All couples love to tell the “how we met” story, but especially New York couples. So much of life here is carried on in public that opportunities for serendipitous meetings abound. No doubt, my ex-boyfriend and I could have trumped any unique story, but a mutual friend, we used to say, and leave it at that. While it stung a little to not take credit for such a good one, are were parts of it that I’m not proud to take credit for, and those stung more.
I first saw Barrett outside a vegetarian restaurant near Washington Square Park. Though we’d never exchanged photographs, I recognized him immediately against the brick wall beside the entrance. Lean and long-lashed, he tugged his earphones out and smiled at me.
“Hi.” We kept smiling at each other and awkwardly shook hands. How do you greet a blind date? I’d never been on one.
We took turns sharing hunks of information about ourselves until the food arrived. He grew up in Westchester, had gone to film school, and recently returned from a three-month stint in Mexico, following the Zapatistas around with a video camera.
I talked about the MFA program I was enrolled in, my dog, and cracked my usual jokes about being the daughter of a shrink. We avoided the most obvious topic, though it grew in conspicuousness over the course of our meal, like the small collection of onions on the rim of my plate. When the food came we ate quickly, sharing bites, half-covering our mouths as we chewed.
Chemistry is funny. When it’s not there, I can’t always tell, and often wonder if I’m just overlooking it. But its presence renders that thought laughable.
After paying the check, we stood under the awning over the restaurant’s entrance. Dinner had only taken an hour, and I scrambled to think of the best way to prolong our date. Then the sky opened up. Torrents of rain pounded the awning above us, and pedestrians ran, shrieking, clutching soaked magazines over their heads.
“So,” he said, his body so near I could smell his shampoo.
“How long were you a dominatrix?”
No one plans on becoming a dominatrix; at least I hadn’t. I was a liberal arts student with no income, an aversion to poverty and taking orders, and I’d always enjoyed a good high. I also loved to feel desired. Perhaps I wasn’t the most unlikely candidate for work in a commercial “dungeon.” All it took was answering an ad in the Village Voice.
Very quickly, I was hired at a posh midtown dungeon. When my first client requested verbal humiliation, I figured it would be easy; my verbal skills were top notch. I quickly realized that an hour alone in a room with a naked man whom you don’t plan on having sex with would be a long one. I trembled atop my platform stilettos and wheezed for breath beneath my borrowed corset, cold tears of sweat streaming from my armpits. As I willed my lips—gummy with dark lipstick—to part around the right words, it occurred to me that I’d never been very good at being mean. I felt my kneeling client’s breath on my fishnetted knees, and fought the urge to flee. And then, I remembered that he had already paid for my expertise. I had nothing to prove! In that moment, my fear lifted like a flock of startled birds, and I became Justine: my stage name, and dominatrix persona. The words came to me then, lots of them, ones I won’t repeat here.
For two years I wore a corset and strutted in stilettos through those opulent rooms as though I’d hit the jackpot. It’s an acting gig, I bragged to my friends. One of the most lucrative ones around. I was good at it: the verbal humiliation, the acting, and pretty handy with a rope, and a whip.
But by my third year, the sheen had dulled.
“You’ve been very naughty, haven’t you?” I asked a regular whose sessions I’d always looked forward to. After so many replays of the same scene, I struggled to muster the enthusiasm necessary to be convince him I really cared whether he’d been naughty or not. He was always naughty. After I’d trussed him in a complicated series of knots and blindfolded him, I sighed, and kicked off my stilettos. Along with Japanese bondage, I’d mastered the art of administering hot wax with one hand, while text-messaging with the other.
I’d also realized that you can only work in the sex industry for so long before you start feeling as if it’s the only thing you’re qualified for. So I applied to graduate school, hoping for a ticket out. And by the end of my first year at Sarah Lawrence College, I had stopped seeing all my clients, except for Jacob.
My specialty in verbal humiliation made me a natural choice for Jacob, but our shared interests didn’t end there. He had a penchant for petite, curvy women, and the same alt-country and indie-rock bands that filled my iPod. For a year, we traded mix CD’s and he paid me to reenact his childhood bullying.
A few days after my 24th birthday, he picked me up outside my Williamsburg apartment.
“Where are we going?” I asked, sliding into the passenger seat of his old Saab. I assumed we’d head to his apartment in Queens, have a session, then dinner at the nearby diner.
“It’s a surprise,” he said, smiling. I guessed possible destinations all the way into Manhattan, where he parked outside of Best Buy.
“What are we doing here?” I demanded. “This is not a hot air balloon ride!” I followed him, laughing, all the way to customer service, where an employee hoisted a box onto the counter. It was the Bissell 37601 Lift-Off Revolution Turbo Upright Bagless Vacuum: my dream vacuum cleaner, in candy-apple red.
“Happy birthday,” said Jacob, grinning. I threw my arms around his neck.
As soon as he parked the car in Queens, I lodged the heel of my shoe between his legs, and he gave me a sweet smile, tinged with a mixture of desire and regret. The rest of our evening continued as usual: a session at his apartment, then dolmas at the Greek diner.
I enjoyed my sessions with Jacob, but what I looked forward to all week were our dinners at the diner afterwards Though I had a boyfriend during most of our friendship, it was Jacob with whom I shared three-hour phone-calls, Jacob I called when I felt lonely. My loneliness had been incurable for some time at that point. Love hadn’t fixed it, but somehow Jacob did. He made me laugh, and feel known. Occasionally I’d catch a tenderness in his gaze that made me look away, fuss with his car radio, or make a joke, but otherwise I felt more at ease with him than anywhere else in the world.
When I finally stepped out of my rubber catsuit for good, and decided I was ready for a real relationship, I begged Jacob to set me up with one of his friends, ignoring the continuing sadism of this. Couldn’t a man and his former dominatrix be platonic friends, I thought?
When Jacob landed a serious girlfriend, our friendship waned. When he told his girlfriend our how-we-met story, it shrank to a phone call every once in a while. And when his girlfriend became his fiancé, I was officially forbidden. Who could blame her?
It was a fluke that I happened to call him out of the blue on a day when he was fighting with his betrothed. He later claimed to have answered the phone out of spite.
“Hey!” he said.
“Hi!” I smiled for the pause that followed, our mutual knowledge of each other pooling like water into its shallow basin.
Turns out he was with an old friend, one with whom I’d always tried to get him to set me up.
“Put him on the phone,” I demanded, and perhaps out of habit, he obeyed.
A week later I sat across a table from Barrett, a plate of steaming soy chicken and my checkered past between us.
Not one of us expected anything to come of it, but we were all happily wrong. That is, except for Jacob.
Three months later, Barrett and I had moved into a one-bedroom in Prospect Heights, the nesting capital of Brooklyn, where young couples flock to buy their first apartment and have their first baby. I had never lived with anyone before, had never been the type of girl who fantasized about lifelong monogamy, but it’s true what I’d heard people say about the right person at the right time; three weeks into our relationship I was happily domesticated.
We had found each other, but each lost a friend. Jacob couldn’t stomach the reality of having his secret life walk into his real life, on his best friend’s arm. Barrett and I chalked it up to necessary losses, and figured everyone, not least Jacob’s fiancé, would be happier if we just slipped quietly out of the picture.
Over the next couple years, thinking of Jacob never failed to prod a tender spot in my conscience, but I was happy in love, and didn’t think of him very often. That is, until I wrote a book about my experiences as a dominatrix, and then sold it to a major publisher.
Writing a memoir necessitates creating a kind of vacuum, at least until the book is written. I could not consider what the characters in my story would think about my depiction of them, or what anyone would think about the extremity of my experiences, not until I finished. But when I became certain that this book would see the light of day, my elation mixed with terror. I feared reactions: my family’s, my boyfriend’s family, and that of everyone in the book—especially Jacob. I couldn’t seem to stop airing his dirty laundry. I agonized over whether to tell him, or just pray that he never stumbled upon it in a bookstore. I had changed his name; was that enough? Ultimately Facebook decided for me, by suggesting he “become a fan” of the book.
“Please tell me I didn’t rate important enough to make it into the memoir,” read his email to me, the first in more than two years.
I called him.
And then Jacob reminded me of why I had been his friend in the first place. He was freaked out, sure, but also extraordinarily generous.
“I’d never ask you to change it,” he said. “It’s not for me to say.”
I was flabbergasted.
“I’m proud of you,” he added. “This is your dream, and it’s happening. Congratulations!”
That night, I combed through the final, copy-edited version of my manuscript, and cut out every detail about Jacob that didn’t absolutely need to be there. He deserved at least that. I wished I knew how to make a better amends.
In all my time as a dominatrix, I’d never felt as though I’d won while my clients lost; there was always a perfect reciprocity to those relationships. Even if I privately mocked them, we each always got what we wanted. But Jacob was different. He gave more, and accepted less. His final generosity threw that into stark relief. Sure, we were both happy. Sure, the pieces of life fall where they may, and it isn’t always fair, or someone else’s fault, but I couldn’t deny that he’d gotten the short end of the stick. I’d always had more power to wield. My publishing a record of our history was an act that he had no control over, but the grace with which he met it was the most powerful gesture made between us.
I can’t say that our friendship picked up where it left off. Or that he and Barrett’s friendship has been repaired. Or that Barrett and I lasted, in the end. None of us really speak, these days. But I harbor a hope that we might be someday. I sometimes picture us all laughing around a table, a little battered, but relieved to have weathered the storm of our pasts, with bigger hearts all around.