“Are you left- or right-handed?” Dan asked, walking me down the subway steps.
“Right-handed,” I said. “Why?”
When we stopped at the bottom, he put his arms around me and hugged tightly, nuzzling his lips into my neck. Suddenly, my vision blurred in a flash of blinding pain as I felt his teeth sink into my right shoulder.
I had experienced my share of pain over the years — a broken arm, a split chin — but not like this. Never intentionally.
As we had wrapped our third date earlier that night, he had asked if he could mark my foray into B.D.S.M. by biting me, and I’d said yes. I didn’t think he’d actually do it.
After unclenching his jaw, he kissed me on the cheek and said good night. Then he was gone.
I walked through the turnstile in a daze, only faintly aware of the people around me. My skin pulsed.
I arrived at the subway platform drunk on endorphins, running my fingers under my coat to feel the tiny grooves in my shoulder his bite had left. Only later would I realize he had asked if I was right-handed so he could bite where my handbag would rest — the pain reminding me of him.
Man, that had hurt. What the hell was I getting myself into?
“You O.K.?” Dan texted, minutes later.
I stared at the blinking cursor. If I wanted to back out, now was the time. “See you in two weeks,” I replied.
I hadn’t been looking to date. I was still recovering from the demise of my previous relationship with a journalist who broke up with me after I told him about my struggles with alcohol and family issues.
The journalist and I had met on OkCupid while I was touring the Southeast with my band. Every day we would text each other a single photo from our oddball work lives: a Nascar race in Charlotte; a tricycle factory in Queens.
Meanwhile, I hid what I preferred he didn’t see: Me relapsing on cheap merlot in Raleigh. Crying at a truck stop in Duluth. It was a tough time. My father was hospitalized and dying. But I wanted to be “fun,” so why burden him with unnecessary details?
We went through the motions of building a relationship: cooking dinner and watching movies. But when he asked why I didn’t drink, I made excuses about early morning meetings. Concealing the messy parts of myself came naturally. I had done it my whole life.
As a child, I had learned to hide who I was to avoid upsetting my father, an Egyptian immigrant. In my teens I was chronically depressed, but he didn’t talk about feelings, so I started sneaking shots of the Tanqueray he kept in the freezer. I became a touring musician, and on my short visits home we maintained an unspoken agreement: I wouldn’t bother my father with who I really was, and he wouldn’t ask.
I told all of this to the journalist the night before I boarded a plane to Texas. It was too much for him. Then my father died, and I sank into despair. When it came to dating, I felt hopeless. I thought: Why even bother? As soon as a guy finds out about my baggage, he bolts. I may as well walk around with a “Danger: High Maintenance” sign strapped to my chest.
Around this time I received an OkCupid notification that someone had “liked” my profile. I logged on, saw a black-and-white photo of a man’s jawline and clicked.
“About me,” it read. “I’m a feminist. I respect women while simultaneously enjoy dominating them.”
Great. One of those “Fifty Shades” opportunists. I was appalled, of course, so I kept reading.
“Favorite things: Sending you to work with marks, the fragrance of your hair lingering on my hands, photography and Dan Savage.”
I slammed shut my laptop. I was, well, turned on. But I couldn’t message him. Kink was something people did on HBO. I had scoffed at the “Fifty Shades of Grey” craze. I could not message him.
Or could I? I was an adult. Just because I wasn’t dating didn’t mean I couldn’t reply.
I opened up a message box and typed: “Big fan of Dan Savage. I’m intrigued.” I hit send and then ran out of the room, screaming.
One week and dozens of emails later, Dan and I agreed to meet at Prospect Park. He was handsome, mid-30s, dark brown eyes and hair. Very fit. He told me he’d been a “dominant” for years and lived with his girlfriend in an open relationship. They had rules: no unprotected sex, no sleepovers, no kissing. I had never met a man who communicated his needs so confidently.
“Where would we meet?” I asked.
“Your place, before work. 6 a.m.”
I gulped. I was not a morning person, nor did I love the idea of being seen naked in the light of day. But Dan felt safe and in control. I liked being near him.
“You need to tell me everything,” he said. “All of your baggage. Any triggers. I want you to keep a journal and send it to me, too. I have to know what might come up.”
Later, after that third date, we agreed on a set of rules and boundaries. I shared everything I was usually too afraid to tell a new partner.
“My dad died three months ago,” I said, “so maybe we avoid the ‘daddy’ stuff?”
“Got it. What else?”
“I’m not a blackout drunk, but if I drink I get really depressed. I’d prefer you didn’t drink around me.”
“Great,” he said. “I’d like you to be fully aware anyway.”
For the next two months, Dan texted me constantly. His aura of calm control was a revelation for me. Rather than fleeing from my emotional baggage, he welcomed it without fear or judgment.
The nights before his visits I would stay up until 4 a.m. cleaning, eager to please him. He would ring my doorbell as the garbage trucks blared down the street, and it was exhilarating — until it was exhausting. Though Dan wouldn’t admit it, he was a sadist. He would leave me with bite marks and bruises that lasted for weeks.
And I was not a masochist. I hated the pain but found catharsis in how undeterred Dan was by my outbursts. I would cry when his leather belt stung my thighs, but he never tried to curb or deny my feelings. I could sob from the physical pain and then about everything else I had been too afraid to talk about: the relationship I would never have with my father, my impulse to deaden everything with a drink. None of it fazed him.
Then Dan would leave and I would sit alone in my bedroom, his sweat still fresh on my skin, wanting so badly to be held.
I wasn’t the only woman he visited. He would tell me stories of other women he was sleeping with, and I’d repress any feelings of jealousy. I thought he was more evolved than I, as if attachment were some sort of moral failing on my part.
Then an old fling of mine came to town and asked me out to dinner.
“Uh-oh, he might want to come home with me!” I texted Dan, playfully.
“Careful,” he replied. “I don’t like to share.”
I stared at my phone, startled. Since we weren’t romantic, I had assumed he wouldn’t care.
“Dates are fine, but I don’t want you sleeping with other men,” he wrote. “If that’s a problem, we may need to reassess.”
I told Dan I needed time to think about it, and then I went on the date.
My friend and I stayed out until 2 a.m., laughing and making out, and I saw how much I missed being kissed and the warmth of another body. Dan had a partner to go home to, and I was on my own. Was this really what I wanted?
In the end I kept coming to the same conclusion: This would never be enough. If I had worked up the courage to be forthright with him at the beginning, then I could walk away, too.
A few days later, I texted: “I’m sorry, I just need more.”
“If you change your mind,” he replied, “you know where to find me.”
I had found a strange liberation in submitting to Dan, but it was only a first step. I wanted the domination, but I needed lazy Sundays and walks in the park, too. I wasn’t sure what that kind of relationship would look like. I just knew I couldn’t continue hiding — from myself or others.
So I went back on OkCupid and created a new profile. “I’m looking for a monogamous long-term partner whose natural dominant qualities complement my submissive,” I wrote. “That kind of trust takes time to build, but I’m in no hurry.”
Read more about B.D.S.M.