Tag Archives: recovery

On Mining Yourself

Black and white pen and ink drawing of a young woman old woman optical illusion for Mining Yourself post by Malin James

Young Woman, Old Woman Optical Illusion by W.E. Hill (1915)

I’ve always loved this image. Is it a picture of a young woman or a crone? Even when I was little, I saw them fluctuate, like a portrait under water, equally young and old. It’s a powerful visual metaphor, one my brain seized on well before I could understand why.

I’ve always split my writing time between fiction and essays. Recently, though, the balance has tipped and I’m  leaning into fiction as I focus on a collection I care a great deal about. That said, project-love isn’t the only reason for the shift in focus.

While there is, inescapably, a lot of me in those stories, there’s a distance in the writing that I need right now. Fiction is, and always will be, fiction, no matter how much of the writer informs the narrative.

The nonfiction I tend to write, especially for this blog, doesn’t have that natural buffer. Everything I write here takes on an inherently personal bent, whether I’m ranting about sexual history calculators or exploring different aspects of non-monogamy. Even when I don’t draw directly from my own experiences, my opinions and history inform those posts to a massive degree. While I usually lean into that level of transparency, my boundaries are higher right now, which makes that transparency hard.

I’m going through an odd time. Things that are fundamental to who I am as a person are shifting and changing, like the young woman and the crone. I grew up affected by a trauma I couldn’t process, and the effects of that trauma unknowingly molded my childhood, my relationships and even my sense of self. Over the course of the past 10 months, I’ve begun to unpack the issues I’ve avoided for 35 years. As a result, my internal landscape is shifting, sometimes quite suddenly. It’s terrifically destabilizing – on some days. On other days it feels great. But the swing between the two is both constant and erratic, so I’m extremely hesitant to write about it. Yet.

In order for me to write well, I need distance and perspective. Venting feels good (oh, so very good), but if I don’t broaden my understanding I run the risk of ranting aimlessly or navel-gazing or, even worse, both. No one likes a ranty navel-gazer so I try not to mine myself until I’ve gained some insight. That’s why I didn’t write about this or this for more than a decade, even though I did (and still do) have plenty to say.

That’s the key, for me, to writing personal essays. While nonfiction takes a thousand different forms, my natural approach is to mine myself for material and (hopefully) create something that connects with a reader in some kind of meaningful way. This often means that the most immediate, difficult or overwhelming situations (the ones I tend to want to vent about) are best left alone until I understand the lay of the land.

At the moment, my emotional landscape is the sort of primordial jungle that guys in pith helmets get lost in. Except for scrawling in my journal, writing about any of it would, in the end, make me feel worse. The young woman and the crone might use the same hand, but they write from different perspectives. Anything I say now will very likely shift given time and emotional clarity. Writing is a way to pin my thoughts down. That’s a hard thing to do when they will very likely change.

Eventually, I’ll put enough distance between myself and this mine of material but, for now, there’s little I could say that would be of use to anyone but myself. I admire writers who produce beautiful, cogent essays in the middle of great stress. It’s a magnificent talent, one I quite notably lack. My strengths lie in hindsight, and hindsight takes time, so I’m leaning on fiction and quiet…at least, I am for now.

On Mining Yourself was inspired in large part by this post by Honey at Happy Come Lucky. If you’re looking for perspective and clarity, there are few bloggers as gifted as she is. I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. 

4 a.m.

4 a.m.

4 a.m. (Photograph by Malin James)

I have a pretty serious relationship with 4 a.m.

It was 4 a.m. when I realized that God didn’t exist and that my parents were just people. It was too much, too fast for a six-year-old. I felt like an island, floating in the sky.

I was 4 a.m. when I woke up in my dorm room sure that something was wrong. My mom called a few hours later – my dad was sick. I had to come home.

It was 4am when I realized that the only way I could get out of a toxic relationship was to leave the city I loved.

It was 4am when I decided to come back, get out of acting, go to grad school. Maybe try to write for real.

My daughter woke up at 4 a.m. every night and it was 4am when I cried because she was smiling, and I was sick from needing sleep.

It’s 4am when I run to steady my pulse.

It’s 4am when I write nonsense like this.

It’s 4am when the quiet falls like rain, and I imagine slipping through the drops.

This is about as un-sinful as a Sinful Sunday can get. While it was taken from above and not below (as per August’s prompt), for me, my face mid-insomnia is pretty damn revealing so I went with it anyway. If you’d like to see some fantastically sexy Sinful Sunday’s, click the pretty lips.

Sinful Sunday

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.

Muscle Memory

Earlier this week, I realized that I’ve run at least thirty minutes every day (often more) for a month. I’m not doing it to challenge myself, or even meet a private goal. I’m running every day because I’m dealing with quite a lot right now and running is, quite frankly, one of the ways I cope. I’m also doing because my body wants to, which is curious and cool. I haven’t felt that kind of habituated craving for movement in years, but it’s settled over me like a cozy, comforting sweater because so much of my early life was spent feeling it….

Partial of image of Malin James with feet in fifth position for Muscle Memory postI took this photo while I was playing with ideas for a Sinful Sunday, but this shot wasn’t intentional despite how contrived it looks. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw myself that I realized I’d inadvertently put my feet in fifth position and held my body in a way that was standard for me when I was dancing. Something about the corset reminded my body of my old training and my muscles obliged by putting me in that position without my even knowing it.

That subconscious physical response got me thinking. My dance training, though dormant for more than twenty years, surfaced unconsciously in what looks like a very unnatural pose, but which was, in fact, extremely natural for me ages ago. In a similar way, my running every day has woken up my old craving for movement, rhythm and that headspace you go into when your body is working like a well-oiled machine.

With all of that milling around in my brain, I started thinking about sex (of course). Aside from the obvious—that thinking about sex is lovely—sex is super relevant because the development of muscle memory is a feedback loop, and sex is full of feedback.

Think of the things that work for you every time – the way you spread your legs extra wide when someone goes down on you or rub the underside of your clit when you really need to come. All of those tiny movements that you instinctively know feel good? They’re anchored in muscle memory, honed with huge amounts of positive feedback –>

If I do this I get that crazy, awesome pleasure?? Goddamn! I’m going to do it more!

So you do, over and over again, until your body associates that movement with some crazy, awesome pleasure. Then, BAM – muscle memory becomes your sexy little friend.

It works in the converse too, unfortunately. Trauma gets physically internalized as surely as pleasure does. It’s one of the reasons people flinch if they’ve been hit in the face too often. Those negative physical memories play themselves out even more powerfully than the positive ones, which is part of why recovering from trauma is such a challenge.

Having said that (because it’s important to acknowledge that muscle memory can cause as much pain as it does joy), I want to drift back towards the positive, if only because that feels important right now.

Everything we experience physically, from running and dancing to stress and sex, impacts us in ways that may not be obvious at the time. I haven’t thought about tilting my hips since my first orgasm, but my body remembers how good it felt the first time I did, just like it knows that, if I do it, I’ll come twice as hard. Down in our cells, our bodies store experiences, almost like a physical archive. The lovely thing about it that, when those memories engage, our bodies let us feel good all over again.

We get that connection to our bodies for free, thanks to instinct and evolution. I haven’t thought about muscle memory in years despite having it drilled into me when I was young. Now that I have, I want to be more aware of it again. If reinforcing the physical memories we want (and gently disengaging those we don’t) means more joy and pleasure, more keenly felt, that can only be a good thing.

On Complicity

Abstract painting of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp for On Complicity by Malin James

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp

TW: Rape, Assault, Public Shaming

A Quick Note: It’s important to say that my sympathy for Chrissie Hynde extends only so far as the statements she made regarding her own sexual assault. She lost me when she started making comments about women “enticing rapists” by “wearing something that says, ‘Come and fuck me.’”

Last October, Chrissie Hynde published an autobiography detailing her life as the lead singer of The Pretenders. What set Reckless apart from other rock memoirs was that it included Hynde’s account of her rape and assault by a gang of bikers at the age of twenty-one. Although her tone is matter-of-fact to the point of detachment, it’s clear that this was a violent act. And yet, in a number of follow-up interviews, Hynde repeatedly claims “full responsibility” for her assault. That’s when things got interesting.

The outcry against what was seen as Hynde’s self-imposed victim blaming was immediate and intense. Unfortunately, rather than clarify her stance by explaining that claiming complicity in her own assault did not extend to a victim’s complicity in general, Hynde doubled down. That’s where all hope of discourse got lost.

Complicity is a complicated issue. In fact, it shares its Latin root with complicated. (Isn’t that cool? <End geekery>) The problem with Hynde was that her media presence blurred the line between taking responsibility for yourself and asking for it, which is dangerous, especially when a celebrity is doing the blurring. It was a great opportunity for discussion but, unfortunately, the many, many, many ways in which people cope with trauma were lost in the coverage. That’s important because Hynde’s claim of “full responsibility” is one of them.

Coping mechanisms exist for a reason. While they’re rarely healthy in the long-term, in the short-term, they can make the difference between surviving or giving up. Acknowledging one’s complicity can be empowering, but it can also be seriously damaging. What’s even worse is that it can do both simultaneously. Because of that, it’s easy to misinterpret complicity and, even worse, to misapply it. So, let’s talk about complicity. How does it function, for good and for ill?

At it’s most basic, complicity is a way of making something that isn’t okay, okay.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wanted pie but your mom said no? You might have said something like Fine. I don’t want pie anyway. That “fine” is a form of complicity. In this case, you abdicated your desire for pie because you weren’t getting any. BUT I’ll bet your desire for pie didn’t disappear just because you denied it. That cross-section between what you say and how you feel is where complicity gets tricky. At what point does complicity override the reality of the narrative? Put another way, when do you actually stop wanting the pie, just because you said “fine”?

That’s complicity in a nutshell—everything from the moment you say “fine” to when you honestly stop wanting pie. In my experience, it can happen either in real time or in hindsight. For fun and fairness, I’ll use me as an example. Here is what complicity might look like in real time:

When I was 24, I met this man. I wanted him so much I couldn’t see straight. That’s important—I couldn’t see straight. My perception was totally warped by how much I wanted him, so every time a red flag popped up, I ignored it and told myself that it was okay (ie: Fine. I don’t want pie.).

As his demands became more demanding, I worked harder and harder to justify his behavior because I wanted his approval and I loved him (and because the sex was amazing). That’s where my complicity lies—in all the little ways that I chose to stay, even though I knew the relationship was hurting me.

Am I responsible for the fact that he was a sociopathic fuck? No. I’m not. Am I responsible for having justified myself into staying multiple times? Yes. I am responsible for that—just as I’m responsible for having finally chosen to leave.

My complicity in that relationship is linked to my conscious understanding and the choices that I made based on that understanding. Yes, he manipulated me. But I also manipulated myself, which means that, objectively speaking, I was complicit in his manipulation, albeit to a very limited degree.

It’s the opposite of how I feel about the sexual abuse I experienced when I was four. Unlike what happened when I was an adult, I am in NO WAY responsible for my abuse as a child. No understanding. No choice. No complicity. You can’t have complicity without agency—even if it’s the agency you claim after the fact. Which brings me to complicity in hindsight.

Let’s go back to the situation with my ex.

After I left the relationship, I felt horrible—guilty, weak, powerless, vulnerable–every single emotion that had triggered me for years. Needless to say, it was a very difficult time. In fact, it was so difficult that I couldn’t bear to be in my own skin. That’s when complicity in hindsight set in.

I couldn’t stand the thought of my own helplessness, so I internalized a perverse sense of control by twisting my limited, real-time complicity into a massive sense of self-recrimination. As a result, my internal rhetoric hardened. It shifted from I’m powerless to I’m an idiot; I was dumb enough to stay; I’d played with fire, what did I expect?

This kind of thinking is toxic, but it calmed the panic and cut the feedback loop. And it gave me the sense of power that I desperately needed, even if it was false; even if I was hurting myself with it. What I needed was control over the narrative and, for good or for ill, claiming total complicity did that.

It’s important to underscore something here. Accepting my limited complicity for the choices I made isn’t the same thing as flaying myself with the lie of total complicity (something I did for years). That’s important because it’s the difference between taking responsibility for your choices and abusing yourself. If the devil is in the details, that’s the devil that got missed in the discussion of Chrissie Hynde.

Complicity, like coping, is determined by the individual. If evaluated honestly, it can deepen your understanding and (possibly) help you prevent a similar trauma from happening again. If claimed without perspective, it can do a lot of harm. Complicity is, in every respect, a gray area, one in which self-blame and delusion are horribly destructive, but where clarity is an equally valuable gift. It’s a hard balance to find, and even harder to keep.

At a time when victimization and victim blaming have entered our cultural discourse, it would be good to see less emphasis on the black and white, and more focus on the gray. While it goes against the nature of sound bites and click bait, the anatomy of trauma, and of how people cope with it, require more than a quick flash of outrage before the next headline hits.

Trigger

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

Being triggered doesn’t happen to me often anymore. When it does, I often feel like this girl, standing on a frayed tightrope over an alligator that I’d forgotten was there.

A Few Notes:

  1. This post has a trigger warning. I don’t usually use them, but I felt that I should as what I’m writing about is a trigger – my trigger – which got pulled not long ago. I’m going to touch on sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, shame and the lasting damage they cause, so if you feel like it would be better to skip this one, please do and consider yourself hugged.
  2. I neither advocate for trigger warnings nor do I oppose them. It’s a complicated issue that deserves objective consideration. This essay  is not that.
  3. It’s important that I explicitly state that consensual D/s play is not abuse. Unfortunately, my trigger overlaps this territory, which means that I have to take certain things into consideration when I play with power dynamics.
  4. Everything in this post is specific to my experience. Nothing I say is intended as prescriptive. I’m not even sure there’s any general wisdom to be had. I’m just feeling my way through.

On to the post….

A few months ago I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one in nearly eight years. It’s been so long that I didn’t quite realize what was happening until an hour later when I still wanted to throw up. When I realized I’d been triggered, the shame was immediate and intense. There is always shame, but even more so in this case.

There are a few reasons for that. The first has to do with ego—this damage was done so long ago that I should be over it by now…right? Well, while I know, intellectually, that that expectation isn’t fair, my feelings feel differently. Shame and egos aren’t interested in fair.

The second reason is a little more basic—the act of falling apart feels shameful because I never want to be an emotional burden again, and panic attacks level me to such a degree that I fear I’ll become one. And then, there’s the serious, primal reason for the shame—the fact that I have a trigger to begin with. But I’ll get to that.

Shame is not something I enjoy feeling, but I’ve accepted it because I know that, for me, it’s part of the triggering mechanism. Complicating this episode, however, was something I’ve never felt before—a deep, panicked resistance.

I didn’t want to be negatively affected by what I’d read. I don’t mean this in a wow-wish-that-movie-hadn’t-made-me-cry kind of way. What I mean is that I didn’t want this piece, very specifically, to affect me negatively. I didn’t want my history to shadow something that would usually turn me on, particularly given my relationship to, and feelings for, the author.

But that’s the thing with triggers. They are intensely specific. The piece that triggered me could have had warnings all over it, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. I’d have read it anyway because, regardless of the warning, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. Change any number of external factors and I’d probably have been fine. In fact, six months ago, I may not have triggered at all. Six months ago, I hadn’t received an email that I never wanted to get. I was getting more sleep. I hadn’t just finished a difficult piece…. There was just no way to prepare for the very specific, collective effect that all of those factors had on me right then. There’s never any way to prepare. At least, not for me. And it’s for that reason that I stand by the piece that triggered me, because it’s really good and in no way at fault for affecting me in that way. It’s just one of those things….

This is going to seem like a random transition, but bear with me.

I’ve written before about the fact that, while I’m not a Domme, I am sexually dominant, and that my dominance formed, (in part, at least), in response to several traumatic things in my history. That’s where triggers (warning!) come in.

When I was very young, I was sexually abused. As a result, I learned that my will could be supplanted. I learned that I couldn’t rely on my parents and that love doesn’t keep you safe. I learned that I had to protect myself. And I also learned that I couldn’t. In other words, at four years old, I internalized that I was powerless.

This led to all sorts of borderline abusive situations as I grew up. Eventually, I graduated to a genuinely abusive relationship. My ex was charming and intelligent. He made me feel strong. He loved my anger and my hunger and my insatiable sexuality. He wanted me to own the world. And he wanted to own me. He taught me about power and how to use it, and then he flipped the tables and showed me how powerless I was.

That’s my trigger. Powerlessness. Helplessness. That’s where the shame comes from—the uneasy knowledge of what I allowed to happen after a lifetime of trying (and failing) to protect myself. And no, I’m not blaming the victim (although the word doesn’t sit easily with me). What I am doing is acknowledging that I made choices. I chose to stay for longer than I should have, and that decision installed a trigger that was pulled because I read something beautiful, written by someone brilliant, that was too much like something my ex had done to me.

My trigger unmoors me from the strong foundation I’ve built. It reminds me that I can be leveled by things that are out of my control. It makes me feel like I can’t protect myself. It makes me feel like I have to, and it’s that last part that’s especially hard. It’s my vigilance that saddens me most. I feel most like the self I might have been in those rare moments when the vigilance drops…when I am soft and relaxed. Those are the sweetest moments. And to that end, my trigger is also a gift.

What made this episode different, and especially disturbing, is that it didn’t stop. I remained unsettled for weeks, so much so that I finally went to a therapist for what has always been diagnosed as depression. This time, I came away with an additional diagnosis. PTSD. And now, thanks to the awful discomfort of being triggered, I’m doing the work that I wish I’d done years ago.

The only way I know to recover is to get stronger. That used to mean making myself invulnerable. Now, it means the opposite. It means bending. I need to learn to accept the abuses and my vulnerability, and I need to learn to trust my strength. I can’t tell you how sweet it would be to feel that acceptance and trust. To drop the resistance and shame. Vulnerability can be such a beautiful thing. One day, I would like to experience it as such.

Woman in Repose

Woman with arched back lying on a dark bed

Woman in Repose by Steve Harris

The past few months have been challenging. A series of difficult things destabilized what had been a very stable foundation. It was a bit like playing Jenga. Each thing that happened removed a pin from my tower, until I was leaning and listing everywhere – nowhere near falling, but structurally unsound.

As a result, it’s  fair to say that I haven’t been myself. The people in my life have had to deal with me being unusually emotional and term bound while I struggled with a limited sense of perspective. I’ve been anxious, reactionary and far more taxed (and taxing) than I ever want to be. It’s a state of mind that made me want to unzip my skin and divorce my body from my brain until I got a handle on things. And that’s essentially, what I did. The result was a general disinterest in sex and, to a greater degree, D/s.

There are labels I use for myself, and others that I don’t even though they could superficially apply. The primary example of this is “Domme”. I never refer to myself as a Domme even though I am sexually dominant. (To be honest, I’m dominant in general though I try to keep that checked. I’d rather be accessible than in control…unless there’s a reason to be in control).

I make the distinction between dominant and Domme because, while I enjoy playing with power, I can just as easily not and be very satisfied. The label “Domme” comes with implications that I feel don’t quite apply because my dominance isn’t formalized, nor do I want it to be. My recent situational reticence with D/s underscored that distinction for me in a very concrete way.

Side note: Drawing this distinction deserves its own post, so forgive the broad brush I’m using now.

While I love playing games, I’m equally happy to meet my partners without a power dynamic in play. What keeps me from being even remotely switchy is the fact that I won’t submit sexually to anyone. Ever. My aversion to sexual submission is serious enough that I couldn’t do it for love or money. There are reasons for this, but I’m going to save those for a separate post.

I’d be lying if I said that I don’t enjoy gentle cruelties or imposing my will on consenting partners. I’d be lying if I said that there isn’t a carnivorous part of me that gets off on taking control. But I’d also be lying if I said that that particular kind of assertion is an integral part of who I am. It’s something that I do, not something that I am (unlike my resistance to submission, which is a fundamental part of my personality). That’s why I love sex with an equally dominant partner just as much (and often even more) as D/s play. 

The result of dealing with what I’ve been dealing with is that I haven’t really wanted to play in a D/s sense. I haven’t wanted to control, create or weave scenarios. So much of my energy was going to keeping myself under control, that the idea of taking external control in a play context was exhausting. Unfortunately, I didn’t consciously realize any of this at the time, though I wish I had. I was pushing myself in ways that I shouldn’t have.

In hindsight, I can see that what I needed was something else – good sex, balanced dynamics and, perhaps most lowering, a sense of safety so that I could get out of my head and back into my body. I’ve been sexually reticent and, though not passive (because I’m almost never passive), I’ve definitely been more cautious and reserved – what a friend of mine would call a woman in repose.

While I was in London, Exhibit A and I went for a short run. Afterwards we talked about how, after you’ve been injured, you tend to go more carefully and not push yourself as hard. It’s an understandable thing but, at a certain point, that self-protective instinct can get in your way. Then again, sometimes it’s what you need, even if only for a short time…the hope is always that you’ll return to running at speed.

To circle back to where I started, certain facets of my sexuality and personality have been feeling fairly injured of late – facets that are tied to my relationship with sexual dominance. In a sense, I needed to rest those muscles – the ones I use in D/s – because D/s is not my home base. Sex is. I needed to get re-grounded in sex while those other parts of me rested. I needed to feel, not think or plan. I needed to be spontaneous and basic, so I didn’t go out on available limbs or explore interesting possibilities. I played it safe because, as with running after an injury, I needed to respect my boundaries and get the lay of my land again.

I didn’t realize it until I wrote this, but sex was, and is, the key to that for me. Good, connected, uninhibited, back-to-basics sex with someone I trust.  And now, on the tail end of what turned out to be a pretty difficult patch, I’m happy to say that I’m in better shape than I thought I was. The muscles that needed resting are stretching and waking up. I’m feeling like myself again, and it feels awfully good. I really am happiest on my feet.

Being Haunted

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

This past weekend, James (my husband) and I went into town for our 10th anniversary. We live less than an hour outside of San Francisco, but for much of our twelve year relationship we lived in the city proper. It’s still our favorite place, so rather than take a bigger, going-away type vacation for our 10th, we decided it would be more fun to go into the city, stay in a hotel and enjoy our old haunts.

I don’t write much about my marriage, not because I’m trying to hide it but because I feel very protective of it (as I do with all of my close relationships). The truth is that things have not always been easy for us. In fact, things were pretty hard (though not in the way people might assume for a non-monogamous marriage). Our beginning was complicated and that set the tone for many years.

One of those complications is a former lover. Let’s call him Patrick. I’ve mentioned him in passing before, most recently here. Patrick and James were good friends when James and I started dating. I started seeing Patrick and his partner several months later. James had his own relationship with them, so the four of us made a very happy quad for about six months. Then James asked me to marry him and it all began to deteriorate.

I’m going to skip details here because this relationship has pounds of material in it and not all of it is relevant. Suffice it to stay, my relationship with Patrick became toxic just as my relationship with James was flourishing. The abuse was subtle – Patrick never hit me or left marks. He never did anything that would raise red flags. He was too smart for that.  Everything was intensely reasonable and impossible to argue. He was a lovely steel-trap.

When James and I told him we were engaged, what had been a good secondary relationship took on a different tone. Patrick decided that if James was getting what he later called “an official claim”, he deserved an even bigger one. Apparently, he’d been biding his time, waiting for me to leave my nice, stable primary. When I didn’t, he quietly and systematically went about cutting me off from the portions of my life that didn’t revolve around him – everything from my work and studies to my family and James. Why did I let that happen? Because I didn’t realize what he was doing until much later.

This is incredibly difficult for me to admit. Even now, when I read over that last paragraph I think, what a fucking idiot. Where are your boundaries, girl? All I can say is that I went into this situation distracted by serious, pre-existing problems. By the time it was bad enough for me to notice, I was in quite deep.

So, why didn’t I leave Patrick when I realized how bad it was? For all the regular reasons. I loved him and I didn’t know how. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing I had to jump but not being able to. Something had to push me. The thing that finally did was realizing how reflexively I’d begun to lie and hide my stress from James, because he and Patrick remained friends after the quad failed. I was weaving excuses because I knew things with Patrick were fucked up. That’s when I finally left.

I broke up with Patrick abruptly, via text, because I knew if I spoke to him he would try to reason me back. I felt immense relief when it was done and a general sense that everything  was okay. A few months later, Patrick and I had tea. The dust had settled by then and it seemed that closure would be good. So I sat across from him at one of my favorite cafes and we had a very civilized conversation in which he told me that he had seriously considered killing me after I left him.

I realize that sounds like a melodramatic threat, but it was not. Not from him. He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself. He was not a “bad boy”. I’ve never liked bad boys. He was, however, a legitimately bad man. Civilized, yes. But only insofar as it suited his ego. He was the sort of man who would put a knife to your throat to prove that you could trust him. I know, because he did that too. And no, that is not the point at which I decided to leave. It took me close to another year. Thankfully, he decided not to follow through on the impulse he had after I left, mostly (he informed me) out of respect for James. He spoke as though my life were a token of his enduring respect for his friend, a fact that still nauseates me. I haven’t seen him since.

That was roughly 10 years ago, very shortly after James and I got married. In a way, our wedding anniversary is the anniversary of my leaving Patrick too and, as with all anniversaries, it ended up being a good time for reflection. This may sound unlikely, but there are things about that relationship that I’m intensely grateful for. Because of Patrick, I know I’m freakishly cool under pressure and that I tend towards anger instead of fear. He was the first person who showed me how to play with my dominant sexual impulses. And because of Patrick, I know that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can still get played. As a result, I have a fantastically low tolerance for bullshit and manipulation, balanced by a weirdly tenacious compassion for most of the people who try. They can fuck off forever, but I still can’t hate them. I’ve been gamed by the best. I have no patience for also-ran’s.

I’ve often wondered, in the intervening years, what I would do if I ran into Patrick again. I’d like to think I’d be distant and cordial. I’d like to think I could pull that off. For better or worse, I am not the same woman who was so thoroughly taken in by a charming sociopath that she almost lost herself. But I haven’t been tested. I haven’t seen him, so I can’t really know, which brings me back to this week-end in San Francisco with James.

There are parts of the city where we just don’t go, because they are crowded with the past. A bar here, a restaurant there…. While I don’t fear Patrick anymore, there are still places that feel cold and aversive because of him. He’s a ghost – after ten years, he’s still a ghost. I resent that this relationship still has the power to haunt me.

The fact is that whenever we go into the city, I could see him. But over this week-end, for the first time, that possibility filled me with impatience rather than dread. While I’m not idiot enough to seek him out,  it’s time to undo those last, tiny, persistent hooks – the ones that make my skin crawl whenever I walk down certain streets. I’ll be honest, I would be perfectly happy to never see Patrick again. I fact, I would prefer it. But if I should run into him some day, it would be worth it to snip the final thread and exorcise that ghost.

Femme Fatales & Dames

My daughter was sick for most of last week, so I spent a lot of time on the couch, jotting notes on a legal pad. One of the things I scribbled was something I’ve been mulling for awhile – different portrayals of women in media, and how archetypical images of femininity and sexuality can affect a person’s development. On a whim, I made a list (because I freaking love lists) of women that I’m drawn to in film and history. It’s short so I’ll include it here:

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Boudica (the Celtic queen who led an uprising and killed a lot of Romans after they raped her daughters)

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer’s. Of course)

The female vampires in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Lauren Bacall

Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With the exception of Boudica, who is in a class all her own, every woman I listed falls into one of two categories – dames or femme fatales. There are a lot of superficial similarities between the two – dames and femme fatales have a certain energy about them, a sexual assertiveness for lack of a better word, but beneath the superficial gloss they are actually fairly different, as was my attachment to them at different stages in my life.

Femme fatales are the image I was most attracted to as a girl, so their influence wove itself into my sexuality at a pretty young age. Moreover, femme fatales have been around for centuries, while dames are a 20th century phenomenon.  The femme fatale first manifested as a supernatural evil – Lilith, lamias, succubi and vampires. Later they took the form of dangerously sexual and often villainized women, like Mata Hari.

The femme fatale, as  a figure, is problematic. She was, quite literally, created to embody the perceived evils of an assertive (i.e.: predatory) female sexuality, a sexuality that is almost always punished. While I’m aware of that now, I didn’t know that as a girl, so my attraction to this type of woman was fairly simple. Because of that, I’m going to skim the deeper cultural issues attached to the femme fatale (for now – I’ll eventually write a post on it), to focus on her relevance to a younger me.

The Brides, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The Brides, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

When I a kid, I was, like a disturbing number of people, made aware of how vulnerable I am. My response to this realization was multilayered. On the surface, I became mousy, quiet and reflexively apologetic. I shrank and made myself as small as I could, driven by anxiety and the desperate need to avoid confrontation. Beneath the surface, however, my real, private self was angry – massively angry, all the more so because I wouldn’t allow that anger to show. By the time I was thirteen, I was a seething ball of sweetness. As my sexuality kicked into gear, I bifurcated all the more, becoming the ideal good girl on the surface, while having violent sexual fantasies in the privacy of my head. That was the year I saw two movies that influenced my sexuality to a great degree – Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula and Batman Returns. These movies introduced me to the femme fatale.

I remember watching the scene in Dracula where the three brides ravish Jonathon Harker. It’s a sexualized assault wherein they seduce and then literally consume him while he writhes in horrified ecstasy.  As I watched that scene, something in me clicked. I wanted to be one of those brides. I wanted to wield my sexuality like a weapon, just as those women did. Of course, they were punished (stake through the heart, beheaded, etc) and, of course, they were subject to the control of the man who had made them, but I didn’t care about that then. What I cared about was that they were predatory women, claiming what they wanted without remorse or apology. It was a revelation to me.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Then I saw Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, a different sort of femme fatale, one that I identified with all the more because I felt like her mousy alter ego, Selena Kyle, who was pushed out a window for being too clever. Rather than die as she should, she resurrects herself and becomes something else, something hard and sexual and overtly predatory (once again, the predatory). She goes from being a victim to owning and asserting herself in a way I could only dream of.

For me, the femme fatale represented overt, rapacious sexual freedom. More to the point, the archetype was a picture of the violent reclamation of sexual agency that I desperately needed. As a result, my early relationships were fraught. I was angry and deeply hurt, and I wanted to make other people, especially men, hurt too. I was a toxic mixture of hollow weakness, rage and simmering sexuality and, as a result, I did a lot of damage, both to others and to myself.

Enter the dame. The definition of the word “dame” varies greatly, so here’s what I mean when I use the word. A dame is a woman in full possession of herself. For me, Lauren Bacall is the ultimate dame – smart and sexy, cool under pressure, holding her own in every situation. Whereas femme fatales seduce on instinct, dames watch. They play power dynamics like hands of poker. They make moves, but only when they’re ready. Femme fatales are about carnal impulse. Dames are about control.

By the time I entered the The Reconstruction (the period in my early twenties that directly followed my inevitable breakdown), the archetype of the femme fatale had welded itself to my sexuality so, rather than uproot it, I tried to explore it in a healthier, less aggressive way. I needed agency, a sense of autonomy and power. I enjoyed the slightly wicked, predatory streaks in in my sexuality and I didn’t want them to go away, I just wanted to be in control, wielding them, rather than letting them wield me.

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Around that time, I went on a Lauren Bacall binge. Even at eighteen, Bacall was something. Paired with a man over twice her age, she held her own so well that when she cocks her head and teaches Bogie how to whistle, you know he’s the one in trouble, not her. Even when he holds her jaw as he kisses her, you get the sense that she is allowing it because it pleases her. She is a fully present partner, owning her half of that kiss. That’s why their chemistry is so insane – she’s right there with him every step of the way. Now, that’s a dame.

So is Myrna Loy, though in a very different way. As Nora Charles, Loy was unfailingly charming. She had such a light, funny social grace that it’s only when you really pay attention that you see her gently maintaining the upper hand in nearly all of her interactions. She’s at the top of the social curve, not for any overt reason but because she’s open and confident, so confident that she literally has nothing to prove.

Myrna Loy (1926)

Myrna Loy (1926)

The difference between the femme fatale and the dame is the difference between what I aspired to at two very different stages in my life. I needed the agency and self-possession represented by both, but beyond that I wanted control after I had so thoroughly lost it. I wanted calm where there had been chaos, perspective where I’d had none. I wanted measured looks and unflinching gazes and dry observations and crooked smiles. I wanted to relax and finally be myself, without apology or aggression. So I embraced the dame and subconsciously rebuilt myself in a different mold.

It would be easy to think of the these figures as constructs – personas that were / are separate or laid over my actual personality, but that would discount the fact that for many people, personalities are fluid. We all have baseline characteristics – compassion, cruelty, extroversion, introversion – but different people bring out different qualities in all of us, just as different events change and shape who we are. The femme fatale and the dame are that for me – responses to events that shaped the woman I became.

Iconic figures are complicated and how we related to them is even more so, but for me, they were a mirror, not only into what I was, but into what I wanted to be. They were something to pattern on while I explored and found myself. I didn’t (and don’t) try to be predatory or sexual or wry or watchful. At various times, in various circumstances, I just am, all while maintaining the priority of trying to be an essentially good person. I will never be fully rid of the anger, but because these two different versions of feminine sexuality resonated so deeply at pivotal times, they allowed me to stop being the apologetic mouse with the target on her back. The femme fatale took me too far to one side, whereas the dame helped me find my natural self.

Erotic Fiction: Resurrection

I wrote this story nearly two years ago and submitted it to Best Men’s Erotica 2014. I was very new to the genre then, and it was only the third piece of erotica that I’d ever had accepted. Though Burning Books Press very sadly closed its doors before the anthology could be published, I’ve got a real soft spot for this piece. I hope you enjoy. xx.M

Resurrection

Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh & Leslie Banks in 21 Days Together, dir. by Basil Dean. Image courtesy of The Red List.

Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh & Leslie Banks in 21 Days Together, dir. by Basil Dean. Image courtesy of The Red List.

There is a man in a room. He is sitting on a hard-backed wooden chair, one arm held diagonally across his chest. His palm is pressed flat against the opposite shoulder, as if he is trying to keep it in place.

A woman stands behind him. It is her room, her flat, hers and his friend’s…no, not his friend’s. It’s her flat alone. A distant image of shrapnel and a cockpit full of flames tries, briefly, to surface, but it finds no purchase and drifts away. In any event, this room, this flat, is the only place he knew to go.

The woman, his friend’s sweetheart, now his widow, is tall and lean, a bit underfed. She holds a pair of scissors in her hand and is shearing off the man’s dark, lank hair, which has grown to unaccustomed lengths since his capture and release. Just past the collar. This is an estimate, of course. He hadn’t worn a collar in months.

Lift, snip, lift, snip. Her nimble fingers are gentle, as if she is removing layers of harm with every cut, revealing the man’s once untarnished future as she reveals the column of his neck. He is surprised by her gentleness. He’s known her only as his dead friend’s wife; competent, distant, impossible to know. He himself is impossible to know. He understands how one becomes this way, and doesn’t begrudge it in her.

Snip, snip, snip.

She lays the shears on the table in front of him. Its only other contents are a paper-thin towel and the cracked, oval mirror that he’d made himself confront the moment he sat down. A ragged ghost had stared back at him. Dead eyes. Not a man to know. At least now, with his hair cut short again, he looks more like himself. Himself as a corpse. He smiles, a cold stretch of lips over teeth. He’s seen plenty of corpses look worse.

She runs her narrow hands through his new-cut hair, sending stray, brown tufts floating to the ground. He is shocked by how good her fingers feel on his scalp, how unexpectedly erotic. He presses his hand harder into his damaged shoulder, reminding himself of his nearly useless arm and the treatment that had rendered it so. She is his dead friend’s wife. He doesn’t want to intrude. But his skin begins to hum as she moves across the room.

She returns with a mismatched set of shaving things, retrieved from a tiny cupboard above an even smaller sink. The straight razor is old. The soap cracked and dry. She dips the brush into a bowl full of water, before massaging the soap in disciplined circles, coaxing a respectable foam from the long-forgotten cup.

“These were Ben’s,” she murmurs.

He nods. He cannot picture his friend. He’s lost the knack. It’s always shrapnel and fire. He can’t picture what isn’t directly in front of him. He can’t picture much at all. He tries and the failure disturbs him, so he watches her instead. He can only see half of her reflection in the glass. It stops at her collarbones, a few inches above her breasts. She is lean and spare. Almost boyish. The mirror has been leveled to center his image, so that she can see him while she works. Something in his stirs. He wants to see her face.

The thought surprises him. He finds himself imagining her eyes, divining their expression through the angle of her shoulders, the hollow of her throat. She always had serious eyes. Grave. Even on her wedding day, in the courtroom, when he’d stood next to Ben. So serious. Too serious. Not his type. Not then. But now her gravity draws him. He craves those dark, sad eyes. He nearly turns to look – nearly, but does not. She places two fingers on his jaw and steadies his head, as she touches the brush to his cheek.

The shaving soap smells clean and good, so good after weeks in the filthy, dark hole. He inhales once, and then again, thanking a deity he no longer believes in for razors and soap and women who wield them well. She leans past him as she sets the cup aside, giving him the barest hint of her scent. Flowers… lilies? Her breast brushes against his good shoulder as she draws back. It is small and firm, the nipple taut beneath her blouse. His body responds, automatic and intense, a reaction he hasn’t had since his capture.

During his imprisonment, sex had ceased to exist, replaced by more immediate concerns. In the beginning, he had maintained a heroic defiance. Gradually, defiance had given way to the animal will to survive. Finally, all that had been left was the hope to die well. Sex served no purpose in a truncated life, so his body had shut the whole operation down. And so it had remained – until the moment her blouse brushed his naked shoulder, shocking his system to life.

He wants to see her face.

She pauses, holding the blade lightly in her hand. His face is done, and done well, but his neck remains and for the first time since undertaking the task, he can feel her hesitate. He sees her breath hitch in the mirror, a tiny catch. Then she comes around the chair and kneels between his legs. She is tucked in close, so close that her scent surrounds him, dizzying and female, clean. He cannot look at her, for all that he’d wished to moments before.

Disgusted by this weakness, this shyness, he makes himself meet her gaze. She smiles, and it transforms her. He remembers that smile now. It is lovely. She is lovely – as lovely as war is not. He thinks of college and baseball. He thinks of Ben. He shifts, slightly, in his chair.

“Sorry,” she says. “Necks make me nervous. One doesn’t want to slip.”

She guides his head back and to the side, exposing the angle of his throat. Adjusting her hold on the razor, she proceeds with great care, scraping the bristles and lather away, as his pulse begins to pound. He is sure that she can see it. Anyone could. Her breath flutters over his raw, exposed skin, but he remains as still as he can. His eyes grow distant, to compensate. She murmurs softly as she turns his head, but he cannot hear her through the pounding in his ears.

The razor is cold against his feverish skin. One pass. Two. Three. Done. She retrieves the towel without getting up, twisting her hips and leaning in so her trim, narrow waist is pressed, briefly, against his thigh. She takes the towel and pats his skin, clearing off the lather with a quiet, fractured air.

She lingers on his neck, his jaw, his throat. She flushes a delicate pink, and her breath catches, he could swear. He presses his palm hard into his shoulder, to keep from reaching out. Then she looks away, and he is glad he didn’t move. Perhaps he’d been wrong. He’s been wrong before. She stands and retrieves the mirror.

“Done. What do you think?”

She holds up the mirror so he can look at himself more closely. She’s done a good job. No longer a prisoner of war, but a groomed and respectable man. Familiar. Normal, if one avoids looking at his eyes, or his shoulder, or his near-to-useless arm. He clears his throat and nods, unused to talking and unable to find the words.

Outside the window, behind the curtains, sirens begin to scream. He flinches. Appallingly, he flinches. She puts the mirror back and kneels in front of him again. In his mind, he sees a pilot, outlined in smoke. He sees the letter his friend had written to her, the letter he’d had to send. Her hands, the hands that had opened the letter, drift up his torso now, as if to check his shoulder. It is scarred, deeply scarred, by a wound and its careless repair. The flat of his palm is still pressed against the ugly mess, though a part of him wants her to see it. She has, he knows, suffered damage of her own.

Her fingers drift over his wrist as she places his hand on his leg. He allows the manipulation, torn between the instinct to disconnect and the mounting need to feel her living warmth. She drifts closer, watching his eyes, gauging him, giving him time to withdraw. He knows he should, but he can’t. She smells like spring, like life, green and sweet, but her face is a woman’s face. They are not so young anymore. She is no longer his best friend’s girl. She is a woman of her own. And her waist is pressed against the rim of his chair – an inch from his hips and the erection that announces his return to the land of the living.

Her hands skim down to his scarred, naked ribs. She leans in and inhales his scent, her lips a whisper from his. His mouth goes dry and he angles his head, bringing his face close to hers. He can sees the world in her eyes. He sees the shadow of himself, and he knows he is going to kiss her. But she tilts her head and moves lower, past his mouth, until she finds his pulse.

She pauses there, at the hollow of his throat, and he savors the humid tension that thickens the air between them. Then she licks his thudding pulse, running her hot, nimble tongue over his receptive, newly shaved skin. Decency, pain, and memory are crushed. This room is all there is, this room and this woman and the simple need to fuck her.

He gathers her up with his good arm and roughly pulls her close, dragging her up off the floor. Her mouth crashes into his as they rock, precarious, in the chair. Then they are on the ground, their hands frantic, clutching and pulling, until her blouse rips and her buttons scatter. Tiny pearls on the floor.

They are too desperate to enjoy. He falls onto his back, pulling her with him so he can feel her without thinking about his arm. She understands and straddles him, pressing close before moving her hips against his hard, insistent cock. He arches his hips, changing their angle, while his good hand slides up her skirt and pulls her underthings aside in rough, inelegant jerks. When her sex is bare against his palm, she reaches down between them to unbuckle his belt. Her fingers shake. She is coming undone. She is pulling him apart with her need.

He feels the pulse of her, the wet, gorgeous heat of her as he moves his hand so she can rub herself against his naked cock. And then he is in her, thrusting and stroking as she clamps her legs around his waist, pulling him deep, deeper than he would have thought possible, if he’d been able to think at all. He rolls her onto his back, his arm and its limits forgotten. She is strong and full beneath him, and he is blind, lost in her scent, her throaty cries, her slick female heat.

She arches against him, scratching his back and clutching at his shoulders with her strong, desperate hands. Pain lances through him, but he doesn’t care. He loves it, embraces it, bares his teeth and tears into it as it shears through a wall of numbness and despair. He braces himself with his good arm as she buries her face in his neck, murmuring his name. Not his rank. Not his alias. Not God or the devil or angels or saints. Just his name. Then she comes, violently, shuddering in his arms.

He savors it and savors her, feels himself reborn in her clutching, perfect warmth. A second orgasm catches her, close on the heels of the first. It is more than he can bear. After months of stress and pain, he follows her, carried along by the joy of this woman, the only person left who knew him before.

When it is over, they lie on their backs on the floor, panting, unable to move. He feels shattered and restored. A cage inside him has broken – if not the last, then the first. She watches him, hair tumbled, lips swollen, eyes dark and serious. Grave. With an effort, he moves his ruined arm and touches her pale face, and through the numbness in his fingers, he can feel her dampened skin. She smiles her lovely smile and gets up off the floor.

She takes off her slip as she looks at him, rosy and full, not too skinny after all. Kneeling, he rests his head on the edge of her hip and inhales their mingled scents. Then he stands, and she strips him, revealing him in his entirety, scarred but whole. He kisses her, slowly this time, pressing his hips to her hips, his chest to her breast. Then they cross the room to her tiny bed, while sirens wail in the dark of the world.