Growing up, I would stay up late and watch the commercials where women dressed in lacy pajamas lounged on beds and asked you to call the 1-900 number. I imagined that, if I dialed the number, I’d talk to one of the girls and fall in love. It wasn’t that far-fetched; people fall in love every day. I hoped it would be the blonde holding a teddy bear. I could tell she and I would connect.

When I received my first credit card, I had barely removed it from the envelope before I was dialing the number. After a few prompts I was connected to Christy, who didn’t sound like the girls in the commercials. She was older, and the smoky quality of her voice seemed to come from cigarettes, not desire.

I introduced myself, but before I could say anything else, she started asking questions that made me uncomfortable: Did I have a mushroom head? (I didn’t know what that was.) Was I big? (Compared to what?)

At a pause in the conversation I told her about the disappointments in my love life, hoping she’d see I was a sensitive person and tell me that the girls who’d turned me down were missing out. But she only asked me more questions: What did I want to do to her? (I didn’t know.) Was I touching myself? (Not really.) We went back and forth like that for what seemed like a long time. When I told her I had to go, she didn’t seem too broken up about it.

I was disappointed, but it wasn’t until I saw the $250 charge on my first credit-card bill that I really learned my lesson: some things are best left to the imagination.

Josh Nickell
Ontario, Oregon

People used to tell me my life in the mountains was everything they dreamed of. My Instagram was filled with amusing anecdotes, like how I ate whale blubber while doing remote fieldwork in the Arctic Circle, or burned off my eyebrows trying to work a pizza oven on my twenty-first birthday, or learned to drill pocket holes into a piece of wood while building a bed for my vehicle.

To be frank, living this way—prioritizing play, meaningfully connecting with people, and growing or hunting my own food—did feel amazing. I’d leave work in the middle of a week to swim and sleep by an alpine lake, then wake early to scramble back into the office, covered in mud.

I should have known my mountain life was unsustainable. Now I’m in graduate school on a flat stretch of the East Coast. It’s scary to feel like I’m losing my love of exploration and play. Yet I’ve come to appreciate studying in a library for hours, or clocking into work and making small talk with customers, or running along the city streets in the morning.

My here and now isn’t the end of that previous life. It’s a temporary break. An opportunity to experience something new.

Kelly Dunn
New Haven, Connecticut

My family and I learned to walk on eggshells around my mother. If we failed to shelter her from life’s inevitable blows, we’d hear a beer bottle hiss open behind a locked bathroom door, heralding weeks of slurred words and screamed allegations. Ignoring my dad’s advice to tell no one, I confided my problems to my high-school counselor, which got Mom into her first round of treatment. This was followed by years of her stumbling in and out of sobriety, a cycle Dad sorrowfully endured.

Then he died, and suddenly Mom was mine. Al-Anon meetings helped, but I never reached the level of healthy detachment they prescribed. Guilt, concern, and anger kept me awake at night: Should I have her live with me? (No.) Keep her constantly entertained? (Impossible.) Disappear from her life? (Cruel.)

After I arranged an intervention with a counselor, Mom began taking AA seriously, and we got a year or so of what I’ll call happiness. She found a boyfriend at the senior center. They vacationed together and went to birthday parties with his family, which freed me from the crazy-making obligation to keep her OK.

Then she announced she no longer needed AA, and the drinking, rage, and chaos returned. She was admitted to a coronary-care unit, where the staff informed me her blood-alcohol level was high enough to cause brain damage.

Eventually she developed dementia and had to move to a memory-care unit. She forgot where she lived and who the president was, but she also forgot she was angry. She forgot she was sad. She forgot she liked to drink.

Some things she remembered, like vacations with the boyfriend she hadn’t seen in years, which she reported having taken the prior week. What fun she was having in her mind: traveling, going to parties, being pleasant. The staff loved her.

At an eye appointment the ophthalmologist noticed Mom wasn’t sure who I was. Concerned, she suggested I take her to a neurologist.

Are you kidding me? I thought. The world my mom had invented was so much better than anything she’d known before. I smiled agreeably, letting the doctor believe her own fantasy: that I was a loving daughter doing whatever she could to get her real mom back.

Name Withheld

As a college freshman I became enamored of my psychology professor, who was so young and handsome that on the first day of class I mistook him for a student. I sat spellbound through every lecture, giggled with my equally smitten friends, and studied like a fiend, determined to make him notice me the only way I knew how: by excelling academically.

Unlike my previous crushes, which had all died natural deaths when they weren’t reciprocated, I couldn’t let this one go. Over the next three years I concocted far-fetched scenarios where we became lovers, which sustained me as I eagerly gobbled up every friendly greeting, positive comment on a test paper, or brief chat.

My efforts paid off in my senior year, when he asked me to be his teaching assistant—my last chance to connect with him on a deeper level. Sure enough, we began talking about our lives and sharing thoughts about movies, music, relationships, and people we knew.

A month before my graduation he asked me out. At the end of our third date he stroked my hair and pulled me close for our first kiss.

It didn’t take me long to realize he had scars and faults like everyone else, though: often being preoccupied with his exes, moody, sometimes depressed. When I complained, he told me he couldn’t live up to my image of him as the “perfect dreamboat.”

He was right.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

I fantasize that I wake up one morning not on a thin foam mattress barely softening a steel bunk with someone snoring and farting a few feet beneath me, but in a real bed with my partner beside me in our home. That I don’t have to spend my day in a concrete box with a man I don’t know and never wanted to. That I won’t eat cold, processed food from a battered plastic tray eight feet from the toilet where my cellie sits, eating his. That my view of the outside isn’t distorted by tempered safety glass and steel bars that protect it, and you, from me.

Instead my partner will take me to one of our favorite restaurants, which has somehow survived the decades of my incarceration. Or, better still, I’ll cook for him: perhaps caldo verde, or feijoada, or a posta à mirandesa—dishes from a country I visited and will never see again. My fantasy ripples outward: To see trees that aren’t on the other side of a chain-link fence and concertina wire. To feel the texture of those trees’ bark and leaves. To hear the quiet of forest, of sea, of desert. To see darkness again.

But the real fantasy, the one that can never come true, is to have never hurt those I hurt, never done the things I did. To have never become the person no one thought I could be.

Kenneth Meyers
St. Petersburg, Florida

The Shaker-style drafting desk was a gift from my father, who had crafted it in my grandmother’s basement. On particularly disappointing days as a teenager, I would sit at it and write love poems, dreaming of having cable television, a closet full of the right clothes, and a devoted, popular boyfriend. In this fantasyland my dad also had short hair and spent his weekends golfing at the country club.

Grasping for anything that would make me whole again after my mother’s suicide, I wrote heartsick, sentimental poems that matched acceptable roles for girls in the 1980s, then hid them in a drawer that was accessible only when the heavy drafting surface was lifted open all the way. I imagined my salvation was a boy who had liked me in junior high but lately acknowledged me only when it suited him, and never when his friends were around.

Once, when the adults were away, I invited some boys over. I hadn’t wanted anyone to leave the kitchen, where we sat at the table bouncing quarters into a glass, but once they got a few beers in them, a couple of boys snuck into my room and forced their way into the desk. My poems’ words came tumbling down the stairs, accompanied by jeers and laughter. The boys followed, their faces shining with the thrill of their discovery.

That desk made its way from my childhood house to my home today, where its role is now more decorative than functional. Although I still keep most of my fantasies locked away, I’m finally finding the courage to show people my writing.

Caitlin Spohrer
Santa Cruz, California

Before my husband and I got married, we discussed his desire to incorporate role-playing, costumes, and accessories into sex. Trying to figure out what that means for each of us has been a long journey. I’m not offended by his fantasies, but I’m not particularly drawn to them either. Kink can very easily feel like “his” thing. It’s awkward for both of us when I don’t own it, too. I struggle and resent being expected to participate. He feels self-conscious and beats himself up for having weird desires. I feel unwanted unless I’m wearing specific clothing. All this takes up a large percentage of our already-strained sexual interactions.

And then sometimes I let go and give in, honestly and freely. When that happens, we connect—not because of the fantasy, but because we get to play a deeply vulnerable game together. Slowly we’re each learning to give more freely what we know the other desires.

Name Withheld

In 1967 I was looking through the want ads and saw Disneyland was hiring summer workers. I was eighteen years old, and getting paid to hang around Disneyland sounded to me like a dream: perhaps I’d be hired to pull the switch on the Matterhorn ride, or deliver announcements on the Jungle Cruise, or make root-beer floats on Main Street, waving to Mickey and Minnie as they strolled by.

My older sister was home from college for the summer. When I told her about the ad, she volunteered to drive me to Anaheim, about forty minutes away. On the way we reminisced about how every out-of-state relative who visited us wanted to go to Disneyland. We’d been there many times and thought ourselves pretty savvy.

We arrived early. Lighting a joint in the car, my sister said, “OK, let’s bring out your inner Cinderella.” She took a hit and handed it to me. “Imagine you’re strolling down Main Street in your ball gown, waving to all the little girls and boys.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, inhaling.

“You personify elegance and goodness.”

“Right,” I said, taking another hit, imagining myself as Cinderella, exuding poise and kindness. I felt a warm glow permeate my body. I didn’t notice the time going by until I glanced at the clock. “Shit!” I said. “I’m late.”

I opened the car door and immediately realized I was more stoned than I thought. I followed the job-interview signs to a small building, taking deep breaths to clear my head. In the room were about twenty teens sitting at school desks. A man handed me some papers to fill out. I found an empty seat and looked at the first question: “What is the fewest number of coins you can use to make $1.57? List them in order from largest amount to smallest.”


The second question was “If 4 tickets cost $2.60, how much does one ticket cost?”

Oh, shit.

For any normal eighteen-year-old with a high-school education, these would have been a piece of cake, but to my marijuana-dulled brain, they read like calculus problems. I was having trouble even understanding them. I started to panic. My hands grew too sweaty to grip the pencil.

I got up, handed the man the blank test papers, and left, my ball gown turning back to jeans and a T-shirt.

Martha Roggli
Chico, California

When my husband died in 2017, I became more aware of the shocking ephemerality of time. For the next few years I ticked off items on my bucket list: zip-lining, spelunking, skydiving, piloting my own boat. Soon enough only the scariest item was left: a boudoir photo shoot.

I showed up to my appointment with my favorite black teddy, a matching lavender bra-and-panty set, white garters, and a white-lace bustier. As the photographer readied his equipment, his wife applied pancake foundation to my face, bubblegum-pink lipstick to my lips, and thick fake lashes onto my natural ones.

She poufed my hair so high that I felt compelled to ask her to stop. “I’m a college professor,” I protested. “I don’t even look like myself.”

“We don’t want you to look like yourself,” she replied. “We’re creating a fantasy here.”

I felt ridiculous but let her finish.

Before the shoot began, they made me promise to trust them implicitly. As his shutter clicked, the photographer barked orders: “Pout! Arch your back! Think about sex! Stick your ass out! Stop laughing!” I dropped my inhibitions and blindly followed his commands.

When the photos came back, I could hardly believe the person in them was me.

Mary Oves
Ocean City, New Jersey

Fantasy was how my family connected when I was growing up. My brother and I would sit on the floor as my mother read us Harry Potter novels before bed. On long car trips we’d listen to Eragon audiobooks. At home we’d rewatch the Lord of the Rings trilogy for what felt like the fiftieth time.

As a teenager I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my older brothers. It allowed us to get to know each other in a way we never had before. Awkward meals became full of laughter as we retold how my brother Charles’s character had been eaten by a giant frog.

As I got older, reading fan fiction online consumed many hours of my time. Characters in shows and books felt more like friends to me than the people in my life. I was using the very thing that had brought me closer to my family to push them away. Why had I become so obsessed with people who didn’t exist? Perhaps because it was easier to deal with the characters’ pain than my own. They always had an answer, a plan where it all worked out.

I no longer use these fantasies to suppress my emotions. Being “friends” with somebody who can never judge you can be comforting, but there’s a difference between comfort and delusion.

Lynchburg, Virginia

Instead of finishing my paper in the university computer lab, I was browsing online chat rooms for people who loved horses. That’s how I found an ad for a position on a dude ranch in New Mexico. Housing and a monthly stipend were offered in exchange for daily work with horses and guests. I responded, and within a few weeks I was packing everything into my Ford Courier and driving away to become a cowgirl.

I had only ridden English and shown over fences—a far cry from real ranch work. Still, the horse doesn’t care what clothes you wear, and the ranchers were tickled by my tie-dyed T-shirts and youthful California slang. They christened me “Cupcake” but respected my skills and willingness to work.

I was living the dream. Every morning before dawn, I’d jump on a horse bareback and head across the rocky pastures to find the herd. When the horses saw me, they’d gallop in the direction of the corrals, and I’d follow at top speed. We’d arrive in a cloud of dust, backlit by the rising sun. We must have been quite a sight to the tourists enjoying their coffee.

After riding till sunset and making sure the horses’ needs were met, I stayed up scrubbing the last pots. Then I hiked a quarter mile back to my tiny toolshed of a cabin. I had cut a hole in the wall so my cat could get in, and she’d kill mice on my bed while I was trying to sleep. Before dawn, the rooster would wake me so I could do it all again.

This life lasted a couple of seasons, and it came at a price. I’d work sixteen-hour days, five days a week, for eight months. On the weekends I had to change the sheets; clean the guest cabins, mess tent, and bath houses; and take care of anything else I needed to do, like drive a couple of hours into town to do my laundry. Everyone on staff had the opportunity once a month to pick up the guests in Albuquerque, four hours away, which meant an overnight stay in a hotel. The juxtaposition of the city with the ranch helped me appreciate how good I had it.

I eventually rejoined the twentieth century, but my time in the West helped me become myself.

Robyn McCallister
Mendocino, California

I leaned against my mother’s side, feeling safe, as she guided the Plymouth Coupe down the country roads of eastern North Carolina and Virginia. It was an unusually cold day in October 1954, and my brother, my sister, and I were shivering in our summer clothes, headed to Franklin, Virginia, to meet someone about a place to live.

I hoped it would have a room with a window seat so I could watch people pass by on the sidewalk. I imagined a father coming in the door to be greeted by warm smells. After removing his coat and hat, he would turn and embrace me, his five-year-old girl, and carry me into the kitchen, where dinner waited.

The day before, my siblings and I had sat in the car while our mother waited tables at a diner on Highway 13. It was a long wait, but we knew we would have something to eat at the end, and maybe even a place to stay for the night. Meanwhile we had a Sears, Roebuck and Co. spring catalog to read. My brother and I studied each page, marveling at the items and trying to add up how much it would cost to buy what we yearned for. I wanted to look at winter coats, playhouses, and dolls. My brother could hardly wait to get to the electric-train sets, toy rifles, and cowboy hats.

Our sister, at eight, seemed very grown-up. When my brother and I bickered, she said, “If someone gave you a million dollars that you could spend only in the Sears catalog, what would you buy?” This kept us occupied imagining what our lives would be like with all that abundance.

I found a mail-order house that I’d buy and put on a farm with horses, cows, and chickens; a swimming hole; and a garden full of tomatoes, cantaloupes, and watermelons. We could fish, build forts, climb trees. We’d each have our own room.

Yvonne Freve
Clovis, California

He was blond and tanned and oblivious to his power. Captain of the high-school cross-country team. Valedictorian. His face poreless, his teeth straight. He’d be off to Columbia in the fall. A year behind him, I tried to pick up his habits, studying how he dressed and spoke, memorizing his exercise regimen and the way he carried himself. I convinced myself that I wanted to be like him rather than be with him.

At track meets I only rarely broke seventeen minutes for the three-mile course, whereas he was almost always more than a minute ahead of me. After one race we stood chatting and stretching when he reached upward, and I saw the hair beneath his arms was the same startling blond as the hair on his head. I began to think of what the hair might look like elsewhere on his body, and had to turn and walk away before he could notice the bulge in my track shorts.

We were also in the same section in band. Once, on a trip, we were assigned to the same hotel room, where there was only one bed. He insisted on taking the floor, while I took the bed, but when I woke in the night, he was there beside me, asleep. I wanted to reach over and touch his body, to have him touch mine in turn.

I didn’t. He liked girls. Nothing happened.

I don’t think of him much anymore, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d woken him with a kiss.

Cirrus Wood
Berkeley, California

While he was spending twenty-three years wrongfully locked up with the roaches and rats in New York prisons, his wife divorced him, and his brother and parents died. After his exoneration, one reporter asked, “Where could home be for a man whose life was stolen?”

My heart cried out, and I asked to meet him. Three months into his new life of freedom, we met to begin planning the book I would write about him. We spent most of the next four months together.

After all that time behind bars, life outside was unrecognizable to him. His three children were adults with children of their own. There were too many choices at the grocery store. He had to learn how to use a cell phone. What were all the buttons on the dashboards of cars? How do you wash your hands in a sink without handles?

He wanted to find a place to put down roots. Hoping to help diminish the ugliness of his past, I took him to my hometown in Michigan. A week into our trip he complained of back pain and difficulty breathing. Instead of the surprise ride in a hot-air balloon that I’d planned, he took an ambulance to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a kidney stone and walking pneumonia.

The next day I drove us five hours north to the Upper Peninsula. I wanted him to experience the peace and relaxation of nature. Instead being in pain in an unfamiliar place kick-started his post-traumatic stress. I’d wanted to show him the beauty of my home state. Instead he showed me the torture of the only home he knew. After three days in hell I told him we were leaving.

I drove straight to Virginia Beach, where I dropped him off with his family. I’d been naive to think I could save him from twenty-three years of wrongful incarceration.

Karrie Loomis
Virginia Beach, Virginia

My neighbor grew up believing a woman wasn’t complete without a man. So when she lost her husband of forty-plus years to illness, it wasn’t long before she began looking for love. Several weeks after his death, she asked what I would think if she told me she had found someone on a grief website.

I said I would think it was wonderful, provided that he was real. She assured me that “Carlos” was genuine, a sixty-two-year-old widower with one adult child but no other family. He was serving in the US military somewhere in Africa, but he’d be returning to the US for Thanksgiving. She also told me they were falling in love.

I’d known more than one vulnerable woman who’d had her heart broken and her savings account drained by entertaining this particular fantasy, and I was concerned she might suffer the same fate. I shared articles on romance scams, as well as a paper published by the Embassy of the Gambia, where many individuals perpetrating such scams lived. She thanked me but staunchly defended Carlos’s intentions.

Eventually she took her son’s recommendation to check Carlos out through the local Army recruiter, who told her in no uncertain terms to “drop him as fast as possible.” So she did. Then she went back to emailing him. Then she dropped him again, and went back yet again, all the while assuring me she would not be taken advantage of.

One day, while on the grief website, my neighbor stumbled across the profile of another military widower, but unlike “Carlos,” he happened to live just across town, and she could meet him in person.

My neighbor’s new love is an old-fashioned gentleman who pays for dinners and movies and sent her a dozen red roses after their first date. Almost as soon as they met, they knew they wanted to spend the rest of their days together.

Name Withheld

In 2020 I was walking through the Mexican beach town of Chacala while my husband and kids napped. There on vacation, I marveled at the tropical gardens. As I passed a cluster of modest concrete houses that shared a large lawn, I envisioned my children playing there. For a second I actually saw them.

I laughed it off, telling myself everybody dreams about living in the places they vacation, especially on an idyllic day. Living in Mexico simply made no sense for us. We were rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area, where my husband and I had good jobs. Our son had just started kindergarten, and our daughter was in preschool. We had a beautiful home, two dogs, and a wonderful circle of friends.

The pandemic arrived just six weeks after we returned home, giving us a chance to change our lives completely. We took it. A year later we moved into one of those concrete houses. Our kids and dogs ran around on that big lawn.

We’ve lived in Chacala ever since.

Our kids attend the elementary school and are bilingual. We walk or drive a golf cart almost everywhere. My husband and I sit down for lunch every day when our kids get home from school, as is customary in most of Mexico, and they tell us about their day before heading off to afternoon activities. Fresh, cheap, local food forms the backbone of most of our meals: fish, avocado, tropical fruit. When my husband and I finish our workday, we walk to the beach and grab a cold beer for thirty pesos, the equivalent of about two dollars.

There are plenty of foods we can’t easily get, like peaches, lacinato kale, and good pizza, and it’s a big day when something like asparagus shows up at our market. Then there are the scorpions, lizards, frogs, and crabs who regularly find their way into our house. One night we woke to a bat flying in panicked circles above our bed, defecating all over the bedspread. Due to the climate, our kids regularly have earaches and bacterial skin infections. A visit to the medical clinic can take hours, even for something simple.

Our life here has its challenges, but we do not miss our commutes or the frantic pace of suburban America. I never fantasize about moving back.

Miriam Storch
Chacala, Nayarit

The wad of twenties in my dad’s pocket was too thick to be held by a money clip or wallet. He would wave it around at gas stations, restaurants, or flea markets as tangible proof he and his family were far from poor. The sight of it always gave me a thrill.

The rounds of golf and beach-club memberships never seemed to square with my mom’s coupon clipping and boxed mac-and-cheese dinners, however. She lived in the real world of barely paid bills and cars with rusted mufflers, dropping coins in the family bucket while Dad hoovered them out through a hole in the bottom. When she attempted to talk about our finances, he would hold up a palm or tell her not to get him “all depressed.”

In high school my best friend asked if my parents ever talked to me about college. I told him no. I went home that night and asked my mom if she thought I might go someday. She gave a noncommittal answer.

I got a college-ranking guide from the library and flipped through it for weeks. I picked an aspirational school and asked again. This time my mom was more direct: “I long feared you’d ask, but we have no money saved for college.”

But she was determined to help me find a way. We made phone calls and read about financial aid, learning about need-blind admissions, work-study programs, and Pell Grants. We spoke to my high-school counselor, and to my aunt who worked in higher ed. I don’t recall any conversations about it with my dad. Those chats, I gathered, were better kept between him and my mother, behind closed doors.

My parents managed to put me through college. Somehow that wad of twenties survived the tuition bills, but it no longer worked any magic on me.

Name Withheld

A romance with a popular boy a grade ahead of me propelled me to a higher status in high school. When he broke up with me for no particular reason six months later, I became caught in a mental trap of confusion and longing. I had dreams about him seeing me in humiliating scenarios—coarse black hair protruding from my upper lip and chin, snot rolling out of my nose. I was too insecure to actually talk to him, but he lived in my imagination for years. Even after I moved away, I longed for his acknowledgment and was unable to stop trying to please him in my head. I believed he’d seen all my faults, and if I could just gain his approval, I would be whole, lovable. Only after years of daily journaling, weekly counseling, and grieving my childhood have my fantasies begun to abate.

The object of my obsession never left our small town. He kept running with the same crowd, doing the same high-school antics, until he became an alcoholic. I see now he was stuck in a trap all his own.

Carmel Valley, California

“Maybe I’ll just move down south,” my dad said. “Get a camper, take the dog.”

I raised my eyebrows. “How would that work? Who would take care of you?”

“I’m a grown man, Victoria. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

My father was sixty-two but in poor health. He’d already had multiple congestive heart failures, one heart attack—and four stents were holding open his weakened arteries. He had edema in his feet and legs. A smoker for more than fifty years, he had COPD and was maybe a couple of months shy of going on oxygen. He could barely put on his own shoes.

Since my mother had divorced him a year earlier, he’d been living in our guest room. We’d agreed this arrangement was only temporary, but the thought of my ill dad taking the dog and driving to Florida unsettled me. “Dad,” I said, “you’re disabled.”

He shook his head, offended. “I’ll just have to bring my gun,” he said, a dark kind of spark in his blue eyes. “And once we get to where we’re going, and I realize I can’t wipe my own ass . . .” He aimed his hand like a gun at his dog’s head. “I’ll kill her first,” he said. Then he turned the finger to his own head. “Pow,” he added for dramatic effect.

“That’s a horrible thing to say, Dad” was all I could manage.

Later that day I told my therapist about the conversation. I figured she would confirm I was right to be anxious.

Instead she said I needed to let my father dream. “It’s just a fantasy,” she told me. “Don’t you make stuff up all the time as you write? You invent scenes and characters and vent your pain through those creations.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What your father’s doing is no different,” she said. “It’s his way of coping. Just no paper or pen.”

Victoria Sottosanti
Hanover, New Hampshire

I’d only been in relationships with men, but there was something undeniably sexy about the curves of the feminine form. Though curious, I didn’t take any steps to explore the feeling further. Being with a woman was something I filed away under, “Only if an opportunity naturally arises.”

That opportunity came two years ago, when I moved to Luxembourg to be with my husband. A month after our town-hall wedding, we became fast friends with an infectiously energetic—and bisexual—Brazilian woman. My husband and I soon began discussing the possibility of a threesome.

One night, heart pounding, I made a move. Feeling like an awkward teenager, I tried to navigate her gorgeous body. That opened up a monthslong affair among the three of us. I never would have expected that my first year of marriage would also be my first year exploring polyamory.

It was a time filled with erotic energy, but also plagued by confusion, jealousy, and endless questions about my identity—and our relationship. I’m grateful for the moments we shared, for her openness and patience, and for the chance to stretch the boundaries of traditional marriage, which always sounded limiting to me. But I’m still grappling with the real-life complications of making my fantasy a reality.

Luxembourg City

When my doctor prescribed an antianxiety medicine to help me sleep, he warned I might have vivid dreams. At first they were humorous. I’d tell my husband the details of the previous night’s dream, and we’d laugh.

Then the dreams grew increasingly disconcerting, feeling less like nightmares and more like reality. They seemed to spill over into daylight. At work, for instance, I couldn’t find a spreadsheet I’d created the prior week. I looked everywhere and even asked my boss if she had the copy I’d emailed her. She was kind but concerned. There was no email, no spreadsheet. Worse than losing all that work, I’d outed myself as crazy. I had to ask myself: Was this real or fantasy?

Eight weeks in, I tossed the pills, hoping the dreams would recede and my brain fog would clear. I’d settle for tired over nuts.

Early the following morning I was feeding our two geriatric horses when out of the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the floor of the barn to the trash can. It was the barest glimpse, but my impression was of a rat—an overly large one, but too small for an opossum. And, if you can believe it, I saw it in an X-ray view, like someone had inserted a black-and-white cartoon into the real world.

I moved the trash can with a rake but found nothing hiding there. I reasoned it had been a glitch in my brain’s wiring, the lingering effects of the drug. It had been a rat, surely, but my mind had made up the other details. As a child I’d read a story about a mother who dabbed salve on her children’s eyes, which allowed them to see the unseen, mischievous creatures around them. Could that be what was happening to me?

In the barn a few mornings later something appeared just a foot in front of me, the sound of its feet scuffling over the floor as it streaked outside. Stunned, I took a few seconds to recover before running after it. Whatever it was dashed across the yard and into the brush. A cat, I was almost positive, but I didn’t get a good look and had little faith in my perception.

I told my husband about it later. He said he’d seen a cat out there before. I relaxed, convinced what I’d seen was real.

It had turned and looked back at me, eye to eye, before disappearing. This I remembered.

Lisa Herron
Long Beach, Mississippi

My sister and I are two years apart. I’m younger, but strangers commonly assume it’s the other way around. For a long time I thought it was because she’s what people call “free-spirited.”

That can mean different things depending on how you say it. When we were both in university, I’d say it in the way you’d call a too-small apartment “cozy,” or describe someone who’s terrified of intimacy as “fiercely independent.” What I really meant was that I thought she was impulsive and irresponsible. Cheap flight? Her bags were packed. Five-year plan? She’d figure it out as she went. Met someone in a foreign country? She might not be coming home.

Of course, I had fantasized about doing those kinds of things. Who doesn’t? But that’s not real life. My dad had taught me better than to do just anything I wanted, and I wasn’t about to disappoint him. So I buried my dreams and judged my sister and sought success through stability. Only once I’d reached peak stability, I thought, would I think about indulging in what I really wanted. Imagine my surprise when I woke up one day and realized this strategy wasn’t leading me to success at all. It was making me miserable.

While I was paralyzed by my fear of making a mistake, my sister was giving herself the freedom to fail and learning what it means to be alive. I wouldn’t call that free-spirited. I’d call it brave.

Vancouver, British Columbia

To celebrate our fortieth birthdays, three childhood friends join me on a kayaking trip around Catalina Island in Southern California. During a morning paddle surrounded by still blue water, one confesses he plays fantasy basketball in his spare time. “I have this weird skill,” he says: “evaluating NBA talent.” It sounds a little nerdy, but we agree to join his “league” the following year.

We have a blast on draft night, playfully ribbing each other’s selections, and spend the season analyzing scores and crafting trades. Most important, we play for fun. Bets are paid off in person with a round of lattes or beers.

Over the years we send each other birthday wishes and provide support if a member is going through a rough patch. I’m delighted to have rediscovered a group of friends I’d mostly lost touch with after high school: the playful banter, the surprise confessions, the relationship tales. I come home exhausted in the finest way, facial muscles enervated from a night of hearty laughter, and I fall immediately into a deep, satisfying sleep.

Then our league “commissioner,” Justin, dies suddenly. At his celebration-of-life service, we decide to adjust our lineups so that he ends as league champion.

As the next season approaches, we all elect to keep the league going and name it after Justin. I agree to take over as commissioner and reach out to more old friends to ask them to join. Some hesitate because there’s no monetary prize, or fear they won’t be competitive because they don’t follow professional basketball, or find Justin’s unique scoring system weird, but I convince them none of that matters. What this league really offers is connection.

We’ve got four new members.

Paul Grafton
Cayucos, California

Growing up in rural Montana, I longed to escape the desolate country roads in favor of urban diversity, culture, street art, and gritty skylines. I dreamed of a nameless, enchanting city where I would be surrounded by rushing traffic and twinkling lights—somewhere I could pontificate on nineteenth-century world literature as I sipped my third cappuccino in a chic café. I would seduce a musician in a loft apartment with exposed brick and industrial lighting. He’d awaken at 3 AM to find me on the fire escape reading poetry by a streetlamp, aloof to his presence.

Instead I’ve spent most of my life in Montana. I can identify a pine-tree species by its bark, the length of its needles, and the arrangement of its branches. I’ve crossed mountainsides painted in brilliant shades of glacier lily and lupine. Dirty, exhausted, and eighty miles from the nearest highway, I’ve made a feast of Gatorade, crackers, and salsa. I’ve forded rivers with crosscut saws and mule trains in tow. And I love a man I would never abandon in the dark of night for a book of poetry. It’s not the life I fantasized about as a teenager, but it’s filled with beauty beyond any I dared to imagine.

Kalispell, Montana