Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.0]

Chapter V


I’d never taken an educational psychology class before, but as part of my assistantship, I was required to teach two sections of it to hopeful future teachers. I was only twenty-four years old and pretty terrified teaching alone for the first time in front of thirty-five students. Thankfully, I was taking a graduate level ed. psych. class as part of my own coursework, and my advisor taught an undergraduate section of it, so I sat in on his class and took notes feverishly. From both classes, I managed to absorb a lot of content, stay one chapter ahead of my students, and prepare a workable set of materials, typically the night before.

The challenging part was coming up with examples relevant for future classroom teachers, since I’d never been one. I studied my other professors, borrowed their examples, checked out videos on teaching from the library, and interviewed several public school teachers. I made a conscious effort to be as authentic as possible with my students, because I felt any pretense or weaknesses might be detected and exposed.

My own graduate classes were demanding and stimulating. Diving so deeply into one topic was very different from getting an overview of a lot of different ones. The analysis was so much deeper. I was someone who’d never been able to remember enough numbers and transactions at one time to do long division in my head and I could only ever follow about four “if-thens” before getting confused. So, I often bumped up against my intellectual limits in my theoretical classes. My brain never stopped churning and swirling with new ideas. The field provided ways to apply the psychological and learning theories I’d studied over the years, which was exciting. We were challenged to come up with new solutions to real problems, which made us feel like we could make a real difference in the world.

I was enlightened personally along the way too. Learning about topics like meta-cognition (thinking about your own thinking), meta-emotion (thinking about your own emotions), and meta-motivation (thinking about your own motivation) encouraged me to examine and appreciate my own emotional and mental capabilities and behaviors with more mindfulness. Every class was laden with insights that heightened my self-awareness, an awareness that would allow me to have more control of my emotions, actions, and ultimately, my happiness. I felt I was discovering new ways to evolve. It was heaven.


Just when I thought life couldn’t get any better, I met Stephanie, a fourth-year grad student in another department. She exuded coolness and sophistication, perhaps because she was ten years older than me or perhaps because she reminded me of the brunette Barbie I’d loved so much as a child. Her wardrobe was made up of a variety of pencil skirts, tight button-down shirts in solid colors, dark flats, and silk scarves. She had porcelain skin, dark, intense eyes, and black straight hair chopped into a shoulder length bob. Her heart-shaped lips were a pretty pink even without lipstick. Steph always smelled like sandalwood incense and peppermint soap.

When she listened to you, her face became animated, giving you constant feedback, as if everything you said stirred a different emotion in her that she couldn’t hide. Steph was even more animated when she spoke; she got her whole body into it. Her straight, white teeth touched perfectly together when she enunciated her words, which came out of her mouth in rapid, lengthy poetic strings. Conversations with Steph were entertaining and effortless.

Steph rented a small but funky apartment on the first floor of a large Victorian. Many of her walls were covered with her own black-and-white photography. There was a beautiful stained glass window pane suspended from the ceiling in front of the picture window, and there were tiny one-of-a-kind objects, like old tin robots or mosaic turtles, arranged in little collections around the room. None of the chairs around her oak kitchen table matched. They were of the same general size and made of wood, but the slightly different shapes and rare designs painted on their backs made each of them unique. Her entire dining set consisted of one-of-a-kind pieces made of different materials. No two forks, cups, or plates were alike, but somehow they were all connected by some similar quality of weight and beauty.

I was fascinated by the time it must have taken her to collect these pieces over the years and the internal technique she might have used to assemble all those different pieces with a common feel. She must have picked them up at different consignment shops at various times, instinctively comparing the prototype stored in her mind to each new “find,” recognizing each new member with some artsy quality stored in her DNA.

We spent hours talking and drinking dry red wine and organic coffee from her coffee press. Steph rolled clove cigarettes for us, which were smooth and creamy. Sometimes out of the blue she’d moan, “Ugh, I need a fix,” which I came to know meant she craved a really cold beer and a dip of tobacco and had lost her willpower to resist them. “I know. It’s a filthy, disgusting habit I picked up in Europe. But, god, my brain just loves the buzzzz.” Then she’d dash to her room and grab the snuff hidden in her nightstand.

Steph had a high-quality vintage record player and excellent speakers, on which she’d play ethereal gothic or indie stuff. She also had an old working gramophone that she’d play old tango records on…to give her dinner parties a unique atmosphere. She took me to all of her favorite ethnic restaurants. We devoured the local arts and music scene together. Her ideas were refreshingly liberal, and her realness—that ability of hers to self-disclose her darkest thoughts and urges as if they were a perfectly natural part of being a woman—helped me feel normal and gave me permission to follow my own desires less self-consciously.

Stephanie was engaged to her high school sweetheart, Todd, who’d moved to Tampa for a job after receiving his bachelor’s degree. They saw each other every other weekend. She didn’t talk about him much. Her initial description of him when I asked was that he was very mild-mannered, straightforward, and predictable. She knew everything there was to know about him.

“What you see is what you get with Todd,” she said. “He keeps me grounded. He’s a rock.”

I loved hearing about Stephanie’s old life, the one where she lived in New York City and worked as an anthropologist at a museum. She’d lived in a tiny, rent-frozen apartment in Manhattan, near her Bohemian friends. Steph spoke fondly and without regret of her “teensy-weensy” cocaine habit, which she admitted probably bordered on slight addiction. She dreamily described the old antique vanity upon which she’d snorted her coke. Embedded in the wood around its mirror were diamonds, jewels, and bits of colored glass. When she thought back to her reflection in it, she could still feel a surge of beauty and power. Steph playfully simulated cutting the powder and holding her hair in a ponytail behind her head. When she pretend-inhaled, I could almost feel the rush.

Several months into our friendship, on a weekend when Todd was staying with her, I heard a tap on my bedroom window around 2 a.m. It was Steph, a little intoxicated. I let her in and asked if she and Todd were okay. She shook her head no and softly asked, “Can I go lie down?” I helped her get her shoes off and threw the covers down on the other side of the bed for her. I got back in bed on my side, and she cuddled up behind me and played with my hair for a while. She stopped and I thought she’d fallen asleep. I lay there listening to our breaths, and contemplated my feelings for her. I craved being close to her. I truly adored her as a woman—and wouldn’t have minded being Steph, even.

A few minutes later, I felt Steph’s hand very slowly and softly move up my outer thigh. It crept gently up under the hem of my underwear, massaged my hip for a minute, then crept even more slowly and gently around and down my abdomen. She pulled herself closer to me so that her firm breasts were pushing gently into my back and so her hand could reach between my legs. We were both holding our breath, transfixed.

Being desired by Steph felt nice. As she slipped a soft, curled finger slowly inside me, we both exhaled. She kissed my neck and then used her body to turn me onto my back. Her finger stayed put, moving imperceptibly. She then climbed fully on top of me, lifted up my shirt, and grabbed both of my breasts. Lowering herself down onto me, she found my lips and kissed me softly. Part of me searched hard in the dark for my lust. I hoped I’d discover that Steph had unlocked something new inside me, something that might explain why my male relationships all ended so painfully, but the overwhelming thing I felt was…safety. And gratitude. And relief. Not lust.

Pondering Steph’s intentions, I guessed that maybe she had come over for comfort. So I returned her kisses and tried harder to read her body. I wondered what I could do for her. What did she need? I rolled her over and kissed her gently, trying to take charge a little and gauge how she responded. Her breathing intensified and she moaned softly. I explored her, giving her body what it told me it wanted. I was downright scared of feeling a vagina, but when I touched Steph’s, her hips begged for more. Steph didn’t seem that wet either, really, and I wondered what on earth she might be thinking. After several intense minutes, I laid down beside her and we kissed some more, until both our bodies got still and drifted off to sleep.

By the time I awoke the next morning, Steph had gone back to Todd, who I found out later had proposed to Steph at dinner before she’d visited me that night. Neither of us mentioned what had happened after that. She’d accepted Todd’s proposal, and although Steph shared many reservations about marrying Todd, she continued to make wedding plans…until one day she had a major meltdown.

One night around dinner time, she called me from her bedroom closet, sobbing. She’d been having dreams that she couldn’t get pregnant, which she blamed on her fear of turning thirty-five soon. Something kept telling her she was running out of time if she wanted a baby, and she believed she wouldn’t have time to find another partner if she left Todd now. I was surprised to hear how strongly she wanted a baby. I think I’d concluded from her past, her strength, and her free-spirited attitude that she simply wouldn’t want or need one. Most of the women I’d known who got pregnant seemed so “trapped” by it and I could never see Steph letting herself be trapped. But, the fact that she was willing to tether herself to someone she didn’t completely love so she could have children affected me inside somehow.

That spring, I watched Steph marry Todd. When she got pregnant a few months later, I threw a baby shower for her. While the intensity of our friendship waned, I had a few vivid dreams that Stephanie had become my mother and I would run into her arms for comfort.

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