, poetry, literature.

I spent my formative years in Buffalo, New York. I’m a city girl. I don’t like horses. My encounters with horses have been limited to Susan Rothenberg’s abstract renderings. Horses terrify me. The biggest animal I’ve ever been comfortable around was my black lab, Amigo, and until today, my only glimpse of the inside of a rodeo is a picture sitting on the front desk of the Spur Hotel in Archer City, Texas.

Seven days ago I arrived in Archer City to attend a literary journalism class. I’ve learned a lot over the past week about writing, and about myself. I’ve bonded with an eight-year-old Archer City icon and a ten-year-old cowgirl, attended a cattle auction, won bingo at the community center and learned how to play pool at the American Legion.

Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Two women passed the marquee at the American Legion in Archer City, Texas, on July 26, 2009. Two years earlier, the community was rocked when one of its own, 21-year-old Marine Sgt. Gary Scott Johnston, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. 

Now, I’m running for my life.

I’m at the Boomtown Rodeo in Burkburnett, Texas, with my classmate Jason Yang and our teacher George Getschow. My bug-splattered Toyota RAV4 sits in a grassy lot, dwarfed by heavy-duty pickup trucks extended in length by horse trailers. We follow a chorus of whoops, hollers and whinnies toward the entrance to the rodeo grounds, and our noses are met with a rare mixture of sweet and pungent aromas: nachos, cotton candy and living, breathing animals. Young and old cowboys are walking around in worn jeans and boots with huge hats and belt buckles. Their women are wearing head-to-toe denim dripping in sparkly sequins and rhinestones. I wish I’d packed my Bedazzler.

Enormous dragonflies and beetles swoop and dive amid the festivities. Young wranglers practice their roping skills a few yards away. A small child passes by on a miniature horse, and I do a double take. It’s a country western circus.

A veteran of the rodeo circuit, Archer City resident Don Masey, explains all the events to us — barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding, and one of our favorites, the calf scramble. It’s adorable. A ribbon is tied to the tail of a calf and children chase after it to get the ribbon.

When the adult scramble is announced, George practically shoves me and Jason off the bleachers. We hesitate but then give in. Why the hell not? We can chase a calf. It’ll be fun.

We join the parade of good ole boys heading toward the entrance to the arena. I look around at the muscle-bound young men sporting wranglers, boots and cowboy hats, strutting into the ring. Their hands are calloused. I rub my hands together self-consciously; they’re as soft as peach skin.

I look at Jason’s crisply pressed button-down shirt tucked into his slacks, then at my own jeans and sneakers.

“I’m going to be the only girl out there!”

“I’m the only Asian at the entire rodeo!”

And those are the last words we exchange before we step into the ring.

I look down at my neon yellow Nikes kicking up a combination of sand, dirt and manure. They leave a foreign footprint on the ground, which is accustomed to the familiar imprint of cowboy boots.

There is a wall of cowboys in front of us. I can’t see over their Stetsons. I feel like everyone’s staring at me, a Lilliputian under the bright lights. Who are those weirdos? What the hell are they doing in our rodeo arena?

I’m ready to get this over with.

All of a sudden, the wall of bodies scatters. Jason and I stand in the middle of the mayhem as still as stones.

My heart stops.

Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Tina Robertson leaned on her truck before leading her herd to pasture in Archer County, Texas, on July 31, 2010. To make ends meet, Robertson worked as a rancher, maid and high-security prison guard.

“Oh my God, it’s a fucking bull!” I don’t know which one of us says it before we run in opposite directions just in time for the bull to trample the ground where we were standing seconds ago.

My heart has kicked back in at double-time.

I lose sight of Jason in the commotion. I’m disoriented. I don’t know whether to run towards or away from the bull. I’m caught in a cyclone of broad shoulders and cowboy hats. My eyes sting from the dust. Where’s Jason?

Then I see him.

He runs head-on towards the bull. What is he doing? He’s so close. He reaches for the ribbon tied between the bull’s horns. Oh my God, I think, he’s either going to get that ribbon or he’s going to die.

He doesn’t get the ribbon, and he doesn’t die. His fingers are mere inches away from the delicate ribbon dancing around the horns of the snorting, heaving behemoth. Dressed in perfectly pressed business attire, facing a bull head-on, he realizes what he has gotten himself into. At the last minute, he veers out of harm’s way, and a strapping young man twice his size swoops in, easily slipping the bow off its beastly horns like a present on Christmas morning.

The winner, a seasoned cowboy, struts around the ring, grasping the ribbon in his hand like he had just won a million dollars. In reality, it was fifty dollars and bragging rights.

Jason and I meet up and walk out of the ring with the crowd. Our fellow participants pat us on the back laughing because even that bull knew we didn’t belong there. We laugh back, relieved yet proud, knowing we’ve shared an experience we’ll never forget.

Fear is a valuable emotion for a writer. Adrenaline kicks in, and our senses go on hyper-alert. When we are scared we remember every minute detail. This is what writers do to find a story. I’ve learned that being a writer is scary, and it’s normal for me to feel that way. It takes courage to write. Not just courage to translate your thoughts onto paper but courage to step outside your comfort zone, into a world that is so strange and so terrifying.

Like a rodeo ring occupied by a gigantic, ornery bull.

Alicia Auping is an alumna of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, where she also received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. A current contributor to the Dallas Observer’s arts and culture blog, Mixmaster, her work has been published in Denton Live, Denton-Record Chronicle and Mayborn magazine. ‬

* * *

The Bookkeeper

By Nicole Holland Pearce

There he is. A small, rumpled figure unloading books from a sea of boxes, throwing out volumes, piling others on top of themselves. It is methodic. Bookshelves surround him, stretching from floor to ceiling. He stands in the center of them, near a large table, which is also filled with books overflowing to the floor. I walk up behind him on the balls of my feet. His light gray hair tufts ungraciously on his head, and thick plastic eyeglasses lie across his nose. On a stark white strip of paper, taped on their side, it reads, “Mr. McMurtry.” I clear my throat and ask him where he found the shipment he is unloading. Stacks salvaged from the Fort Worth Library. He turns to face me.

“What’s your name?” he says.

“Nicole.”

“I’m Larry.”

“I know,” I say, smiling.

The author I’d fallen in love with, like a lot of Texans first did — with Lonesome Dove — stands in front of me. When I was about ten years old, I devoured the 945-page epic—to this day, the longest book I’ve read. I adored the story of Gus and Call and spent Sunday afternoons watching the movie next to my dad. It was those Sundays that I really got to know him — how much he liked reggae, his interest in Westerns, his talent for grilling — more than when he and my mom were married. When we were together, he spent his time making sure I learned how to use my head: we read about nature, he encouraged me to write. He even taught me how to box.

When he died a few months before my sixteenth birthday, it shook more than my foundation, but my confidence in myself. It wasn’t for another decade that I’d accept how his death had caused my esteem to plummet. I’d fail classes, misbehave and close myself off from the world. I’d protect myself with mental armor. I’d refuse to be vulnerable or expose my true feelings.

I stare at Larry. It has taken me fifteen years to get to this spot. The long journey to the dusty, bantam town of Archer City started when I knew I wanted to write more than anything in the world. And like many roads, mine up to this point had been winding.

*

When I drove into Archer City that early February day, the town was deserted. No traffic passed under the blinking stoplight, no shoppers mingled in the thrift store. I parked in front of The Spur Hotel, pulled the keys out of the ignition and walked down the town’s main artery, Center Street, heading to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2.

Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel "Lonesome Dove." Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Author and bookseller Larry McMurtry priced books in his bookstore, Booked Up 1, in Archer City, Texas, on February 15, 2011. McMurtry wrote dozens of novels and screenplays and won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1985 for his Western novel “Lonesome Dove.”

As I maneuvered each volume off the top shelf, I felt like I was on a dig — excavating remnants of history from a forgotten place. Some of the antiquarian books were so old that touching them elicited a rust-colored chalk from their covers. Some of the spines looked like the bark of an oak. These books were about to turn back into the trees they were made from, I thought to myself. I felt as if I should be wearing gloves, as if someone should be monitoring this back room to make sure I’m delicate, to make sure I don’t steal. But it was completely empty. I sat down on the ground and scribbled on a notepad.

I walked across the street to the main bookstore, Booked Up No. 1, to see if I could find inspiration. My desires rolled around in my head like pinballs ricocheted by self-doubt. I feel like I’m running out of time to make a name for myself. To make it as a writer. My own waning confidence halted me. I found it harder and harder to write. Like many writers, the desire to perform well can often diminish the desire to perform at all. A blank page is sometimes easier to tolerate than a terrible paragraph. The pressure put on writers by deadlines and editors doesn’t even measure up to the pressure we put on ourselves.

I remember when I really loved writing. My first short story was written on my dad’s laptop — twelve typed pages about a set of twin siblings washed away in a flood. When I went to work with him the next day, he told all the office women with teased hairdos and heavy perfume that his daughter was going to write a book one day, and I believed him. Now when I sit in front of a stark computer screen, the cursor patiently blinks. I’m afraid to let go. I write, then press delete.

*

Larry stares at me.

“Can you show me your rare book room?” I ask.

We walk back across the hot stretch of highway to the rare book room in Booked Up No. 2. I pull down Dante’s classic, The Divine Comedy. “Is this the first edition?” I ask. He examines it. I can tell he may not even care to recall when or how he acquired it. “No,” he says after some thought. “It’s just a fancy edition in German.”

A stack of railway records sits next to him. In the front, a pile of British lit. A heap of random anthologies. Four bookstores filled to the brim, overflowing. I ask him: “What are you going to do with all of this?”

“I don’t rightly know,” he says. “I’m the last bookseller, and bookselling is dying. Truly dying.” He says it like a man whose passion is fading away in front of him. I understand this. Despite my effort to write, it seems my ability is slipping away.

*

When I was thirteen, I told my dad I wanted to drive a red convertible. I said I couldn’t wait to find out what it felt like to have the wind tangling my hair. The freedom of it. When he picked me up on his next visit, on Valentine’s Day, it was in a cherry-colored Chrysler LeBaron. The Red Baron, we called it. It was a rental, but it was my dream car. We drove all over Interstate 10. I’m sure, as a single man — divorced from my mother for almost five years — the car served as much to his benefit as it did as a gift for his daughter. But, I choose to remember it as my gift from Dad. He remarried a year after that, to a lighthearted woman named Cindi whom I grew to love, because he did.

I leave Archer City that evening after my short conversation with Larry. He calls me the next day. It’s a Sunday. “I’d like to show you where I grew up,” he says, and invites me back out to Archer. On Monday, a bouquet of flowers arrives. The card reads: “Happy Valentine’s Day. Larry.” All I can think is, ohmygod!

On Monday, we meet at Booked Up No. 1. Larry drives a modest four-door sedan. We stand between his front bumper and the front door to the bookstore and stare at each other for a moment before he says, “Ready for our adventure?”

As he drives down the two-lane highway, heading toward his Archer City residence, he tells me about the crew of carpenters who have momentarily taken over his home. They’re working on some updates because his niece will be married there in the spring.

I spent a lot of my adolescence in the passenger seat — all those car trips back and forth between Victoria and San Antonio. The passenger seat became my safe place. My dad would pick me up from my mom’s house, and we’d make the three-hour drive. One weekend, we pulled into our town’s small gas station. He asked me to buy some beer for him while he filled up the tank. I was eleven. I was proud to do it and had no doubt the six-pack of Budweiser would be packaged and sold to me. “You must be Gary’s daughter,” the woman behind the counter said. “Yep. Just this, please.” She wiped a piece of dry blond hair out of her thin lips, which parted into a smile. “Okay, sweetheart.” I walked out with the brown paper bag creased at the top and hopped into the passenger seat of the car. I’m not sure, but I like to think my dad was testing my courage, like he’d do from time to time. That’s the thing about losing a parent. I’m left to connect the dots, and sometimes the pictures I put together may not be accurate. But it’s what I have. He popped open a sweating can, and we drove out into the afternoon — the hot Texas sun piercing the windshield.

A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
A sundered GMC Sierra Classic rested in a field in Archer City, Texas, on July 27, 2010.

Larry and I twist through his modest neighborhood, designed before curbs and cul-de-sacs became popular. I smile at strangers like I’m supposed to smile at them. It’s what you do in a car with a literary megastar, isn’t it? Or do you just stare out the window? Or do you stare at your feet? I look at Larry as he turns into the driveway, pulling in front of his private library, a little two-story wonderment he calls the book house. It sits a few yards behind his main house and holds some of his most prized editions. Inside, the floor looks like an old-fashioned diner — a pattern of black and white tiles. Sunlight floods the space. “Over here is popular culture,” he says pointing to a wall of colorful spines aligned on the wall. “Up there is Western Americana.” A sturdy set of white wooden stairs with apple red railings leads up to the second story, which is brimming with countless editions in sets of white shelving. Every few yards, a large naked window breaks up the walls of books. Downstairs, near the doors, sits an amassment of H.G. Wells books, for which he paid $60,000. It’s worth twice as much today. “This is the second best H.G. Wells collection in the world,” he says. He seems O.K. with that: “Book collecting isn’t a race.” His bookstores hold 400,000 volumes. So if it were a race, he’d be standing in the winners’ circle.

*

My dad called one evening to say I’d forgotten my toothbrush, and that’s the last time I ever talked to him. A few days later, he was in the hospital. He had a heart attack and died a day later. A week following, I got a letter from Cindi in the mail. It was on thick stationery with laced edges and the handwriting was ornate, written with an inky black pen: Dear Nicole, I know how much your dad meant to you…

It went on this way for three adorned pages. I never heard from her again.

For the three years that followed, missing him went in phases. Some nights I cried, others I was angry. I read about a girl whose dad died when she was young. She was in so much denial that for months she thought he was hiding in her closet. I can’t remember how many times I’ve dreamt that I’ve found him in another city, living another life.

Here on Idiot Ridge, where Larry penned “Lonesome Dove,” the grass around the front gate is overgrown. A sharp, cold wind, even in the bright sunlight, makes us pull our coats around us as we walk inside his house. A patterned couch sits with its back against the living room’s large window, facing the small dining room, which leads to a smaller kitchen. It’s filled with bookshelves stuffed with books. He tells me his son uses the house from time to time when he’s in town. I walk around on the worn wooden floors. Larry’s father and grandfather built it, a “simple shotgun house,” he calls it. His love affair with reading began in 1942, when his cousin, Robert Hilburn, stopped by the house and dropped off a small box. It held nineteen books, just standard boys’ books, but he read them through and again. “That was my library,” he says. Now, his personal collection holds more than 28,000. Book collecting makes Larry happy; writing fills in the rest.

Over lunch — sandwiches at a little cafe in Wichita Falls — I sit across from the man who has never had writer’s block. Never uses a computer. Who doesn’t wear a watch and methodically writes five pages a day, every day, his entire career. “You’ll be surprised how that adds up,” he says. “I’m seventy-four and I’ve written forty-three books.” I talk about my recent writing struggles, and he simply tells me he looks at writing as a job. He doesn’t get flustered by it, doesn’t agonize over it, doesn’t dread it.

On our way back to Archer, he talks about overcoming a severe depression that he suffered a few months back, leaving him worn and empty. Today, he looks like a much healthier man. New projects on the horizon, and what I’ll learn later — a marriage to Faye Kesey, widow of the late literary luminary, Ken Kesey. As he drives, I tell him how much I want to be a writer. Well, that I am a writer — but I’m longing to make a living by it. Write a memoir one day.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Twenty-nine.”

“You have plenty of time to venture out into books.”

“Thanks,” I say, thinking of my dad, who gave me the same advice. Maybe this time I’ll take it.

Nicole Holland Pearce earned her master’s degree at the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism. She’s been writing professionally for ten years, covering everything from a fifty-mile canoe trip down the Brazos River to the national mortgage crisis. She lives in Dallas with her husband Eric and two four-legged children, Cora and Diego.

The Archer City Writers Workshop is part of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Begun in 2005 by George Getschow, the in-residence workshop at the Spur Hotel in Archer City is a component of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the pre-eminent literary nonfiction conference in the country. More stories from the workshop can be found here.

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!

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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.

The “Gay for Pay” Porn Star Who Hatched a Million-Dollar Blackmail Scheme

Teo Brank found a lucrative side hustle arranging escorts for sex parties. But when his business soured, he turned to extortion.

On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, Teofil Brank and Etienne Yim traveled from San Diego to Los Angeles in a Ford Focus hatchback, picking up a .357 Colt revolver on the way. They drove through the palm-lined business district on Sepulveda Boulevard and parked opposite a terra-cotta Starbucks close to Los Angeles International Airport, where Brank was about to pick up $1 million in cash.

Obtaining the gun from Yim’s friend Benjamin Williams was simple enough. He also gave them yellow-tinted goggles, earmuffs, a shooting bag and ammo. At Brank’s Koreatown apartment in L.A., they transferred the wooden-handled gun to a backpack.

Brank remembers doing a bump of coke before they pulled up at Starbucks. He told Yim that if anyone shot at him, he should shoot back. It was a cold night, and as Brank crossed the parking lot he had his hood up. He believed it was a necessary precaution.

“I don’t know if he’s out there with a sniper or something … if he’s going to shoot me,” he recalls.

* * *

Two weeks earlier, Brank had arrived at Yim’s San Diego apartment in a sleek black Audi R8 sports car and calmly told his French-born friend over beers that he was about to collect half a million dollars. He said he was blackmailing Donald Burns, a wealthy tech tycoon he met while escorting.

Soon after, Brank and Yim tore through the desert in the sports car to Las Vegas, where they would do cocaine and hang out in strip clubs, celebrating the coming payday. On February 17, Burns wired Brank $500,000 from a Goldman Sachs account. After Vegas, the two friends stopped briefly in San Diego, then continued to Brank’s old stomping ground, Sacramento, where he gave his brother $10,000, according to Yim. In a whirlwind of debauchery, they continued to San Francisco and then back down to L.A. Yim said Brank blew about $20,000 on hotels, clothes and bottle service. With heaps of cash and a $180,000 sports car, Brank could have stopped there, but he had sunk his teeth into Burns and didn’t want to let go. He wanted more. Much more.

At that time, Brank, or “Teo” to his friends, was one of the most famous actors in gay porn, despite being heterosexual. Although married to one woman and in a tumultuous relationship with another, the rugged, hawkishly handsome 25-year-old had found a niche in gay-for-pay porn, performing as Jarec Wentworth.

Born in Romania, Brank came to America as a toddler and grew up near Nashville and then Sacramento. He was the seventh of 10 children and, according to court records, lived in a physically and emotionally abusive household.

After graduating from high school in 2007, he worked in construction and as a residential painter. He married his girlfriend in Reno soon thereafter. By that time, he was already facing domestic abuse charges. After a drunken argument had turned violent, he assaulted her, leaving injuries on her head, back and neck. In March 2009, he was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail.

At 20, he responded to a Craigslist ad and began doing porn. He appeared in 31 scenes for the studio, Sean Cody, then moved on to Randy Blue, before landing an exclusive contract at Men.com. He also started working as an occasional escort, a common side hustle for gay porn actors. Indeed, for many actors, porn is just a shop window for their escorting services.

Brank was making a name for himself, but he had ambitions behind the camera. He wanted to start producing porn, or even mainstream movies, and settle down.

“Eventually, the money came through, and boom, I was starting to have my crew together,” Brank says. “I wanted to have my own studio.”

But even in porn, there are few shortcuts. Those who step out of its shady glamour to find mainstream success are entrepreneurs with an acute sense of how to promote themselves for maximum profit. Brank had always wanted to make money. But he wanted it now, and Burns was his ticket to success.

* * *

A few weeks after the road trip, Yim was asleep in his apartment when Brank texted, “I need your help.” It was Wednesday, March 4, the day of their fateful ride to Starbucks.

Brank was going to collect the $1 million and wanted Yim to drive. Both men feared for their lives. Burns was rich and powerful. He rubbed shoulders with diplomats, business executives and politicians, including wealthy publisher Christopher Forbes and Rudy Giuliani.

Donald Burns (right) and Christopher Forbes (middle) at a social gathering in New York, February 2014. (Photo courtesy New York Social Diary)

During the drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, when Burns called Brank, he sounded anything but intimidating. He told the actor he was sending a courier, “Sean,” to deliver the cash. Brank wondered if “Sean” was really a contract killer.

“I’ve never broken a deal with you, and I’m in a really fucking bad spot now,” Burns said. “I’m trying to work the situation, but I’m getting fucked by my own side here.”

Brank arrived at the coffee shop and clocked Sean at the bar, dressed in a black jacket and jeans. Sean had been there for two hours, parking in the back corner of the lot and stopping to grab a sandwich from the Jersey Mike’s next door. He handed Brank the title to the Audi R8.

“And?” Brank said.

“It’s your lucky day,” Sean replied. “Ready to get paid?”

Brank wanted to do the handoff near the patio outside. Sean left and returned in his black Tesla. The trunk popped to reveal a locked backpack. Sean rummaged around for the key. Brank never got a chance to find out what was inside, as he was quickly surrounded.

“What the fuck’s going on?” Brank remembers thinking.

The yellow letters on the back of the agents’ blue jackets gave him the answer.

FBI.

This was no hit. It was a takedown.

* * *

When law enforcement ensnared Brank, Donald Burns was a 51-year-old business executive worth $138 million. He chaired internet communications company MagicJack VocalTec and was active on the political scene. The Republican, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story, had donated between $1,000 and $2,000 to Rudy Giuliani and to the group that attacked John Kerry’s war record, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He had also occasionally donated to Democrats, including Barack Obama and John Edwards.

With his varnished public persona, pinched face, silvery brown hair and pinkish tan, Burns had floated on the edges of the porn industry for a few years now, pursuing actors at Sean Cody, which catered to subscribers with a fetish for straight men. He even invited the studio to shoot at The Razor House, his glass mansion in the wealthy San Diego suburb of La Jolla. He also owned properties in Palm Beach, Florida, and Nantucket, Massachusetts.

Burns met Brank in 2013. The actor told him he had the powers of persuasion and industry connections to help him. Burns in turn created a shopping list of men he wanted to solicit for sex.

“These are the guys that nobody has ever cracked,” Burns wrote in a September 27, 2014, email to Brank (subject line: “Recruiting $22,000 of potential, lol”), in which he listed 11 Sean Cody actors. Burns offered his new de facto pimp between $1,500 and $2,500 for each actor he could deliver for sex parties. He would fly the escorts out to his residences or hotels and then send them away with envelopes full of cash.

Porn actor Billy Santoro remembers Brank as a “very quiet, sweet guy.” Gay performer Jay Austin recalls that he was “really pleasant, professional and polite.” Zachary Sire, who broke the news of Brank’s arrest on the website Str8UpGayPorn, says he was well-regarded among actors and directors.

Veteran actor and producer Michael Lucas notes, however, that many straight men enter the industry when they run out of other options.

“That’s why I think that often these people can be dangerous,” Lucas says. “Can’t you do something else than engage in some sort of homosexual activity? I think it’s desperate, and nothing good can come out of it.”

As a working actor, Brank was making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, according to a close friend, and the lower amount was more typical. The shelf life of most actors is five to six years, and those with longevity, such as actor Colby Keller, have a keen business sense, says retired actor Devon Hunter.

Although some observers believed that Brank, buoyed by drugs and his minor celebrity, had simply gotten in over his head, others knew how quickly he could turn venomous, lashing out at friends and advocates if he felt wronged or slighted.

Brank’s Men.com profile distills his approach to life. He likes burgers, hiking and driving across town. Best thing about him? “I’m a nice guy.” The worst? “I can be very mean if you get on my bad side.”

* * *

After Brank delivered four men, a fifth date cancelled at the last minute. Burns asked Brank to return his referral fee. When the actor refused, Burns concluded Brank could not be trusted and decided it was time to dissolve their partnership.

In mid-February, about three weeks before the sting and subsequent arrest, Brank was sitting in his Mustang outside an LA Fitness in Hollywood when he got back in touch with the tycoon via text message. Brank says he was high but not too emotional: “Obviously, you can’t get really angry on weed.”

At that moment, Burns was on business at a shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. He read back Brank’s message. “So another month has passed, and you broke your word again. Tisk tisk.”

Burns had no idea what the actor was talking about and texted back a question mark. Brank replied with “the car” and added, “How can we work if trust is broken?” During the course of the conversation, Brank claimed that Burns had promised to let him drive the Audi R8.

Teofil Brank’s selfie, used as evidence to show he managed his Twitter account. (Image courtesy U.S. Courts)

“The $2,000 advance is an outstanding issue,” Burns typed. “You’re right that I’m not making a big deal out of it, but I’m not comfortable working together after that.”

“I can bring your house down, Don,” Brank typed back. “Don’t get me mad. I do have a Twitter and your photos. Lies can be made, or maybe it’s the truth.”

Burns’ reputation was his most prized asset. Brank tugged at its frayed edges and wound the thread tightly around Burns’ throat, posting a cryptic message through his Jarec Wentworth Twitter account to thousands of followers.

“Do any porn stars know a guy named Don? Yes, Don.”

Burns’ iPhone shook in his hands. An overwhelming sense of dread settled in his stomach.

“The truth that he knew about me that was so embarrassing and shameful was that I had been paying for sex,” Burns testified during Brank’s criminal trial. “I was afraid that he would post that truthful information to his Twitter account and that information would spread like wildfire.”

“I want a new car, motorcycle, and both hands full of cash,” Brank typed. “Then I will erase it and you.”

* * *

Within days, Burns hired a criminal attorney and forensic investigators. On March 3, 2015, at the FBI’s towering office building in Westwood, Burns handed over his iPhone messages and proof of the $500,000 wire to Brank’s Wells Fargo account.

Brank had erased the tweet after collecting the money and the Audi. “Like we promised. Done.” Then he asked for car insurance and another $500,000. To stall the actor, Burns offered him $50,000 a year, over five years, for the rights to his stage name and Twitter account. FBI agents Joe Brine and Sean Sterle watched as messages arrived on Burns’ phone, and as Brank rejected the proposal.

A screenshot of the Twitter account Brank threatened to use to reveal Bruns’ identity to his 9,000 followers. (Image courtesy U.S. Courts)

“I want a condo here in L.A.,” Brank typed. “A bachelor pad. You have taste I like. Two bedroom max. Prefer one. I want $300,000 cash. I want this over ASAP like yesterday so you can be at peace.”

“Condo plus $300,000 or $300,000 and you buy your own?” Burns typed.

“They go for more though … 1 mill cash,” Brank replied.

Agent Sterle posed as Burns’ fixer, “Sean.” It made sense that he would own a luxury car, a Tesla. Sterle thought Brank would feel more at ease at a Starbucks.

“A million dollars and an expensive car … I mean, people have been killed for less,” Sterle testified.

After the sting, Brank was cuffed, booked and charged with extortion and making criminal threats. Yim was arrested and agreed to testify against his friend. Brank was denied bail and rejected a plea deal. From his jail cell, he wrote a rambling email, accusing Burns of raping him in a hotel room during a tryst with another actor (who Brank declined to name). In the same email, he said Burns had framed him and paid him hush money. He claimed the government had doctored his phone calls and erased key text messages.

This was a business dispute, Brank said. He was just claiming what he was owed.

* * *

When Brank’s trial began in July 2015 in a packed, stuffy courtroom inside the federal building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles, he was confident he would get off.

Brank’s attorney, Seema Ahmad, gave an impassioned plea to the jurors. Burns had groomed Brank for a life outside of pornography as a model. He had never feared for his reputation because his dalliances were one of the worst-kept secrets in gay porn. He had even taken a former Sean Cody actor on a jaunt to Paris and showed him off to his high-society friends, helping him through college and paying his living expenses. He had mentored Brank, who in Ahmad’s retelling was more like a spurned lover than a criminal. This case was not about extortion. It was about broken promises.

“Donald Burns doesn’t get to decide that once Mr. Brank asks for a million dollars that all of a sudden now it’s extortion,” Ahmad said. “I understand that it sounds like a lot to us. A million dollars is pennies to Donald Burns.”

Brank watched from the defense table. He was emaciated, and worn down by stress and sleepless jailhouse nights. His brown hair brushed the collar of his shirt, buttoned to the top. He wore no tie and his dress pants were beltless.

On the first day of trial, Burns walked through the double doors at the back of the courtroom, strutted toward the witness box, and was sworn in. Brank followed his every move, but Burns did not make eye contact. The only time the businessman acknowledged the porn star was when he had to identify him for the court.

Dressed in a blazer with a handkerchief in his top pocket, Burns was well rehearsed, and he glanced at the jurors just enough to make a connection, despite his vaguely pompous air. His fear of Brank felt real, and as much as the defense wanted to paint him as a cold, calculating businessman who had indulged his most sordid fantasies, he came across as a victim, not an exploiter.

Brank felt that his defense team did not ask the right questions of Burns and other witnesses, and that they were ignoring his suggestions. He came to believe that the public defenders were in cahoots with the government prosecutors. Ahmad admitted that she did not have the “smoothest relationship” with her client. Brank says that he butted heads with everyone in her office too. He wanted to take the stand to plead his case, but after a mock interrogation, his attorneys shot the idea down.

“They wanted me to sit there like a damn trained dog,” Brank says.

That gave prosecutors free rein to portray Brank in whatever manner they chose. They filled the screens in the courtroom with a blurry surveillance image of the porn star, his sharp eyes peering at the jury zombie-like from beneath his gray hoodie.

“One of the girls is like some fake-ass Christian or religious chick dating some dude that works at a church,” Brank remembers. “I’m like, ‘I’m fucked on this.’”

The defense rested on the second day of the trial, after calling three witnesses, including Sean Cody executives Jason Bumpus and Matthew Power. As the jurors shuffled out of the courtroom on Thursday, July 9, the outcome seemed inevitable, the weight of the evidence too much to bear. By lunch, they had found Brank guilty on all counts.

As the clerk read out the verdict, Brank crumpled, pressing his head to the table. He buried his flushed face in his hands and held back tears.

“They took me back to the cage. I was just like, ‘This isn’t real. It couldn’t have happened.’ But it happened,” Brank says.

At his sentencing hearing in the fall, Brank wore a white jail uniform, his voice breaking as he apologized to Burns.

“I do regret my actions, and I don’t give any excuses for it. I did what I did,” Brank said.

Brank’s bank statements, used as evidence to show the deposits he received from Burns. (Image courtesy U.S. Courts)

Ahmad asked for leniency. She said Brank’s father had beaten him, sometimes chaining young Teo to his bed with nothing but a bucket to piss in. His mother had thrown knives at Brank and his siblings and given them sleeping pills to pacify them when there wasn’t enough food to go around, she said. After his mom tried to hang herself in the family garage, Brank had watched as his father cut her down. He had abused steroids, which can cause aggressive, manic behavior, the attorney added.

Even taking that into account, U.S. District Judge John Walter was still convinced Brank was “motivated by plain, old-fashioned greed.” He sentenced him to five years and 10 months in federal prison and, with Burns watching from the back of the courtroom, ordered him to pay the victim $500,000 in restitution.

For Jarec Wentworth, the show had been over for months. Now the curtain came down on Teofil Brank.

* * *

Under different circumstances, Brank might have gone on to greater things. Sire, who covered the trial for Str8UpGayPorn, believes the actor could yet make a comeback.

“He was a good actor,” Sire says. “Some of these guys, they show up on set and they can’t get hard, they can’t get a boner. They can’t have sex. They just aren’t good at having sex. But he was really good at having sex, and he did everything too.”

Speaking from prison in Victorville, California, Brank is no longer remorseful. Though vague about his plans on the outside, he says he intends to hire a forensic analyst to review the audio recordings and text messages used at trial.

“I’m not the kind of guy that rolls over. I’m not the kind of guy that fucking gives up and turns the other cheek. You cross the fucking line, you’re done. You’re my fucking number one enemy,” Brank says. “The truth will come out, and that’s how it is.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed Brank’s appeal in February 2018, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined Brank’s petition for review on October 1. He is scheduled for release in April 2020.

Hidden History

This Black Woman Was Once the Biggest Star in Jazz. Here’s Why You’ve Never Heard of Her.

Hazel Scott was a piano prodigy who wowed the worlds of music, TV and film. But when she stood up for her rights, the establishment took her down.

On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.

The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.

She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”

Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”

Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.

* * *

Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.

Hazel Scott at the age of three or four.

Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.

Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.

Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.

The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”

Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.

She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.

German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.

Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”

When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.

In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.

Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.

While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.

* * *

At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.

Pianists (L-R) Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell gathered around the piano at Cafe Society.

Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.

When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”

 

As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.

Scott at the age of nineteen.

And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.

Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.

“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”

How could Scott refuse?

She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.

Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?

* * *

Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”

The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.

Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.

“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”

“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”

Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.

 

Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.

“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”

She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.

* * *

Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.

“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”

Congressman Adam Powell and wife, Hazel Scott, pose for a White House Christmas greeting, circa 1946.

Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.

Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.

Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.

* * *

Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.

“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”

Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.

And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.

Hazel defends herself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, September 1950.

When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”

But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.

One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.

Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”

She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.

Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.

Memoir

Why I Answered My Dad’s Gay Sex Ad

In the Christian parenting books my dad wrote, we were always the most perfect devout family. When I found out he was secretly trolling for gay sex online, I became obsessed with unmasking the truth.

My brothers started recording as soon as they hit the parking lot. The video camera focused on Dad’s car in the distance. I never noticed how dark his windows were tinted, but now it made sense. He flashed his headlights twice. Was that something you did when you were meeting a teenager for sex in the alley behind a sporting goods store? They drove closer, unsure of what would happen next.

Dad had sent the time and location for the meet-up, expecting a quickie. When he realized it was his two sons in the car, and not the guy who had responded to his personal ad, he hit the gas and his tires screeched as he took off in the opposite direction. They sped after him until he stopped just as abruptly as he’d taken off. They pulled up to him like they were waiting at a stoplight. The camera recorded its own reflection in the dark glass as they waited. After years of trying, we had finally caught my father soliciting sex from strangers.

This was not the way my father would have written our story. In the Christian parenting books he authored, we were always the perfect family. We had the big house in the country, five happy kids, and an American flag flying on the front porch. Mom had graduated with a degree in home economics and thought it was cruel when other families allowed their kids to eat dinner in front of the TV. She had a lot of opinions on how other people should raise their children and had been outraged when our church opened a daycare center. It was a symptom of feminism and put everyone in jeopardy by enabling women to go back to work.

Dad was equally passionate about promoting family values and lobbied against gay marriage at the state capitol. He also served as an elder at our Southern Baptist church while running the PR department of a Fortune 500 company. Most days he would be gone before we woke up and arrive home shortly before dinner. Mom would rush to greet him, tearing off her oven mitts so she could take his briefcase.

“Be quiet now,” she’d say. “Dad’s had a long day and he’s very tired.”

If we were too loud or demanding, he’d be quick to let us know.

“I should go back to work,” he’d say. “They know to respect me there.”

I’ve read the books he wrote about my early childhood and wondered who this man was that claimed to have held me on his lap. I don’t remember these touching moments, nor do I recall any of the stories about him tossing a football with my brothers in the front yard.

That’s why it was strange when he suddenly started paying attention to me. It was the mid-‘90s and the Internet was still something you had to access with dial-up and a shrink-wrapped CD from AOL. Any time I’d walk in while he was on the computer he’d immediately turn to face me.

“Hey there,” he’d say, “how was school?”

I could hear the telltale sound of the mouse clicking to minimize a screen.

Dad had a secret.

Once he finished, I pretended I wanted to get on Instant Messenger. Instead, I downloaded a hacker program that secretly logged all encrypted keystrokes on our family computer. By the end of the week I’d gathered the passwords for everyone’s email accounts, including several with names like “Porndog” and “Horny69.”

With an eye on the door, I logged in. There were hundreds of emails from men with equally sexual screen names. Addresses and photos were being exchanged. Some of the boys looked my age. I was completely out of my depth. “Gay” was an insult people hurled in the hallways of my middle school — I didn’t realize there were actually men who liked having sex with other men, and I’d never have imagined my father was one of them.

I couldn’t reconcile this information with what I believed to be true about my family. It wasn’t my own deception, but it made my life and my identity feel like a lie. I was sitting in our family room with sunlight streaming through the windows and my childhood artwork decorating the walls, but I felt like a dark part of myself had been exposed. I was no longer living in a world where some of us were entitled to wag a finger of judgment.

It took hours, but I read every single email. When I was done I logged out of the account, deleted the hacker program and decided to pretend like it had never happened. I needed to believe the lie and continue being the smiling daughter of a godly man. To accept the truth was to lose everything I’d ever known and I was afraid of what I would be left with.

The years passed and I never said a word. I hid the secret inside of me but it began to take a toll. First there were blinding headaches so intense I’d be curled up on the bathroom floor, hugging the toilet. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had migraines. The next year I began to suffer from excruciating stomach pain that left me unable to eat. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had ulcers. After that, my hair began to fall out. My body turned against me and refused to give me my period. Every month my Mom would buy more tampons and I’d hide them in the bathroom cabinet with a year’s worth of unopened boxes. She eventually took me to another doctor and he told me I had depression. We stopped going to doctors.

* * *

Two days before I started my freshman year of college my car broke down on the side of the road. Mom was busy at a church fundraiser so Dad came to rescue me. We were rarely alone together but he was in a good mood and told jokes as we followed the tow truck. I remember feeling confused by how easily I could laugh aloud while simultaneously despising him. Until then I’d never acknowledged the source of these feelings, but the looming freedom of adulthood lured me into thinking it was finally safe. I decided I would tell my Mom that night.

I was the only one of my siblings still living at home. My brothers were either engaged or married, and starting their own families. I ate dinner with my parents, then they sat down to watch an episode of “24.” I knelt at the edge of the couch where my mom sat.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Wait for a commercial,” she said without looking up.

I told her it would take longer than a commercial.

“Then wait till the show is over.”

“Please,” I said. “It’s important.”

She finally looked away from the TV and a brief flicker of alarm crossed her face. Then she laughed.

“It can wait.”

I told her it couldn’t. I told her it was something that would ruin her life.

“You can ruin my life when this show is over.”

I went to my room and waited. Half an hour later she walked in and sat on my bed.

“Okay,” she said. “Ruin my life.”

I’d never seen my mom cry, but she was sobbing when I finished. I knew so little about this woman who’d spent the last eighteen years seeing to my every need. I had no understanding of who she’d been before she met my father. I worried I’d shattered her world and stolen her happiness, but it turned out she’d known he was gay since the second year of their marriage. She said she’d stayed “for the kids” and apologized that I’d found out the truth. She swore she hated him and planned to leave after my brother got married in a few months.

Then she told me I could never tell anyone about it.

“I will do whatever it takes to make you okay,” she said.

She suggested I delay my college enrollment and go stay with her cousin in Seattle. I was too numb to even think about it. I couldn’t believe I’d spent so many years keeping a secret when my Mom had known about it all along. That next day I packed everything into my repaired Honda Civic and moved into the college dorms.

When a week passed and I didn’t show up for family lunch on Sunday, Dad became suspicious. Mom told him everything and he demanded to speak with me. My phone would not stop ringing.

“Come home,” Mom pleaded. “We need to talk.”

I agreed to meet them at a local ice cream parlor where softball teams went after practice and small children smeared mint chocolate chip all over their faces. We sat on opposite sides of a vinyl booth while my Dad explained it all away.

“I hate myself for having done this to you,” he said with a practiced mix of shame and humility. “I should have killed myself a long time ago. I still pray for the courage to go through with it.”

His words were shocking and his eyes misty, but I could see a calculated coldness in them. He stayed quiet until I told him what he wanted to hear.

“No,” I said, “I don’t want you to kill yourself.”

His performance was so impressive I almost missed the part where he denied everything.

“You have to understand, it was only a passing thing. I’ve never acted on any of those thoughts. I am not…that way.”

He couldn’t even say it.

“Gay?” I asked.

Both my parents flinched.

“That’s a choice I would never make,” he snapped.

My Mom leaned forward like a Girl Scout closing a cookie sale.

“Does that answer everything for you?”

I nodded, not nearly as convincing a liar as my father. But apparently he wasn’t done.

“Only God in heaven knows why you saw what you did, but I’m sure he will use it for his good purpose, to bring the family closer to him.”

I turned to look out the window, saying nothing.

“So we’ll see you at family lunch next Sunday,” he finished.

When I didn’t show up as instructed, he launched a campaign of prayer against me.

“Dear Heavenly Father, our daughter is in such a rebellious phase…”

My brothers and sisters-in-law came to me on the sly, confused about why I’d become so “selfish.”

“I don’t know what more we could do for her,” my dad said. “We’ve given her everything. Perhaps we’ve spoiled her.”

Secretly, my mom continued telling me she planned to leave him after my brother’s wedding. Then autumn passed and a miracle occurred.

“He’s healed now,” she said. “He no longer struggles with…that.”

I tried to use the word “gay” again but she shushed me. I asked what word better described a man who snuck off to have sex with men while his wife and kids thought he was at work. This only made her angry.

“Your lack of forgiveness is very ugly.”

* * *

I decided I would prove it to her. Surely if she saw what I’d seen, she would have to face the truth. I began coming home to sleep in my old bed. I claimed I didn’t like living in the dorms when in reality I was sneaking into my dad’s office to go through his computer every night. I’d pore over his Internet history, documenting every sex chat room and adult hookup site. I was always careful to charge the laptop back to the same percentage it had been before I slid it back into his briefcase. After several weeks I’d compiled a spreadsheet full of recent activity. I showed it to my Mom, confident she would finally believe me.

“I don’t really understand how all of this works,” she said, puzzling over the timestamps and URLs. “I’ll ask your father about it later.”

He told her it was a misunderstanding, that I was clearly on a path of destruction. They decided to change the locks to their house.

* * *

A few months later my mom invited me over for lunch while Dad was on a business trip. I spent the entire afternoon listening to her lecture me on the importance of forgiveness. She said their marriage was stronger than ever. While she was in the bathroom I snuck into my old bedroom and cracked a window. It was just enough to keep it from latching but not enough for her to notice.

Later that night I parked at the end of their gravel road and walked the rest of the way in darkness. The house was silent as I slid the screen off the window and climbed through. I wasn’t sure when I’d have my next opportunity so I took screenshots of his entire image library and downloaded his emails to a flash drive. My friends texted me about going to a party but I didn’t have time to meet them — I was too busy guessing my dad’s password to Adult Friend Finder.

I took everything I’d found and finally told my brothers.

“Whoa,” one of them said. “I remember when I was nine and I said sailboats were gay. I wonder if that offended him.”

With my brothers and me on the same side, we called a big TV-style family meeting. I brought another spreadsheet I’d made to contrast his various trysts and online sexcapades with things like “this was the night we watched ‘White Christmas’” or “this was when he emailed me a Bible verse about the hardness of my heart.”

I thought I could persuade my mom by charting his exchange of dick pics next to her housework schedule. But it didn’t work.

“You are blinded by your own sin,” she said.

My father’s responses were even worse.

“I’ve touched the robe of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you say, I’m healed. All you’re doing is trying to tempt me, but I’m stronger than that.”

He sent me long emails about how I was a tool of the devil. I pictured him with two computer screens open — one for looking up scripture, and another to Mapquest the location of his next bathroom rendezvous.

We were never going to have the cool kind of gay dad.

* * *

I stopped speaking to both of my parents, but I didn’t stop trying to expose him. Every time he denied my accusations, I became more motivated to dig deeper. It angered me that a man like him could so easily hide within the walls of a church or a seemingly happy home.

My mom informed me they would no longer pay my tuition so I took out a semester’s worth of student loans. I promptly failed my classes because I was too busy scouring homosexual hookup sites in search of my father. I decided to drop out of college but I was too ashamed to tell my roommates, so I kept leaving my house at the same time every day. They thought I was going to class but I was really parked outside my dad’s office, trying to catch him in the act.

I became obsessed. I was afraid I’d only ever existed as part of his cover story, but I no longer feared what I’d be left with when his lie was exposed. I decided my new reason for existing was so I could rescue my mom.

I’d almost given up hope when I stumbled across an online persona known as “Kyle Big Guy.” There was no photo, but I could tell it was him by the way he wrote and his preference for younger men. His generous Christianity came across in his willingness to give blowjobs without need for reciprocity. To prove it was him, I responded to the ad. I told him I was a seventeen-year-old named Rex who was looking to hook up with an older man.

He responded almost immediately. I wondered whether he was e-mailing from the couch while my Mom folded his laundry. Either way, I was going to bust him. This was going to be my smoking gun.

The next afternoon I purchased a prepaid cell phone and asked a male friend to record a voicemail message I’d written out on a sticky note.

“Hey this is Rex, sorry I missed your call. Leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.”

He sounded nervous and confused. It was perfect.

I e-mailed the number to “Kyle” and told him to give me a call. Shortly after five p.m. the prepaid phone began to ring. I shrunk back on the couch, watching it vibrate on my coffee table. My Dad’s number lit up the caller ID as it rang six… seven…eight times.

The room was painfully silent until the phone buzzed with a notification. He’d left a voicemail.

“Hi Rex, this is Kyle. You don’t need to be nervous, I’ll make sure you have a good time.”

His voice sounded the same as when he led Bible studies or repeatedly proclaimed, hand over heart, “I’ve only ever had sex with your mother.”

He left instructions to meet him behind a sporting goods store at two p.m. the next day. I was scheduled to work so I called my two oldest brothers. They decided to show up and record everything. He bolted, they followed him, and he finally stopped, ready for the confrontation.

The camera rolled as they waited for something to happen. The low rumble of their car engines filled the silence until my dad finally rolled his window down. His face was calm and smug.

“I knew it was you,” he said with a smirk.

My brother reminded him he was there to have sex with a minor.

“Why does it give you such joy to believe I’m a monster?” my dad asked. “I came here because I knew you were trying to trap me. I would never actually do anything like this.”

They tried to tell him how stupid he sounded, but he held up his hand like a martyr.

“I’m not going to listen to all of this hatred. I’ve been forgiven and healed. You need to deal with your own sin.”

Later that night, we called my mom. She answered on the second ring, her voice cheerful and happy to hear from us. We told her what had happened.

“It must have been a misunderstanding,” she said.

I began to cry, I was so frustrated. There was no way she could explain away the voicemail and the video of her husband in that parking lot.

“You need to learn to forgive,” she said between long airy sighs.

“Please,” my brother said. “Just leave him. We can take care of you. You can see your grandkids again.”

The phone was silent for a moment, and then I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.

“Listen,” she finally said. “Your father will be home soon and I need to get this bread in the oven.”

This was the last time I ever tried to convince my mom of anything. I’d become so obsessed with trying to save her that I’d almost lost myself.

Several years later my father was arrested for trying to have sex with an undercover police officer in a local park. The news ran his mug shot and he was forced to retire from his high-powered job. Only then was he willing to admit he “struggled with same sex attraction,” promptly leveraging it into a new platform for book sales. Mom continued to run his PR campaign and still smiles happily on the jacket cover next to the line that describes him as a proud father of five.

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