Early in the afternoon on the first Friday in November, Roxy K. told her mother that she was staying out late for a sorority meeting. This was a natural alibi for a girl who was 20 and had just started her first semester at Hunter and who had had the poor luck to end up living with her parents on Roosevelt Island. It was a lie she told often, and in spite of the frequency of its deployment, in spite of its obviousness, in spite of the fact that the sorority had disbanded a month before, it was accepted without question.
At 6 p.m. that evening, Roxy, in a long red coat, was the first to arrive to a dinner at the Moonstruck Diner on West Twenty-Third Street. She said nothing to the servers and shuffled to the windowless end of the restaurant where a row of tables had been pushed together in anticipation, and sat, and waited. If she was not looking for someone to flog her until her back was welted that night, she was hoping to meet someone who might be willing to do so on a night when she had no curfew.
Roxy had never met the other expected guests; nor had she announced her intention to come. None of this was contrary to the invitation she had read online, which is reposted to an age-restricted Yahoo group page every few weeks. It runs short and is always the same, except for the date. There is listed no email or phone number to which an interested but confused party might apply, at the very least, to R.S.V.P. All that is written is that, if you should be inclined to "be among kindred spirits," you will kindly make yourself known at the Moonstruck Diner at six. If you are new to the scene, you may take comfort in knowing that "this is a perfect way to get introduced to the lifestyle in a friendly environment." You will note that it is appreciated "that you dress with the knowledge that this is a vanilla restaurant" to avoid raising the attention of "other patrons."
Like most New York restaurants but for an exceptionally lucky few, at six on a Friday the Moonstruck Diner was all but empty. Within an hour, a solid two dozen men and women were seated by Roxy in a wing of the diner that might well otherwise have been used only when the restaurant was too crowded to afford guests seating in the main atrium.
The diner staff knew to expect them the first Friday of every month. For the past seven years, those back tables have been reserved once a month for a dinner they call a munch. It is open to anyone who knows what it is, and its purpose is to provide a casual space for strangers to talk about their attraction to BDSM. (The currency of the acronym-a product of orthographically economic early-'90s Usenet lingo-obscures the clumsiness of its construction. The middle letters are both assigned double duty, so that the whole thing stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism.)
For many just beginning to think of giving life to their fantasies, it is their only way into the underground.
Earlier that morning, as he was leaving his Westchester home for work, Eric J., 49, told his wife he would be late. He did not say why.
An audience bred on television writers' plotting shortcuts might be quick to pin this as a routine lie of omission, an adulterer's reflex worth little remark except perhaps a knowing wink. This was not the case, exactly. If she had had any suspicion of where he was going, Eric's wife said nothing. That was part of their deal. She had given him leave to go find whatever it was that she would not, and could not, give him, provided that he observed two rules: there could be no penetrative sex, and he would allow her to remain ignorant.
If any lie had been told that day, it was one Eric had told himself. As he left work at around 5 o'clock and boarded the C train to West Twenty-Third, he said to himself that that night would be the night he would do it. He would sit down to dinner, talk to many people, flirt with a few, and then, casually and confidently, follow them to Paddles, New York's most Googleable fetish club. There, depending on how he felt, he might tie some nice woman up, or asked to be tied in turn. That was the plan.
It did not pan out.
The invitation to munch
At 20, Roxy had already discovered her pain threshold.
She was living with her parents on Roosevelt Island; she had to come home last year for the abortion. That was the second time in as many years that she had had to return to her parents' home. The first had been after she had been expelled from Smith for persistently cutting herself. Soon after she got back to New York, she packed her things in the night and bought a train ticket to Boston to go live with her girlfriend, whom she had met over the Internet. When her parents caught her leaving, they drove her to her lover's apartment themselves. For a year the couple had struggled to find paying work, until one day Roxy realized that her girlfriend, who had been born male and could still prove it, had got her pregnant. And so Roxy had to call her parents again.
In the street Roxy stands short and in her long red coat looks shorter still. She has chubby red cheeks and moist skin and a blond ponytail. When she sits in the park, she tends to hunch her shoulders and cock her head forward, and her blue eyes might dart up and down at the crocheting needle she will sometimes have at work in her lap, but she seldom permits them to look into someone else's for more than a second. Her lips are tight even when she smiles. Because she is small, and because hers is the kind of guardedness that suggests not toughness but vulnerability, the kind of defense mechanism that most of us have learned by the time we have left grade school never to leave so conspicuously on display, most people are inclined to guess that Roxy is younger than she really is. She seems to belong to that family of sad children from which Charlie Brown and all of Edward Gorey's creations issued. When she complains about her life, she lays a bass creak over her voice the way ennuied teenagers on television series do; really everything, even the way she plunges her fists into her coat pockets when she walks, is cast to type. Because the generations that have now grown up with the Internet are keenly aware of their self-presentation, it would not be unfair to presume that at least some of this behavior is manufactured; Roxy is playing her part as she thinks she is supposed to play it. Accordingly, the stories she tells are often such crushing bummers that one's capacity for compassion, if not full belief, is often overtaxed.
Her mother is an alcoholic. Her mother hates her because she's queer. Her parents won't let her live on her own. Her parents only love her spoiled brother. Her mother won't go to therapy. Her mother spends all day drinking, of all things, rum. She got pregnant. Her parents hate that. Her ex-girlfriend did not come down from Boston for her abortion. Her father was sick of hearing about her abortion and asked her to get over it. Her father apologized for what he said and explained that he realized that that is something that she can never get over-but was he sincere?
The girl who got Roxy pregnant, much to Roxy's dismay, no longer identifies as a woman. Roxy still calls her a her, though, because she wouldn't have been attracted to her had she been a boy when they met. Roxy says she considered herself bisexual, although it has recently occurred to her that she is in fact asexual, as she feels no physical attraction to other people, except that she likes light facial hair, except not on men, and not on women either. She is currently dating a boy who lives in Vancouver, but only because neither had been dating anyone else and it seemed convenient to have someone, at least in theory. They talk on the phone, but mostly online, on FetLife.com, a social networking site for BDSM enthusiasts.
"It's hard to explain," she admits.
When Roxy is Roxy, it is not often clear, most especially to Roxy herself, who that person is. But walking through Petco, she threatens to turn into someone else. She lingers over the dog collars, wondering if she should buy one for herself. She picks up a foam ball and squeezes it and begins to laugh.
"I have a puppy side," she confides, and tosses the ball between her hands.
That makes four sides. The first, Roxy, studies computer science at Hunter and plays bar trivia every Tuesday night and thanks military personnel she sees in the street for their service. The second, Terry, is a little girl who emerged as a consequence of the fact that, Roxy explains with no detectable sense of how improbably tidy this sounds, she had "had no real childhood," since her parents had always been fighting. When she is Terry, she pitches her voice high and draws animals-but she does not have sex, because that would be sex with a child, which is illegal. If you are a nice person and the setting is right, Terry might come out and show you her coloring book.
Ruby is the third side. Ruby was discovered when Roxy and her ex-girlfriend, the one who had got her pregnant, were wrestling on the floor in their Boston apartment, and her ex had pinned her down and pulled back her hair, and Roxy, unable to move, for the first time entered what the BDSM community calls subspace-a state in which a submissive party, feeling that he or she is wholly under the control of the dominant, can forget, for a moment, all of life's less temporary tyrannies: the restrictions of the body, perhaps, or the immutability of the self.
"It was like a vomit of emotions," Roxy remembers. She closes her eyes with apparent intent to confer a sense of gravity to what she is saying, but admits that she cannot describe in clearer terms the unworldly beauty of that first surrender. Like a mainliner she has been chasing that feeling ever since, most recently at a party in Brooklyn hosted by a Russian woman, where she got flogged for an hour by a strange man three decades her senior and loved it. It did not suffice.
Ever since she moved back to New York, Roxy has been trying to bring Ruby out. It is difficult, of course, because as a newcomer to the city's BDSM community, she has few connections in the scene. In Boston, her ex would take her to bondage parties, undress her, flog her publicly, introduce her to other people, and maybe let them have their go at whipping her. In Boston, she had learned how much she liked getting flogged, and she had made friends. The absence of her parents meant that nothing ever had to be explained. But now she had a curfew, not least of all because that semester at Smith had convinced her mother that her daughter had a dangerous tendency towards self-harm, and on weekends her parents kept her in their second home in Connecticut.
"I need to meet someone who will let me stay over at their place, so I can stay out late and tell my parents I'm sleeping over at a friend's," Roxy says. To that end, she has been trying to meet people online, but that venture is fraught with its own complications. According to the rules that she and her long-distance boyfriend have established for their sexless relationship, no one can talk to Roxy who has not first talked to the boyfriend. His approval is required before she can participate in any bondage play, however spontaneous, with a stranger. Roxy says she finds the arrangement frustrating, if not unfair.
On FetLife.com, Roxy displays herself to advantage. Some of the pictures on her member page are of animals she's drawn: orange elephants, blue penguins. In other pictures, she shows off little crocheted animal figures that she has made, very cleverly, herself. In other pictures, she's in pigtails, she's naked, she's crocheted her arms together and tied her body fast with rope, and she's holding a teddy bear.
One day, things will be easier. One day she will know more people in the scene, and she won't live with her parents, and her boyfriend will loosen up. But thus far New York has seen little of Ruby, and Roxy has had to find other things to do with her time.
At Petco, she can cultivate the puppy side, which is newly tapped. The animals for sale all engage the puppy. Roxy sees and imitates a hamster on its wheel. She coos at the gerbils and lab rats. She searches for the biggest Siamese fighting fish, and wonders if the gecko in the insurance commercials is patterned after a real gecko, and considers whether a dog calendar is right for 2012.
Now Roxy sees the kittens up for adoption, and now she wants another cat. She already has two. She picks up an application and begins to search very earnestly for a desk at which to speak with someone about the process. She says she is unconcerned with her parents' feelings toward having another cat in the house. What could they possibly do?
"I'm 20," she says.
On a day that was not the first Friday of any month, Eric J. had dinner at the Moonstruck Diner. It was a convenient place to go after he had left his publishing job for the day, before taking Metro North back to Westchester. Anyway, it was nice to familiarize himself with the diner. And anyway, he thought the food was decent enough. He ordered breakfast for dinner-because, he said, he hadn't had breakfast that morning, so he might as well have it now-and cut his pancakes into bite-size pieces before drowning them in maple syrup.
Eric stood an inch or two over six feet and tended to let his head sink between this shoulders. The tights curls he kept cropped short on his head had begun to grey, and his hairline to recede, but his face and physique were about as fresh as 49 could ever have promised anyone. A few freckles helped him look boyish. He wore a single metal hoop in his left earlobe, and had for some time. He was handsome. Not too handsome, but, for middle age, not wholly unbeddable either.
"No one has one-night stands anymore," Eric said. When he had come of age in the 1970s that had been acceptable, but no more. "Now you have to know the person you're sleeping with. Can't just be wild and give yourself to anyone. It's dangerous now."
The authority to make assertions like this did not occur naturally in Eric's voice. It was a voice toned so low, however, as always to seem on the verge of heartbreak, a quality that afforded the thoughts he expressed a special immunity to challenge. Irony is not as good for deflection as teenagers think; the appearance of sincerity is much better, and it was a quality that must have served Eric well enough in business to help him get from Harlem to Westchester. One might be tempted to say of Eric that he came across as a nice guy, where nice guy is meant as an insult, but this is perhaps to his credit: if that is the best and worst that can be said about someone, then he holds his cards close enough, and is well-armed to meet strangers.
Eric had trained himself to hold his cards close, but whether he was ready for munch even he did not know.
Perhaps because Eric often wrote erotic stories about his fantasies, his discussion of them always had an element of déjà vu , of over-analysis and deference to crude Freudian clich�. When he was a kid, he said, he had loved watching cartoons and Westerns in which characters got tied to railroad tracks. As a teenager in Manhattan in the late-'70s, he would rely on the porn shops of Times Square to furnish him with information on the art of bondage. To some of the girls he dated then he confided his secret desires; to others he did not. Of the former, some allowed him to tie them up, but most did not, and those that did, he said, were not as gung ho as one would have liked. In those years, he was always doing the tying, for though he dreamed of being tied himself, he thought it unmanly in practice.
In 1981 he married for love. She was a woman with a religious upbringing and traditional values: these are, of course, incidental facts, not aspects of character that foreclose the capacity for experimentation. The sex was vanilla but fine, and for some time he thought he could live without bondage. Jobs were cycled through, and the first and second sons were born, and the family moved to Westchester.
When the wife and kids were out, he would undress, get out his ropes, bind and handcuff himself, sit upside-down on a hamper sidled up against the bedroom doorframe, and slowly walk his feet up the side of the door, until he could hook them over the ledge, and hang there, like a vampire bat, for 10 minutes or so, until the blood began to run to his head. The notion that he might pass out, or prove unable to untie his own knots, or mistime the return of his family, and thereby fail to right himself before they came in to discover dad naked and suspended from the door, fed the psychological pleasure he took in his practice. Upside-down, he could reach orgasm without touching himself once.
At one point he had had a job that gave him access to a large warehouse in the Bronx that was conveniently unguarded after hours. On some nights he would sneak into it, tie up his arms and legs and handcuff himself, and lie on the floor of the warehouse for hours, sustained only by the delicious fear that he might be found out. Once, to his delight, he found out too late that he had lost the keys to the handcuffs, and spent an hour working his arms around from the back to the front of his body so he could pick the locks, but even that had only been momentarily exciting. He needed a playmate.
He had broached the subject with his wife, and she had tried to accommodate his kink, but it was not for her. And so she had given him permission, finally, rather than lose him, to look for whatever it was he was looking for outside their marriage. So he was at liberty.
But he needed time to build up the nerve. "Give me till April 15th of 2012," he said. "By Tax Day I'm going to have done something with someone."
He had been working up his courage for 20 years. Eric's wife had given him her blessing to find himself in 1991.
This would be his year, though. Sure as taxes.
Munch is in fact a generic term for any non-sexual meeting of BDSM enthusiasts over food, and like other products of clubby socialization, the origin of the term is disputed. The abandoned ruins of the Internet still hosted on Geocities and written in Comic Sans-probably the highest authority in these matters-suggests vaguely that the first munches were organized by Usenet members in Palo Alto in the first years of the '90s, but the idea of it appears to be one of those whose conception must have felt so breezy and natural at the time that, like that of the martini or of our best dirty limericks, it did not seem to warrant recording.
It takes a certain kind of person to want to come to and to buy into munch, because munch is in its own right a type of fantasy, something that does not exist in the real world. A dinner party is in fact a rather inorganic way of meeting people unless you are already acquainted with at least one or two. We have bars and clubs and social mixers for meeting people, but in what context do people who have never once met come together (willingly) to engage in so intimate (even carnal) an act as ingestion with no preliminary introduction? Perhaps in mystery novels and b-movies (and parodies thereof) in which the dramatis personae are invited to a country estate in the rain, but nobody knows by whom, and nobody knows any of the others, and when they seated to dine just before soup a murder is discovered, but the doors to the mansion lock in unison, etc. The people at the Moonstruck munch are sort of playacting at this, and one tends to suspect that in their choice of setting they are communicating that they are very self-aware about the whole thing.
That might be selling the whole thing short, because what is worth noting is this: at some point, these people came to the conclusion that they were not going to get what they wanted out of life unless they made an active effort to realize their (for what it's worth, fairly rare) sexual cravings, and out into the world-or rather, the Web-they went to find their own kind, and ended up coming to dinner. They went stag-if not now, then at some time in the past. They came to try to become part of a scene over which they had obsessed and of which they had dreamed and which they had elevated in their head to proportions that would intimidate even the most outgoing. Most learned about the gathering through the Internet, an invention that seems practically designed to show you all the parties you might have been invited to but weren't, all the friends you might have had but don't, and all the people you, but for the lack of grace, could have been, and are not. To anyone who has ever tried to make a friend, or to go to a party, or to a bar, with the overwhelming sense that they were entering hostile territory where egos are drawn and quartered by the minute, none of this can seem too foreign.
Roxy had been to private munches before, hosted in people's homes and apartments, but that November night marked her first at the open-invitation munch at the Moonstruck, the only public one in New York. So it was remarkable that she had come so early as to be the first arrival. At most munches, perhaps because the horror of coming early to a dinner party where you know no one was too great to fathom, newcomers tended to come later. The effect of this was that they were inevitably relegated to one end of the table with other novices, as the seats at the end by the bathroom had already been filled by early-comers. Of course, this meant that they also started eating and drinking later than the others, and so by the time one end of the table (the more experienced) was done and full and well given to the effects of drink and ready to go to the dungeon, the other (and naturally shyer) end was still sober and staring at and regretting its $9.95 pastrami ryes for the first time. So the new end, by cruel virtue of a natural sense of inhibition and the segregating effects of a long table, did not really get to talk to the veteran end, presumably to the detriment of the new end's education.
Roberto came next. He was a sportily-built Costa Rican man in his early 20s in a black tracksuit with a Versace logo and a black bandana over his hair. His eyes were sleepy and he smiled often. He said he lived in Crown Heights and had only just started to get into BDSM a few weeks before, when he found FetLife.com and set up a profile. He knew next to nothing about the Lifestyle, but he hit the ground running. For almost every night for two weeks, Roberto had gone out to BDSM events. On Halloween, he was at Paddles, dressed as an escaped slave.
Tom, a man in his late 40s, was the third. He had a puff of grey hair over his forehead, and wore a navy sweater, and spoke with an assertive, learned, and corporate tone, half-melodized by a slight Jewish cadence. He never drank coffee though he loved it, and on that night he ordered one as a special treat. He asked the waitress for real half-and-half. When she brought him non-dairy creamer, with no shortage of vigor he demanded that she excuse him, but could she please bring him some real half-and-half as he had asked?
To Tom's right eventually sat Ben, a masculine and uninterestingly handsome and faintly ridiculous Bright Lights, Big City type around the same age, in a grey t-shirt and a beige blazer. He wore rakishly long parted bangs that had probably seldom failed in the last quarter century to secure him, with self-satisfying regularity, the attention of marginally younger career-oriented women. From laughing and sun tanning he had more lines in his face than Tom had, and this made him seem friendlier.
Both Tom and Ben had missed last month's gathering, but they were both regulars and knew each other well and could say more about munch than anyone else so far gathered. Any minute, Tom said, Basil, the organizer of munch, who must be late coming down from Riverdale, would show up and "launch into his comedy routine."
"Oh, about who's going to pay the bill?" another muncher asked.
Another girl came and sat down. She was visiting from Barcelona and didn't know anyone in New York. She had never been to an American diner: the nine-page menu awed her and she didn't know what to order.
"It's all the same," Tom helped. "Nothing is very good."
By the time Basil showed up, there were about two-dozen in assembly. Basil, the king of munch, was a large man with a heavy Romanian accent and, always, a black cowboy hat. That day he wore an iridescent Spandex shirt under a black blazer. He apologized for being late, and sized up every person in the room before sitting down. When he spoke to anyone, he would point an almost accusatory finger in their direction in a gesture that he might have learned in his early days behind the Iron Curtain was a surefire way of communicating authority. When he told a joke, the accusatory finger would wag in the air.
The munch king stood a long time before sitting. He went around the table once and pointed out all the people who were new. He went around the table a second time and asked everyone to say whether they were a dom or a sub. Roberto said he wasn't sure yet.
For the benefit of the new people at the table, Basil explained that munch was started in 2005 and was held on the first Friday of every month, "so that it would be easy to remember-even for subs." Most of the subs at the table were women.
Basil asked whether anyone had heard about it by any means other than FetLife.com No one had.
"Is there anything outside of FetLife?" Tom asked. Basil wagged his finger. FetLife, which is based in Vancouver, went live in 2008 and as of the latest count caters to 1346,561 active members. On their profiles, members can select to associate themselves with any number of fetishes from a master list that ranges from "consensual nonconsent" to "Victorian lifestyles," as though they were liking pages on Facebook. Occasionally, by virtue of alphabetization, this master list of fetishes yields such unintentional moments of poetry as the verbal triptych "Defilement. Degradation. Denim."
The alphabetized master list of fetishes on FetLife
Basil invited the woman from Barcelona to come sit next to him, so that he could help her understand what everyone at the table was saying.
Dana, a real estate agent with a lively Brooklyn accent, sat across from Norm, and she and he recognized each other from previous munches, and began to talk shop, as Tom also worked in the business. Tom asked Dana if she had been going to a lot of events in the scene. Dana said she had become very involved recently.
"Oh, are you a card-carrying member, now?" Tom seemed to joke. This was not a joke. Dana was a card-carrying member. For a $45 annual fee, the Eulenspiegel Society, a national BDSM support and education group, issued cards to members that accorded them, among other privileges, discounts to a number of BDSM clubs and dungeons around the country.
Sandwiches were served. Tom said he'd like to rape a woman, with her consent. He said it was very hard to get all the particulars right, but that he'd gotten it all worked out. He would meet a woman online and talk it over with her-but he wouldn't let her see his face. Then a mutual friend would be required to vouch for his sanity and assure her that he was not dangerous, not really. Then, over the course of a few months, he would stalk her and learn her schedule, and she would go about her daily life and one day a man whom she did not know would appear, and that would be that.
Someone mentioned that the Moonstruck was a vanilla restaurant. Roberto asked what that meant. Tom explained that it meant "not kinky."
"What kind of ice cream is kinky then?" Roberto asked.
"Rocky road," Tom said.
Tom told a story he had heard of women dressing very provocatively and going out late at night in bad neighborhoods with the express intention of getting attacked. This was "edge play." "Edge play." "Blood play." "Fire play." "Kitten pet play." "Wordplay." One of the fetishes in FetLife's master list is "intelligence."
One nuisance of munch is that everything that is said or done at the table carries a heavy presumption of innuendo. You have to be careful about subtext. You have to be careful with the pickles, too.
Frita came late, because she had to get in from New Jersey, where she said she was a special education teacher. She wore a silver bracelet that was linked by a chain to a ring on her finger, and that finger and all the others had nails that were three inches long. They were her own natural nails, she said, and they were painted half tan and half white, and Frita told a story about them that got the munch king's attention from the start. She was speeding on the highway, she said, at 25 past seven in the morning, and she had to check in at her school at half past, and a cop stopped her on the road and asked her how should could possibly do anything with those nails.
"The question isn't how I do anything with them," she said. "It's how I do anything without them."
And then what happened? What did the cop say? Basil made a pornographic joke about a Breathalyzer test that tested the table's capacity for eye-rolling. A generous critic, unwilling to give fuel to the too-easy accusation that the munchers found themselves in their position because social facility had eluded them, might as well conclude that the setting gave them permission to lower their thresholds for humor to the level of schticky Nixon-era game shows.
Anyway, Frita said, the cop was so charmed by her nails that he let her go. But really, Frita said, if she chipped one of her nails, or trims them, she was hopeless. She couldn't type, she couldn't make breakfast. Life was much improved by her nails.
The munch king asked if there were any disadvantages to the nails.
"Well, one," Frita said. "I can't tighten my nipple ring with them."
To several people it occurred to say that they would be glad to offer their assistance. To Roberto it occurred to say that he had had his nipple pierced, too, and that after two years it still hurt.
"Oh honey!" Frita said. "That's not right!" Perhaps they had hit a nerve, she suggested. Perhaps he had not been spraying it with saline solution, she offered. She searched her purse.
Ada came with her sissy, a heavyset man who was not, she explained, her boyfriend. Ada was in her early twenties, German, track-suited, and unforgivably talkative. She wore electric blue dangling earrings and the kind of respectable ponytail that does not seem too infantilizing to wear in a proper business environment. Only Roxy looked younger than she. No one looked conventionally prettier. In fact, Ada looked slightly too pretty to be at munch at all, and one got the sense that she had made a place for herself as one of the princesses of the scene. She had hair dyed several different colors and talked about staying up all night dancing to techno music in London and said she loved playing board games. She was the fantasy incarnate of the Comic Con crowd.
Her sissy (where was her boyfriend?) had about a decade on her and a limp. Before sitting down to eat, Ada opened her gym bag and placed in it several folds of new, tissue-wrapped apparel that she took from the four shopping bags her sissy was carrying, which evidently were from Bebe. Tom asked Ada what she did. She was a student of sociology at Hunter University.
"Are you just here to study us then?" he asked.
Celine was the last to come. It was almost seven thirty when she ordered her meal, and Basil was already gathering people who were done with their dinners to make their way with him to Paddles, where there would be a demonstration of some sort before the club opened to the public.
When Celine sat down, Ada might no longer have been the most conventionally pretty girl at the table, and Roxy might not have been the youngest, and Basil might no longer have commanded the most authority.
Celine wore an enormous black beret set just so on her head, and a black peacoat with oversized buttons, every last one fastened. She moved her body with great intention, and executed with overthought precision the kinds of the broad gestures to which bad actresses are given. When she introduced herself to a person, she would stick out her hand palm down, as though instead of giving it the intended shake her greeter might suddenly be possessed by an urge to kiss it. Roboticists talk of an uncanny valley: when automata are made to look too real, we are repulsed rather than attracted to them. The eye is drawn to the elements that feel off. Roxy might no longer have been the person who wore her vulnerability most openly.
That night, Celine said, she would give Roberto his first whipping.
Eric had gone to munch, but had sat very quietly at one end of the table without saying much at all to anyone. After dinner, he paid his bill, and took Metro North back up to Westchester. He said he didn't feel up to the Paddles.
He had been to the club before. In the early '90s, when he had first cut his deal with his wife, he had gone there a few times to try and make some connections, but had ended up sitting in the corner and playing the voyeur. Throughout the last two decades, when work let up and he hadn't too many commitments at home, he would try periodically to reinject himself into the scene, but it had always proved fruitless. He had joined the Eulenspiegel Society in the mid-'90s, but had not made any friends at their monthly meetings. It was not clear to him what the matter was.
"Some guys are really good at talking to women at bars," he said. "But that's not me."
The following is an excerpt, slightly abridged, of a story Eric read to the Eulenspiegel Society in early 2001. He signed it Craig Surray, aka email@example.com.
I heard them long before I actually saw them. It sounded like a group of teenagers out hanging on a warm summer night. In my current condition, I didn't have a lot of options. I thought if I remained silent and still, they might not see me and just keep strolling by. Beaded sweat arose on my forehead as my heart pounded loud enough to break out my chest.
"Hey." I heard a voice cut through the din. "What's that over by the chin up bar?" I think my heart actually stopped for a second.
What drew their attention to me was the condition in which I was using the equipment. First off, I was hanging for the chin bar upside down by my ankles in inversion boots. My attire that evening, other than the boots, consisted of some very tight and very short cut off jeans, a couple of clothes pins clamped onto my nipples, and a pair of wrist cuffs locked behind the small of my back. And what ensemble wouldn't be complete without a gag of some type to muffle any intelligent sound. In my case, I had chosen a very large and effective gag that filled my mouth quite completely.
What these young adults had stumbled across was my indulgence into self-bondage.
My favorite position by far was inverted suspension. I can't explain why. It takes a lot of will power not to orgasm the minute I stretch out in my upside down world.
As the group slowly approached me, I began to take stock of the situation and my options. They all had to be in their late teens, very early twenties. Though it sounded like more, the group consisted of no more than eight: Five guys and four girls. They got to within ten feet of my location and stopped. After looking at them looking at me for a few minutes, they began to slowly come closer and inspect me like a side beef hanging in the butcher shop. At least the guys did. The girls hung back and just sort of eyed me up and down in wide-eyed wonder.
"What the hell is this?" said a tall, athletic looking kid as he took this strange sight in.
"Not sure, dude, but I think we got us a fuckin' freak here." replied another. In my original planning, I was going to do this in the nude. At the last minute, I kept my shorts on. If the cops came by and arrested me, I could argue the public lewdness and settle for a trespassing charge. "Anyone know who he is?" said the second boy. Everyone shook their head in the negative.
"Never seen him before."
"He's kind of cute, for a freak," said the first girl.
As munch winds down, the checks are called for-and the waiters, much to their credit, seem always to keep the orders straight, though there may be up to 30 diners at the table, all ordering at different times-and it is around this time that Sir Basil makes mention of the demo at Paddles, to which all attendees are invited. Admittance is $6 for those who have dined at munch, because Sir Basil is a big deal at Paddles, and the community is small anyway. It is $3 for members of the Eulenspiegel Society.
The demo is talked about so reverently at munch (everyone knows what the demo is and no one needs to explain the demo) that it strikes the neophyte as something that must be far wickeder than it is. Last month's demo, it is told, was about fire play. What will they show us this month?
Neuro-linguistic programming, actually.
The demo exists, largely, to resolve matters of scheduling: by a quarter to eight, the munchers have mostly overcome what menaces to digestive regularity the Moonstruck kitchen had placed before them, but Paddles does not open its doors as a club proper until ten. So every month, a different member of the community volunteers to engage the gathering in a two-hour sharing of topical savoir-faire. Here somebody's slave will parse the nuances of safety and consent. There some nice dominatrix will teach us all how to tie the wide world of knots.
Paddles is a few blocks from the Moonstruck Diner. It is advertised as New York's biggest and
best-known dungeon, and this appears to be a fact roundly accepted by the table. Even the people new to munch know how to get there. The entrance to the club is practically hidden-it's just a metal door next to a large parking complex on West Twenty-Sixth Street, unfussily marked with the club's name printed on a black vinyl sign. This setup seems somewhat pulpier than is necessary for Manhattan in 2011, but it's not unfitting, or disingenuous, for the city's self-styled biggest dungeon to pretend both to fame and to secrecy. Like "consensual nonconsent," it's less a matter of paradox than of theater.
One enters, descends the stairs, pays the old woman at the plexiglass-protected kiosk, receives one's discount as applicable, and opens the red door to the main space. It is small. It is dusty. There is no bar-which may be for the best. There is a certain amount of pomp that one expects knowing that something is New York's biggest. Paddles does not quite deliver. That said, there are two levels to the place, and a number of doors leading to little private rooms that won't be called for until after the club opens are a dungeon. For now it is a classroom, and already about 40 people are sitting in an array of folding chairs in front of a platform, or stage-or, really, what might most effectively be termed an apse, if for no other reason than that its back wall is equipped with a heavy wooden crucifix-garrote hybrid, leather straps at its arms and legs.
Latecomers must climb the spiral stairs to the mezzanine to take their seats. The second level has its own garrote, and the walls are lined with old glass-paneled china cabinets and display cases stocked with what one supposes one is expected to believe are museum-quality instruments of torture. From here the latecomers have the room's best view of the congregation. Many more faces than were present at munch are here assembled. Average age: mid-thirties-late thirties in poor lighting? Few dressed with any noticeable specificity. Few, for that matter, especially animated, except for the fussy woman in the front row making an awful effort to come off as slinky, tugging on the ear of the much younger man at her side on whom she's balanced her weight.
At the front of the stage is a chubby long-haired man in a t-shirt with a beard and an iPad. To the right of the stage sit two youngish women, both of a type: thick-ankled and giggly. In a deep and well-paced tone the man introduces himself as Sam, and the three women, he says, are volunteers on whom he will demonstrate the effects of neuro-linguistic programming, a vaguely New-Agey method of applied psychology that was briefly trendy 40 years ago, and nowadays is most frequently name-checked in magazine profiles of Arianna Huffington, an early practitioner. Sam will teach his students in the audience tonight how manipulating the way they phrase their sentences just so will effect changes in how people respond to them, and how to apply such techniques in the bedroom, and in the dungeon. Sam is altogether much too enthralled with the subject matter for his own good as a teacher, and there are many more points on the slides in his iPad than can reasonably be made in a two-hour lecture perpetrated on a Friday night in a dry club. For better or worse, it is a lecture interrupted at various points by Sir Basil fussing with the often-broken microphone (which no one but Sir Basil thinks Sam needs-really, it's worth emphasizing this a second time: Sam's voice is excellent); and punctuated twice by moments during which Sam calls up his volunteers to the stage to put the theories of neuro-linguistic programming into practice.
Sam asks the first girl, a schoolteacher by day, to sit in a chair on stage. He tells her she is sitting in a chair. That her hair is brown. That she is relaxed. That her feet are on the ground. That her arms are to the side. That she is breathing heavily. That she is sinking into her chair. That she is very pretty. That she longs to be mistreated. And so on. This, Sam then explains to the audience, amounts to a form of waking hypnosis. For every two objective truths he tells her, he sneaks in a suggestion that is neither here nor there, and her brain, conditioned by the aforesaid truths, is coaxed into accepting the suggestions as fact.
The second girl is asked to stand up and close her eyes. Sam plunges his index finger into her mouth and tells her how good it feels for her to have that finger in her mouth. He commands her to suck it. He tells her how much she likes sucking that finger, how very nice it is indeed, and what a good girl she is. He puts the microphone (now working) to her lips so the audience can listen to her suck, and her noises become louder, faker, pornographic as she performs to the audience. Two things learned: the power of suggestion, and the power, not explicitly remarked, of the spectators' expectations.
At 10 to 10, Sir Basil cuts the lecture short so that Paddles can begin converting to a club, and Sam is given five minutes to field questions from the crowd. These tend, actually, to be comments rather than questions. Roxy raises her hand to say that the techniques of neuro-linguistic programming remind her of a meditative practice called "mindfulness" taught as a tenet of dialectical behavioral therapy, a regimen of psychoanalysis used to manage borderline personality disorder. Roxy was in dialectical behavioral therapy for a year.
A man in the very back row raises his hand to comment that the suggestive elements of neuro-linguistic programming put him in mind of a denouncement he once read of a famous film critic, who was called out for writing frequently in the first person plural, so as to ensure that her readership sided with her always-much to the objection of the of the critic's critic, who resented being lead by the ear. One wonders whether, in an alcohol-free fetish club in the year 2011, a veiled reference to Renata Adler's 1980 takedown of Pauline Kael in The New York Review of Books passes as a mating call.
Roxy was not very happy in New York. She offered, as if trained to say so by her therapist, that she now had more good days than bad ones, but it seemed to exhaust her even to say so. In the new year, Roxy reapplied to Smith. The dean had told her that with therapy, he saw no reason that she could not reenter the student body.
This news meant, among other things, that Roxy might not have to live with her parents much longer, and it prompted several reconsiderations, chief amongst which was that, if she were to go back to Northampton, she would break up with her long-distance boyfriend. Their relationship, sustained by telephone conversations and online video chats, was wearing on her, and anyway, he had told her that he was feeling less dominant lately, which did not suit her needs. Her sex life had been put on hold for the winter, though she did acquire several new stuffed animals and a gender-fluid platonic cuddle-buddy.
She had had to take a Friday night class in her spring semester at Hunter, and so she had to stop going to the Moonstruck munch, and she still had not been able to find a friend willing to cover for her when she wanted to stay out all night. In early March, a 31-year-old Russian woman in Bensonhurst-the one who had organized the bondage party at which Roxy had allowed that strange man to flog her-called Roxy. She said that as a dom she already had two male subs, and was in the market for a third. She took Roxy out for sushi on the Lower East Side, but the date was a bust.
"The music in the place was so bad," Roxy said. "You know how all the songs on the radio are about love, or the one that got away, or whatever? I hate that."
After the date, the Russian woman walked Roxy to the subway. She wore high heels and walked with a deliberate lack of urgency. When Roxy sped up and gained a step, the woman would ask her what she thought she was doing going in front of her mistress, and Roxy would have to slow down. Roxy appreciated the element of restriction inherent to the move, but was not up to playing the game. Nothing pisses a native New Yorker off, she explained, like a slow walker.
For the time being, Roxy decided to keep her sub side untapped. "All I really ever want is someone to cuddle with," she said.
A crocheted fish Roxy made and photographed for display on FetLife
In the last month of 2011, Eric wrote another story. It concerned one Tony, who bound and gagged himself alone in his home one evening and was hanging from the doorframe when his domestic recreation was interrupted by a masked intruder:
The stranger's hands moved all over Tony. And just as quickly the man stopped. He knelt besides Tony and grabbed a handful of hair. Yanking upward, he wanted to make sure he had Tony's full attention.
"You been hanging up here a long time. Do you want to get down?" Tony nodded as best he could without losing strands of hair. "Well, I tell you what. For you to get down you gotta do something for me or I leave your ass hanging right where I found you. Understand?" Tony was appalled, but he knew there was nothing he could do. He nodded reluctantly.
He watched as the man stood up and began to undo his belt. Tony was relieved to see the man pull a condom from his pocket. The man knelt again and began to undo the gag from Tony's mouth. When the gag was finally removed, Tony had trouble closing his sore jaws. Unfortunately, they would be no time to recover.
Anger, humiliation, surrender and lust mixed to make a powerful aphrodisiac. It was pushing Tony to a point sexually he had never been to before. Pleasure caused him to strain against his bonds once more before collapsing into a semi-conscious stupor. His body hung limp in suspension. His mind existing in another state.
By April 15th, Eric had his taxes filed. He had no other news to share.
In April, Roxy got back into Smith and a haircut that made her mother call her a dyke. She turned 21 and said she had no solid plans for the coming summer. She was free.
Some names have been changed in the interest of confidentiality.