We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
You don’t wake up one day a charted country, it happens slowly, in parts. But suddenly you notice that the once all-compelling mystery of your deepest holes has already been explored. The maddening desire and titillation you felt at being bared, licked, prodded where no one had ever been (or where many had been but where none had understood the significance of being) fades, leaving you only the ethnographer’s notes: wrinkled, already mapped. Nudity becomes cloaked in nonchalance, and the parting of folds of flesh to reveal moisture and heat no longer warrants the trembling of longing or fear. You need more, a higher high, a more taboo path along which to crawl. He senses this, the comfort in your naked skin, the lack of a tremor when he opens your legs, parts your cheeks, unfolds your arms to reveal the marks he has made on your breasts. He misses the shaking, the desperate way you closed your eyes, too exposed to bear looking at him any longer. He wants to bring it back.
You enter the second phase.
In the absence of the spontaneity associated with uncertainty, we develop rituals. Early on, the first time he turned me onto my stomach and inched my skirt down, a sharp burning inside made me think I could come without even being touched. His touch made me aware of the ground rules: he was the watcher and I the watched. My breathlessness began before he made any move to arouse me, his eyes on my flesh enough to make the heat of embarrassment rise in my legs. A heat that was half shame, half anticipation, a longing to know what he would choose to uncover next. The feeling of someone wanting to know me inside out, my darkest, my most hidden parts. A constant interrogation, yes, but one of flesh and taste and scent. Truly, it felt almost like love.
The first time Michael beat me was not an explosion but a natural outgrowth of what had come before. It began with tiny things like his insistence on leaving on the lights, the way he sometimes made me undress while he remained fully clothed, his pleasure at making me scream. These rituals were camouflaged by periods in which we kissed and laughed and talked all night with his arm slung over me, my hair spread on his shoulder. But there was always a return to the battle, a time at which the lines were drawn. Then his lips would close against mine, his arms would not hold me, and he would not call me by my name.
Though he seemed to know this route by heart, it’s evident to me now that there was a tentativeness in these early explorations. At every stage, around each new corner, there was an opportunity for me to say, No, OK, this is as far as it goes. In hindsight simple things betray his uncertainty. A pause after a command. A week of straight, almost tender lovemaking after the first time he took me from behind and spilled my blood on white, crinkled sheets. Making me laugh while I lay handcuffed and burnt on his bed, wet from the chilling water drying on my swelling skin. Early on he discovered that laughter could ease my shame, and he used this knowledge sparingly. Later, when shame became the object, I feared that humor would disappear entirely and a deadly seriousness would ensue. But even then there was always a moment of respite, a sudden wry, ironic crack that would send me dissolving into giggles amid my screams. Always that moment in which I might have said, No, no more, no. And he would have backed away, one step down the road, and we both would have thought, OK, there are limits, and there would have been some semblance of control. But I never spoke, just gritted my teeth harder until I had to get a night guard from his dentist, and I learned that sometimes I had to give in and cry. But I never said stop, never said no. He never said, All right, I think I’ve done enough. So we just kept on.
The progression took place slowly. One night after we had been sleeping together for just over a month, I grew distracted during sex, and he asked what was bothering me. Over cinnamon-apple tea, wrapped in his discarded shirt, I vented my frustrations: too old and in the wrong city to make it in classical dance; the necessity of auditioning–and being rejected–for cheesy musicals; the reality that two out of five checks I wrote bounced. He suggested I go back to school. The same thing stood in my way that had always prevented my moving to New York: funds. Michael rubbed my feet and said, If it were for something worthwhile, not something you’d put up your nose, you wouldn’t have to worry about that. I told him I already had one father who couldn’t buy me and didn’t need another. Silence hung like hot atoms clinging to our skin, making me wet beneath the arms and staining his shirt. He was still kneading my instep when I muttered, Thanks anyway.
We did not make love that night. He ordered take-out Chinese, and I fell asleep while he ate with a plate balanced on my ankles, still slung across his lap.
The next day when I came over, Michael ordered me to strip, then bound my hands behind my back. He lowered me to my knees, sat down before me, and said, Untie my shoes. It never occurred to me to ask how. I bent over, buttocks in the air, and did it with my teeth. He removed one shoe and then his sock, and held his foot to my mouth. With no instruction, I licked it, sucked the toes. He withdrew his foot and placed it back on the floor. He said, Pick up my shoe and give it to me. He held the back of my hair, and when I had the shoe between my teeth, he raised me to my feet. Then he bent me over his lap and beat my ass with the leather sole until I was twitching, yelling, and dripping with sweat. Afterward I stood in front of the mirror to inspect the marks. He waited on the couch for me to come back to him, and when I did he said, So what would you like to do now? I bent over the couch and he fucked me that way, his hands gripping my throbbing, bright red cheeks. When I came, I screamed so loud that I hurt my throat. The puddle left beneath me on the couch was embarrassing.
Things fall apart in pieces. You do not wake up one day to find your lover pissing in your face while you lie in a cold bathtub, desecrating the white finish with your blood. Rather, you find yourself changing slowly, breaking taboos you once thought would shatter you if you didn’t hold them sacred. You find yourself having drinks with him in the proverbial back-alley bar, going back to his overpriced Lake Shore Drive apartment, begging him never to confess to your father, whom he sees every day and you have not seen in a year. You find yourself lying naked beneath a man who is not only a partner in your father’s law firm, and old enough to be your father, but is also the weekend dad of a daughter just a decade younger than you. You find yourself moving out of the apartment you shared with three fellow unemployed dancers and getting a place of your own, even though you cannot afford rent and he has to help, so you’ll have a place where nobody can hear you scream. You find yourself telling him that his daughter is a convenient barrier, the only safety net between you; that you don’t ever want to meet her, and if he even suggests it you’re through. You find yourself sick to your stomach for days after hearing him say I love you to her on the phone, feeling jealous, stupid, violently used. But when he tries to say the same to you, you bite him, claw him, anything to shut him up, and now he doesn’t try anymore and that makes you sick too.
The beatings and burnings do not become more frequent, but their intensity increases with a steady and alarming speed. There are still periods of several weeks in which your body can heal. In which you are strong enough to take daily dance classes, in which the two of you go to dinner and laugh over his clients or your audition fiascoes. Sometimes he even calls you on the weekends, after his daughter is asleep, just to ask you a question, or read you a ridiculous passage from the romance novel she’s reading. Things like “his broad vermilion sheath” and “ride me like a wild stallion.” When he does this, you laugh and quip that you ought to write those kinds of novels yourself, that maybe then you could actually make a living. You do not tell him about the itching on your back where the skin has peeled and the burns are healing. You masturbate with him on the phone at 4 AM, forgetting with the urgency of amnesia your early meeting with a temp agency. Breathing heavily afterward, he says, You know, sometimes I see clearly that this is a bad idea and we should back off. How are you feeling about us, really? You say, Jesus, Michael. Call me when you get a backbone. And hang up, knowing this was better than saying, Fine.
In any conquest, rebellions are inevitable. When I took my phone off the hook, slept with other men, did so much coke that I crashed for days, missed rehearsals, and couldn’t remember my own name, it was him more than anything that I was hoping to escape. Him and the adrenaline rush he represented, the way he was pushing me to the borders of the superficially normal life I’d always led until I feared there was no return. By that time, he had spanked me with shoes, hairbrushes, and his own hand, and once had whipped me from my back to my knees with a leather belt that forever after bore stains.
I was moving outside of something I did not want to be beyond.
It was a twisted logic, I knew, but the fact that he could dissociate me from his relationship with my father enough to commit high treason on my body flattered me. Made me feel vindicated, powerful, more in control. So in the beginning, when he tried to get me to speak of my father, I refused. In the darkness of my room, his hand still moving along my body, he asked me questions: Why won’t you see him? and, What did he do? But I would not discuss it. I said, You’re too close to it, Michael, you’ve known him too long, your ex-wife is still friends with my mother. I don’t want to talk about it, and you don’t want to know.
Sometimes, though, even now, sometimes when he is still inside me, he swears that he does want to know. Sometimes when I am lying with my arms wrapped around my body, curled up tight and protective of my skin, he still hesitates for just a moment, and I know it is on his mind, I too see the slide show of his suspicions. And once he finally says to me, You wouldn’t let me do anything you didn’t want, would you? You do understand that I’m not your father, that I don’t expect you to just go along with anything I do? I spit at him. It’s an act that takes us both by surprise, but I am lying there on the floor, naked, bleeding, too weak to really move. It is the only way to get my point across. He says, OK, fine, I understand.
He does not bring it up again. And I am afraid then, frightened because even though I am none too sure of his boundaries, I am even less sure of my own. Frightened because there is a part of me that wants him to say, Look, I know what you are doing and you are going to kill yourself, so just stop it right now. But if he said that I would laugh in his face. I would say, Look, you are a dime a dozen and if you can’t handle it someone else will. I want him to tell me, Don’t you know I don’t want to really hurt you? But instead, since I will let him, he does hurt me, bad. I want him to say, I am not going to let you do this to yourself, I am not going to do it to you. But the way he comes so hard when I am sobbing, when I am screaming like an animal, is terrifying and lets me know that this is never going to happen, and the only way to stop it is to do it myself. But I can’t. He touches me and I am willing to let him take me anywhere, do anything to me. I tell myself I want to stop it but I can’t. I can’t.
So eventually it goes like this. That even the snap of his belt on your skin is not enough to inspire fear, because you already know where this will go. That even hot wax poured on your swollen clit cannot take you someplace you haven’t been 15, 20, 30 times before. That the lust in your stomach and the crawling of anticipation down your legs is now more a matter of getting a fix than reaching a new threshold. That even when you are crying in pain and cursing him at the top of your lungs, you are afraid he is starting to get bored.
But you cannot stop. You feed on each other in a frenzy, calling each other a minimum of twice a day and waiting in breathless agony for his daughter to fall asleep so he can sneak out for an hour, for Mondays when he can spend the entire night. You try, seven times in as many months, not to call, not to want him anymore at all. But your skin feels like it is coming unconnected, and your genitals threaten to dry up and disappear, and other men are only interesting to fuck when you can tell him about it afterward, and you end up calling anyway, you always, always do.
He says, How is this ever going to end? Am I just going to get too old one day, and you won’t want it anymore? Or will one of us have to kill the other first? You run your tongue along his spine and say, You’re not going to kill me, you’d miss hurting me too much. And you’re already too old. I just have extraordinarily warped taste.
You go on. Because neither of you can imagine actually being the one to leave.
One day, I see Michael’s daughter on the street. I am coming out of the Urban Outfitters on Clark, and she is on the sidewalk, talking with a friend her age. They have the clear skin of athletic 12-year-olds and are dressed not very differently than I. She doesn’t look at me because she has no idea who I am, but I baby-sat her when she was two years old, have seen enough photos of her since. I want to go up to her and say hello. To introduce myself and say, I don’t mean you any harm. I was fucked up by my father too, and I know that having a dad who thinks the world revolves around his cock has got to be almost as bad as what I went through. I want to say, You’ll probably never think you’re good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, tough or weak enough to hold a man’s interest, and you’ll think those who want to stick around must be defunct. But I don’t say any of this, just walk by, which is probably good since, from what Michael says, his daughter is much more easygoing than either of us and probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about at all.
But I say to him that night, A man like you couldn’t possibly raise a daughter right. Your ex-wife was a fool to practically hand you joint custody, and you were an asshole to want it. Neither of you was helping anyone but yourselves.
He says, And you. Her presence in my home is your protection from me, remember?
Look, I say, you want to walk away from her, then do it. Don’t let me hold you back.
He laughs. Says, As if it’s possible that we won’t always hold each other back.
Always. The comment silences us both immediately. He looks away, not wanting to acknowledge the word he has spoken, the voice he has given to the truth: that neither of us knows of any way out. I shift uncomfortably on the futon, smooth my skirt down over my thighs. He puts a hand on mine. Says, Hey.
I would like to do something that we have never done before. I take hold of his hand and pull him to me, but my futon (bought with his money) is like quicksand, and instead of helping me to shore, he falls with me into the muck. I think, Spare her. Surrender her to her mother, let me pretend she doesn’t exist. Damn it, Michael, tell me you’d never hurt her, or don’t ever come back here again.
He kisses me hard, holds on to me so tight that the air leaves my lungs in a rush. He says, Sometimes I think you want me to ruin you. But believe it or not, that’s not what I want. I think it’s time for me to go.
It is gone in an instant. The image of us alone together, shackled by neither the daughter he has nor the daughter I was. Real food in the refrigerator and a joint message on the answering machine. We can’t come to the phone right now. We’re busy leading a normal life. He heads for the door.
There is a moment’s pause before he steps out into the hall. A moment in which I could have said, Please, my life depends on it, please, don’t ever call me again. The door closes. He disappears, and the moment, with him, is gone.
You become a map he can draw by heart. A map to someplace he was always forbidden to go and wanted so desperately he thought he would die. Your lines and contours are as sweet as ever he dared to dream, but your terrain, unconquerable in his childish imagination, is made masterable by a grown man’s modern tools. Here is a land where he can light fires in the forests and watch them burn for days, just to see them spontaneously regenerate and rebloom within hours of the final flame. Here is a place where he can sleep alone in the wild, listening to sounds not allowed into his civilized home by day.
When he first fingered this map, first set foot on this uncharted land, he wondered as to its nature. Why did the peaks climb so high, the valleys dip to such low, murky depths? Now he simply wears hiking boots to avoid the mud, brings a compass for when he gets lost. He would never dream of leaving this land. He has claimed it, made it his, and the victory is sweet enough to last forever.
Slowly, insidiously, the grass is dying. The hills are eroding, leveling off. Slowly, slowly, line by line, the face of the map changes, until the intersections are no longer those he holds in memory. And finally, the earth dips just one centimeter sooner than his feet predicted, and he falls into an unexpected hole and lies upon the earth, once again in strange terrain. Wondering what has been lost.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Teresa Mucha.