What do you like? the men would ask. Spitting, I’d say. To even utter the word felt like the worst kind of cuss and I trained myself not to flinch or look away or offer a compensatory smile after I said it. In the dungeon’s dim rooms, I unlearned my instinct for apology. I learned to hold a gaze. I learned the pleasure of cruelty.
It was not true cruelty, of course. My clients paid seventy-five dollars an hour to enact their disempowerment. The sex industry is a service industry and I served humiliation to order. But the pageant of it was the key. To spit in an unwilling face was inconceivable to me and still is. But at a man who had paid for it?
They knelt at my feet. They crawled naked across gleaming wood floors. They begged to touch me, begged for forgiveness. I refused. I leaned over their plaintive faces and gathered the wet in my mouth. I spat. Their hard flinch, eyes clenched. The shock of it radiated through my body, then settled, then swelled into something else.
Do you hate men? people sometimes asked. Not at all, I answered. You must work out a lot of anger that way, they suggested. I never felt angry in my sessions, I told them. I often explained that the dominatrix’s most useful tool was a well-developed empathic sense. What I did not acknowledge to any curious stranger, or to myself, was that empathy and anger are not mutually exclusive.
We are all unreliable narrators of our own motives. And ‘feeling’ something neither proves nor disproves its existence. Conscious feelings are no accurate map to the psychic imprint of our experiences; they are the messy catalog of emotions once and twice and thrice removed, the symptoms of what we won’t let ourselves feel. They are not Jane Eyre’s locked-away Bertha Mason, but her cries that leak through the floorboards, the fire she sets while we sleep and the wet nightgown of its quenching.
I didn’t derive any sexual pleasure from spitting, I assured people. Only psychological. Now, this dichotomy seems flimsy at best. How is the pleasure of giving one’s spit to another’s hungry mouth not sexual? I needed to distinguish that desire from what I might feel with a lover. I wanted to divorce the pleasure of violence from that of sex. But that didn’t make it so.
It was the thrill of transgression, I said. Of occupying a male space of power. It was the exhilaration of doing the thing I would never do, was forbidden to do by my culture and by my conscience. I believed my own explanations, though now it is easy to poke holes in them.
I did not want to be angry. What did I have to be angry about? My clients sought catharsis through the reenactment of childhood traumas. They were hostages to their pasts, to the people who had disempowered them. I was no such hostage – I did not even want to consider it. I wanted only to be brave and curious and in control. I did not want my pleasure to be any kind of redemption. One can only redeem a thing that has already been lost, or taken. I did not want to admit that someone had taken something from me.
His name was Alex and he lived at the end of a long unpaved driveway off Hatchville Road in Falmouth, Massachusetts. It was a ten-minute walk from the house I grew up in. Our homes sat on the bank of Deep Pond and like many of the ponds on Cape Cod, ours formed some fifteen thousand years ago when a block of ice broke from a melting glacier and drove deep into the solidifying land of my future backyard. When the ice block melted, the deep depression filled with water and became what is called a ‘kettle hole lake’.
Despite its small circumference, our pond plummeted fifty feet at its deepest point. My brother and I and all the children raised on the pond spent our summers getting wet, chasing one another through invented games, our happy screams garbled with water. I often swam out to the deepest point – not the center of the pond, but to its left – and treaded water over this heart cavity. In summer, the sun warmed the surface to bath temperatures, but a few feet deeper it went cold. Face warm, arms flapping, I dangled my feet into that colder depth and shivered. Fifty feet was taller than any building in our town, was more than ten of me laid head to foot. It was a mystery big enough to hold a whole city. I could swim in it my whole life and never know what lay at its bottom.
An entry in my diary from age ten announces: Today Alex came over and swam with us. I think he likes me. I don’t know why I like boys so much now.
Alex was a grade ahead of me and a foot taller. He had a wide mouth, tapered brown eyes, and a laugh that brayed clouds in the chill of fall mornings at our bus stop. He wore the same shirt for four out of five school days and I thought he was beautiful. I had known Alex for years but that recorded swim is the first clear memory I have of him. A few months later, he spat on me for the first time.
When I turned eleven, I enrolled in the public middle school with all the other fifth and sixth graders in our town. The new bus stop was further down Hatchville Road, where it dead-ended at Boxberry Hill. On the corner was a large house, owned by Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. Early in his career, Ballard had worked with the local Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and it was during his deep-sea dives off the coast of Massachusetts that his obsession with shipwrecks was born. Sometimes I studied that house – its many gleaming windows and ivy-choked tennis court – and thought about the difference between Ballard and my father, who was a sea captain in the Merchant Marines. One man carried his cargo across oceans; the other ventured deep inside them to discover his. I was drawn to the romance of each: to slice across the glittering surface, and also to plunge into the cold depths. A stone wall wrapped around Ballard’s yard. Here, we waited for the school bus.
I read books as I walked to the bus stop. Reading ate time. Whole hours disappeared in stretches. It shortened the length of my father’s voyages, moved me closer to his returns with every page. I was a magician with a single power: to disappear the world. I emerged from whole afternoons of reading, my life a foggy half-dream through which I drifted as my self bled back into me like steeping tea.
The start of fifth grade marked more change than the location of my bus stop. My parents had separated that summer. And my body, that once reliable vessel, began to transform. But what emerged from it was no happy magic, no abracadabra. It went kaboom. And this new body was harder to disappear.
I wish people didn’t change sometimes, I wrote in my diary. By people, I meant my parents. I meant me. I meant the boy who swam across that lake toward my new body with its power to compel but not control.
Before puberty, I was a strong, brown child who moved through the world and toward other people without hesitance or self-consciousness. I read hungrily and kept lists of all the words I wanted to look up in a notebook with a red velvet cover. I still have the notebook. Ersatz, it reads. Entropy. Mnemonic. Morass. Corpulent. Hoary. I was smart and strong and my power lay in these things alone. My parents loved me well and mirrored these strengths back to me.
Perhaps more so than other girls, my early world was a safe one. Despite the sorrow of my father’s departures, I was protected from the darker leagues of what it meant to be female. I think now of the Titanic – not the familiar tragedy of its wreck, the scream of ice against her starboard flank, the thunder of seawater gushing through her cracked hull. I think of the short miracle of her passage. The 375 miles she floated, immaculate, across the Atlantic. My early passage was a miracle, too. And like the Titanic, it did not last.
My mother noticed first. Your body is a temple, she told me. But the bra she bought me felt more straightjacket than vestment. I wore baggy T-shirts and hunched my shoulders. I tried to bury my body. It was too big in all the wrong ways. My hips went purple from crashing them into table corners; I no longer knew my own shape. My mother brought home a book called The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls. It explained hormonal shifts, the science of breasts and pubic hair. It was not The What’s Happening to the World as I Knew It? Book for Girls and did not explain why being the only girl on the baseball team no longer felt like a triumph. It did not explain why grown men in passing cars, to whom I had always been happily invisible, now leered at me. It did not explain why or even acknowledge that what was happening to my body changed my value in the world.
I did not ask about these other changes. Maybe some children do. Maybe it is easier to ask such questions of happy parents. My parents were sad. They heaved their broken hearts around our house and the house across town where my father now slept and filled every room they entered with that gray weight. But I don’t think I would have said a thing either way. I was not that kind of child. And besides, if the changes I felt were not indexed in the book they gave me, perhaps they were mine alone. What if I asked and they did not have answers? It already seemed a risk to reveal myself.
Children know so little of the world. Every new thing might be our own creation. If a logic is not given, we invent one. How would my mother have explained it to me, at ten? I can’t imagine. She taught me the world she wished for me.
One autumn afternoon, Alex invited me and my little brother to his house to play soccer. I was not a soccer player, but I dragged my little brother down the road and up that dirt driveway to where Alex and his cousin kicked the ball back and forth across the patchy grass. The sky hung low over his dusty yard and silvery clouds ripened overhead. At eleven, I could still win a race against the boys on my baseball team. Even holding my T-shirt tented in front of my chest, I could win. They still called me Mrs. Babe Ruth. But Alex was a year older than me and twice as big. And he did not let me win.
For an hour, he pummeled the net with goals. He kicked the ball so hard that I jumped out of its path, then burned with shame and chased it into the woods.
Eat that! he sneered, and spat into the cloud of dust kicked up by our feet. He sauntered back to his side of our makeshift field and swiped his forehead with the hem of his T-shirt, baring his flat stomach, ridged with muscle.
An hour into our game, the sky broke, dumping water onto our dusty field. Alex didn’t stop, so neither did I. I ran, wet hair plastered to my face and neck. My oversized T-shirt clung to my chest, translucent and sopping. Even that didn’t stop me. I ran, thighs burning, lungs heaving, mud splattered up the legs of my jeans. Alex was a machine, dribbling the ball through inches-deep puddles of mud, driving it into our goal. He barely looked at me, but every kick felt personal, aimed at my body. I did not understand what we were fighting for, only that I could not surrender.
I drilled into that day with everything I had and it was not enough. Not even close. It was the last day that I believed my body’s power lay in its strength.
Twenty-five years later, I read that day’s entry in my diary. Today, I wrote, I played soccer at Alex’s house for FOUR HOURS! It was SO FUN!
It was not fun. It was a humiliation. It was a mystery. It was a punishment, though I did not know for what. And the instinct in me to hide it so strong that I lied in my diary. I wanted no record of that wreck.
The Titanic was named after the Greek Titans, an order of divine beings that preceded the Olympic deities. I loved Greek mythology as a girl, and among my favorite gods was Mnemosyne, a Titaness and the mother of the Muses. According to fourth century BC Greek texts, the dead were given a choice to drink either from the river Lethe, which would erase their memories of the life before reincarnation, or to drink from the river Mnemosyne, and carry those memories with them into the next life. In his Aeneid, Virgil wrote that the dead could not achieve reincarnation without forgetting. At the age of twelve, I had made my choice.
The other regulars on the stone wall of our bus stop were two girls, Sarah and Chloe. They were also a grade ahead of me. Sarah was blond and nervous. Chloe and Alex were cousins.
Alex had ignored all three of us at our previous bus stop, but not anymore. Sometimes he whispered to one girl about the other two, mean words that we laughed at with the faint hysteria of relief that it was not us that day. He teased Chloe about boys in their class, or how small she was. Once, he picked her up and pretended to throw her over the stone wall. Stop it, Alex! she shouted. She blushed furiously and rolled her eyes while Sarah and I envied her. Sarah blanched when bullied and we could immediately see the crumple behind her face that preceded tears. Alex always stopped before she cried. Eventually, he didn’t bother with her anymore. With me he was relentless.
My insults were not as effective, but I always fought back. He challenged me to contests, with Sarah as the enthusiastic judge. Races that I could never win. Staring contests. Arm wrestling matches in which we knelt in the damp grass and he slammed the back of my hand onto the stone wall’s surface. He pretended it was a game or a joke and though they all laughed, we knew it wasn’t. There was none of the coddling he gave to Chloe, or the caution with which he approached Sarah. Still, I would not accept victimhood. Though I woke filled with sickening dread every morning and went to sleep with it every night, to tell my mother or ask her to drive me to school was unthinkable; the idea was repulsive to me.
I was the daughter of a sea captain. I would not be rescued. Idiom, maritime tradition, and even law have insisted that ‘the captain goes down with the ship’. The rule implies both a sense of responsibility to the rescue of a captain’s passengers and to his pride. Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic was seen on the ship’s bridge moments before it was engulfed in water. My own stubbornness reflected this same ethos – to protect my tenderest wards, or go down trying, alone.
One day he began chasing me. I don’t know what he planned to do if he caught me and I don’t think he knew either. To my relief, the bus arrived before we found out. He chased me up the bus steps but stopped short behind me and strolled past as I slid into a seat. I didn’t realize that he’d spat on me until I felt the wet between my hair and the vinyl bus seat. I reached behind my head and pulled my fingers away, wiping them on the leg of my jeans as I stared out the bus window. I felt a new sensation in my chest, behind my breastbone. It pulled, a hand gathering cloth.
The second time, I spat back. Over a period of weeks, he spat in my hair, my face, my books, my backpack. I rarely got him back, but I always tried. Once, I dodged him well enough to board the bus behind him, unscathed. At the last minute, as I stepped onto the bus, he bounded back down the aisle and hocked a great wad of mucus onto my cheek.
I knew that if I gave in to tears or stopped fighting back that he would stop. I could not. My defiance matched my suffering.
One afternoon I did not see him on the bus after school and realized, with tentative relief, that I would not have to fight my way home. I hurried off the bus to get a head start on Sarah and Chloe, uninterested in the conversation that we three girls might share in his absence. I retrieved my book from my backpack as I passed the end of Alex’s street.
I felt him behind me before I heard him. I flinched so hard and my despair came so fast and strong that I did not have time to steel myself before the tears fell. I pushed out a single, gasped, fuck you, but could not form words after that. He followed silently, watching me in profile. I raised my book between our faces to block his view. He pushed it down.
I’m sorry, he said. I cried harder, my breath stuttering, and raised my book again. He pushed it down again. I didn’t know it bothered you, he said. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think you could take it, he said. It’s not because I don’t like you, he said. I do.
I believed him. Superstition makes Greek fishermen spit three times in their nets before setting sail, to ward off evil. King Minos forced the philosopher Polyeidus to teach his foolish son magic, and when granted freedom, the philosopher asked the fool to spit into his mouth, to make him forget. Perhaps there is no spit given without desire, without a fear of powers enormous enough to destroy you. But Alex’s mouth was my awakening. In some inchoate way, I understood that desire led to fear which could lead to hate – all without ever obliterating that original want. It was a power struggle that would take me twenty more years to truly understand.
After that day, Alex let me be. I read my books at the bus stop. But I understood something new. That he had wanted something from me and hated me for it. That there was nothing I could have given or withheld or done to change that. In the year that followed, I came to better understand the lessons about my female body, the ones that tell us punishment is a reward, that disempowerment is power. I quit baseball. And when one of the boys I used to play with wanted to put his hands inside my clothes, I did not stop him. Perhaps to let him win was the better way, after all.
The other girls at school pranced in bathing suits in carpeted basements in front of huge televisions. They stuffed their mothers’ bras and mimicked the poses of models in lingerie magazines. They talked endlessly about the boys who’d begun calling my house in the evening. At twelve, I already had a body like those women in the magazines, but it was no prize and they offered me no congratulations. It was a race that I had won without trying and that to win was the greatest loss of all.
And eventually, I understood the strength that was no strength, that was a punishment no matter what I did or did not do. So I let my friend’s older brother close the bathroom door. I let him press his mouth against the back of my neck. I let him dig under my clothes and between my legs. My once-strong body became a passive thing, tossed and splintered, its corners rounded from use. Unrecognizable.
There was a pleasure in compelling them. The way they could not stay away. But as soon as they touched me, it was gone. I had no control over what happened next, the names they called me in school, the crude gestures, the prank phone calls – not even when my mother answered the phone. She wanted to help me, but I had no words for what was happening. My chambers were breached. They filled with that weight. I was sunk.
How could she have prepared me for this? You cannot win against an ocean. There is no good strategy in a rigged game. There are only new ways to lose.
There was a difference between my body in the world and my body at home. At eleven, I soaked in the bath, a damp book in one hand, the other lazily exploring the tender handfuls of my breasts and new bloom of my hips, the soft pocket of my sex. The first time I slid on my back to the bottom of the tub, propped my heels on the wall aside the faucet and let that hot water pummel me, I understood that to crack my own hull was a glory, a power summoned instead of submerged. Alone, I was both ship and sea, and I felt no shame, only the cascade of pleasure, my body shuddering against the smooth porcelain.
I stole My Secret Garden from my mother’s bedroom bookshelf and kept it tucked under my mattress. Nancy Friday’s 1973 volume of real women’s fantasies is organized by headings that include ‘The Lesbians’, ‘Anonymity’, ‘Rape’, and ‘The Zoo’. I came to all of them, even the one story about a woman who fucks a dog. I felt no embarrassment or shock at the stories nor my own pleasure. Only orgasm after orgasm. I discovered that after the first one I could come again and again and again with only seconds in between – a capacity no lover discovered for another twenty years. I came on my back, my belly, straddling my pillows. I came with the handle of a wooden hairbrush inside of me, a carrot, a cucumber, the plastic leg of a doll. I tasted my new wetness, the consistency of spit, but salted and sweet. I came on my knees on my bedroom floor with a hand mirror between my legs. I came so hard that the floor groaned and my mother shouted from downstairs, go to sleep, Melissa!
Alone in my bedroom, my body was miles deeper than I had ever fathomed. Under my hands, it quaked from floor to tidal swell. The world was more enormous than I had known, its power crushing. But I was also enormous, I found, a seething world of which men knew so little.
After the prank phone calls, after the time my mother picked me up from a friend’s house and said only you smell like sex, after the pull in my chest grew so familiar I couldn’t tell if it was in me or was me, after my father read my diary and the long cold catalogue of every boy that touched me but never how little I felt under their hands, after the screaming fights about where I had really spent my Saturday afternoon, after they found the liquor bottles in my sock drawer, after they changed the phone number and sent me to private school for a year, but shortly before I started kissing girls, I went back to public school in eighth grade and returned to Ballard’s stone wall.
This time, when Alex kept walking beside me past his own street and led me into the woods across from my family’s mailbox, I knew what he wanted. We lay in the damp leaves, twigs cracking under us, amid the smell of pine needles and dirt. I stared up at the spires of treetops, the green glowed stars of leaves, and listened to the coo of mourning doves.
There, Alex covered my mouth with his. Though we had traded spit before, ours had never mingled like this. For the first time, I tasted that mixture of desire and violence. It had always been both. He pushed my T-shirt up over my belly and chest where it bunched in my armpits. I let him. It was a thing I had done many times before, or let be done to me. But this time it filled me with a terrible sadness. In those woods where I had played all my life, so close to my own home, the bright flicker of light of the pond nearly visible through the trees, it felt how I was killing something, or letting him kill it. Still, I did not stop him. Eventually, he stopped on his own. I sat up and pulled down my shirt. We parted without speaking. I knew we would never speak of it, might never speak again. I didn’t care. I didn’t want anything from him, except what he’d already taken. And I could never have that back.
Bob Ballard always dreamed of finding the Titanic. As a boy he had idolized Captain Nemo. I used to imagine the glory of that moment when he discovered it. How magnificent it must have looked, the hulking remains seventy years buried on the ocean floor, one thousand miles out to sea from where I grew up. The glory of that moment was dampened, Ballard later claimed, by the sobering reality that it was a gravesite he’d found. Fifteen hundred people died in the wreck and when his crew found it, they could see where the bodies had fallen.
What if they hadn’t known about those bodies? What if Ballard had not even been searching for the Titanic when he found it? A mystery solved is always a death: that of possibility, of denial, of the dream of our own invincibility.
I believed all the reasons that I gave for ending up in the dungeon. That the pleasure I took from spitting in men’s faces was no kind of redemption. I did not think of Alex until years later, when I was writing a book about having been a dominatrix. I was a grown woman, alone at my desk. And when I remembered – the flinch I would not give him, the terrible clutching dread – I became that girl, feet dangled into the cold of Deep Pond, then suddenly touching down. I saw it all – my own ghosted wreck glowing at the bottom.
In the dungeon, my identity was distilled once again to its objective meaning. And those men, like all the men before them, prescribed my body’s uses. But this time, my job was to deny instead of acquiesce, to say no instead of yes. Maybe this was the best way to learn how to form those sounds in my own mouth.
I want you, they said over and over. You cannot have me, I replied every time. Please, they insisted. No, I said. Like Charybdis chained to the ocean floor, I spat the sea into their eyes and roared. No. No. No. No. No. Inside those two letters stretched a fifty-foot microcosm, a world over which I had been treading water for decades. I had not known how tired I was until I stopped. And then, I grew strong. What more perfect a redemption could I have designed? I did not have to understand it to enjoy it. And when I did understand, I felt as I imagine Ballard must have when he glimpsed his Titanic for the first time.
I saw Alex once. Years later, when I was a dominatrix, or shortly thereafter. On a sunny summer afternoon, on the porch of his brother’s house. He looked the same. He would not look at me, though I ached to show him this new me, this mistress of no. And in that wish was the knowledge of my still soft parts, how they shook in his presence, how innocent they remained.
They say that to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. But this is not true. Being loved, the relentless care of my family, my lovers, my friends, has sewn me back together. Sometimes the warmth of a mouth that loves me is enough to break me open, to unravel all that careful control. I am shocked and so relieved to find that I am still soft inside. That I can give my body to a lover and still keep it for myself. And it is that lost girl whom they love, too, whether I can or not.
When I think back to that boy, his big hands and wet mouth, sometimes I want to go back, to tell him no, to preserve the piece of me that was driven deep underground. But more than anything, I want to apologize to that girl. How could she have known? She survived the best way she knew. The true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories, the ones we build and carry through our lives because it is easier to preserve some mysteries. We don’t need the truth to survive and sometimes our survival depends on its denial. And that wreck appeared to me both magnificent and tragic. How had I hidden it for so long? It did feel like a gravesite. Not of anything that Alex had killed in me, but that I had killed, in my burying. Whatever river you drink from, forgetting does not erase one’s past. It only hides what wrecks you carry into the next life.
Photograph © Bea Mahan