I met Jen in rehab in 1995. She was trying to kick a methadone habit and I was in an ugly battle with the bottle. She’d been in treatment a few weeks before I arrived. And when I did arrive I was running on a two-week binge that had me buckled over and racked with blurred vision. I could hardly move except for my hands that wouldn’t stop rattling. I showed up at their door with a duffle bag full of clothes and a couple of books. One of them being Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom.

They immediately put me in detox. In the bed next to me was this young dude who was hooked on speed. On the other side of me was a middle-aged man whose drug of choice (DOC) was morphine.

“I got addicted after a car accident,” he told me, his eyes pale and gone. He lost two fingers in the accident. “That was the first time I tried morphine. In a hospital of all places.”

When I was in the clear they put me through an assessment and found that I was highly depressed, was loaded with anxiety, suffered from sleeping disorders, and had a problem with alcohol.

I was a walking time bomb.

I was lethal.

I already knew this.

One of the first things they tell you when you enter rehab is that it’s not a place to find romance. Don’t look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend in rehab. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to rewire your brain. You’re there to get clean. You’re there to fix yourself. You’re not there to get fucked. You’re already fucked. That’s why you’re in rehab.

But when I met Jen there was an instant attraction between us. She was pretty, had beautiful green eyes, fair skin, and short brown hair. Over the next week I’d see her around the facility. We’d stop and chat, talk about our treatment and whatnot. Small talk. But there was something else going on. One night after a group session I was walking out to my car and she stopped me.

“So, what are you doing tonight, Reno?”

“Try not to walk into a bar and get shellacked,” I said, laughing.

“Sounds like a good plan. How about some coffee? Want to join me?”

That night over coffee and her burning cigarettes we told each other’s story. She came from a wealthy family, was born and raised in Miami. Two brothers, one sister. Mom was a materialistic pill-popping bitch and dad was a functioning drunk who owned a Budweiser distribution center that allowed him to fill up his houses with kitschy shit and wrap his neck and fingers in diamonds and gold. Her brothers were alcoholics and her sister, who owned a successful talent agency, was addicted to everything. Coke, booze, opiates. She was a professional addict who never missed a day of work, never lost control, never went to rehab.

“She has her addictions under control,” Jen said. “If there’s even such a thing.”

Jen worked as a graphic designer and was heavy in the Miami art scene. That’s where she was introduced to methadone. Like many addicts, she experimented with all kinds of drugs including alcohol. But it was methadone that did her in. Her story was the typical drug tale: at first her using was recreational, a weekend thing. And then quietly and suddenly she was in the throes of full-blown addiction: methadone was running her life, waking her up, putting her to bed, and calling all the shots in between.

She avoided friends and family. Her work started to suffer and then disappeared all together. She lost self-respect, her dignity. And then she didn’t care. Didn’t care what happened to her. She packed up and drove across the states to Vegas not remembering much of the drive. I knew the story all too well. I lost my fiancé over alcohol. I disconnected from friends, family, and eventually myself. I told her that when my addiction was at its worse I knew damn well I was killing myself but didn’t care. The pleading voices over the phone didn’t mean a fucking thing. The concerned faces of those who loved me were featureless, blank, nothing.

The bottle won and was eating me alive.

We started to see each other a lot. We’d go to the movies, have dinner. We’d jog the Vegas Strip, hike Mount Charleston. We flew to California and sipped lemonade on the Santa Monica Pier. We watched the sunset and held each other. We couldn’t change the past. What the future held in store for us was a mystery. There were no guarantees—our promises just fragile utterances that could be snapped by the deceitful, cunning, and destructive voice of the addictive mind. But we were sober today. That was our mantra.

Today.

Today.

Today.

On the night that it happened we were walking in Sunset Park and I reached for her hand. We walked for quite a while without saying a word. But there really wasn’t much to say. Our hands weaved together said all there was to say.

“Want to go to my place?” she asked.

We sat at her kitchen table listening to Derek and the Dominos and talked long into the night. We wondered and worried if we were ever going to kick our habits. We knew we were in trouble, that our addictions had a stranglehold on us. We knew that if we continued to use then the end result would be the grave. There was no doubt about it. Two months before I lost a dear friend to heroin. A year before that another friend lost his fight with alcohol. One dead at forty-one, the other at twenty-seven. Good men. Funny, intelligent, gentle. But sick and damaged beyond repair. I was right behind them. So was Jen.

We knew we were in control of this.

We knew we were out of control.

“Reno, I know you don’t love me,” Jen said, looking through me. “But will you make love to me?”

My ex-girlfriend’s face flashed in front of me. Her telling me to wait, to not sleep with anyone, love anyone, that it will only complicate matters, not yet, get clean, please, I’ll wait. I shut off my picture-making machine, pushed away her words, and followed Jen to her bedroom as the opening lead to “Layla” slurred behind us.

Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane/Please don’t say we’ll never find a way/And tell me all my love’s in vain

I woke up to Jen sitting on the bed Indian-style reading a book of poems I bought her. She looked beautiful, peaceful, her green eyes bright and clear.

“Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.

“Good morning.”

We stared at each other, examining each other’s face looking for something. I finally sat up, held her face in my hands, and kissed her. Tears rushed down her face. And then I started crying. We crossed over. We broke the rules of rehab. We cared for each other now. We wanted each other to get well, to be happy. We wanted the best for one another. We wanted each other to be clean and sober. We held each other thinking the same thing: please don’t use, don’t drink.

* * *

After three months we completed the program. Jen finished before me, but continued her treatment at another facility. We continued to see each other, but as time passed we saw less and less of each other. We were in love, but knew that because of our addictions a serious long-term relationship would be a precarious situation. We were dangerous for each other and didn’t want to bring the other down if our addictions surfaced again. The statistics said there was a high probability they would. This terrified us and eventually broke us up. We cared for each other too much to take the chance.

I remember our last phone call which would be the last time I’d hear her voice. We thanked each other, wished each other good luck, said that we’ll always love one another, but that it just couldn’t be. It was devastating. I hung up the phone empty, crying, lost, but sober. To this day I can still hear her voice coming over the wire.

“We’ll be all right, Reno. We’ll be O.K.”

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.

 

kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

I have been condemned. It’s okay. This is what happens. It was a long time coming. Actually, I don’t know how I eluded it for as long as I did. Luck, I guess. But I always knew that someday there would be a reckoning. I always sensed the day would come when I would have to pay. There are consequences to the things we do. This is just the way it is. Without them, it’s not life, it’s not real. We must suffer for our mistakes. For our crimes. This is the way it must be.  

I know how it all came about as well. I knew then. I’m not that ignorant. You’re young, and your heart aches. It won’t stop. You don’t know why. It just does. A drag here, a sip there, looking for a tiny bit of relief, something to dial down the furious turning of your mind, the relentless twisting. Trying to make sense of the contradictory emotions. All of it seems to accumulate in your soul. It becomes the depository for the pain. You try this and that. It turns out to be fruitless of course, and by the time you find out it’s far too late, but for so long it seems possible, to turn a mirage into something real. So you play with the salts, they fade, the half-life shorter and shorter, you start mixing this with that, waving your hands through the smoke.  

Eventually it stops working and still your heart aches. Your heart breaks. It breaks again. And again. You keep taking the drugs because you know it will happen again, and you just can’t bear it once more. You want to stop. But you can’t. It’s too late now. You try this, you try that, but every time the pain seems worse,  heavier, a dull heat somewhere inside, baking a part of you into something solid, a hard shell forming over your heart, fused with the flesh.

One day you wake up on a floor somewhere. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. The illusions and delusions are gone. You see clearly. You feel like a fool. You’ve wasted so much time. You did. No one else. This is where you should stop. Find a way. Before it’s too late. Stare it down and start over. Shout. Scream. Yell for help. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. It was too terrifying to face. And you felt like a weak, useless, piece of trash for not being able to confront it, and begin anew. So you dig. You begin a tiny excavation, searching for the bottom. For years it goes on, miraculously, nothing happening but things changing hands, you sell and others buy, exchanging death sentences. Somehow it keeps the end at bay. Deeper, deeper, you go. You know that you are going the wrong way and you hate yourself for it. Your mind wants to stop and turn around. Your heart has dreams. But they were locked up now, out of the light, trapped inside the stone. It was your body that was in control now. Your body that was taking you down this horrible path. It was your flesh that caused this. It was the criminal. It must pay. Not for the crimes against society, and not by them either. You must punish yourself. For the real crimes, the inability to be what you wanted to be, what you thought you should be. For not being good enough, for not being strong enough. For not being able to love. For not being able to stop.

I must punish myself. No one else seemed willing to do it. I had to do something. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. After all, it was I who had thrown my life away. It was I who’d broken the hearts and shattered the dreams of my loved ones, few though they were. It was I. The others, they found it within themselves to give me chance after chance. Try though I did, I could not take them. I felt undeserving. Maybe I have too much pride. Maybe, not enough. Did I deserve forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s irrelevant now. There must be consequences or it would all be meaningless.

There was no trial. No lawyers, no courtroom. They weren’t needed. You knew you were guilty. And once you sentenced yourself, you knew what to do. Shot after shot, you carpet-bombed your flesh, until the highways were obliterated and all the trees turned to ash. Still, you kept on, wandering from place to place, burying land mines, planting pockets of black tar heroin, dope to be detonated at a later date. You buried them in the muscle, in the flesh. You dug deep. They did not dissipate and go away. They sat there like markings, give-aways, tattoos but deeper, of the thing you truly were. Black. Shapeless. Permanent, like ink. One day it will bubble up through your skin to the surface and someone will use it to write your fate on a scroll, to be read aloud in the public square on the day of your execution.

And now it is over. The sentence was real aloud and carried out. It was not as severe as I had expected, merely to live with the destruction. I have paid. Maybe, a little too much. Maybe, not enough. Only time will tell. I paid a pound of flesh from one side of my buttock, and another pound from the other. Just to be sure I took some from both arms and both calves as well, along with a few shards of bone for good measure. You always felt like an open wound, unprotected, vulnerable, and so it makes sense that is what you became. What remain now are scars, where the cavernous wounds once were. The things I will have to live with, fragile, delicate, ugly. Bloodless tissue, shiny like plastic. My hip is damaged, the bone dissolved from infection, one leg now shorter than the other and my hands don’t function correctly, the wires severed. This is my punishment. And yet it did not end me, as I had thought it would. I am still here, wondering why, and how.  Playing with words instead of smoke. Hammering with a hammer called hope, trying to break into my heart.