We Don’t Do That: On Vulnerability

Girl Smoking Outside a Cafe. Image courtesy WikiCommons

Girl Smoking Outside a Cafe.

There’s been some remarkably brave writing getting posted recently. Tamsin Flowers wrote with eloquence and honest grace about writers and self-doubt, Dumb Domme reflected on the difficulty and necessity of asking your partner(s) for what you need, and recently, Sharyn Ferns at Domme Chronicles wrote several posts about choosing if and when to share and enact fantasies of a more violent nature.

These aren’t the only examples. People have been posting on everything from stone sexuality to condescension in D/s dynamics with an openness that humbles me. There is so much strength in these essays and articles, precisely because the writers’ vulnerabilities shine through.

I used to be vulnerable. I used to feel like an open wound. But as I grew older, I receded into a very sweet, but impregnable shell. Now, I’m cagey and guarded, though I try to pleasant about it. For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom why this should be. Nothing horrific has happened to me. Of course, I’ve been hurt – everyone has been. But any real damage I’ve incurred has been entirely due to the choices I’ve made. Because I started shutting down. Because I started to fear vulnerability.

I’ve spent a long time, (years really), trying to pinpoint the moments that led to my armoring up. When I found them, they were so small that I could have held them in the palm of my hand. Yet, they sliced deep enough that I still can’t address them head on. So, here they are in a set of non-fiction vignettes. I just couldn’t write this any other way.

San Francisco, 1994: South of Market

I am sitting across from a boy. Let’s call him S. Our knees are not quite touching. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I am as new as a freshly peeled egg, which is to say, that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve just turned sixteen.

The boy I am sitting across from is a friend, but let’s be honest. I’ve been in love with this friend since I saw him cross the street my sophomore year. We’re going to a concert together. He’s taking me to a concert – Dogstar, at Slim’s – because I like Keanu Reeves, (but not half so much as I like him). We’re going to dinner first. He has just broken up with my best friend, a girl I’m drifting away from for reasons of my own.

The Italian place he takes me to is tiny and family owned – a warm little grandmother’s house in the industrial SOMA woods. South of Market, a former warehouse district, is, like the rest of the city, reinventing itself, nudged along by developers and club promoters. But this little place, with its brick façade and possibly hand-painted sign, feels like it’s always been there, tucked away in an ally off Folsom St. It’s all very proper and sweet, with its red-and-white checks and plastic grapes. I can’t breathe for how sweet it is.

A votive candle sits on our table next to a pink carnation in a vase. The carnation is ruffled and charming – fair more charming than a rose. It’s practically bursting with chaste exuberance. Its candy scent reminds me of my grandmother, a woman I adore but whose presence I, nevertheless, want nowhere near this dinner. I fidget, bumping the table, which, in turn, bumps into my friend. He wobbles in his chair. We’re both of us off balance, rocking in our seats – closer, farther, closer. It’s a nervous little game.

We order food. We hunch. We make small talk while our glasses collect condensation in fat, suggestive drops. Minutes drip by. The silence rolls between us like a red, rubber ball. When our food finally comes – gnocchi, or something, in cream sauce – I poke it and try to eat. No one likes a girl who doesn’t eat. But I kind of want to throw up. I’m too conscious of angles – the slope of my neck, the tilt of his head. What is he trying to tell me with that bashful, slanted grin?

I eat a pea. I take a breath. I open my mouth.

Is this a date?

That’s what I’m too scared to ask. That’s what doesn’t come out. That was my mistake, my first of many with that boy.

San Francisco, 1999: North Beach

I’m turning twenty-one. Rather than go out with my girlfriends, who are dying to take me to Bondage A Go-Go and Lucky 13, I am out with S. We’ve been sleeping together on and off for a little over a year. He has a girlfriend. I don’t care. I’m too hungry and stupid to care. I’m desperately in love with him. He does not love me. He’s beginning to hate me in fact, because he can’t stop fucking me.

We’re in a dive bar in North Beach, when they still had blues in bars. We both love the blues. We both love jazz. He made me mix tapes full of Miles Davis and Nina Simone in high school, when we were still just friends. When the attraction between us was tensile and untouched. I still have those tapes in my car.

He orders me a gin and tonic. It’s my favorite – I’ve been ordering them since I was 18. Forget the legal drinking age. I’m rarely carded and when I am, it’s easily gotten around with a smile, (I had a really sweet smile then). The bartender brings it and S’s beer. We clink. And then I forget myself. I let myself think, for a second, that we’re on a date. I rise up on my tiptoes and kiss him, to thank him for the drink.

S jerks back his head.

“We don’t do that,” he says, looking around, as if his girlfriend had just walked in. She hasn’t, of course. She’s in Oregon. She trusts him. She told him so.

My face is burning as if I’ve been slapped. My lungs hurt. There’s too much sharp, sudden hurt. I hurt to much to cry.

We don’t do that. We don’t do that.

“We don’t do what,” I ask.

He gives me a look, like I should know better. And the reality is that I should.

“Never mind.” I say. “Forget it. Thanks for the drink.”

I look away, into the grimy mirror behind the bar. My face is sharp and my mouth is hard. I look cold and dangerous. That isn’t my face. Except that now it is.

San Francisco, 2002: Nob Hill

It’s 2002. Another Italian restaurant, upscale this time, tucked high up on Nob Hill. I’m standing outside, hips canted, arms wrapped tight around my waist. I’m smoking and it’s cold.

Below me, the city tumbles towards the water, at once fluid and concrete. But I don’t really see it. I’m too busy to see. I only know it’s there because I know that view. I’m resisting the compulsion, practiced over years, to tilt my face up to his.

I smoke too much. I rarely blush. I am no longer as new as an egg. And the guy I’m standing with is no longer my friend. We are no longer friends. We are no longer lovers either – we burned through that label years before without it ever being acknowledged that it was ours. Now, we’re something else, something painful. Sand under skin…. I am moving to LA, mostly, though he does not know it, to escape the mess we’ve become.

I smoke to be alone, but he follows me outside, quietly, I suspect, slipping away from our friends. They’re throwing me a party, in honor of my move. His girlfriend is inside too. The wholesome Oregonian girl, waiting, smiling, wary, while everyone drinks champagne.

We hunch, he and I, outside in the cold, swaying, closer, close. It’s a dangerous little game. I finish my cigarette and light another. I’m not ready to go inside, not while he’s standing next to me, silent, just a body, just a presence, him. Even now, I want him to love me. I want him to want what I have to give. But he doesn’t and he won’t. From me, he wants only one thing.

I take a drag and stare at the Bay, pouting through the exhale, biting my lip. It’s a fully reflexive move. Without suing for consent, my mouth is asking to be kissed. I force myself to stop. I feel, but don’t acknowledge, his eyes on my face, and I know he’s still attracted. It’s the string I have to pull, and I’ve pulled it hopefully, desperately, savagely for over seven years. It’s the crumb I content myself with.

He moves closer, away from the windows. Now we’re safely out of view. Stolen moments, intense, predictable, like hits from a custom drug. This is what he wants from me. This is what we do. I angle my head to look at him, feeling longing. Feeling resigned. But for once he goes off script. He takes the cigarette from my hand without touching me, and holds it like a pro. He doesn’t smoke. He never has.

“I wish my mom would quit.”

You wish your mom would quit?

Rage and bitterness fill me, hugely out of proportion with what he’s just said. I want to shove off the wall and deck him. I want to sink my fist into his mouth. I hate him for holding my cigarette with a hand that has cradled my face; I hate him for holding this vice of mine and thinking of his mom. I hate him, I hate him, I hate him. But I hate him far less than myself, which is why all I do when he says this is raise my goddamn brow.

He looks at me, really looks at me, his face an unreadable blank. Then he leans in, still expressionless, to kiss the hard line of my mouth. Ah. There it is. It’s an oddly perfunctory kiss, as if he knows he’s going to do it and wants it over with. He doesn’t want to kiss me, and I don’t want to want the kiss. But, predictably, sickeningly, like it always does, the kiss becomes something else. An act of recognition.

Oh no. Not again.

He draws back with some reluctance and I look at him. There are tears in my eyes, and I hope, romantically, foolishly, that the tears look lovely to him. They don’t. At best they make him feel awkward; at worst they make him feel trapped. He backs away one, two, three steps. He’s in front of the window again. Safe. I’m always trapping him. I don’t even try. I trap him by being there.

Why can’t you love me?

That’s the question I will not ask.

I tip back my head to keep the question in my mouth, but he knows me well enough to read it on my face. To his credit, for once, he doesn’t look away. For a moment, we’re sixteen and I’m sweet and he’s sweet, and we’re listening to jazz in his room. For a moment, we’re back at the start. But there’s so much wrong between us. It’s years too late. He hands me back the cigarette. It’s just a filter and ash, but it’s a heavy little thing. I take it and flick it into the street.

His eyes slide off mine to the window, to the collection of people inside. Our friends. His girlfriend. His life. Not mine. He turns and goes inside. But I stay where I am, with my back against the wall. I need something solid behind me. I know I won’t see him again.


  1. I’m glad you haven’t. Why are those guys the ones we love? Is it just because they won’t love us back? He doesn’t sound worth it, but I guess it never works like that.

    I wish we didn’t waste ourselves on these people. Mind you, my person who wasn’t one of those people didn’t work out either.

    Maybe we should be allowed to grow up before we grow the ability to fall in love.

    1. I know – it’s amazing how some people get so deep under your skin you never really lose them. Not the most comfortable thing. Then again, I don’t what I’d be like today if this hadn’t happened, so it’s hard for me to wish it had gone differently. Very mixed feelings, shall we say..

    1. You very welcome – your posts definitely formed part of my mental landscape as I drafted this, and I appreciate that a lot. Thank you for taking the time to pop by and comment.

  2. This is crushingly beautiful. Thank you for your bravery in writing this.

    I think most of us have a few of those almost lovers (to quote the song by A Fine Frenzy), so this is resonant in more ways than one. Sand under skin is precisely the sensation; invisible, not quite sharp enough to be identified as pain, and impossible to extricate.

    1. Thank you, Eva. I love the label “almost lover.” It really captures that sense of near miss. It’s that sense of unmet potential – the what you might have had if things had been different – that can keep tugging at you, long after the initial hurt is done. And I think you’re absolutely right – so many people have an S buried in their past. I almost think that a grande passion, as Tamsin Flowers called it, is a critical part of growing up, at least for some.

  3. I was in this place once a long time ago. Your story brought back so vividly how painful it was. You articulate beautifully that rawness without overdoing anything. Well done and many warm wishes to you <3

  4. Oh, Malin. When I first read this, several hours ago, I had tears in my eye. I just wanted to pick up that young girl, give her a big hug and tell her that it’s going to be ok, that this experience will mold her in a way she likely couldn’t then expect, that she’s going to grow up into this amazing woman, that she’s going to have a fabulous life, and that she will be surrounded by people who do love her, love her absolutely and unconditionally, and at the same time also respect and admire her. Oh, and I’d tell her to stop smoking, damn it! 😉

    I had to take some time to process this story before I could really respond.

    This may be simultaneously the most breathtakingly beautiful and most heartbreaking thing I’ve read of yours. I suppose, of course, you have the advantage of inside information into the mind of the young woman of 16, 21, and 24, but even so, we are rarely so well-attuned to our own states of mind, and so keenly able to analyze and understand them, even in retrospect.

    “I wish my mother would quit smoking.” Wow. That cut right to the bone. He couldn’t have made it any more clear just where you stood in his scheme of things.

    On a side note, you painted an absolutely beautiful portrait of San Francisco, making me fall in love with the city all over again, and it has been so many years since I lived there. Actually, I never lived in the city proper, but on the peninsula, but I loved getting up into the city as often as I could. I felt so at home there. I learned to drive a manual transmission on those hills. One of my early jobs was as a secretary for an office in SoMa. I can picture that Nob Hill view.

    You are incredibly brave. I keep telling you what an inspiration you are, and then you keep on exceeding expectations.

    Thank you.

  5. One right after the other, your writing sucks me and and spits me out. This tenderly told, painful story, is one I think each and every one of us can relate to. Amazing!

    1. I’ll admit that this one didn’t really wait for my approval before having to be written. It actually kind of wrote itself. The best thing I could ask of it though is that it connects with people, because I think a lot of us have had some version of these feelings, and it’s never easy. Thank you so much for reading it 🙂

  6. “Now, I’m cagey and guarded, though I try to pleasant about it.”

    Are we twins?

    Just kidding – I know we’re not because I could never write about my real life as effectively as you do. You bring a candor and beauty to your writing that is unique. And you slip in subtle devastations – “(I had a really sweet smile then)” – like an expert.

    1. Thank you, Valerie. You’re a writer I respect tremendously, (I actually don’t think i can overstate that). That means a lot. Your fiction very routinely knocks me flat. On a seperate note, I love that you’re pleasantly guarded too. A friend swears I’m half cat 😀

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