“There’s no one quite like you,” he said with a wistful sigh, caressing my instep, half a dozen vanilla-scented candles twinkling behind him on a grotesquely oversize entertainment center, the soft R & B strains of Kem floating from a boom box. I had just told my foot slave I’m leaving Chicago and moving to Las Vegas at the end of the month. This would be our last rendezvous, after seven years of semiregular meetings.

In July 1999 I answered an adult classified ad in New City headlined “Your yuks, my bucks,” which went on to elaborate that a stud named Danny (not his real name, but for the sake of his privacy I’m running with it) would pay $50 an hour to tickle some lucky lady’s cute feet. Thanks to two uncles who liked to hold me down as a child and wiggle their fingers in my armpits until I peed my pants, I hate being tickled, but at the time I needed the money, so I called. Over the phone Danny assured me this would involve no sex, no nudity even, and promised he’d behave like a gentleman.

I got ready, washing, pumicing, and lotioning my soles, pushing back my cuticles, and applying metallic magenta polish, then showed up at his high-rise with pepper spray, a cell phone, a kitchen knife, and a sock full of loose change in case I had to whack Danny over the head. The security guard at the front desk called his apartment to announce my arrival, and I waited in the lobby. Through the glass doors I saw my six-foot-plus, 300-pound Prince Charming lumber out of the mirrored elevator in faded black dad jeans, a tucked-in maroon polo shirt with deodorant stains, and gleaming white sneakers.

The apartment was small and messy, with stacks of books and VHS tapes monopolizing the floor space. On top of one book pile was Bill Murray’s memoir Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf. Danny hit the play button on his boom box, and the strains of the Blade Runner sound track filled the room. Then he removed my sandals.

I gritted my teeth as his fingers ran like spiders over my soles while he held my ankles in place with his other hand. All the while I prayed he wouldn’t reach behind him, whip out a machete, and lop my digits off. He licked each foot and then pressed both feet together to form a makeshift vagina and slobbered inside the hole.

After a month or so of weekly visits there was very little tickling. With gales of fake laughter I gradually directed him toward the parts of my feet that were more thick skinned. Another month later I told him he was no longer allowed to hold my ankles down like that, nor was he allowed to suck on, lick, or kiss my feet for more than a few minutes total, nor even touch my person above the lower shin. When I told him how taxing it was for me to be tickled, he felt terrible. To make up for it he started rubbing my feet–a for-real relaxing massage that sometimes put me to sleep–for almost the entire hour.

Danny was into guilt trips and feeling unworthy. Often our meetings started with him lying facedown on the dirty carpet and I’d just rest my feet on his back like he was a piece of furniture. We always met on Saturday because he liked going to church the next day to repent. All I’d have to do was act like it was a big deal for me to take an hour out of my day to come over for the foot rub and he’d pay me double, sometimes with a tip.

During our meetings, I was the princess and he was the drooling Igor who was lucky I had graced him with my presence. No, it was more than that: he was lucky I would even consider taking his money for gracing him with my presence. It’s basically how your typical dominatrix operates, minus the corny fetish gear and code words.

Eventually he bought a sofa sized just for my body–when I’d lie on my back with my head on at least two pillows my ankles would just hit the armrest and my feet would dangle playfully off the edge. For our first three anniversaries he gave me surprisingly cute ankle bracelets, all of which I’ve lost. On my birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas he’d present boxes of Godiva chocolates (even though I’ve told him I’m allergic to dairy), flowers (usually single long-stem roses with baby’s breath, ends stuffed into tiny rubber vials, wrapped in garish tissue paper), shitloads of Bath & Body Works toiletries, a bottle of nasty perfume, and a card full of money. Every now and then he’d give me a present like a T-shirt with the Supergirl logo or a coat, but none of them fit my body or my aesthetic, and I never hid that from him. “You think you know someone . . .” he’d say, chuckling. He chuckled inappropriately a lot, like Dr. Hibbert on The Simpsons.

For years I was in his life once a week, every week–sometimes twice. When the security guard started looking me up and down and tsking under her breath, I started bringing books and newspapers with me. I told her I was helping Danny with his reading. “But don’t act like you know,” I told her. “He’d be really embarrassed.” She nodded and put her finger over her lips.

I did actually help Danny–who doesn’t have a car, a checking account, or a credit card–with a few things over the years: typing and printing letters, running background research on a potential assistant through a credit check connection I have, and once order-ing eight pairs of black tapered jeans off Old Navy’s Web site.

I never once saw him outside of our arrangement, although he asked me to a few times. But I indulged him in little ways. I rarely got a pedicure, but I’d slather his favorite linen-scented lotion on my tootsies. He loved when I wore “naked toes” (zero polish, which isn’t my style) under fresh cotton ankle socks, which I did every once in a while. For his birthday I’d bring him a chocolate cupcake, step in it, and let him gobble it off my feet, or give him an extra ten minutes or so for free.

Once, about three years ago, I showed up to find him with chipped front teeth, two black eyes, and his arm in a sling. He told me he fell down some stairs at an el stop, but I didn’t believe him. After that, things got really depressing. His apartment became more cluttered–besides the usual three TVs, stacks of videotapes, two giant half-broken boom boxes, weight machine, exercise bike, two vacuums, and queen-size mattress plopped on the floor, I started noticing cans of sour cream Pringles, half-drunk liters of soda, bags of wrapped hard candy, and mostly empty paper-towel rolls strewn about the place. He stopped asking me to come over so often. He gained more weight. And the small, square coffee table in a corner by the window reserved for only a white candle and a Bible mysteriously disappeared.

Every time I walked out of there I meant to jot something down, anything: the way his towels always seemed fresh-bought and never washed, the names of books, which tended to be about God or sports, the corny self-deprecating one-liners that crack only him up. (He took a couple of improv classes back in the day and thinks he’s hilarious.) I once asked him where his foot fetish came from. He told me he’d had a babysitter who’d walk around the house barefoot.

He liked to curl up at her feet.

A while back I was commissioned to write about Danny for Nerve.com, and the story was killed after three rewrites because the editor kept asking me to describe how I felt and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to document and measure the nature of our relationship, how my feelings about him went from fear to disgust to gratitude, then to pity, and finally to total apathy. I tried hard not to think about it too much, because that would mean admitting to myself that some parts of me are dark, manipulative, ugly–especially when it comes to men.

I wanted to think of our interactions as a job, not a relationship. I didn’t want him permeating my life, though I had permeated his. But in a weird way, he’s the most loyal friend I have. He bailed me out of some sticky situations when no one else would. He’s been with me through seven apartments, three major boyfriends, and the death of two pets. At the end of our last meeting, I kissed him on the cheek for the first time. I knew it would mean the world to him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrea Bauer.