A Case for Good Men

Propaganda style poster of Captain America for The First Avenger Film, for A Case for Good Men by Malin James

Design by Eric Tan

A few weeks ago, after a little Avengers marathon, a friend asked me why I have such a thing for Steve Rogers. Aside from the fact that Chris Evans is hot, the real reason I crush on Captain America is because Steve Rogers is a Good Man ™ ie: the kind of guy who’ll jump on a grenade (pre-superhero makeover) when everyone else runs away.

My friend didn’t get it. Aside from agreeing that Chris Evans is hot, (because holy hell, c’mon), she thinks Cap is pretty boring and would take Loki over him in a heartbeat. And coming from where she’s coming from, that’s understandable. She’s in the somewhat rare position of never having been hurt, either in love in or life. Her career, marriage, and status are as stable Mt. Rushmore, so when she see’s an iconically good man like Captain America, she sees what she’s always known, which is not what fantasies are about. That’s why she’s all over fictional bad boys like Loki. For her, danger is a novelty. For me, trust is.

And why wouldn’t danger be a novelty? If you’re lucky, real danger is rare. That’s why you get kryptonite when you dress a sexy guy up in reluctance and black leather. Not that I don’t get that sexy, edgy, bad boy thing. I’ve dated a lot of bad boys and a few bad men (there’s a difference, but I’ll get to that) so I get the attraction in spades. I doubt I could’ve written this post if I didn’t.

In the end, my appreciation for good men is due entirely to contrast – good men have qualities that dating bad men have made me value, like integrity and trustworthiness. My natural attraction has always been to the black leather end of the spectrum, but I’ve developed an aversion after glutting myself through my twenties and early thirties. In fact, if my history were full of men I could trust, I probably wouldn’t fetishize it now. My attraction to good men is purely adaptive but no less real for it.

Now, before I go on, I need to undermine my own argument.

The good man / bad boy dichotomy I’ve set up is bullshit. No one is entirely good, or entirely bad. At least, most people aren’t. The exceptions tend to live in supermax prisons or Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. Most people live on a scale that slides from good to bad depending on context. A generally awful person can still help an old lady cross the street, and a generally good person can still be a troll.

This makes defining the Good Man ™ tricky, which is why I’m using the dichotomy. While it’s a ridiculous reduction of complex human behavior, simplicity can be useful. So, for the sake of this post, a good man is a man whose behavior is mostly guided by principles rooted in the well-being of others, while a bad boy’s behavior is mostly guided by impulse and desire, regardless of consequence.

A Few Brief Words About Bad Men:

A few paragraphs ago, I said that bad men and bad boys weren’t the same thing. A bad boy might be careless or act primarily in his own self-interest but, generally speaking, he will dig deep and act on others’ behalves when the context or person is right. Think Spike from Buffy, Loki, Han Solo, James Bond – the bad guy with the heart of gold.

A real life bad man doesn’t have the heart of gold simmering under the smirk. A real life bad man has a passport full of places you’d never, ever want to go. He has a name he wasn’t born with. He gives you a knife for Christmas and then holds it to your throat (not in a sexy way). He has no problem with gaslighting, undermining or turning you into something he owns. It’s not that a bad man can’t do a good thing. It’s that he’s only likely to do it if it serves his bottom line, and the bottom line is always him.

We fetishize antiheroes and bad boys because they combine a good man’s virtues with a bad man’s danger and sex appeal, so much so that a standard bad boy story arc is his journey to finally doing the right thing. (Think Han Solo’s saving the day during Luke’s Death Star run).

Looked at from that angle, the appeal of the bad boy trope is, in fact, that bad boys are really good men buried under a pile of scoundrelly sexiness. The only difference is that a good man’s integrity (and trustworthiness, etc, etc.) isn’t playing hard to get. It’s not waiting for that one special woman or situation to activate it, nor is it conditional. It’s just there, guiding his behavior, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

That’s why I love Cap but kind of loathe Superman. Steve Rogers never stops doing the hard thing, even after he becomes, for all intents and purposes, invincible. His integrity puts him at odds with the world, whereas Superman, to my knowledge, just does his thing. He got the super for free. Good men aren’t good because being good is easy. They’re good because it’s hard and they do it anyway. That is bad ass and fucking hot.

While I absolutely get the bad boy appeal, the bad man experience has made me wary of it. If a man is good, I want to see it. If I can trust him, I want to know it. If I can relax my guard with him, that’s better than gold and (for me) just as rare. It’s not an issue of safety – at this point, I’m good at keeping myself safe. It’s not having to think about it that makes a good man sexy as hell.

NB: 

The wonderful and incredibly perceptive Honey over at Happy Come Lucky made an excellent point in the comments and on Twitter that warrants a note here. Built into all that is good in good men is the question of how good they are for you. You could date Captain America and he could treat you like a queen, but if duty is his first priority, he will leave you to do the right thing. Just ask Agent Carter.

A man’s goodness won’t save you from getting your heart broken. It won’t guarantee that he never leaves you, nor will it guarantee that he’ll put you first. All it does is tell you that his integrity, principles, and priorities are generally aimed at what he considers to be right. This is where the dichotomy fails and the gray area comes in. What’s good for everyone else may not be good for you as his partner. The best man in the world can still hurt you. The only difference is that he probably won’t mean to when he does.

Flash Fiction: Looking Glass

Side view of a man and woman having sex in a window for Flash Fiction: Glass Houses by Malin James

Image via @A_man_within

They haven’t been dating for all that long. Two dates. Maybe three if coffee counts. Three dates…. Is that dating? It’s hard to tell. Who knows.

Two dates. Maybe three. Some kissing. No sex. But the kissing is good. Really, really good. Quick tongues. Swollen lips. Nails on his neck. Then he says goodnight like he’s closing a door. She stays cautious and light on her feet.

They have their third date (maybe fourth?) on the hottest night of the year. Dinner and drinks. Maybe dancing. They both like dancing. They talk about dancing a lot. It’s a handy metaphor.

Do you dance? Where? What do you like?

Oh, you know…depends on my mood.

She wishes they’d just have sex. Sex is her looking glass. It lets her see who a person is, (or rather who they are with her). It lets her see who she is with them. She wants that view more than she wants to get off. She wants to see if they fit. Normally, it doesn’t matter so much – sex has told her a lot and it’s not always good. But she wants to see with him.

They have dinner and drinks. They talk. A lot. But she can’t stop watching his mouth. Good conversation. Great wine. Killer food. Enjoy the evening for this. She addresses herself in the ladies room but she knows it won’t do any good.

He pays the check (he insists, which is lovely), but dancing is a no. Early morning, he says. Brunch, work-out, weekend routine…. Sure. She has one too. They head off down the street.

The night is brown and murky with a filthy, electrical buzz. The grid is overtaxed and the city’s power is low. No air conditioners. Sluggish fans. People tumble around the street—it’s too hot to be inside.

They’d parked their cars several blocks away in a tall, glass monolith. As they walk, their knuckles brush, comfortable and easy, but he doesn’t take her hand. That would maybe be too much. After awhile, she pulls her phone out of her bag so it has something less awkward to do.

The parking lot is deserted. He hits the button and they wait. The elevator takes ages and their easiness drains away. A thick, gray silence expands and takes its place. It’s not a sexy or promising silence. It’s dense and pre-emptively sad.

Cool sheets, breakfast, dancing, fucking…she imagines these things while the elevator drifts…slow, slow, slow…considering the universe at every floor. For one irrational moment, she wishes they’d never met.

The elevator arrives. It’s steel and glass and disturbingly hot inside. Like a greenhouse, she thinks, which would make them the plants. It’s a weirdly appealing thought. She swipes her hair off her forehead and hits the button for level six.

“I’m on six too,” he says.

She smiles. “That’s good.”

“That’s good” is not what she’d meant to say. She’d meant to say something clever but she’s tired and hot. Her grid is overtaxed too.

Flickering lights. The elevator stops. It jerks and she stumbles. He reaches out – reaches out but doesn’t touch her, as if he’d brace her with the Force.

“Power outage,” he says.

She feels heat coming off him. The nape of her neck is salty and wet, and her cunt is a swollen ache. He’s close. Too close…and not close enough. She’s stupidly wound up and now they’re stuck in a small, glass box.

“Fuck, me,” she mutters.

“Sorry, what,” he says.

She watches his fingers skim over the phone. Blunt tipped. Strong. Decisive.

Fuck it. She wants to see.

“I said, fuck me.”

He looks up. Her cultivated, quippy, clever voice has dropped into her chest. She sounds like a woman again. Not a placeholder or a diplomat. She sounds like the woman she is.

He puts his phone away.

“Hello,” he says.

His teeth catch her bottom lip.

“Hello.”

She leans in and bites him back.

A generator kicks in and the elevator fills with a dim, green glow, but it’s still dark down on the street. People wander around, checking their phones, waiting for the light.

“Someone could see,” he murmurs.

“Yeah,” she says. “I know.”

They lean back into the glass.  If anyone looked up they’d see him lifting her skirt. She smiles and tilts her hips.

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

It’s a breath against her neck. She’s wearing nothing underneath. No knickers. No bra. Just the dress and her favorite heels. Maybe she’d hoped a bit….

Sweat drips between her breasts as he crushes her close. He’s stronger than she thought. Then his hand is on her warm, bare hip and his mouth is hard on hers. Her legs want to spread. She kisses him back and turns to face the street.

The glass is soft beneath her palms. She’s wet, so wet she can barely feel his fingers until they’re deep inside her cunt. Little sighs. Little moans. Her hips begin to thrust. She’s hoping, hoping someone will look up. Then he’s in her, fucking her and she’s fucking him back. Their eyes meet in the glass. Intense, happy…she likes the view. She had a feeling that she would.

Flash Fiction: Cut

Black and white nude of a woman with a long braid down her back by Jeanloup Sieff for Flash Fiction: Cut by Malin James

Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff

They’ve played with knives before – sliced through rope and tape. Her second favorite bra. Blade on her clit. Blade on his cock. Pressure. Testing. Implication. Never a cut though. Never quite a cut….

But they’ve talked about it. They’ve talked a lot.

“Would you really let me cut you?”

She asks again one night. They’ve fucked each other senseless and she’s tucked in his arms, lulled by the scent of his skin.

He’s quiet. She waitsthe answer in his pulse.

“Yes,” he finally says. She feels it land, like a penny in her palm. Yes,” he says again. “But don’t fuck around.”

She nods, keen and bright as a fox.

“Of course. You know I won’t.”

The knife they usually play with is in a drawer by the bed, but she doesn’t get that knife. Instead, she goes to the bathroom. The straight razor is old, perfect and old, made when things were meant to last. It unfolds in her hand like a memory…gnarled hands, lather, a boar bristle brush…. This razor has a history. It’s touched a lot of skin. Now, it’s going to touch more.

He props himself up on his elbows when she comes back in. The razor is folded, snug and safe, like a slender bird sleeping in her palm.

“Tape,” he asks.

“No.”

She knows he won’t like it – he’d rather be restrained. It’s so much easier when you pretend there’s no choice. But she likes him unbound and he knows it. He knows and he’ll do it for her.

He nods. Her eyes soften. She straddles him and pins his arms wide. Her own Vitruvian Man.

“Thank you,” she murmurs. “Keep your arms here. Now, be very still.”

His hands look relaxed but they’re not. She can tell. But he’ll keep them where they are. It’s a matter of principle. She’s done the same for him. She’s done it before, and she’ll do it again. But not tonight. Tonight is for her, and the razor waits in the pocket of her palm.

He stretches out beneath her, all angles and shadows, like a poster for a film. Beautiful, she thinks. Her belly is tight as she moves down his body dropping a kiss on every rib.

One. Two. Three. Four… 

She stops and nuzzles his skin. This is where, she thinks. She traces his ribs with her fingertips before pressing her tongue between two. Then, she slowly opens the blade. It settles in her hand. A fine, familiar weight.

Ripples under his skin though his body barely moves. There is no playfulness, no showmanship, no levity in her now. Afterwards she’ll smile and laugh with him, but for now, she’s blank and calm. For now, she’s holding a razor like a natural part of her hand.

On either side of his body, his fingers tremble.

Fuck. Get on with it.

She ignores his impatience and touches the blade to the tender place she’d kissed, waiting for it to breach his skin. And then it does and his skin isn’t skin anymore. It’s the silk and thread and rope.

He flinches and stills, palms flat against the sheets while her steady hand guides the edge along his rib. Once inch…two…and then it’s time to stop. She blinks as her focus widens back out. Then she sits up, resting her cunt against his cock while she folds and locks the blade.

Nothing at first. His skin looks untouched. But then blood wells up, almost black in the darkness, darker than red should be. She looks at him. He looks at her. They’ve talked about this too. He nods. She smiles and presses her tongue to the wound.

It tastes like salted metal, like blood should taste, but better because it’s his. But the cut is shallow and there isn’t much, so she worries it with her tongue, lapping and pressing and sucking up what his body naturally gives. She’s soaked and sliding over him when she sinks down on his cock.

Her hands clamp over his as he starts to thrust, pinning him with her weight. Then she kisses the wound. When she comes, her mouth is red, red and full of him.

They rest afterward, his hand in her hair. Her lips are red as berries but her teeth are shining white. She smiles against his skin.

“Next time, it’s your turn.”

 

 

Sinful Sunday: Selfie

I take selfies for a lot of reasons. I’ve sent them to partners, lovers, friends and family (look, mom! I was here!). I’ve posted some and keep others in a  file that no one will ever see. When I look through the selfies I’ve sent, I remember how I felt at the time – the mad attraction, the contentment, the sense of a start or an end. I remember the impulse that prompted the shot. I remember a shard of time.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.32.30 PMDespite the fact that I’m posting it here, I took this last night assuming that I wasn’t going to show it to anyone. I’m preoccupied and tired from not sleeping enough but, for the first time in a couple of weeks, I felt still and relaxed. I just wanted to remember that.

More than one article has asserted that selfies are a form of self-objectification. Inherent in self-objectification is the treatment of your body as an object and, in the case of this photograph, it’s true. I did make my body an object – I made it a memory aid. And given that it is my body to do with as I choose, I’m perfectly fine with that.

To see more Sinful Sunday, click the pretty lips….

Sinful Sunday

On Submission, Strong Women & The High Alpha Male

Black and white of a woman wearing black boots and ball and chain by Ellen von Unswerth for On Submission, Strong Women and The High Alpha by Malin James

Ellen von Unwerth, from Revenge

I had a brief conversation the other day that got me thinking. I’m going to paraphrase chunks of the exchange rather than quote directly (because consent), but I’ll stick as close to the original as I ethically can.

So, here’s the opener:

Hi Malin. As a high-alpha male, I appreciate strong women. Dominant women are a rare challenge. I love your work – it gives me a lot of insight into how strong women tick. 

Given my initial response, the smart thing to do would’ve been to ignore it and move on. Unfortunately, those three sentences annoyed the fuck out of me so I responded with this:

A rare challenge…interesting. Care to unpack that?

Here’s his response:

Sure! For alpha males there’s nothing as exciting as an alpha female. Alpha females handle themselves, which is great (and rare with women in my experience, IMHO), but even more exciting is the challenge I mentioned. When a strong woman breaks and submits to you, that’s the biggest high you can get as a Dom. All women, alpha or not, want to submit to a strong man and being the only man that an alpha female submits to is a fucking high.

So…setting my visceral response aside, what he’s essentially talking about is a fetish for strong women. That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Strong women rock in all kinds of ways because there are all kinds of ways in which women are strong. Where it goes wrong for me is in why he appears to fetishize a particular kind of female strength.

He doesn’t love strong women because he thinks strong women are interesting. He doesn’t love strong women because he wants to submit to a worthy Domme. He doesn’t even love strong women because he thinks an alpha female is the only kind of woman who can match his “high alpha” self. He loves strong women because they’re a challenge.

Let me rephrase that. He loves strong women because making a strong woman “break and submit” to him is a challenge.

The attraction isn’t in the woman. It’s in a narcissistic fetish for a certain kind of power. He wants to be the very special, uber-alpha male who breaks an unbreakable woman and makes her submit. He’s not fetishizing her strength, he’s fetishizing the idea of being the only one who can strip her of it.

Needless to say, I’ve got a few issues with this. The first is that it devalues the actual submission of actual female subs (many of whom are fucking bad-asses). The second is that it makes the “strong woman” in question a challenge (ie: a thing to surmount) rather than a person, and any view that reflexively turns a person into something other than a person is pretty much a no-go for me. The third is that this appreciation for strong women is entirely ego driven. Here’s what I mean….

If you work from the stated assumption that “all women, alpha or not, want to submit to a strong man” (*eye roll*), you get the implication underlying the attraction –  that any guy can make a submissive woman submit because women are, by nature, submissive. It takes a “high alpha male” to break the “rare” dominant woman.

That particular appreciation for female strength has nothing to do with respect or actual, you know, appreciation. It’s a purely reflective thing – the value of her strength is in how brightly it highlights his.

Full disclosure: I have a button here. Though I’m not a Domme, I am naturally dominant with a wide streak of  don’t-tell-me-what-to-fucking-do. I’ve written about how my natural dominance attracted an ex who was, to put it bluntly, a diagnosed sociopath who loved me best when I was needy (“but only for him”) and who wanted to “crush me and break me and make me his”. (Direct quote. Fuck it).

That’s not to say that this gentleman is a sociopath. To be honest, I don’t think he really understood what he was saying. It just rubbed my fur backwards and, once I got over my initial annoyance, I didn’t like how it unpacked.

Essentially, this kind of attraction turns a very specific form of female strength into fetishized commodity while dismissing all the other ways in which women are strong. In other words, it turns female dominance into a kind of drug that makes a certain kind of man feel special. It has nothing to do with the woman or her dynamic with that man. It has to do with the ego boost that comes from fucking her in a particular way.

It also turns the “rare” alpha-female one of two things:

  1. a disposable experience, or
  2. a possession to groom and keep.

Either way, it’s no good. Every woman does not crave submission, and those that do should have autonomy within their submission. Anything else falls back on a cultural mode that normalized a husband’s right to spank his wife for failing to make the perfect pot roast.

In the end, there’s a fundamental difference between spanking Lara Croft and spanking Lara Croft’s alpha female glory to the breaking point. The spanking isn’t the issue – it’s the motives behind it that makes the difference between awesome and toxic. If a dominant woman (or man) trusts you enough to submit to you, even if only for a night, that should speak to the connection and trust between you, not to your prowess as an alpha.

Fetishize power in a partner. Revel in it. Love strong women. Love strong men. Just don’t turn whatever happens into proof of your Domminess. Don’t fetishize the ego boost that comes with “breaking” someone you perceive to be strong. Sex and submission aren’t about how alpha you are. They’re about feeding off each other’s strengths – that’s the real fucking high.

NB: I realized after I posted this that I should clarify some terminology as usage in that conversation got fairly muddy.

“Alpha male” and “alpha female” don’t equate to Dom and Domme (or sadist or top). All alpha means it that someone has what might be called a dominant personality. Some alphas have personalities that are more dominant than others, as do some betas, etc. All dominant people are not alpha, nor are all alphas dominant.

Alpha, dominant and Dom are often equated in casual conversation, which is fine insofar as it goes. It’s just important to acknowledge that a person’s alignment in social hierarchies may differ than their (natural or chosen) position in sexual power dynamics.

As for the term “strong women”, it most definitely does not apply exclusively to dominant women or alpha females. Some of the strongest women I know are subs. Sexual wiring has little, if any, bearing on a woman’s integrity, resilience or strength.

On Validation

Black and white photograph of a woman's back as she looks out of a window, for Validation post by Malin James

Photograph, Malin James

There are things that I’m painfully aware of. One of them is my deep, long-standing need for validation.

It’s gotten worse in the past few years. I’ve always had it but, recently, it’s kept me from taking risks. The need for validation has drawn me away from projects that would further my career because long-term gains haven’t been able to compete with that short-term need.

That impulse has kept me safe in the cocoon of a loving community, which is a comforting alternative after years in the less friendly world of literary fiction, but at something of a cost.

It’s a strange thing. On one level, I give zero fucks what anyone thinks. This is the level I try to live on. But beneath that is the fact that sometimes I give way too many fucks, which is why I can’t say that I don’t need validation for my work. The brutal truth is that I do and the same goes for my worth in relationships.

I grew up having internalized the idea that my primary value was in my face and, even more toxically, that the value of my face was arbitrary because I relied on a choreographer, director or photographer to decide whether or not I was right for a call or a role. It’s a conviction that dogs me even now, and the result is an over-reliance on what other people think.

That need for validation shows up in all kinds of subconscious ways. It’s in how I engage social media and how I blog. It’s in what I write about and when. It’s in whether or not I compromise myself in relationships and for how long. It’s what drives my inner sadist – the one who loves to rake my inner masochist over coals.

The need for validation is natural. We all feel it. But the degree to which I’ve allowed that need to dictate my professional, creative and personal choices disturbs me. The primary reason I stopped acting was because my dependence on external (and arbitrary) validation wore me down. Unfortunately, I’ve created a similar framework for myself by reinforcing a comparable need in my writing and relationships.

I’m ok with wanting a certain amount of validation. Like I said, it’s pretty natural. But I’m not ok with needing it to the point where it compromises my emotional autonomy. Validation is, essentially, a salve – an illusory guarantee that everything is ok. In my case, this is what validation usually looks like:

Yes, your writing matters.

No, you aren’t wasting your time.

Yes, he still wants you.

No, you aren’t a disposable fraud. (This one comes with a nice dose of self-loathing. Self-loathing fucking sucks).

The real problem isn’t wanting validation, it’s misunderstanding what validation does. It’s like ointment on a cut – it’ll soothe the surface, but it doesn’t address the bleeding you can’t see. For me, the internal bleeding is the fact that sometimes I give too many fucks, and that those fucks aren’t even the right fucks to begin with.

What makes validation so addictive is that it acts as a short-term guarantee that everything’s ok. And sure, everything might be okay – for now. But what about the next now? And the next? Pretty soon, validation stops being a relief and becomes part of a feedback loop, one that slowly blows everything out of proportion and gets you stuck on a hook, one where your insecurities take over and drive your behavior.

So, when you put all that together, my need for validation is the subjective measure of worries that are way more existential than concrete:

Is everything okay?

Am I okay in the world? (Or this job, or relationship, etc.)

What the hell does okay even look like? I don’t know but please make it okay….

Those worries aren’t something that should shape your work or relationships because the only thing that can comfort them are guarantees, and the bottom line is that there are no guarantees. There is only the fleeting right now, and no amount of validation can get you off that hook.

It’s a big, ugly, exhausting tangle, but I can’t be a productive writer or a fully present person if I don’t stop chasing false guarantees – guarantees that, for me, define okay as the external validation of my value.

I will always need to feel valued, especially by people I care about and respect. That need is carved into me like grooves on a record. But for all that, the fundamental validation I actually need, the one I’ve been chasing my whole life, is my own.

My need for validation isn’t about the story or the editor or the relationship. It’s about me. And because it’s about me, it places pressure on situations and relationships that shouldn’t have to bear it. That’s why self-possession and emotional sovereignty are so important to me. The weight of that need is, ultimately, my responsibility. It’s up to me to decide (logically, rather than reactively) how many fucks I want to give.

The Love That Destroys You

Fine art nude of a woman sitting in a human sized bird's nest for The Love That Destroys You by Malin James

The Nest by Serena Biagnini

Ages ago, (it was actually just last year, but it feels like ages ago), I wrote the initial draft of this post. A lot has happened since then and my understanding of how love works for me has changed.

So, rather than starting from scratch, I’m inserting commentary into the draft I initially wrote. The italicized bits are me now. Me a year ago is in standard text. It may end up being contradictory, but love is complicated – so complicated that, in the end, it’s fairly simple. If that’s not contradictory, I don’t know what is.

I recently had a conversation about love – specifically, the “love that destroys you”. My initial response (and the one I ultimately hold to) is that, for me, this kind of love can happen once or twice in a lifetime. While some people stay open enough to get destroyed (in a good way) again and again while, for others, the damage incurred makes staying open hard. I fall into the latter camp.

My initial response was impulsive and, quite honestly, defensive. Having been decimated twice, I was trying to distance myself from the possibility that it could happen again. But buried within that anxiety is the fact that, for me, loving means vulnerability, and that’s terrifying because love routinely destroys me, to varying degrees, on any given day. A special kind of super combustible love is not required. 

What is “the love that destroys you”? It’s love on a cellular level – love that hurts in its absence, like a phantom limb. It’s the kind of love that changes you, slowly over time, or all at once. Either way, it alters you. You aren’t the same person you were before you met and loved (and possibly lost) that person.

I do agree with this definition, though I remember thinking purely in terms of romantic or sexual love when I defined it. The truth is that any love can do this to you, from the love you feel for your mother to the friend you can’t live without. It just depends on context and circumstance.

I have loved in that insane, chemically induced, destructive way and, in both cases, I got dismantled and had to rebuild. As a result, I became a more solitary thing. This isn’t to say that I can’t love passionately. I can and do. I just can’t love in that young way anymore. Over the years I’ve developed barriers – the ability to jump in with both feet was burned out of me.

It wasn’t really, it was just safer, at the time, to think so. Loving in any way – sexually, romantically, platonically, maternally – is a fucking risk. There are no guarantees. Guarantees create the illusion of control, but control goes out the window when you make yourself vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict who you’ll love in that cellular way, but regardless of who it is, barriers won’t stop it. You can either shut down and avoid it completely, or accept it and take the risk.

My daughter is the exception to all of this. Loving her destroys me every day because barriers don’t work with her (nor would I want them to). Every time she wraps her hand around my thumb or cries because her “feelings are big”, part of me crumbles and has to rebuild. Loving her is compulsive and holistic. I could never not love her. But there was something in those early experiences that changed me. I can’t seem to stop protecting myself, even (shamefully) sometimes with her.

Which makes me sad, because what I couldn’t consciously see is that nothing in me had fundamentally changed. I was just so used to guarding myself that it felt like a state of being rather than a choice.

The odd thing is that I still feel that crazy love in random pockets. It’s in the way my mom smiled when she bought orange shoes or how my brother limps when he’s tired. I feel an intense pop of love in small, unconscious moments. Those pops get under my heart, and in those moments, my love for them is so huge that it undoes me. But destruction on a grand scale, I suspect I’ll only feel once or twice.

Here’s the thing. Those small destructions, like the orange shoes, are no different than the big destructions, like the attraction that poisons you or the loss of your right to kiss him. Regardless of scale, those feelings reveal, if only for a moment, the true extent of your attachment. Sometimes that awareness is AMAZING. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it guts you. That emotional intensity means vulnerability and loving enough to be vulnerable means loving enough to be hurt. 

I’ve known great love with friends, lovers, partners and family members. But the love that destroys you, that remakes you in some way…that’s happened twice. I’m not saying I couldn’t feel it again, or that others don’t feel it all the time. I just suspect that, for better or worst, I’ve had that experience and won’t have it again.

Comforting at the time, but wrong. While not every love destroys you, the reality is that, barring complete emotional shutdown, how a love affects you is out of your control.

People die. People leave. Feelings change. While not every love destroys you, any love could if you experience it fully, (which isn’t to say that’s the mark of “real” love. All love is real love. It’s just one way that it can go down). A year ago, that scared me too much to contemplate, so I wove a self-image that helped me feel safe:

Sure, I love. I love like a champ, but I can’t get hurt because everything flammable has already been burned.

Like I said, comforting but wrong. If I can love, I can be hurt. That’s just the way it is for me. So, rather than tell myself pretty stories, I can acknowledge my vulnerability and get on with it. It’s not exactly comforting but it’s honest and, at this point, honesty, even painful honesty, is better than the illusion that I won’t get hurt again.

Flash Fiction: La Belle Dame

Black and white image of a woman in a black coat standing in a doorway for Flash Fiction La Belle Dame by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges

 

I have him chained to the wall. I always do. Strong backs pinioned to cold, hard stone. It’s an exhausting position. I know.

“You’ll learn to hate me,” I say.

Learn…hate….

My voice sounds strange. A stranger’s voice. I almost never speak. The words drop into the silent room, dense as mercury.

He tenses but doesn’t look away. None of them do. He smells hot and metallic, like coal-covered iron. Sharp ribs. Sharper hips. There’s a beautiful vein in his neck. Beautiful and thick.

He watches me approach, very proud. A man held together by his father’s influence…. Borrowed influence. I bring my face to his. He strains at the chains, but they pull him up short. Rattling, lunging, he spits his frustration. Laughter tumbles out of me, clean and cold as ice.

He doesn’t expect the blow.

It lands across his cheek, a delicate lie. He smiles, as he’s meant to. But the second lands hard. The third cracks his head back against the wall.

“Harder.”

It’s an empty challenge, full of ego and pride. Like that, my interest fades. Had there been something of his presence in that single word, had he shown me something true…. But, his strength is a lie he tells himself, the blown-out shell of an egg. There is mercy on my tongue for an honest man. But breakable things should break.

He snarls and pulls and bares his teeth. What a sad, ridiculous show. When I hit him again, I draw blood. He blinks. Poor, bewildered boy.

What follows is routine. There are implements on the wall and I take one down. A knife with a handle sloped like a woman’s back. I show him the arching blade, the metal that parts skin with civilized grace. Now, he looks away.

I watch him, wondering…. But no. His eyes when they find mine are blazing and empty. He bares his teeth to speak.

“No,” I say. “That’s enough.”

I kneel and consider the knife.

Very gently, like a mother, like a woman made of light, I slice through his rags and watch his skin ripple, as his clothing falls away. His eyes grow calm, as the rest of him stills. His defiance is in stasis, a delicate, crushable thing, arrested by the reality he finds himself in.

I look up at him and smile, the smile a kneeling woman gives a standing man. It’s cruel and unnerving. It’s meant to be. I continue to smile my mocking smile as I bring the blade to his skin, skin no blade should touch.

His cock stirs, making its final appeal, and I wait for him to shift and rattle and beg. It’s what always happens next. But he doesn’t. He stays quiet and very still. I press harder with the blade, curious. I want to see what he’ll do.

His muscles tense, but it’s autonomic. There’s nothing but calm from him.

I look up and meet his eyes. They are waiting for mine. He has great respect for the knife. His eyes tell me this. His eyes tell me things that sink through the silence and fill the room. There is a person in there now.

And, like that, my interest is piqued.

What May Sound Like a Stand-Offish NB: Though the trajectory of this piece was unexpected, I both stand by and am proud of it. That said, I am not personally into castration fantasies. While I respect them as a kink, please don’t feel obliged to send them to me. 

Writer

Sepia picture of an old-fashioned typewriter with its ribbon unspooled for Writer by Malin JamesThings have been interesting lately – lots of things in lots of ways. The changes are fundamental and long overdue. Not easy stuff, but good all the same.

It’s a strange thing, feeling your internal landscape shift like stop-motion film. If history were anything to go by, I’d say that this should be a creatively exciting time. In the past, periods of violent transition have always led to a surge in my creative energy. But for the first time in my life, change and transition are affecting my ability to write.

Writing has always been my way in. It’s how I process everything, from emotional nuance to the world around me. It is, quite literally, how I make sense of things. Unfortunately, “things”, both internal and external, have shifted enough that writing taking a hit.  I feel dull and mentally paralyzed in a way that is vaguely terrifying. And, in the end, that’s probably good.

This has happened before – I hit a place of maximum pressure and catharsis becomes inevitable. The energy released by the catharsis usually channels right back into my work, which as been a pretty great silver-lining, especially as rabid creative focus has, more than once, given me the mental and emotional space I needed to deal with whatever I was dealing with.

This time was different though. This time, rather than helping me through a difficult period, writing was part of what ushered in the difficult period (and I can tell you right now that this was one hell of a motherfucking difficult period).

It’s funny – I didn’t see that connection until I wrote it out just now (oh, writing, you clever, wily beast). The story that rocked me (through a combination of timing and my masochistically gleeful tendency to myself for material) was called “Alice in the Attic” and it drew heavily on a trauma (and the resulting experiences) that have shaped nearly all aspects of my life.

Writing “Alice” was difficult, but it poured out of me in a sort of fevered rush. Sitting down at my desk to work on it was, in and of itself, so cathartic that it emptied me out and left me hollow by the end.

That said, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation. This particular pressure had been building for years and the writing of that story was just one of many things that ended up twisting the valves. And yet…I haven’t been able to settle into a larger project since November when it was published.

I am gun-shy like I’ve never been and I’ll be honest – it’s pretty galling. Shorter pieces still come fairly easily (the shorter the better), but I’ve got several longer projects that I just can’s sink into. In fact, I seem to freeze at the prospect of writing anything longer than 1000 words. I think I might be afraid. I wish I knew what of…

I suppose that it, right there. I’m afraid of something, and writing is connected to whatever it is. Maybe I’m afraid of triggering myself again; maybe I’m afraid to trust myself again; maybe I’m afraid of something else. I don’t know. And, in the end, I’m not sure I need to know.

I suspect all I really need to do is acknowledge that I’m scared and write anyway. Because fuck it. I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I’m good at it (sorry – not a humble moment) and I love it and no amount of difficulty is going to keep me from doing what I fucking love.