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*Noah wasn’t the kind of man who made a habit of dating women nearly 20 years his junior. The tall, collected 43 year-old Ohio native preferred women with life experiences to which he could relate.

But the petite, prepossessing Marie was easy to want. Smart, compassionate and witty, she was mature beyond her 27 years.

They met on the job in Raleigh, North Carolina, at one of those big box chain stores. He was a pharmacist, she a store clerk and cashier.

Love didn’t come easy. Being the victim of a brutal date rape years earlier in college while a journalism major left Marie with anxiety and trust issues regarding men, leading to ongoing therapy.

Noah proved to her his patience and ability to take things slow. In more than a year of dating, there’d only been passionate kissing and exploratory petting, nothing else.

Initially, Marie’s parents, simple, salt-of-the-earth people, both of whom worked for the state of North Carolina, were far from enthused about her dating this much older man. In their late 50s and early 60s, Lucy and Andy adopted Marie when she was just six months old. She was their pride and joy.

However, after witnessing Noah’s care for their daughter, they came to accept her beau and respect her love for him.

i just want you to share in my secrets

And the only thing Marie had more interest in than Noah was her months-long search for the woman and man who actually birthed her. Openly supportive, privately Noah was concerned. Would finding her biological parents diminish their connection? Would Marie no longer need him?

“Welcome to our world,” Marie’s mom Lucy told Noah when he admitted his insecurities. “Andy said to me, ‘Shouldn’t we be enough?’ We know she loves us, but we think about losing her—-and worry that her search will lead to somebody who doesn’t want to hear from her, or worse. But we gave our blessing and information on the organization that helped us adopt her. If you truly love her, Noah, you will give her yours, too.”

Noah did that. Though her decision to do so gave him an upset stomach, he even gave the nervous, giddy Marie and quietly ambivalent Lucy a ride to the airport to catch an evening flight and meet the mystery bio mom after Marie’s sleuthing found her in Abilene, Texas.

“She’s so nice!” Marie beamed to Noah of her phone conversations with the woman a couple of weeks earlier. “It’s like I’m closing one life chapter and opening another.”

Once in Abilene, the plan was that Marie and the woman would visit, while Lucy stayed behind at the Quality Inn, on call for support.

The meeting was set for the following morning at 11 AM; when Noah hadn’t heard anything by 3 PM, during a break at the pharmacy he called Marie’s cell. Straight to voice mail. He phoned Lucy. No answer. Did the same thing an hour later. Nothing.

Discreetly desperate, he phoned Marie’s roommate Jackie. She hadn’t heard anything either. It must be going really REALLY well, he thought, which got his insecurity going again.

Finally, about five that evening, Lucy called.

“Well? How’d it go?” Noah asked, feigning cheer.

“Not good,” said Lucy, her usually sprite attitude curt, her tone uncommonly distant.

“Really? Why? I’ve been calling Marie; seems like her phone is off”—

“Marie doesn’t want to talk…she can’t…and I can’t talk now because she’s in the room. I’m trying to get us out of here tonight. We’ll talk when I get home.”

a true relationship

My God, thought Noah. What was going on? The part of him that didn’t want things to work out had suddenly given over to curiosity and concern.

The following morning Lucy called Noah early, sounding a little better but not by much. She requested he come over. After calling in to the job sick, he ran two traffic lights getting to the house.

Lucy, in her favorite floral house robe and Snoopy house shoes, clearly hadn’t slept. Noah followed her into the kitchen, where he sat on a stool at the island. She put a cup of steaming black coffee in front of him.

“Where is Marie?” Noah didn’t bother concealing his irritation.

“With Andy at her therapist’s. She suffered what I’d call a nervous breakdown. She’ll be staying here at the house indefinitely.”

“What? Why? How?”

Lucy ignored Noah’s interrogation: “I’m going to summarize everything Marie told me,” she said, uncharacteristically terse. “Then you have to leave before she and Andy get back.” Bewildered, Noah agreed.

According to Lucy, Marie said the woman and her husband, both in their 40s, were warm and inviting. “Huggers.” The woman was a registered nurse, tiny, with a short, graying hairdo too chic for Abilene. He, a big, quiet, ever smiling gentle giant, worked in construction. Nice place. Cozy. They seemed well off.

Lunch was baked salmon—-during one of their phone conversations, Marie had told her she liked salmon–a salad and scalloped potatoes.

“Here’s the gist of it,” said Lucy: In 1990 at the age of 16, in Cincinnati, where she was born, the woman attended her first house party. Booze, smoke, dim lights and a lot of grinding masquerading as slow dancing–she’d never seen anything like it.

Halfway through her third Styrofoam cup of spiked, dizzying punch, a lanky, polite boy took her hand and led her into the home’s basement where kids were making out.

She was a willing participant, but being a virgin, didn’t have a clue. Neither did he, and “it” was all over before it started. A week later, as planned, her family moved to Houston, where her father took a position at an energy company. Weeks later, what she thought was the flu was her body engineering a human being.

The woman wept as she spoke of putting Marie up for adoption shortly after birth. Her parents insisted it best. Meeting Marie convinced her they were right. “Otherwise,” said the woman, “you’d have missed out on the loving parents who adopted you in Houston.”

For two hours or more Marie and the woman talked, laughed, cried, and embraced. They poured over the woman’s photo albums. Marie even had a phone conversation with the woman’s sister, effectively Marie’s new aunt. Over and again the woman apologized for not knowing the identity of the man who impregnated her.

“And then”—Lucy paused in telling the story, dabbing her wet eyes with a napkin—“and then Marie said that as she got ready to leave, the woman said the one thing she remembered was, at that party, a couple of guys teased the boy she had had sex with by referring to him as ‘Boatman.’”

Noah, both perplexed and frightened, leaned in.

“The girl asked one of the boys why they called him that. He said it was because the boy’s name was the same as the character in the Bible who built the giant boat, or Ark: Noah.”

secrets and lies

For the first time while recanting what Marie had told her, Lucy looked directly into Noah’s brown eyes. “Is that you?”

Noah sat paralyzed.

While he didn’t remember being teased with the ‘Boatman’ moniker, he could never forget losing his virginity. He, too, was 16.

Yes, he did grow up in Cincinnati—-he moved to Raleigh after college—and yes he did end up at a house party of strangers that he simply walked into on his way home from a friend’s.

And now, decades later, the result of that teenage encounter was a surreal, adult nightmare.

According to Lucy, Marie, upon hearing the woman’s story and the name Noah, maintained her composure. They hugged, she said goodbye, got in her white rented Toyota and drove off, headed for the hotel. When it was clear she was too emotionally distraught to drive, she pulled over and called Lucy, who took a taxi to where Marie was and drove her back to the Inn.

Noah didn’t really hear any of that. He was working to get a grip, albeit a slimy, slippery one, on the tortured fact that through no fault of their own, he and his daughter had been dating one another. Tongue kissing. Fondling. Coming as close to full-fledged sex as two people in love possibly could and not have it.

“When we got home I took her straight from the airport to her therapist’s office,” said Lucy. “As you might imagine, she’s having a tough time emotionally. I notified her job that she wouldn’t be returning. You need to go now. Until we figure this out, all of us, I think it’s best that you not call Marie or try to see her. My heart bleeds for the two of you.”

In the days, weeks and months to come, Noah abided by that request, though not entirely by his own accord: A week after the tragic discovery, he dialed a cell number that no longer worked. A subsequent DNA test only confirmed this horror show was real.

Marie is surviving with hardcore therapy that continues today. Noah responded to his ghastly circumstance by briefly acting out with a year of empty, indiscriminate sex before he himself submitted to counseling.

Noah wouldn’t hear a single syllable from Marie until a year and a half later. It came in the form of a Christmas card that spoke valiantly of letting go of guilt, forgiveness of self and rethinking the sheer concept of things like air and water. Most important, in the card was a word Noah never heard applied to himself: Dad. It was a start.

The Twisted was created by Steven Ivory, a veteran journalist, essayist and author who writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]