I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

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?