By Melissa Febos
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Melissa Febos
All rights reserved.
STEVE KNEW TO BE KNEELING when I walked into the Red Room, his torso bent over his knees, forehead resting on the rug. He knew to be clean. He knew to undress, and to fold his clothes neatly behind the door, so that I walked into an immaculate room, nothing between me and the softly folded fist of his body but anticipation. While desire rose off Steve in fumes, steeping the whole room in its cloying vapor, I reveled in its absence. Just minutes before entering the Red Room, I adjusted my garters before the dressing room mirror, wrapped my fingers in electrical tape, and felt that happy absence, whose vacancy made room for some other, unnamed thing to fill me. I felt it already, the way you can smell autumn coming. Steve was into heavy flogging, and the tape protected the clefts between my index and middle fingers where I would soon clench a flogger handle in each hand.
I had cued the music — which piped from the main office into all twelve rooms of the dungeon — to begin just a few seconds before I walked into the Red Room. The music I sessioned to was all the same; while I preferred angrier music for meaner sessions, all that really mattered was the bass line. I didn't need a plan to have a good session; I needed a pulse.
If that great red-walled room was a womb, I was its heart. I was the moving center, my will a muscular force. There was nowhere I could go, it seemed, that the cushion of my client's longing wouldn't support me. It happened to be 10:45 in the morning, but the only time that mattered in that room was indicated on the wall-mounted timer that I turned a full circle when I walked in. There was only ever one hour in the dungeon.
As I closed the door behind me, the pale stripe of my body shifting on the mirrored walls, I dropped my supply box on the floor by the door. Steve flinched at the sound, as I'd intended. I let my heels fall heavy against the wood floor on my way to a row of hooks lining the wall. Retrieving a smooth length of rope, I draped it around my shoulders. Then, finding Steve's favorite floggers, I held one in each hand, letting their thick tassels swing against my legs as I approached him, knowing the gentle slap of leather against my legs would agitate him. Standing over his curled body from behind, I dropped a flogger to the floor on either side of him and bent over so that only the tips of my hair, and my breath, touched him.
"Get the fuck up," I whispered.
"Yes, Mistress," he exhaled, and hurried to his feet, head still bowed toward his chest. Steve also knew that looking at me was a privilege he had to earn. Pulling his hands behind his back, I slid the rope off my shoulders and looped it around his wrists. With a few quick loops and a single knot, I securely bound his arms from wrists to shoulders. I paused then, giving him a few moments to absorb the warmth of my body so close behind him, and the embrace of the rope, which I knew would only feel tighter as our hour progressed. There were clients I cowed with words, but with Steve his own anticipation was enough to wilt him into submission; I just had to pause and let it accumulate. Slowly dragging the tip of my finger from the base of his spine to the hard vertebral knuckle at the base of his neck, I watched a shudder follow my touch up his body. Pausing again, I let my fingertip rest on him, and knew how the heat of my touch rippled out across his body. No job, indeed, no exercise I've ever done, has been so coldly empathic as this one. I grabbed a handful of hair from the back of Steve's head and pulled hard. Steve yelped, and sank jerkily to his knees. I stepped around in front of him, keeping my handful of hair so that when I crouched down to face him, his head was thrust back to face the ceiling, eyes wide and wild. His mouth trembled with short breaths, lips parted. Pressing a finger against his chin, I gave his hair an extra tug to open his mouth wider.
"Thirsty, Steve?" I asked. He knew I alluded to the golden shower I would end the session with, if he was good. Steve was always good. Between now and then, however, I would tan his ass with those leather tails until he cried for mercy.
Who pays to get peed on before their breakfast has been digested? It's a logical question, and one I've answered after nearly every explanation of my working hours. The day shift began at 10:30 A.M. on weekdays and ended at 5:30 P.M. Often I would arrive at the dungeon at 10:20 and already have a client waiting for me. It didn't take long to figure out that most of the patrons of the dungeon were not, as I had originally suspected, social outcasts who spent their time in basement apartments fondling pet snakes and watching pornography. They were seemingly normal. The majority of them were married fathers, and they were nearly all professionally successful. My client base consisted of stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, grandpas, bus drivers, restauranteurs, and retirees. Getting peed on, spanked, sodomized, or diapered was less often a delicacy than a basic provision to these men. And while the need for it was compulsive, it was also routine; it was an itch that they had been compulsively scratching for many years, and it did not require an atmosphere of nighttime, intoxication, or great fanfare. The day-shift crowd scheduled their whippings the way they scheduled business luncheons: out of necessity and convenience. En route to the dungeon they dropped off the dry cleaning, or their wives at Macy's. Just as the cafés all over midtown Manhattan had their lunch rushes, so did we.
After Steve's thirst had been quenched and he'd showered and dressed, we exchanged the usual pleasantries: I asked after his wife, and he tipped me a crisp fifty-dollar bill. Leaning my head out the door of the Red Room, I called, "Walking out!" — our practice of warning the occupants of nearby rooms to stay put. Clients could never meet in the halls of the dungeon. Then I led Steve down the opulent passageway to the magnetically locked chamber leading to the elevator.
"I'll see you on Friday," I said.
"Thank you, Justine." Steve smiled warmly and adjusted his tie. Before I had even heard the click of the door's lock, I pulled my hair into a bun, kicked off my heels, and headed back to clean the Red Room. I had an exam the next morning to study for.
BECOMING A DOMINATRIX had not been my plan when I moved to New York, though New York had been my plan since childhood; I just knew I would go there for college and stay for life. My ability to identify a Point A and Point B was always well developed; so long as I could figure out the quickest route between where I was and where I wanted to be, I had a deep assuredness that I could get myself there. High school had seemed an impediment to my ambitions; I knew better than my teachers what I wanted to learn and how to learn it. At sixteen, after passing the GED, I moved out of my mother's Cape Cod home and into my own Boston apartment and took on a busy schedule of night classes at Harvard, waitressing shifts, and experimental drug use. At nineteen, I didn't bother to research other options, applying only to one school, where I knew I belonged, in the heart of the Village.
In the blistering August of '99, after receiving my acceptance letter from The New School, I moved the crates of books I'd been hoarding all my life up the three flights of stairs of my first New York apartment. My mother had helped me stuff her car with all my crates, and together we trudged up and down the narrow staircase all afternoon. By five o'clock we had finished and sat on the car's rear bumper under the shade of the open hatchback passing a bottle of water between us. My mother speculated as yet another shirtless man with sculpted legs in short shorts walked by.
"He's so handsome as well! Men in New York really take care of themselves. There must be a gym nearby."
"Mom, this is Chelsea. Of course there's a gym nearby, not that that explains the Daisy Dukes."
"Oh! Of course." She laughed, and we finished our water. "So Melly, why don't we take showers and then walk down to the West Village and find a little café to grab some dinner in. We should celebrate!"
She turned to me and smiled, her eagerness beaming outward. I squinted ahead, where the sun had sunk behind a row of buildings, crowning their tops with fiery halos.
"You know, you should probably just head back north. You're going to hit traffic, and you won't get home until at least ten, even if you leave right now." I pushed off the car and stretched my arms over my head, blocking her face from view. "I'm exhausted, too. Don't you have work tomorrow morning?"
I didn't turn to see her smile wilt. I knew well the longing I'd see, and the disappointment. I'd seen it when I told her I was leaving the first time, and every time I'd ever spoken with that certainty in my own will, in my own ability to cross the distance between here and there, and to do it with as little help from anyone as I could manage. She knew that to try to stop me would be to risk losing me, a risk she was unwilling to take.
I did struggle those first nine months in New York. It was tougher and lonelier than I'd anticipated, and some of the things I'd thought I could leave behind had followed me. Still, my life gathered speed quickly, and I flourished at The New School. After the first nine months, I moved into an apartment in a Brooklyn neighborhood with three close friends and began to feel as if my life was finally getting started.
We'd been living in a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for two years when a new tenant moved into the apartment next to us, a young woman. Coming home from class one afternoon, I saw my roommate Rebecca chatting with her in the vestibule of our building. They smiled and parted ways, the new neighbor briefly meeting my eyes as she passed by me on her way out. Rebecca smiled and pulled me inside by the arm.
"You're never going to guess what she does!"
"What? Do you know her?"
"She went to UMass with me, before I transferred to The New School."
"She's a professional dominatrix!"
I immediately turned around, hoping I might still see her and be able to apply this new information to the woman who had brushed by me. She was gone, of course, and all I could remember was her steady gaze.
Aside from a few tame experiments with handcuffs, I had no concept of what this meant. What was the job description for a dominatrix? I listened to my neighbor's nocturnal comings and goings, and a fascination began to grow in me, unfurling tendrils of curiosity that climbed the wall between our two apartments, where I once pressed my ear to hear her reprimanding someone for not cleaning the toilet properly.
I wanted to talk to her but couldn't stand the thought of sounding the neophyte to anyone, about anything, so I conducted some preliminary research. It turned out that every mid-sized newsstand in Manhattan carried S&M periodicals. These publications, which varied from those with glossy, color covers to smaller, black-and-white newsprint weeklies, bore names like The Vault, Dominant Domain, and Fetish World. Underneath these titles posed shapely women with stony eyes and vampish mouths. They glared seductively in nurse costumes, catsuits, and burlesque outfits with riding crops and ropes in their hands, the toes of their heeled boots resting on the parts of other bodies. Though placed in the newsstand near Playboy, the fetish magazine models lacked the flirtatious overtures of those neighboring cover girls. Instead of coy compliance they advertised entitlement. You want me, these women glared, ha!
The contents of these magazines consisted mostly of erotic stories and advertisements for "dungeons." I envisioned literal dungeons: murky, dripping stone caves nestled in some fishy underground nook of Chinatown, or the industrial neighborhoods under the bridges, where you couldn't even hail a cab at night. Still, while some of the "mistresses" featured in the ads seemed to fit that idea, their faces ragged under bad wigs, other models exuded a posh, moneyed glamour. I felt sure they didn't work in dingy cellars.
Some ads also promoted the dominant services of men, or "masters." I found myself giggling nervously while looking at these, as if someone were watching me. I didn't linger over them. Powerful, dominant women were one thing. These men looked silly, I told myself, not threatening. What woman needs to pay to be dominated? Isn't the more common problem finding a man who doesn't want to dominate you?
Soon after, I spotted my neighbor loading her whites at the neighborhood Laundromat. I feigned engrossment in the television mounted over her machine, covertly scouring her sweatpants and running sneakers for some sign of her dual life. Did I expect to see a pair of knee-high leather boots emerge from her mesh laundry bag? A whip? Of medium height, with a cascade of dark hair and the kind of face that people call handsome on a woman, she was impenetrable. I would never have pegged her as anything other than another Pratt student.
I had always been fascinated by the ability to appear one thing and to be another and was routinely enthralled by anything taboo: drug culture, deviant sexual practices, the criminal machinations of my hometown's juvenile delinquents. Even as a kid, I'd always found most compelling those stories of underworlds and extremes: Raymond Chandler, Anaïs Nin, Go Ask Alice. My interest in this woman, though, was something more specific than the romance of misbehavior.
Though I'd waited tables my first year in New York and had before that been both a chambermaid and boatyard hand on the Cape, my most recent jobs had been in publishing. At the time that I met my new neighbor, I had taken a hiatus from working life — my longest since the age of fourteen — and while I finished college my parents would cover my living expenses. Since childhood I'd never accepted so much help from them, having decided early on that making my own money meant more freedom. Life may have been easier with help, but I could never give in to the pleasure of that ease. I itched for the independence that self-sufficiency lent me, the confidence I found in not needing or owing anyone. Money was security, and I needed my own.
In that August of 2002, circumstances were urging me toward my neighbor's door. Air-conditioning was an unaffordable luxury. I lay draped across our curbside-salvaged couch lacquered in sweat. Feet in a bucket of ice water, I recounted the list of options that awaited me post-graduation, as I had sat and done the day before, and the day before that. I would graduate with a stellar GPA, but what else? A liberal arts degree was indeed a "liberal" qualification to work in the arts; it qualified me to make coffee and answer phones for someone actually doing something related to the arts. I knew I could succeed in a classroom environment, but my stamina for work that I didn't find compelling had never been great. I interviewed well and enjoyed the challenge of playing the right role in order to get a job. It never took long, however, for me to grow bored and simply stop showing up. I couldn't bear office work or ass kissing and had little confidence that my skills — talking about books, writing, and reading people — would translate into employment I could sustain.
I stared at the sneaker trussed to the leg of the couch by a piece of rope, which I used to ferry my recreational drugs up the four stories from my dealer on street level. Thinking of his usual wolf whistle with white knuckles, I watched a water bug brazenly meander across the living room floor. I needed money before I could make that call. In fact, I needed money for more than that. Life in New York cost more than it had in Boston, from subway fares to food. I only accepted the bare minimum from my parents, and too often the utility money ended up in that sneaker.
I heard the choke of pipes in the wall behind me as a toilet flushed next door, where I imagined a life free of these worries. I doubted my neighbor was obsessing about her financial situation right now. She was probably reading the Times — or some more exotic fare — in air-conditioned, roachless comfort. Surely she had no need to accept money from her parents, or anyone. That was enough; without knowing what exactly I'd say to her, I stepped out of the bucket into a pair of blackened flip-flops, shuffled into the hallway, heart pounding, and knocked on my neighbor's door.
She opened the door wearing a pink robe, slippers, and a bemused smile, as though she had been expecting me.
"Good morning," she said, raising an oversize mug in cheers. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Whip Smart by Melissa Febos. Copyright © 2010 Melissa Febos. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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