Benjamin Obler | Longreads | August 2016 | 24 minutes (5,908 words)
When we first talked, it was on tenuous terms. That is, both telling implicit lies.
My lie was wearing a leather jacket and smoking cigarettes that night, which cast me as carefree and rebellious. In reality, I was a bookish Senior Editor with an educational publisher, a teacher, and a writer with aspirations. I loved my tennis and workouts—usually kept fit.
Her lie was the exact opposite: she cast herself as more straight-laced and serious than she was, and literary, noting that she was reading a challenging novel in the literary realism vein. But she wasn’t really of a literary disposition. I would learn soon that she was much more visually and aurally oriented, a photographer who also worked in radio. She liked to go dancing, and to shoot guns at a range just for the thrill.
On the surface, these lies were harmless, but they masked deeper deceptions. She had no idea I was a recovering porn addict. I had no idea she was into casting herself in her own professional-grade amateur porn and sharing it with the world.
Her name was Franny, and I fell madly in love with her.
* * *
It wasn’t until we were through and I was heartbroken that I realized, with her looks and figure, Franny was the walking embodiment of the type of girl I had “finished” to in my thousands of click-and-scroll sessions throughout my adult years. Dark-haired, slender, tall, bony, dressed provocatively. But I didn’t pick up on this, at first.
On our first date we walked on a high bridge over the river and ate in downtown St. Paul. I played the role of tourism ambassador for lifeless St. Paul, she, the role of unconvinced youth from the big city, Minneapolis. At the end of the date, we kissed.
I was starting year two of 100% abstinence from any and all images of this sort, even very softcore porn.
The next day I talked to my friend Josh, who had introduced us. Josh is a ginger-haired literature lover who works in I.T. He’s eclectic and smart, and I totally trusted his judgment that Franny and I were a match. A compassionate friend and good listener, Josh knew all about my recovery from porn addiction. But maybe he didn’t understand all the implications of it.
He must have begun to wonder about that, because he asked, “You know she dances burlesque?”
“No,” I said.
“Yeah. She didn’t tell you that?”
“No,” I said.
Franny had not said anything about it. But then, I had not told her that every Sunday night I biked to a Sex Addicts Anonymous (S.A.A.) meeting in my neighborhood.
Josh told me to check out Franny’s alter-ego on Facebook. He was right. There she was on stage in black lingerie. She leaned and lunged, she reared her gusset to the crowd.
I laughed uneasily, but otherwise ignored the red flag.
I was starting year two of 100% abstinence from any and all images of this sort, even very softcore porn. No online porn viewing at all. No analog porn, no “euphoric recall.” Even trashing the JC Penny flier from the Sunday paper.
Let me back up and say a word about the term “porn addiction,” or at least my attitude toward it. Although the American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly rejected it as a true addiction on par with substance abuse, and refused to include it in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), to me it’s very real. I’m persuaded by scientific arguments, as pointed out by Marnia Robinson in an article for The Good Men Project, that porn is addictive because it greatly affects the “reward circuitry” in the brain governed by dopamine response. Beyond that, I use these criteria to determine whether someone has a true addiction: 1) They’ve repeatedly acted against their own principles and values in acting out as a result of it, and 2) they keep needing increased dosages to satisfy their cravings.
I loved my sobriety. I’d lost friends during the worst stretch of my addiction, I’d lost a wife, and nearly lost my job. But now I had my life back.
I consider myself an addict. And addiction is an all-or-nothing proposition. If I went back to the browser, it would be closed shades, tabs flying open, volume muted. Then the cache clearing, the contraband laundry, the shame, and the return of cravings, cravings, cravings. Cravings for a longer session, bigger videos, more explicit content. The lurid thrill of the hunt, the whole sordid escalation that would leave me feeling hollow afterwards. All these behaviors I’d learned to rebuke in treatment in a men’s therapy group at the Center for Sexual Health, a clinic at the University of Minnesota. Once a week for twelve months I’d gone, never missing. I worked through my severe withdrawal symptoms and depression with the deeply explorative work of writing my sex history. After the clinic, I’d joined SAA. Several of my best friends were fellow recovery “brothers.” We talked regularly on the phone. We went to retreats. Porn—I didn’t go there anymore. At all.
This was my new normal, and it was a great thing. I loved my sobriety. I’d lost friends during the worst stretch of my addiction, I’d lost a wife, and nearly lost my job. But now I had my life back. I felt good again for the first time in years. I had hope and strength. Discipline was the cornerstone of my successful recovery. (Not to shortchange my sponsor, two therapists, three workbooks, my higher power, twenty brothers in the SAA fellowship.) There was nothing I was willing to do to jeopardize my hard-earned serenity.
Yet, despite learning from my friend about Franny’s alter ego, I still wanted to see her again, right away.
* * *
Second date—I went to her place. I lived on Portland Avenue in Saint Paul. Franny’s address was Portland Avenue, too, but in Phillips West, Minneapolis. She lived in a top-floor duplex she shared with her younger sister, Claire. From the start, I felt something fated about us, and took this as the first clue.
That night we got to know each other a bit. She was 29—ten years younger than me—and still finding herself, career-wise. Franny had gone to a college in upstate New York and now worked remotely for a radio program. But she wanted to do something more than fill web orders for coffee mugs and t-shirts. She took photos in her free time, and she volunteered at an arts organization that offered darkroom time and held photo exhibits. Her employer was based in Manhattan, and she enjoyed traveling there to work onsite from time to time. At 39, I was more settled professionally. I’d been with the academic publisher nine-and-a-half years. I too went to Manhattan most years for a rights and permissions conference. New York had always had an untapped allure for me, a writer with my first novel published. I’d imagined life as a New Yorker, advancing my career there.
I’d had much more life experience, too. I was recently divorced, living on my own. A marriage of five years had ended in a kind of sexual/intimacy stalemate. An “impasse,” my ex and I called it—the long fallout of my chronic compulsive porn use, which kept me more involved in fantasy relationships than real ones. For two years we had worked to overcome the lies, to rebuild trust. It proved impossible. But I didn’t share this with Franny right away.
At the end of the night, on the couch in her apartment, I had my hand up her dress. She’d prepared for the occasion with a short, flimsy dress over a, lacy, sky blue bra and panties set. I was euphoric. From that day on, any time we were apart, I thought about her with fervor and enthusiasm—a kind of thrilling hope.
Franny was cute, so tall and skinny with a kind of dopey walk—languorous, like she was shrugging with every step. Her head of lustrous brown hair curled in humidity. Her tastes were eclectic, in the nerdy dynamo vein. She was jokey, easy to warm to. But she was unpredictable in the things she said and did. This alarmed me at first, but I learned to let it go and laugh.
Franny’s style was half middle-schooler, half sophisticate. Plastic green sunglasses, an artistic flair for the grotesque, built on her love of the 80’s movie Beetlejuice. Her goofy way of saying Cool with her mouth poking to the side belied her inner seductress, the long litheness, her practiced way of lifting off a top. The nervousness, the corny jokes, fell away when her head hit the pillow. She drove her grandmother’s junky Buick, playing cassettes of Velvet Underground. Who was she exactly? I was intrigued by the mystery.
One weekend after we were dating for a month or two, Franny went away without telling me. No replies to texts or Facebook messages.
It was an exciting time. To me, Franny seemed a step outside of my addiction, the pleasure of her company a reward for the years of pain and struggle. My days were filled with energy. I’d been doing the same workout at my office gym for years; now without thought I upped my heart rate on the treadmill from 130 BPM to 150, and doubled my numbers in pull-ups, triceps dips, and crunches. I took my first selfie, shirtless in the mirror, with my chest tattoo showing: “FROM SHAME TO GRACE,” illustrated with the sun breaking through clouds—an image straight out of the Big Green Book (the S.A.A. handbook). I had just gotten it a few months before, a gift to myself for my one-year anniversary in S.A.A.
I got a jolt seeing myself connected to Franny on Facebook, which was new to me. She liked my postings, and I liked hers. How significant that seemed, being online for the world to see. At the office, I received her emails with glee and wrote eloquent flirtations in reply. Standard infatuation stuff. I neglected to reveal the anxiety growing below the surface. My greatest cause for concern was our age gap. We were clearly at different stages in our lives. I was never sure how I figured in her world, what her intentions were exactly, whether she saw me as her exclusive boyfriend, and that made me nervous, put me on edge. I reached towards her daily, as if groping, trying to secure plans, to keep our connection steady.
* * *
I wasn’t the only one who wanted steady connection with Franny. One time as we lay together on her bed, she let a call go to voicemail, then made uneasy faces as she listened to the message. It was an ex-boyfriend, Ted, who lived in Boston—where Franny used to live. He needed to talk. He was crying. He wasn’t over her. He was confused, in pain. Franny told me how they’d made the plans to move to Detroit and live in a derelict building on the cheap, but she backed out at the last minute. Then she’d moved back to Minnesota. For over a year, they’d had a long-distance, “open” relationship, dating and sleeping with others. Now she was with me. (I guessed? We’d never had the talk.) Had Franny told Ted about me?
I told her everything, about the twelve months in a Compulsive Sexual Behavior (CSB) group. About writing my sex history, talking with other men every Tuesday morning for two hours, for twelve solid months, never missing. The individual therapy, the couples therapy.
At home later, I googled Ted. He was a poet and an editor at a small press. I saw an author photo of him sitting on a swing wearing a rabbit’s mask, two giant ears and buck teeth. At first I thought that explained Franny’s rejection of Ted—he was a weirdo of some kind. Then I saw Franny’s name in the photo credits. I figured she must have indulged his strange desire to dress like an animal. As an author myself, I could not understand Ted’s covering his head for an author photo. For my most prominent author photo, I’d worn a V-neck sweater and smiled as brightly as possible. Artistic eccentricity, I figured, and relaxed into an assurance that I was nothing like Ted. Anyway, Franny was with me now, so too bad, so sad, Ted.
* * *
One weekend after we were dating for a month or two, Franny went away without telling me. No replies to texts or Facebook messages. I tried to play it cool. Eventually she called. She was driving through Nebraska, coming back from a photo shoot in St. Louis of an eccentric folk artist who built sculptures in his yard. She’d driven overnight by herself without stopping, on no sleep, and her grandmother’s car was acting up. She made a point of portraying the old artist as cantankerous, a redneck who drank and wielded a gun against the neighbors after they’d threatened to tear down his hideous creations. She described being alone with him in his house. She seemed to like the danger. Unnerved, that evening I worked my “program” extra hard. I went to my Sunday night meeting, talked it out, did my deep breathing.
* * *
I started a dependent, medicating relationship with pornography early, as an adolescent. While other young boys around me would pass around a centerfold, laughing at it, pointing, saying lewd things to diffuse their excitement, never in my life was I able to stay calm when a magazine was passed around a room, much less laugh. To be alone with a magazine was always something I looked forward to with deep attachment—a ritual I would anticipate, prepare for, and savor. Later, when Internet porn surfaced, and friends talked about it, I would just sit the conversation out, not taking part. I revered porn too much to convincingly joke that I used it casually. To me, as a full-blown addict in my thirties, talking about online porn was like talking about something sacred and profane. Porn was something I didn’t want to be using anymore, but had failed several times at quitting. Oftentimes, when you’re in a bad relationship, you just don’t want to talk about it.
Many men can be glib about their sexuality, what kinky things turn them on. They can be openly lustful. Not me. Funny euphemisms for masturbation abound, but I, not an otherwise humorless person, was never able to laugh at a habit that to me was a necessary drug, a coping mechanism.
With Franny, however, even though it ran counter to my 12-step program or my therapy, I set as a conscious goal having a blithe attitude towards sex. I tried to adopt perspectives like Franny’s—viewing sex acts as funny, quirky staples of human life to be enjoyed and bantered about flippantly. I tried to speak of sex like she did, sometimes sounding like a collection of Internet memes. She had a blog dedicated to her trials with vulvodynia (vaginal pain). I told her I read the blog, but that was a lie. I was avoiding looking squarely at any evidence that she was being sexual in a way that was dangerous to her health, which would only make me confront the fact that I was being sexual in a way that was dangerous to mine.
* * *
In early summer, we spent hours in her air-conditioned bedroom, having protracted sessions in isolation. Afterwards, we lounged in bed, talking of sex and sex acts, past partners, resuming and doing it again. Making out in cars, grinding, intense petting. Picnics with erections and short dresses. A remote voice began suggesting I was acting obsessively—acting like an addict—but I silenced it.
Funny how, when I first went shirtless with Franny, without my saying anything, she knew not to look at the tattoo on my chest, and not to ask about it. Eventually, I felt conflicted about not sharing its origin with her, and I explained to her that I’d been through treatment for addiction to pornography. I told her everything, about the twelve months in a Compulsive Sexual Behavior (CSB) group. About writing my sex history, talking with other men every Tuesday morning for two hours, for twelve solid months, never missing. The individual therapy, the couples therapy. About my current S.A.A. group, the retreats, the sponsor who helped me “work the program,” and James, the man whom I currently sponsored.
Sometimes, on the precipice of successful recovery, addicts need to take a few steps back down into the abyss to remind themselves why they’ve chosen a new, healthier but more challenging path.
Returning the confidence in kind, I suppose, Franny told me about her own porn activities: how she had put pictures of herself on Reddit.com—pictures of herself with Ted’ penis in her mouth, and other pictures of herself naked.
Evidence was beginning to mount that this relationship was a threat to my recovery. But denial is a powerful force. For the addict, it’s a devastating weapon. I ignored the evidence, and persisted in adhering to the notion that we were an item built to last. I introduced her to my brother. “She’s an artist,” I said. “We have a lot in common.” The Green Book on denial: “Experience has shown that it is too difficult to sort through these experiences by ourselves or to see through the denial that often obscures the truth about our behavior.” I was still enthusiastic about my life with Franny, though I remained anxious about our future.
* * *
One Friday night, Franny took me to a warehouse gallery, to a photo exhibit of a colleague who lived in New York. I didn’t yet know the hallmarks of her art. I knew she shot with a Canon Mark iV, and spent time on photography forums, looking for advice on whether to buy new “glass” (a lens) or a new “body” (camera). She’d involved me in these conversations, but otherwise didn’t discuss much about her artistic practice.
Then one weekend, again she did not answer my texts or Facebook messages or voicemails. Despite the confidence I’d gained in sobriety, I became very edgy when I did not hear from Franny. Sunday she got in touch to say she’d been out with a friend, Peter, taking pictures. They had rented a paddleboat and gone out on Lake of the Isles. It was a great shoot, she said, and she was really excited. She offered to share the photos, and I said sure. When I got the link to the gallery, I didn’t know what I was seeing. There was a man in a suit and horse mask aboard a watercraft. He lurched and reached at the camera, or sometimes sat upright like a liveryman. Then there was a series with a woman on a playground, wearing a dress and fox mask. Some shots on a swing were provocative, with the woman’s legs soaring high in the air, her dress slit high up her thigh.
I didn’t understand it. I found something about it disturbing. I didn’t like it. But I wanted to be an encouraging partner, so I faked my way through praise.
Meanwhile, Franny and I were more sexually active than ever, Franny having introduced her vintage suitcase of sex toys, and urged us into acts involving alternative entryways. She talked at times about wanting to try group sex—an interest I laughed at because I assumed she was just being provocative. Such excitement. The hunt of a lifetime was over.
* * *
Sometimes, on the precipice of successful recovery, addicts need to take a few steps back down into the abyss to remind themselves why they’ve chosen a new, healthier but more challenging path. They need to re-test to waters down there, to test themselves and their ability to abstain from their drug of choice in the face of great temptation. My instant obsession and subsequent six months with Franny provided just that kind of stark torment for me. I’d finally ended the career as a pornography user that had kept me failing at long-term relationships, that made trust and openness elusive, but there I was dating someone who in ways represented the allure and elusive pleasure of porn itself.
She was gone a week when I got an email with a big .zip attachment. I downloaded it right away and unzipped. Photos of herself on the bed in her underwear—a dozen.
A writer friend, who spent a fair amount of time in Al-Anon (the Twelve-Step program for people with addicts in their lives) recently told me how she can relate: she described a time in her life when she was trying to stop choosing “the same bad, addict boyfriend in a different body” over and over again—a kind of addiction itself. Finally, after making significant progress in therapy, she found herself dating the ultimate menace to her wellness. Frustrated with herself, she asked her therapist, “Why am I even bothering to try to change?” He explained to her that for the first time, she was repeating an old pattern with new information and tools—and in the “laboratory” of therapy, where her therapist could be a witness, and help her identify what was pathologically wrong in the way she chose men, and how to change it. “This is an opportunity to really learn.” And she did.
Some of us just need that kind of test—a last grueling mile in the quest to shed our self-delusions. A hard stare in the mirror at the facts of our addiction. Some of us, in order to really give up our destructive vices, need to learn the hard way what it really means to be sober.
It would take me until fall to understand that Franny had been the final exam in my porn addiction treatment. Recovering alcoholics must face the question, Can I go to a bar? Can I go to a party? Recovering gamblers have to drive past casinos and see lottery tickets at the gas station. For drug users, it might be the club, the pharmacy. That’s the way it is with addiction. I was only going to learn how to fully rebuke porn by choosing someone like Franny. However I’d allowed it to happen, I would never make the mistake again.
In the meantime, in the summer, one night I told Franny, “I love you.” Wearing a strained smile, she stopped herself from saying, “Cool,” the way she often did. In a shaky, faltering voice she said, “I love you,” back.
The longer I saw Franny the more devoted I became to her, and the more I deluded myself. No, this wasn’t the obvious cliché of a male pornography addict carrying out a sexual relationship with a maker of her own pornography. As a writer, I would have seen that a mile away, wouldn’t I? I convinced myself instead that the relationship was a deep artistic bond between a writer and a photographer that my program had prepared me for.
I talked a blue streak about it in S.A.A., relating how sane a situation this was for me. But I never mentioned that Franny danced burlesque and took pornographic photos of herself and shared them with the world. I had always treated S.A.A.’s requirement of “rigorous honesty” (Green Book, p. 22) with sacramental respect. But when it came to Franny’s presence in my life, I reported only selectively during “check-ins” at my S.A.A. meetings.
* * *
In August, Franny went to New York to work at her company’s Manhattan office for a month. She was thinking about relocating permanently. What would this mean for us? I didn’t know. We did talk about our future some, and she said that having just gotten out of a long relationship with Ted, maybe she shouldn’t jump back into anything. Whatever hesitancy she expressed I assumed would fade as she let herself fall in love with me. Though I was terrified by the possibility that she wouldn’t, I played it cool. But privately, I worried that she wanted a long-distance thing like she’d had with Ted from Boston. And I doubted she would be true to me while away. What was stopping her from going out drinking and asking some other “dude” (as she generally referred to men) if he wanted to make out? She stayed with a friend in Brooklyn, and most nights I didn’t hear from her, but saw updates on social media about bars she was at.
Then one night, she called late with a horror story. Peter (horse head Peter) had come to visit her in New York, from Minneapolis—you know, as a friend. (“Oh, totally,” I agreed.) He’d gotten drunk and made a bawling confession of raging unrequited love for Franny. He’d been in love with her for years. He was mad for her. This happened on the subway platform, and it went on for an hour. She left him there, weeping. She was embarrassed and felt sorry for misleading him. She’d had no idea he felt that way.
Alone in St. Paul, I worked my program, met my sponsee for coffee, took walks with other “brothers.” I was more wracked than ever. She just seemed to be out there—roaming New York City, tempting all men crossing the country to see her, to profess their need for her. Would she be mine? I felt powerless to keep her close.
She was gone a week when I got an email with a big .zip attachment. I downloaded it right away and unzipped. Photos of herself on the bed in her underwear—a dozen. She’d set up her tripod and used a timer. She’d put lamps on as if lighting a set. In the photos, there was my novel on the bedside—she’d been reading it (for months). Variously, she lay on her back; then on her stomach, ass up, gusset to the lens; then stood, leaning over the bed. The series had that sense of progression you see in porn galleries like the ones I used to view—the illusion of an advancing interaction. I nearly lost my mind with excitement.
Strangely, though, I didn’t recognize her body. It looked foreign. It was not the body I’d held and made love to, walked with around Minneapolis’ lakes. This body seemed better, more illicit, more erotic—something for me to desire, not something that I already had. That seemed to make all the difference. I looked to her face for signs of the woman I loved, but her youthful smile was gone, and she wore a sultry, extemporized expression. She looked nothing like the chatty, relaxed girl who rode around in my car doing silly dances, who I’d biked with and camped with, served gluten-free pancakes to in my St. Paul kitchen. She looked instead like a person from another decade, another species entirely. I knew she didn’t love me, not truly, not the way I wanted to be loved. Yet in the photos, though she’d made them expressly for me (I assumed), she did not seem to be addressing me, but some anonymous subject whom she felt strengthened by knowing she could captivate, if not transfix.
That night I put my Canon Powershot on the dresser, set the self-timer, and sent Franny shots of myself in Calvin Kleins on the bed. Porn addict turned porn model. Hardly. I probably looked more like a corpse in crime scene photos than a supine Mr. October. But I tried.
How far was I willing to go? How far would I move my boundaries for her?
About 2,000 miles, it turned out. Franny came back from New York wanting to move there. In nervous, indirect, vague conversations, we talked of going there together. Moving together. “Yeah, cool,” I said. “New York has always been calling me.” Within days, I was onboard. I gave notice on the condo I rented and at the office with my boss of 9.75 years.
We moved her first, in October—driving out together in her grandmother’s Buick, taking Franny’s cameras, clothes, and cat. The plan was she’d settle, I’d come later. We stayed in the studio of the photographer whose exhibit we’d gone to in Minneapolis. It was in Gowanus, not zoned for residential. It had a darkroom in back, and the front room was packed with art and photography books. There was a pullout couch and a desk.
Tiny. Gritty. New York. Exciting.
In typical Franny fashion, she kept our plans hazy. The photographer friend, she said, might be giving up the studio and let Franny (and me) have it. He was spending more time in Minneapolis lately. Though, curiously, whenever Franny talked to him on the phone about subletting it, she mentioned only herself, never said my name. That was fine—we were independent artistic types. Mature. We weren’t defined as a couple, didn’t need labels.
I was excited. We might move in there together, have a place along the gritty-chic Gowanus canal. It was that month that a dolphin swam up the canal, became trapped and died. Franny shared with me New York Times links to stories about how the canal was contaminated with gonorrhea, mercury, carcinogens, and other toxins. It was no derelict Detroit building, but it was close.
Around this time, she also began asking me to choke and slap her during sex. I complied.
* * *
Halloween weekend. We stop into a pop-up costume store at Atlantic and 5th. Franny buys herself a wig and makeup, and buys me a werewolf mask and gloves. With some of her old college friends, we drive to a party upstate. We get there in the afternoon and visit her old college campus. There, she asks me to put on the suit coat I’d brought for a job interview, along with the werewolf costume. I do. My hands become huge, hairy, and taloned. By the Hudson River bank, I climb a tree, and there, like a starkly Caucasian simian, like Ted and Peter before me, I pose. I feel like an idiot. I don’t know if the joke is on me or on her. I reach at the camera in a tepid impersonation of animal lust. But behind the mask, I feel only insecurity, no strength or shelter.
At the office, I noticed my eyes were red and puffy—my tear ducts strained. I took a selfie so I wouldn’t forget.
I imagine this will earn me a place on Franny’s arm at the party, get me introduced as her man. But it does not. That night, she tells no one we’re moving to New York together, does not describe me as a boyfriend. Hey, this is Ben, she says. Most of the night, I watch her from across the room. After midnight, a giant ring appears around the moon. I have never seen anything like it. Its pull feels somehow homeward.
* * *
Throughout the night, there are reports about a tropical storm approaching the Eastern seaboard. Hurricane Sandy. Franny’s father calls from Minneapolis, worried. The next day, Sunday, we drive back south from upstate to get into the city before the bridges and highways are closed. The weather is windy and cloudy. We stock up on water and food.
We make it back in time and hunker down in the Gowanus studio, with a view of the BQE and buildings along the canal as they’re lashed by winds and rain. We listen to WNYC, hear the warnings and callers offering advice based on lessons learned during the prior year’s major hurricane, Irene.
That night, though Lower Manhattan loses power, we do not. We download Halloween episodes of the Simpson’s and bake gluten-free cookies like a couple of children. We make a mess of the photographer’s pull-out bed. There’s no one around to hear us.
In the morning, the winds still howl, and according to reports, parts of Queens have been destroyed. Franny goes out into the street with her camera. I go with, walking a few blocks, but, seeing snapped trees and downed store awnings, I grow intolerant of even my own stupidity, and go back inside. Franny stays out, apparently unable to resist the danger.
All travel is suspended into the next day. I can’t get uptown for a meeting with a potential employer. But miraculously, the day of my scheduled return, flights and subway service resumes. I leave Franny in that Gowanus studio, with the darkroom in the back, and the front room filled to the ceiling with industrial metal shelves full of art books, she with her Macbook and her Mark IV and her lenses, little else. In my teary state, I take the R in the wrong direction to connect to the LIRR. By the time I turn around, I am very late. Standing in the total chaos on Atlantic Avenue, I think, “If I don’t catch a cab right now, I’m not getting out of here.” Traffic is bumper to bumper. Just then a white Town Car edges to the curb right beside me. Fifty cash for JFK? Deal. Somehow, before long, I’m seated on a Sun Country plane to MPLS, delirious with relief.
* * *
It wasn’t long before Franny came back to Minnesota for a visit. When we talked, she told me she wasn’t sure we should move in together. She still wanted explore group sex and lesbian sex before settling down for marriage and kids. It wasn’t fair to me.
I was devastated. I went to my best friend Dave’s house and bawled.
“Go to New York anyway,” he said. “Fuck her.”
There did seem to be something serendipitous about it. It did seem I should go live in New York, though I wasn’t ready to claim a victory. I cried for days.
“Letting go of our addiction can be like losing a familiar friend. Facing life without acting out involves feelings of grief and loss.” – The Green Book, “Step Four, Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory.”
At the office, I noticed my eyes were red and puffy—my tear ducts strained. I took a selfie so I wouldn’t forget.
In December I moved. What could I do? I’d already quit my job and given up my apartment. I tapped all my connections, had lunch with editors. I moved into a place in Park Slope, rooming with an NYU professor who told me the remedy to my heartache was to sleep with many women. “Tell them you just want to have sex,” he advised me. “They don’t mind here.” As if it were a regionalism. I thanked him for the advice, but did no such thing.
Instead I joined a gym in Brooklyn, began freelancing and rebuilding my life without Franny. I had to pass through a kind of hysterical phase to shake her off, and during that time I wrote her an email telling her she was making a big mistake throwing away the love of a good man for group sex, for cheap thrills. I preached, telling her what I knew about the rabbit hole of illicit sex—about making the addict’s mistake of confusing pleasure with happiness. She rejected my arguments. And rightly so. She wasn’t an addict. And who decides when sex is “illicit” anyway?
I worked the 12 Steps, made calls to people in my St. Paul S.A.A. group, saw my folly pretty quickly, and soon wrote her a letter, by hand, on paper, apologizing for trying to coerce her, sway her, judge her, scold her. Tell her what was right for her. But I was still so turned around, I mixed up the building numbers of where she lived in Gowanus and where I lived in Park Slope (they were one digit apart). The letter came back “Address Unknown.” It was laborious, but I took the letter to the post office and mailed it correctly inside a bigger envelope, so Franny could see the original stamped date, and how I’d gotten it wrong, see that I owned it all and still meant the apology.
* * *
A year later, I was living in Westchester, working as Managing Editor at a publisher, when Franny emailed. She’d come across that letter and thanked me for what I’d said, for retracting the angry things, admitting that her choices weren’t wrong for her.
I know, even more certainly now than I’d known then, that they weren’t. They were just wrong for me.
* * *
Benjamin Obler teaches fiction at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC and the Loft Literary Center online. Friend Benjamin at Goodreads.com to join the beta reading program for his novel PICTURES OF MARLENE.
Editor: Sari Botton
from Longreads Blog https://blog.longreads.com/2016/08/22/the-mask-of-deception-the-ultimate-test-to-my-recovery-from-porn-addiction/