Introduction: Meeting Mistresses

I grew up knowing about mistresses because my great-grandfather Stephen Adelbert Griggs, an affluent Detroit brewer and municipal politician, maintained what my mother scornfully referred to as a “love nest” occupied by a series of “fancy” women. Great-grandmother Minnie Langley had to tolerate this, but she exacted a price: for every diamond Stephen bought his latest mistress, he had to buy one for her. This was how his love nest hatched a glittering nest egg of rings, earrings, brooches and uncut gems, which Minnie bequeathed to her female descendants.

Great-grandfather Stephen walked a well-trodden path. I realized this as I matured and met real mistresses and their lovers. … Yet it was [not they] who inspired me to write about mistresses. It was while writing my book A History of Celibacy that I came to realize that mistressdom, like celibacy, is a crucial lens through which to explore how women relate to men other than in marriage; mistressdom is, in fact, an institution parallel and complementary to marriage. Even before I finished writing A History of Celibacy, I was already beginning the research for what has become Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman. [A History of Marriage is the final volume in this historical relationship trilogy.]

There were sources in abundance, including in the daily news; mistresses, it seemed, were everywhere. In 1997, for example, when prominent journalist Charles Kuralt died, Patricia Shannon, his mistress of twenty-nine years, launched a successful claim to part of his estate. In 2000, Toronto mayor Mel Lastman’s former mistress, Grace Louie, announced that he had sired her (Mel look-alike) sons, Kim and Todd. In 2001, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mistress, lawyer Karin Stanford, sued for child support for their two-year-old daughter, Ashley, already in utero as Jackson advised and prayed for President Bill Clinton, under attack for his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.  (Simultaneously with prosecuting Clinton, the self-righteous Newt Gingrich was secretly pursuing a passionate relationship with Callista Bisek, whom he married after divorcing his wife, Marianne.) I began to make lists and take notes, trying to understand the nature of these relationships, the modern as well as the historic.

As in the past, today’s presidents and princes also succumb to their desires and take mistresses, though they, too, risk exposure by scandal sheets and mainstream media (unless, like French president Francois Mitterand, they were impervious to criticism and enabled by a docile press; Mitterand lived with his primary mistress, museum curator Anne Pingeot and their daughter, Mazarine, while his wife, Danielle, remained in the family home. At Mitterand’s 1996 funeral, the three mourning women stood side by side, as he would have expected.) President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a very special “friend,” the
Englishwoman Kay Sommersby. JFK dallied with many women, including film idol Marilyn Monroe. Though rivalled in prominence by the story of President Bill Clinton and unforgettable White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the longest-running scandal belongs to England’s Prince Charles. When I began my book, he was in disgrace. Years later, widowed and remarried to his long-time mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles, his image and hers have been largely rehabilitated.

Legions of other provocative unions are replacing Charles’ and Camilla’s in the spotlight. Champion golfer Tiger Woods’ multitudinous sexual partners included only one, Rachel Uchitel, whom he treated as a mistress rather than a casual fling. But politicians in a steady and adulterous stream have mistresses, and often media “scoops” are the first inkling their wives have that their husbands have been betraying them.

US presidential hopeful and former Senator John Edwards ignored his fear that “Falling in love with you could really fuck up my plans for becoming President” and capitulated to his passion for Rielle Hunter, who likened it to a “magnetic force.” Edwards was prescient: their affair destroyed his career and shattered his marriage to his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth Edwards. It also produced a daughter, Quinn.

So did New York Congressman Vito Fossella Jr.’s affair with Laura Fay, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel; Natalie was three years old when Fossella incurred a DUI charge while on his way to visit his mistress and their daughter.

Congressman Mark Souder, an evangelical Christian, resigned in 2010, repentant (he said) for having “sinned against God, my wife and my family by having a mutual relationship with a part-time member of my staff.” Ironically, he and his married mistress, Tracy Meadows Jackson recorded a web video urging youth to abstain from sex “until in a committed, faithful relationship.”

Governor Mark Sanford, caught out in adultery, admitted his infidelity to wife Jenny with his Argentinean mistress and “soul mate,” Maria Belen Chapur. But he could not give her up. The scandal escalated, he resigned and Jenny divorced him. Afterward, Sanford continued to pursue his relationship with Chapur.
California State Assemblyman Mike Duvall, winner of an Ethics in America award, was a more cavalier lover forced to resign after an open microphone broadcast him bragging that “I’ve been getting into spanking her [one of his two mistresses]. I like it.”

British radio and television presenter Jonathan Dimbleby’s brief affair with his dying mistress was the most dramatic and obsessive, and it destroyed his until-then happy marriage of thirty-five years. In May 2003, Dimbleby interviewed the magnificent soprano Susan Chilcott, found her enchanting and began to sleep with her. Days later, Susan was diagnosed with terminal metastasized breast cancer. Against her anguished pleas that her very new lover consider his own well-being and not ruin his life for her, Dimbleby vowed to care for her until she died, and moved in with her and her little son. “I still do not adequately understand the intensity of passion and pity that animated my decision,” he said later.

It felt like an unstoppable force. I knew what I was doing but I didn’t know what the outcome would be. It was odd, but I didn’t want to be away from Bel either – I felt absolutely torn. But I was entranced; and then of course we didn’t know how long she had – it might have been a few weeks or months or it might have been a few years. It was a very powerful, overwhelming experience and also a kind of test.

Part of that test was watching Susan’s last public performance, playing Desdemona and, garbed in white linen, singing sorrowfully, her voice rising to a crescendo, “Ch’io viva ancor, ch’io viva ancor!” (Let me live longer, let me live longer!)

Less than three months later, Susan died and Bel Mooney, Jonathan’s wife, waited for her husband to return home to her and say, “That madness is over, let us pick up the threads of our life again.” He did not, Bel moved out and on, and their tattered marriage unravelled into divorce. Susan Chilcott and Jonathan Dimbleby’s love affair was fleeting and fuelled as much by her impending death as by passion. Push back its timing to an earlier century or set it on the stage of a romantic tragedy and it looks exactly as it did at the end of the 20th century, in cosmopolitan England.

After years of research, what interested me was the structure and common denominators of the relationships between men and their mistresses, especially how mistressdom reflects the nature of marriage and male-female relations in different eras and cultures. After much deliberation, I decided to frame my exploration of mistressdom through the perspective of individual mistresses whose experiences tell the story of men and women’s relationships in their society. By grouping these women into categories that reflect different cultures and historical periods, I could present their unique circumstances while also drawing conclusions about their society’s versions of what a mistress was and how its men and women lived together. The result of this approach to my material was that I titled my book Mistresses: a History of the Other Woman.

 

***

Mistressdom is inextricably linked with marriage, human society’s most fundamental institution, and almost automatically implies marital infidelity, sometimes by the husband, sometimes by the wife. Indeed, marriage is a key element in determining who is a mistress and who is not. Though many people assume that adultery undermines marriage, many others believe that, paradoxically, it shores marriage up. Frenchmen, for example, can justify the cinq à sept, the after-office-hours rendezvous a man enjoys with his mistress, by quoting French writer Alexandre Dumas’s pithy observation: “The chains of marriage are so heavy that it often takes two people to carry them, and sometimes three.”

This association between marriage and mistressdom, and also Eastern concubinage, extends through time and place, and is deeply ingrained in almost every major culture. British multibillionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who died surrounded by wife, ex-wives and mistresses, commented famously that “when a man marries his mistress, he creates an automatic job vacancy.” Not surprisingly, Western models are more familiar to North Americans than those of the Eastern world, with their different and more elaborate versions, notably institutionalized concubinage and harems.

 

***

The unbreachable chasms of class and caste have also created mistresses who might otherwise have been wives. Saint Augustine, the 4th-century bishop of Hippo, subscribed to his North African society’s proscription against marrying below one’s class, and so he lived with the lower-ranked woman he loved as his concubine. When he decided to marry, his mother found a suitably well-born girl.

Caste determined by nationality, race or religion can also relegate women to the lower status of mistress. Xenophobic ancient Greece, for instance, forbade its citizens to marry foreigners, so the Athenian leader Pericles could never marry Aspasia, his beloved Miletian concubine and the mother of his son.

In many Eastern cultures, concubinage was integral rather than peripheral or parallel to marriage, and concubines’ duties and rights were spelled out in the law or in social custom. Concubines frequently lived in their master’s house, under the same roof with his wife and other concubines. In modest homes, a concubine or two assisted the wife in her daily chores. Concubines were bound by wife-like sexual obligations, including fidelity, and confined to the same domestic sphere. There were excellent reasons for this. In sharp contrast to Western mistresses, one of the principal duties of most Eastern concubines was to bear their masters’ heirs.

In a few countries, notably imperial China and Turkey, some royals, aristocrats and men of privilege displayed their wealth and power by maintaining harems of concubines, often captured or purchased. Their crowded, eunuch-run harems were turbulent communities where intrigue, competition and conflict—to say nothing of children—proliferated. Older and less-favored harem concubines were drudges consigned to household labor. Their still hopeful younger colleagues filled their empty days with meticulous grooming and plotting, with and against eunuchs, wives, relatives, children, servants and each other. Their goal was to spend a night with their harem’s owner and, if they were extraordinarily lucky, to conceive the child who could catapult his mother from obscurity into a life of privilege and perhaps even power.

In stark contrast, the laws of Western societies have almost always reinforced the primacy of marriage by bastardizing the offspring of mistresses, from the lowest-born slave to the highest-ranked duchess. Legally and culturally, fathers had no obligation to accept responsibility for their natural children and could condemn them to the ignominy and perils of illegitimacy. Indeed, the law often made it difficult, even for men so inclined, to recognize and provide for their “outside” children.

Yet some men defied their society’s strictures against supporting their illegitimate children. Royals such as England’s Charles II, who elevated so many of his mistresses’ sons to dukedoms that five of today’s twenty-six dukes are their descendants, assumed that their bloodlines were exalted enough to outweigh such niceties as legitimacy. Commoners driven by personal passions also flouted their society’s values. A few slave owners, for example, risked serious reprisals from their profoundly racist compatriots by acknowledging paternity of a slave mistress’s children. In the Western world, however, acknowledging bastards has always been the exception to the rule.

Today’s mistress rightly expects better treatment for any child she might have with a lover. Like her precursors, she is the bellwether for female-male relations, and her status reflects how these relations have developed. The improving condition of women, the liberalization of the laws governing families and personal relationships, and the growing acceptance of DNA tests have greatly increased the likelihood that her lover will recognize, or at least contribute to the support of, her child. (John Edwards is an egregious example of this. After requesting an aide to pinch one of Frances Quinn’s diapers for a secret DNA test to determine whether or not he was her father, he systemically denied that he could be or was the father until, irreparably tarnished by a public trail of falsehoods, he admitted paternity and sought forgiveness, especially from Elizabeth, his furious wife.) At the same time, the advent of accessible and reliable birth control and of legalized abortion has substantially diminished the number of those children a mistress is likely to have.

And yet, like Rielle Hunter, mistresses do have children with their lovers. Some, like Karin Stanford, have to do battle for their children’s rights. Others, like François Mitterand and Vito Fossella, Jr. offer secret financial support. But even these cooperative fathers cannot guarantee that their legitimate children will take kindly to their “outside” siblings. Ashley Stanford-Jackson’s mother complains publicly that her daughter’s siblings have no interest in her. And Mitterrand’s son, Jean-Christophe, snubbed Mazarine in the hospital where both were visiting their father. “As long as my father doesn’t speak of this young woman, for me she doesn’t exist,” he told friends. When she was thirty-four years old, Mazarine assumed the legal surname of Pingeot-Mitterrand, explaining “For nineteen years I was nobody’s daughter, but I’ve finally decided to add my father’s name to my identity papers.”

An even more extraordinary case was that of African-American Essie Mae Washington-Williams, daughter of sixteen-year-old domestic Carrie Butler and her employer’s twenty-two-year-old son, Strom Thurmond, a politician who died, still in public office, aged one hundred, and was notorious for his relentless advocacy of racial segregation. “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he thundered. “He became an outright racist, cloaked in the ancient doctrine of states’ rights,” Essie Mae recalled. He sounded “like the ghost of Adolph Hitler.”

But in private, Thurmond offered financial support and was keenly interested in and proud of his bi-racial daughter. They first met when Essie Mae was a teenager, when she and her mother visited his office. “He never called my mother by her first name. He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child. He didn’t ask when I was leaving and didn’t invite me to come back. It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father,” Williams wrote. Yet she left it convinced that her mother’s relationship with Thurmond was ongoing and that they cared for each other.

At Thurmond’s recommendation, Essie Mae attended an all-black college now known as South Carolina State University. He paid her tuition and arranged occasional visits in the privacy of the office of the college President, who must have guessed at or known the nature of their relationship. So did Thurmond’s sister, Mary Tompkins, whom he delegated at least once to bring money to Essie Mae.

Yet Essie Mae never revealed her father’s identity. “It’s not that Strom Thurmond ever swore me to secrecy. He never swore me to anything. He trusted me, and I respected him, and we loved each other in our deeply repressed ways, and that was our social contract,” she wrote.

Thurmond died in 2003 and only then, in Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, did Essie Mae disclose what Thurmond’s colleagues and friends had long suspected. The Thurmond family publicly confirmed her paternity and spoke of her right to know her heritage. (It helped that she had no interest in suing for a share of her father’s estate – her moral and legal right.) Her half-brother, Strom Thurmond Jr., added that he was eager to get to know her. In 2004, South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford added her name to the list of children engraved on a public monument commemorating Thurmond. Times were changing, even in South Carolina.

 

***

 

Feminism, expanded women’s rights and effective and accessible birth control have altered mistressdom, its parameters and its possibilities. As sexual mores surrounding pre-marital sex have relaxed and common-law living arrangements become increasingly the norm, the line between mistress and girlfriend has blurred. In many cases today, the answer must lie in the partners’ perception of their status and, to a certain extent, in society’s. Modern mistresses are less likely than their forbears to be married or to depend financially on their lovers. Today’s mistresses fall in love, usually with married men unwilling to divorce and regularize the relationship. The only alternative to breaking up is to reconcile themselves to an illicit relationship. But often these mistresses are reluctant to accept the status quo, and they hope that somehow, someday, their liaison will be legitimized through marriage, as Camilla Parker Bowles’ was.

Just as often, the love affair itself—the romance and the passion, the arousal of desire and its delirious fulfillment—is what matters. Even if guilt coexists with the excitement of sexual adventure and the challenge of defying social norms, that does not negate the bonding force of shared secrecy and the mutual trust underlying it. The relationship’s forbidden dimension also affects its balance of power, which is in part controlled by the unmarried mistress’s restraint and discretion. Though it forces on her considerable free time, especially during traditional holidays, it also liberates her from wifely domesticity into the mode and mystique of showing only her best face and her best behavior. The relationship may also feel or actually be egalitarian, with both partners bringing to it what they can and taking from it what they want.

………………………………………………..

 

Émilie du Châtelet

Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress, was … uncommonly intelligent and uncommonly well educated, and she became the mistress of a celebrated philosopher. Émilie was the child of an enlightened era, and her lover was a progressive thinker. … As her formidable intellect matured, she focused on physics, literature, drama, opera and political ideas, including the startling proposition that women and men should have equal rights.

[ She married] Claude du Châtelet, colonel of a regiment, scion of a fine old family and an agreeable man twelve years her senior. Their arranged marriage was convenient and amiable, and quickly produced a daughter and a son. Émilie spent much time in Florent’s Paris townhouse, and he spent even more on garrison duty. As was quite acceptable among spouses who had already produced heirs and whose marriages were primarily family alliances in which romantic love played little or no part, Émilie took lovers. Her belief that a good wife behaved well and loyally toward her husband by allying herself only with lovers of quality and discretion was typical of her aristocratic social milieu.

When Émilie met the witty and clever Arouet de Voltaire, he was nearly forty and much sought after by women eager for the reflected glory of associating with France’s most famous writer and one of the philosophe movement’s leading lights. The philosophes were engaged in revaluating, in the light of “reason” and “rationality,” the entirety of the human experience. Besides ascertaining the truth, their objective was to compile a vast encyclopedia of human knowledge. … Much of the philosophes’ interaction took place at certain Parisian salons, where Émilie and Voltaire developed their deepening relationship.

Voltaire’s assessment of Émilie as a dynamo of energy and purpose was correct.  She was fascinated by physics and the theories of Leibniz and Newton, and studied them with a discipline that put other scholars, including Voltaire, to shame. She also found time to dine with friends, attend social and artistic events and—alas!—to gamble away small (and sometimes not so small) fortunes at the gaming tables.

 

***

 

Émilie and Voltaire began to travel together, and in 1734 they settled down in Cirey, in her husband’s decaying family château. Florent was most cooperative about this arrangement. He would sometimes visit his wife and her lover, but he considerately slept apart from Émilie, and took his meals with his son and the tutor. Above all, he was delighted with the spectacular renovations and redecorating that the lovers undertook with money lent by Voltaire at a low rate of interest.

…She and Voltaire began a regime of study and literature that came to be known as his Cirey Period. Émilie was now Voltaire’s recognized mistress, and she conducted their affair as if it would last a lifetime. But unlike most 18th-century lovers, who resorted to subterfuge in the name of discretion, she and Voltaire cohabited. This took some managing. Whenever she was forced to spend time with her husband, she treated him with affectionate respect. In fact, Florent’s very presence belied the fact that she was actually living in sin with Voltaire, and it gave the arrangement a certain legitimacy, something all three of them desired.

Émilie, immensely disciplined and organized, established a regimen of study that focused the more disorganized Voltaire. The day began in Voltaire’s quarters, with late morning coffee and discussion. At noon, Émilie and Voltaire sometimes popped in to greet Florent as he lunched with his (and her) son and the tutor, then retreated to their separate studies to work. Sometimes they took a break, snacking and chatting before returning to their books. At nine, they met for dinner, a leisurely and well-provisioned production, and followed it with conversation, dramatic productions in their own tiny theater, and poetry readings. At midnight they dispersed again to their studies, and Émilie worked until about five in the morning. When she retired to her blue and yellow bedroom, so color-coordinated that even her dog’s basket had matching blue and yellow lining, she slept for a refreshing four hours. If she had set herself a personal deadline, she would reduce this to one hour and jolt herself awake by plunging her hands into icy water.

Under Émilie’s erudite tutelage, Voltaire assimilated (but never mastered) the principles of physics, particularly Leibniz’s and Newton’s, and incorporated them into the core of his thinking. He generously acknowledged Émilie’s influence and dedicated his Elements of Newton’s Philosophy to her. He even implied that he had been little more than her amanuensis rather than she his muse.

… Until just before her premature death, Émilie was immersed in translating and elucidating Newton’s Principia. In public as well as private, Voltaire was the first to acknowledge that his mistress was his intellectual and sexual partner and equal. He read aloud what he had written each day and eagerly welcomed her critiques and suggestions. Her keen mind convinced him that women could do everything men could. In a letter to a friend, Voltaire paid Émilie the ultimate compliment: “I [cannot] live without that lady whom I look upon as a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend. She understands Newton; she despises superstition, in short she makes me happy.”

 

***

Émilie du Châtelet’s story is an edifying narrative of purpose fulfilled, love reciprocated and passion (usually) requited. The constraints on her—principally the refusal to publish her memoirs, though her translations of men’s works were rushed into print—burdened all women. Even at the time, Émilie and her contemporaries knew that her status as Voltaire’s mistress rather than her genius guaranteed her a significant place in history.

Émilie’s alliance with Voltaire was widely known. Voltaire went out of his way to acknowledge her enormous contributions to his work, and in his private correspondence with Europe’s leading thinkers, he reiterated how greatly he was in Émilie’s debt.

 

I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.

Not so with stories.

* * *

I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.

In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:

[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.

It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.

No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.

* * *

In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.

Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.

At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:

July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.

July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.

July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.

Six months later, I could only write about it in third person.  It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.

* * *

“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.

I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment.  One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”

In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well.  To see my life as a story and myself as a character.  I needed the grief to be outside instead of in.  My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.

But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.

Paying a visit to Bittertown.  Even after you leave, you still smell like it.

* * *

This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.

I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.

Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there.  I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.

When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.

For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.

As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).

Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.

I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.

* * *

But remnants of the bitterness remained.

Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.

Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.

A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!

HOORAY!

Yeah.

Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.

And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.

I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.

I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.

* * *

Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?

Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.

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.

 

“I’ve already told you: the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.” —Marquis de Sade

Stop shaking your head. Gimme a chance to explain…

Long distance relationships open like pop-up books. Her pop-up book is in Manhattan.

I like stealing stuff—if I like you. I case every woman who catches my eye trying to see what they’re hiding.

You can’t give your phone number without giving something of yourself. Every little hair on a woman, even the peach fuzz, is a fuse.

I watch some guys staring at their girls like kids staring at a candy store window. Which gets me wondering–––along with the girl in most cases–––is he making that sweet expression at her or to himself in the reflection? So the girl looks over at me and sees the crowbar in my eyes. I can’t hide it.

But every time it feels the same when it clicks with somebody. I pick the lock and break into their life and instead of trying to steal everything, I end up wanting to move in.

I’m in full-on burglary-mode when all of a sudden I find myself liking the way you crookedly hang that painting, the way your bookshelves lean, that you’re a pack-rat for every letter an ex sent you and you’re amused I burned everything I had with my first kiss, that you kept a lock of your hair from when you were six and now your hair’s a different color, how you had a street portrait artist embellish your likeness when you were going through an ugly phase and everybody pretended you were really that pretty, you were entirely frigid with one boy and put out on the first date with another and you don’t know why the difference, that I thought my first girl was the one until we popped each others cherry and I knew she wasn’t and told her so, that you want a dad and your cute little boy at the same time out of a husband—oh yeah—and the guy you’d risk all that for to cheat with, you want to have your blueprints for the rest of your life approved of, you want your history to be a rumor that you spread, you want me to cast my net at you swinging over and over and never get more than half your butterflies, you want to be my private petting zoo, you want me to pry you down from your ivory tower over the intercom, I want a muse who fucks like a whore, you want to be able to hurt me and build me up, you want me to trudge through your sewers and step out onto your penthouse balconies, you want to take your top down in conversation and have my breeze run through your hair, I want you to kiss the stretch marks and cellulite on my brain, you want me to contemplate every guy who ever wanted to get into your pants, you want jealousy, you want me to be loyal but only because you’re amused that I’m a born serial-cheater, you want the church of your heart to have the choir on fire and neither of us willing to piss on them, I want you as a cookie jar, you want to get our plans on wheels, you want somebody with no plans, you want Monopoly on weeknights and Risk on weekends, you want somebody who can fuck people up but also listen, your personal angelic caveman with a daunting reading list, you want me to be fucked-up but lucid, you want our kid as the final jury on us, I’m not sure you really do, you want relativity here and there but stuff that comparison can’t touch other places, you want love letters and suicide notes and me to pretend with a straight face like I know what the fucking difference is, you want your melody to feel like a symphony, I want my note to feel like a melody, you want me to wonder how many inches it takes to reach your heart, I want you with telescopes and microscopes and a club and a cave and no viable heat source but me, you want me to accept that Brinny can still fall in love 10,000 times but it doesn’t have to be with 10,000 different girls it can just be with me, over and over, like some karma on spin cycle and no tag-backs, and we can be off-key, and every soliloquy can be one long stutter, and why the hell am I inventorying all this shit, oh yeah I’m nervous about Thanksgiving, I just mean… my garbage and maladjusted apparatus wasn’t flammable until I met you, be my pyromaniac and I’ll be your kleptomaniac, we’ll get the hang of it, epileptic embrace, be each other’s Rosetta Stone, here, this is a piece of chipped paint off my Davega Bicycle, we can be cigarette train wrecks in each others ashtray, you can sign letters in lowercase so I’ll imagine you on your knees and try to map out more ways to sweep you off your feet, now you’re making me a little nervous for not having wiped this thing’s nose, and I better stop cause everything else’ll feel like drinking from a bent straw but yeah, do we have a deal?