Recent Work By Melissa Febos

 

“We need to talk,” said my mom. I was 14, and this could have meant any number of ominous things. We’d had many “talks” over the years, most of them related to my adolescent misbehavior, which arrived at 12 in particularly worrying form.

We sat together at our breakfast counter, she with a mug of Bengal spice tea, me with a glass of OJ. My mother was, and is, a very pretty woman, with bright blue eyes, skyscraper cheekbones, and an easy laugh. She sipped her tea and took a breath.

“Karen and I aren’t just friends, honey.” Her features tightened, but her eyes met mine, clear and steady. “We’re more than friends.”

My friend Susie called me the other day.

“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.

“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”

The other day I got on the L-train at Third Avenue, hair still wet from the gym, molars cemented together by the last bite of my post-workout protein bar. Grabbing the nearest pole, I quickly scanned the occupied seats, knowing that if I parked myself in front of the nearest pair of Converse, I’d probably get a seat at Bedford or Lorimer. Listening to a recent NPR podcast and rifling in my bag for some gum, I quickly spotted her. The ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend of mine.

This morning, at 7AM, after I’ve walked the dog, checked and rechecked that I have my lecture notes and student critiques for my 10 a.m. class, I sit at my desk with my second mug of coffee and open my laptop for my final morning ritual: Facebook.After I accept a few friend requests from persons once removed, and post a link to a news story about a woman who drowned in a giant vat of chocolate, I get to my final reason for being there: checking on Jessica Morrow’s profile.

Tay Tay was my first friend in Bed Stuy.She stole my money, nearly got me kicked out of my apartment, and ultimately exposed the depth of my self-delusion, but she stuck around. Tay Tay, she was like glue.

Let me explain.

Dear Writer

By Melissa Febos

Letters

Dear Writer,

We are sorry, but your work does not suit our editorial needs at this time. We sincerely enjoyed reading your proposal—yours is a compelling story, and just exquisitely written!—but the subject matter simply does not accord with our identity. We do not have the resources to figure out how to market a dominatrix memoir that falls above a 5th grade reading level. Perhaps ironically, we also suspect that this story has already been written.

Writer, we thank you for sending us this essay. You are a master of the finely wrought description, but have you ever heard of a plot? Perhaps we referred to it in our last letter as a “thru-line”? In any event, your story conspicuously lacks one. As a consolation gift, we will send you our next four issues, so that you can admire the prowess of our accepted writers’ thru-lines. Happy reading!

Writer, we regret to inform you that your writing suffers from a disconcerting superfluity of intimacy. In the parlance of our times, TMI, writer! Too Much Information. Our readers do not want read about your bodily excretions. They do not want the unsavory details of your most private humiliations. Readers want to feel like they are reading secrets, but they do not actually want to read about your secrets, writer.

Writer, we have done our best to remain polite, but you aren’t you listening. Perhaps our letters are too small. Please consider how many trees we are saving by rejecting your work on a less than a Post-it! Writer, we are trying. Can’t you try harder to assume a more familiar shape? You are making our heads hurt with all this brainy, dirty material. Sex should be sexy. Sex should be serious and sexy, or serious and not sexy at all, that is, serious and sad, and possibly so tragic that you never want to have sex again. Sex can also be funny, but it should only be funny and easy, and it can never be funny and gross and sad and smart. You should know this. You are a writer. Stop trying so hard to be honest. Nobody wants sex to be honest. You are making them uncomfortable. You are making our inboxes more crowded. You do not smell like money. You are making us lose our hard-ons.

Writer, we thank you for your submission. And your self-addressed, stamped envelope. Please rest assured that it’s not you, it’s us.

Love,

The Editors

I wasn’t the sort of kid who told the other children where babies came from.  Those messengers were most often the kind of pale, sneering boys who loitered in the back of the second grade classroom with a crusty ring of snot dried around their nostrils.  These were the boys who licked their lips till they chapped, and lifted the lids of their desks when the teacher wasn’t looking just long enough for you to glimpse their father’s heisted Perfect 10 magazine.

As a child I was a baseball player, a tree-climber, the last blue-lipped kid to crawl out of the pond at dusk.  It was not that I did not also covet the frilly, mesmeric trappings of girlishness; I doggedly wore down my mother’s opposition to Barbie dolls and their cripplingly tiny feet, and she let me keep the ones gifted by less enlightened relations. I was not one of those tomboys who didn’t realize she was a girl until she got her first period, or noticed that her bathing suit was different from her brother’s.  There was simply never any mistaking myself for the kind of girl for whom ruffled socks and coddling was appropriate.  I was strong and brown and fell down a lot, not because I was frail; but because I moved through life with a force not always containable, a haphazard need to get to someplace just beyond where I was.  Nicknamed “Crash” by my parents, by the time I was ten I was falling down the stairs that led to my attic bedroom on a daily basis, and was perpetually pocked with bruises from banging into the edge of cabinets, doorways, railings, tables, and bookcases. I once suffered a lump on my forehead that lasted for days after walking into a light-switch.

My kindergarten class photo features me in the front row.  A gift from my grandmother (a woman with native expertise in the art of all things feminine), I am wearing a pink sweater-skirt with rows of yellow ducks and a matching top.  My hair is long and shiny with pink barrettes, and the smile on my face belies the pleasure I remember feeling at my girliness that day.  I would have gotten away with it, at least in retrospect, had I not been in the front row.  The image is perfect, until you travel below the hem of my skirt, where my sturdy legs are encrusted with fresh scabs, and anchored by a pair of dilapidated sneakers.  It was not often that I attempted this disguise, and the feeling was never lost that it was a futile task to obscure my unkempt underneath.

It wasn’t the implication of sex that made me nervous in dresses.  My parents sat me down the first time I asked, around the age of four or five, and told me exactly where babies came from.  They drew pictures and gave proper names.  There was no element of shock or shame in this information; it simply was, exciting in the way of moths in chrysalis, whose cottony sacks clung to the trees in our yard.  In my house we peed with the bathroom door open, and I knew what everyone in my family looked like naked.  Bodies were curious, mesmerizing, but the only one I ever remember embarrassing me was my own.

Jessie was my first best friend.  When I was five, my family moved to Cape Cod to be closer to the maritime base where my father, a sea captain, shipped out from.  We lived on a dirt road with a farm at the end, a stone’s throw from Otis Air Force Base, so that the apocalyptic rumble and whoosh of jets flying overhead was a common disruption.  Chatting in backyards, we would pause and stare into each other’s faces for whole minutes while engine thunder filled the air, waiting to pick up our words like a dropped laundry line.  Jessie’s family lived a few houses down. Blond and impish, she and her brother Ben were the same ages as my younger brother and me.  Our friendships flourished accordingly.  Her parents were a concrete foundation layer and a housewife, and I don’t believe I ever saw either of them without a sweating glass of orange juice in their hand.

“They’re called screwdrivers,” my parents informed me.  “It’s not just orange juice in their glasses, and that’s why you come home before dark.”

You are not there,” I pointed out.  “You don’t see.  I know what orange juice looks like.”

I thought that I knew what a lot of things were like.  Bed sheets were worn soft and flannel, toiletries came in bulk gallon bottles from the health food co-op and were under the sink, and nicknames were Crash, Boo, and sometimes Punkin.  I had the confidence we do during the period of childhood grace when everything we know is taken for granted as the way of everything in the world, before we have some basis for comparison, and what we have becomes forever not good enough.  I had never seen cable television, or tasted snack foods with refined sugar until I went to Jessie’s house. While I gulped in awe and desire, my parents exchanged looks that I now recognize as some combination of pity and dismay.  They also shared the wordless phew of two working-class kids from Jersey who grew into an educated, white-collar liberalism that allowed their own children to be spared the perils of meeting Daddy at the bar after school enough times to name “Lady in Red” as a favorite song, as Jessie did.

Jessie’s daddy called her Kitten (my request for the same courtesy was met with laughter), and her whole family used words like ca-ca, an all-inclusive term not only meaning shit, but any kind of nasty substance that might get stuck to you, smell bad, or induce a flinch with its given name.  My family’s comparative lack of flourish (poop meant only poop, never mind its grievous onomatopoeia) struck me as both embarrassing and dull.  On Christmas afternoon, when she stopped over for cookies, my brother and I touted how not only the cookies we had left with a note for Santa had been eaten, but also the carrots we’d left for the reindeer.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Santa ate all our cookies too, and he had a beer.”

Like so many loves, Jessie was the perfect combination of that which I recognized in myself, and that which I sought to possess.  There was an effortlessness to her prettiness: the thrust of her little hand as it reached for things, for me, discarded worries, gum wrappers, tears; the speed of her mouth as it spoke, and her seamless inflections; her cheap clothes, and milky skin.  Jessie knew how to lie, how to cry at will, and even in her sadness I saw none of the bald coarseness of my own grief.

It was I that poured hydrogen peroxide on the tooth-marked gash in her left buttock after Ben bit her in one of his tantrums, blowing as my mother did on the frothing wound while she whimpered, clutching a box of Band-Aids.  It was me that told her where babies come from.

One afternoon in her bedroom, we were playing Barbies. Watching her mash the two nude, sexless bodies of a Ken and Barbie doll together in a series of frustrated clicks, I wondered aloud what Jessie’s couple was doing.

“They’re making a baby,” she replied.  “They are kissing without their clothes, and then Barbie’s belly is going to get fat, and then the stork is going to come with the baby.”

“A stork?” She was clearly lost in some hideous deficit of information, so I offered my expertise on the subject, proudly enunciating the multi-syllabic vocabulary: fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, intercourse.  I felt satisfied by her widened eyes, powerful in my knowing.

Later that day, as we sat in the back seat of her family’s minivan, she crawled onto the armrest between the two front seats.

“Melissa said that storks don’t bring babies, Mom.  She said that babies come from intercourse.”

I sensed instantly in her mother’s silence my faux pas.  Staring at the back of her frizzy head, my face grew hot, insides curling like those little shreds of fabric and plastic that I burned in the Mason jar in my closet, conducting my secret “experiments.”  Though not yet tall enough to touch the floor of the van with my feet, I felt myself grow in conspicuousness, as if self-consciousness were bloating my body: a great vesicle of crass knowledge, lodged in the back seat of the van.

I knew that my error had not been one of fact.  What I had mistaken is the atmosphere in which it was told me for that larger context of the world.  It was an instant awakening to the fact that truth could be a crass thing to know.  I did not play so often at Jessie’s after that, but I did not forget Jessie.  I think of her every time I hear “Lady in Red.”  I also did not forget that in this greater world, for the privilege of sweeter tastes, for prettier names, toys, and smells, one has to pay in the integrity of things whose truth defies the coy obfuscation of prettiness.

In academe, publishing a book is certainly grounds for congratulations—it’s a boon to any teaching career, a big step toward the goal of all of us adjuncts: to land a full-time professorship, and the time it affords to create our own work. My writing and teaching careers have so far gone according to plan: graduate school, adjuncting, publishing a book, and now pursuing the full-time gig in earnest. Only my original plan didn’t include publishing a book about the most personal and shocking experiences of my life.

An hour can be a long time.  Hell, a minute can be a long time.  The minute before your first kiss with someone is a painstaking collection of seconds, each one more bloated with anticipation than the last. The first minute of a tattoo is a long one as well.  Pain has few rivals in its ability to slow time.  Fear, excitement, elation—these are kissing cousins, all with the sensorial power to render each second humming with every tick and gasp of our bodies, the whirr of insect wings and distant car engines. Sometimes, I could savor these moments, relish them as opportunities to walk straight into the fact of being alive. In the seconds that crept into the minutes of my very first domination session, I had no idea what I wanted.  The $75 certainly, but beyond that?  Character-building life experience? I would have confidently named these motives right up until the moment that the door of The Red Room closed behind me.  With the clasp of its latch, all bravado and ideology dimmed with the light of the hallway behind. It was only me, a naked old man, and sixty minutes of palpable expectation.  An hour alone with a naked man with whom you do not intend to have sex can be a very long time.

On my second shift ever, and after only Mistress Bella’s example, I teetered over my first client in a borrowed pair of seven-inch platform stilettos.  Anxiety, and a corset that cinched my waist six inches smaller than nature intended, confined my breath to the shallow region of my chest. My bosom literally heaved, straining against its lacy contraption and obstructing my view of the naked man who knelt at my feet.  Cold tears ran from my armpits. The darkness smelled of stale incense and the briny tang of bodies past and present. It was hot, and the red walls seemed to breathe slightly, as if I were inside a great belly.

Despite the fact that I was high on heroin, I felt only fear. It snuck up on me as I stepped into the room, and my confidence lifted like a flock of startled birds. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother.  What was I, my mother’s daughter, doing here? It suddenly didn’t make any sense.  But that’s what the drugs were for: to keep Mom out of moments like this. Narcotics create distance, and I only needed an inch to turn away from that question.

I knew I had to say something.  My mouth was gummy with 99-cent lipstick from the all-night drugstore down the block. Opening it, I prayed that the waxy paint would bear some talismanic power and bring the right words to my lips. Instead, I burped.

“Yes Mistress?  Are you all right?”  I felt his breath on my fish-netted knees, and fought the urge to back away.

“Yeah,” I croaked. My gut—displaced by the corset to somewhere near my bladder—clenched in panic. I itched to turn and slam the door behind me on this naked man and the politesse affected to camouflage his entitlement. Everything about him, from his hunched back to the quaver in his voice, was a demand phrased as a question. But I could not fail at this, much as I wanted to flee the shadowy room, my own image in the mirrored walls, and the inquisition-style cage that dangled from the ceiling.  My urge to escape was met with an equally familiar will to persist. It was this second urge that had both rescued me from failure, and damned me to finish every game in which my hand was called.  Language had always saved me: from ever being arrested, attacked, caught in a lie, or with my pants down. I would not allow words to fail me now.

“Yes, of course I’m all right. Pig!” I heard my voice echo in the room the way I had on answering machine recordings and home videos, and winced at the wavering childishness of it.  In our pre-session consultation, my client had listed verbal humiliation among his requests, and I had nodded knowingly.  Verbal, I’d heard, and assumed it would be easy.  Now I was at a loss.  Name-calling had always been a last resort, I told myself, something better left to children, drunk people, and those without the capacity for some more sophisticated form of shaming.  But it wasn’t true.  I had always known a lot of words, and how to use them, but never in the service of humiliation.  In truth, I didn’t know how to be mean.  In the past, I had been the one who felt humiliated by my failed attempts at cruelty.  I had never sounded more false.  I waited for him to scoff and retreat, to call me a phony.  My gift for faking it ended here, I thought, where I could not convince even myself. Relief?

Miraculously, no words of reproach were spat against my knees.  The old man did not rise from the floor in disgust.  When a solid minute had passed with nothing but a vague shifting of limbs below me, I began wracking my brain for follow-up insults.  In an adrenaline-fueled excavation of memory, I searched through every television show, movie, and schoolyard scene I could recall for examples of humiliation and struck gold.

“STOP BREATHING ON MY LEGS, YOU CRUST OF SCUM ON A RAT’S CUNT!” Rather than creating the berth I’d intended, my words inspired only a scuttling around my feet.  I could feel him nuzzling my toes with little kisses and licks, devotedly pressing his cheek against the patent strap of my shoe. “GET AWAY FROM ME!” I shouted.

“Yes Mistress.”  Scampering backward, he knelt on all fours and stared at the floor, bald pate gleaming with perspiration. Hands upon hips, I wheezed, the gravity of power alighting on my shoulders once more. Nonetheless, shouting that first insult took all of two seconds.  There were 3,598 left.  I decided to give him a spanking. He was amenable to the idea, and I was glad to contend with his pasty rear instead of his searching gaze.  Eye contact was an intimacy I was determined to avoid for as long as possible.

I ordered him to kneel on all fours facing the wall while I quietly pulled on a latex glove from the box I had been handed on my way in.  Whether he would be offended or not at my precaution, I was unsure, but nor was I ready to bare-hand it my first time.  In my mind, I was allotting ten or even fifteen minutes to the spanking, ample time to brainstorm my next move.  This plan lasted for about three minutes, when my palm began to feel as though a hot iron had been pressed to it, rather than just a saggy butt.  I hadn’t been warned of this difficulty, nor the nerves that were soaking the borrowed corset with sweat.

In fact, I had been informed of little before entering The Red Room, a practice I would later find was not in keeping with house protocol. It was the resort of office managers sick of cajoling their more experienced dommes into sessioning with undesirable regulars.  Toilet Timmy, as they called him, was one of these.  He conveniently preferred new hires.  I could continue the usual apprenticeship for as long as I wanted, I was told, and certainly shouldn’t do anything I didn’t feel ready for, but Timmy was sooo easy, and couldn’t I use the money?  I could.  Of course I asked why the moniker.

“Oh, he’s just a pee slut, likes it right on his face,” offered Mistress Autumn, a cool redhead whose nonchalance was tempered with a warmth that most of the other dommes lacked.

“On his face?”

“Uh-huh.  And, you might want to try not to get too close…”

“How so?”

“He can be grabby. And he has accidents sometimes.”

“Accidents?”

“Don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.”

Everything did seem almost fine, after I figured out the solution to the eye-contact problem (a blindfold), and found an activity that didn’t cause me as much pain as it did Timmy (nipple torture).

“Oh, Mistress!”  He squirmed on the bondage table as I pulled on his nipples with my gloved fingers.

“That’s right, uh, Piggy, you take that!”

“Mistress, Mistress I am feeling very excited!”

“Well perhaps I should pinch them harder, eh?”  I dug my nails into his fleshy nubs.

“Mistress!”  He let out something between a groan and a squeal, and mesmerized as I was by the distortion of his face, the twinkle of his dental fillings, and the excruciating realness of my situation, I felt the warmth of his urine on the back of my gloved hand before I saw it arching up over his belly toward me.

I credit the surge of humiliated anger that rose in me as I beheld his stream of piss for the efficiency of my next move.  Stepping back, I reached my gloved hand with little forethought down to his penis, which needed to be raised only a few inches for the stream to reach his yawning mouth.  He wasn’t nearly so sorry as I would have been to end up with a mouthful of my own pee, but I did feel that the power in the room had shifted.  It struck me then, though fleetingly, that Timmy’s incontinence might have had less to do with a physical quirk than a passive-aggressive gesture of dominance.  Not until I won some power to wield did I realize how unarmed I had been; I had been sweating for the approval of a man who preferred to see dominatrices as inexperienced as me.

As the timer near the door crept closer and closer to its mark, I knew that I would have to initiate the golden shower portion of our session.  Taking into account the warning about Timmy’s roving hands, and his soon-to-be close vicinity to my privates, I decided it was also time to try my hand at bondage.  I was glad to have had the foresight to blindfold him earlier.  How could I have forgotten where the ropes in The Red Room were kept?

“What are you doing Mistress? Am I going to receive your golden nectar soon? I am feeling very thirsty today…”

“Still?”  I replied, scouring the room. “Why don’t you do your job, and let me do mine Piglet?”  Where were they?  I pulled open drawers and found only clothespins, a few candle stubs, and a single pair of man-size panties with the crotch torn out.

“What’s my job Mistress?  Would you like for me to worship your magnificent body?”

“Right now your job is to shut up Piglet, and prepare yourself for just desserts.”

“Ooohh Mistress, I like dessert! You’re going to give it to me good, aren’t you?”

“Indeed I am.”

“I can’t wait!”

“Well you are going to have to, my pet. This isn’t, uh, the place for getting what you want, when you want it, is it?”

At last I found them, in a drawer of the leather bondage table not far below the mottled legs of my client.  Was it the sock garters that I had forced him to remove earlier that had rubbed his pallid calves hairless?  Grotesque or not, unless in the medical or sex industry, one doesn’t get much opportunity to unabashedly observe the bodies of other humans, least of all those of elder men.  It would take a few months before my slaves’ bodies would cease, in a fundamental way, to be so human to me.  They would become more akin to a dishwasher, a vacuum, or any of the other implements I had grown familiar with by virtue of their necessity to whatever job I was performing. But in the beginning, the bodies were spectacular, both hideous and marvelous.

After trussing Timmy to the table with a few square knots—silently thanking the fates for designing me the daughter of a sea captain—I removed my heels and climbed gingerly over him to stand with a bare foot on either side of his head.  Here I was, towering over this wizened body with a handful of toilet paper, in this outfit, in this room.

While certainly there is fear in the alienation from all things familiar, for me it was coupled with exhilaration. I was so distant from everything that had defined me up until then.  It was close to the feeling I had gotten in the moment that I first shoplifted a candy bar from the grocery store, lied to my mother about my whereabouts, stepped off the plane alone, or pierced my skin with a needle.  How can I explain this kind of weightlessness? It is like stepping off the edge of a cliff that has no bottom. There are a few minutes of complete terror: there is nothing to grab onto, nothing that matches anything in your memory. You are certain that you will perish without the ground, without the reactions that define you.  Then you realize that you are still here, you are still a body, still a person, but the reality you have known no longer exists.  Of course it is in our nature to settle, wherever we are, to create schemas and repeat reactions, so that we can become something that seems solid. This instinct is part of how we survive.  But there is a brief period of time, when the fall has just begun, and we are thrust out, when we have no choice but to accept ourselves as utterly strange, bottomless, empty.  In this moment you are like a baby: a miraculous hunk of flesh and raw potential. The terror gives way to a tremendous feeling of power.

After a brief moment of vertigo, I reached down and pulled aside my panties.

 

So, the self-interview is a great opportunity, huh? As you and I both know, interviewers rarely ask the questions one wants most to be asked. What are the questions you most want to be asked about your recently published memoir, Whip Smart?

I can’t actually think of a single question I’m interested in answering about being a dominatrix, or a junky. The very thought makes my whole body groan with malaise. For the last few months I’ve been a writer whose primary genre is the email interview.

 

Don’t you fear that that sounds ungrateful?

Yes. And I’m sure it does. Most writers pay a lot of lip service to the work being its own biggest reward, while secretly thinking that the satisfaction of their publication ambitions will be an even sweeter reward. Maybe I’m just talking about myself here, but it feels safer to universalize. In any event, it is both an enormous relief and enormous disappointment to discover that actually, creating the work is far more rewarding than talking about it. Or writing about it in email interviews.

 

Has publishing this memoir upset many of your expectations?

I can’t think of one that it hasn’t. Mainly, I think that we (and by we, I mean me, again)—against our great wealth of experience to the contrary—harbor the belief that in reaching our goals we will be freed from the neurosis, fear, self-doubt, obsession, and myriad other emotional and psychological discomforts that accompany writing. Or any other kind of work, life, or humanness. If I just find love. If I just get into this graduate program. If I just lose this 5 pounds. If I just finish this book. If I just publish this book. If it just gets reviewed well. If I just manage to assemble this Ikea bookshelf. THEN, I will stop wondering if I am good enough. Then, I will be able to stop worrying. Then, I will be liberated from the bondage of self-concern and free to pursue a life of service. Needless to say, this secret expectation is never met. I mean, thank god. Each time it goes unmet, I think we wake up a tiny bit more to the actual experience of living.

 

So, if you don’t want to talk about your experiences of being a dominatrix, or a drug addict, or writing a book about them, then what do you want to talk about?

I could talk about my dog forever.

 

Seriously?

You asked.

 

Why don’t you tell you about your new book instead?

Why do you feel the urge to waste this opportunity to ask the questions you really want to answer? Is your devotion to the expectations of people reading a literary interview so slavish that you can’t be true to your own desires even when it is prescribed?

 

Hey, I wrote a whole fucking book about my own desires, and how I came to accept them. Who’s giving this interview anyway?

Yeah, but that was about sex, which has always been easier for you to write about than other kinds of desire.

 

It was NOT about sex. You’re just like everybody else. Do you also want to know what my dominatrix outfits were like? How weird it was to tie somebody up?

Did you just take a dig at Terry Gross? Talk about ungrateful.

 

Sorry. I just got a little defensive. This whole thing is making me kind of uncomfortable.

How so?

 

Well, it’s a pretty narcissistic exercise, interviewing oneself. I already wrote a whole book about myself.

But don’t you think that book was about humanity? The nature of desire, judgment, love, feminism, and growing up? Those are pretty universal subjects. How else to approach them most intimately but vis-à-vis your own experience? Are you afraid of being a narcissist?

 

Not anymore. Not after getting so very tired of talking about myself.

So do you want to talk about your dog, or the new book?

 

I want to talk about the new book.

Really? You’re not just placating me?

 

No, I do. I’m really excited about it.

What’s it about? (I know you hate this question, but it’s good practice. Don’t forget that you’re going to have to go through this whole publicizing/email interviewing/elevator-pitching nightmare again once you finish it. I mean, if you’re lucky.)

 

Yeah, I know. But right now I’m really enjoying getting lost in the world of the new novel. Going back to fiction is both terrifying and rapturous. There are so many decisions to make! But at a certain point, they start making themselves. It’s a much more mystical experience than writing memoir.

But what’s it about?

 

God, the pragmatic part of your brain can be so fascistic.

Tell me about it.

 

Well, I’m really interested in unconventional love stories. By which I mean, not heterosexual romances. Or even queer romances. Love stories about relationships that honor the complexity of less easily categorized kinds of love. Specifically, it’s a book about a friendship between two girls. It’s also about madness, art-making, and rock and roll.

Sounds good.

 

I think so.

Well, you better.

 

I think this conversation is over.

Didn’t your mom used to say that when you were being incorrigible as a kid?

 

Totally. It infuriated me. But it worked. The conversation usually ended.

Okay, just one more question. What do you think about electronic readers? Do you think they foretell the death of the publishing industry? Are you sad about the imminent obsoletion of the book object?

Hello?

 

 

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.

“Yes?”

“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.


Dear America,

Baby, I love your particular strain of capitalism, how its muscular hand caresses every part of me, everything in sight –I have always loved a firm hand, Baby.I love how it has turned everything into a product, one that looks suspiciously like my own body. I love how this has made me hate myself, and hawk myself, and fostered an extreme poverty of imagination in my young self, and in everyone I have ever known.

Most relationships after a certain age begin with a body or two under the bed.Usually these are ex-lovers, whose legacy manifests tangibly in shoeboxes of old letters and photos, those morbid and sentimental curations that pulse faintly from the closet shelf.Or maybe they are the specters of bad parenting, grade school bullies, criminal records, actual deaths, and surely, in some rare cases, actual cadavers. In my case, it took the form of a garbage bag full of S&M equipment.