Other Selves Pulling the Strings: Desire, Self-Harm, and the Longing to be Longed For
Mama, Aunt Marianna, and other sensitive ones — this is the first essay in a while that is not for you. Please pass! Thank you!
Monday, February 29, 2016
At this point, I’m still on Twitter. Two and a half years after I lost my teaching job and so much else, I am still addicted to this most pernicious of social media platforms. In another month, I’ll be locked out of the account for good – but for now, I still have a few thousand followers. Some of them are just keeping tabs on me to see what I might do next; a few still want to engage or encourage. I don’t have any new writing to share, but I tweet out links to the old stuff.
Twitter helps me meet new friends.
I get a notification of a new Twitter follower this Leap Day morning, and then a series of tweets from her, late in the afternoon. Been reading your stuff. Wow. And then, I really wish you were still teaching. I follow her back on Twitter. Her handle is an almost indecipherable portmanteau, perhaps a Gen Z inside joke. Her profile photo is of a pretty, young Asian girl with huge eyes exhaling smoke at the camera. There’s a quote from Bob Marley in her profile and a location: Arcadia, California, just east of Pasadena.
Later that evening, she and I switch to direct messaging, and then texting. She tells me she’s just turned 20 and is a student at Pasadena City College. She graduated high school in 2014, arriving on campus a year after I resigned. She tells me she is interested in criminal justice, feminism, and fashion.
She tells me she really likes older men. She tells me she’s looked up my pictures, and I’m really hot.
I am one week out of the psychiatric hospital – a saga I wrote about here. I feel shaky, walking through my days like a recent immigrant who only half understands the language of his new country. I am tired, sad and very confused.
It isn’t lust that’s on my mind as I message with this woman whose name I do not know. It’s the hunger for familiarity. Flirting, chasing, the game, whatever you call it — it feels like one of the few things I still know how to do, even medicated and traumatized. In my new life, post-teaching, there are very few things I do that make me feel competent. My job preparing taxes bewilders me. My children, as delightful as they are, exhaust and confound me. I love them more than anything, and that love is matched by worry.
Seduction — at least this kind — makes me feel alive.
When I saw “Shame,” perhaps one of the best (and to be fair, only) films ever made about sex addiction, I identified with a great deal and rolled my eyes at plenty else.
The scene I remember best isn’t graphic, and is safe for any to watch. The protagonist, played by Michael Fassbender, is to meet his friend in a bar. The friend is anxious to pick up women and starts flirting with three girls before Fassbender gets there. They play a game where the friend is supposed to guess the color of the women’s eyes after they shut them. The friend fails hopelessly. Fassbender walks up, makes cursory eye contact, stares at his drink, and gets the colors exactly right. He does this with resignation rather than pride; this is his work. Later, he fucks one of the girls in an alley. It is completely joyless for him – and completely necessary.
This is the thing about sex addiction, to the extent that it’s a real thing at all and not an artificial creation of the media and the Recovery Industrial Complex. When you’re in the addiction, you’re always “on.” You might forget to tie your shoes or turn off the coffee pot, but you pick up on every cue and you assess every opportunity, even when sedated. Even when 168 hours off of a locked ward.
She texts a question. When can I meet you?
I give her my schedule.
I’m going to New York with my family Wednesday, she says. Can we do tomorrow?
That’s too easy. Sure, I tell her.
She wants to close the deal: What time can I come over?
I have a tight schedule that Tuesday with kids. 7:45, I tell her.
Okay, she messages back, I have an 11:30 curfew.
Curfew. I decide not to think about the last time I had to deal with a girl’s curfew, and then I think about it anyway, because it gives me a frisson of shame up and down my spine. Hugo likes to feel bad about himself.
We message a few times the next morning, switching to texting. I send her my address. I keep forgetting to ask her name, knowing her only by her strange Twitter handle.
Then, at 4:00PM, another text: Hey, I don’t know if this is appropriate but I have some weed left so I was wondering if you wanted to smoke a bowl first?
I haven’t smoked weed in 25 years, not since we called it pot. It was bad for my bipolar brain then and it would be bad now.
And I am on autopilot. Whatever she needs. Sounds great, I text, bring it.
She pulls up at exactly 7:45. I open the gate and guide her through the narrow passage that leads to the off-street parking spot. Only after she climbs out of her white Lexus do I get a good look at her. She is even prettier than her single photo would imply. In her heels, she’s quite tall; it’s a cool winter night and she has on a tight, taupe sweater dress.
The dress is very short, but the arms are mostly covered by a modest three-quarter sleeve. (For a minute, I wonder if she’s using her fashion skills to make some sort of allusion to the dress codes of Orthodox Jewish culture in my honor. I decide that’s crazy projection, even for me.)
We come inside and sit down at my little desk that doubles as a dining room table. We look at each other. She is trembling with excitement or nerves, or possibly the cold. I switch on the heater.
She opens her Kate Spade shoulder bag, and pulls out a vintage Barnum’s Animal Crackers tin. She’s placed a small PETA sticker in one corner, which either taunts or encourages the caged animals depicted on the box.
She opens the tin, pulls out her baggie of weed and her pipe. She packs it expertly. I like watching her do this, because I love watching anyone do something they’re really good at, and it’s calming both of us down.
She offers me the first hit, and I decline. She fires it up, takes a deep drag, and passes it over to me. I inhale, cough and splutter. She laughs in surprise, and I blush, and the age gap feels less awkward. I wonder if it would turn her on or repulse her if I told her I haven’t smoked weed since several years before she was born.
We finish the bowl. She looks at me, expectantly, evidently calmer with the THC in her system.
I can’t do this, I decide.
“Are you hungry?” I ask. She hesitates.
I have pretzels and tortilla chips, and we make a healthy dent in each bag.
“So,” I say after a few minutes of munching, “I don’t think we should do anything.”
She looks confused, hurt and relieved all at once, and asks me why.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” I answer a question with a question, nearly certain of the answer.
“Then maybe not with me. Not tonight.”
We finish the pretzels. I ask her if she’d like to take a walk, and I give her an old Brooks Brothers blazer to wear. It looks very elegant on her, and I encourage her to roll the sleeves. We stroll slowly around the block, then walk to the corner store to buy bottled water. We hold hands and walk further; she tells me about her parents, who were born in Taipei and came to America just a few months before she was born. I tell her about the kids, and show her pictures of Heloise and David. Before she climbs back into her car, I kiss her on her cheek and ask her to message when she gets home safely. She does just that.
What you just read, starting with the “I can’t do this,” is a fabrication. It is the story I wanted to tell; it is a story that shows me winning out over my impulses and my neediness. It is a lie.
The truth is that I kiss her when I take my third and final hit on the pipe, exhaling into her mouth as I had been taught to do long ago.
The truth is that when she kisses me back, I lift her out of her chair and up and onto my lap.
The truth is she then pulls her dress up and over her head. Her bra and panties are a matching scarlet and are so new that I half expect to see a Victoria’s Secret price tag attached.
I pick her up, carry her the three steps from the table to the bed. She softly bites my neck, and asks me to turn out the lights.
I can’t remember the last time someone asked me to do that.
I turn them out as asked, and then, on impulse, light a candle. While I’m doing that, she takes off her underwear and gets under the covers.
I keep condoms in my bookcase, and I grab one on my way back to the bed. She holds up her hand to stop me.
“Please don’t wear one. I don’t… like them.”
Alrighty then. I’m fresh off a psych ward and reckless as a childless stunt pilot whose dog just died. It’s her call to make; I am as malleable as Gumby. I leave it by the bed, just in case, undress as gracefully as I can, and slip into bed with her.
And then I am gentle, we are gentle, and we are… the word that comes to mind is marionettes. I am performing for her in the hopes of her praise; she is performing for me for a host of reasons at which I can make only educated guesses. Other selves are pulling our strings, making us dance and writhe. She has a beautiful body, but every movement she makes with it seems practiced, artificial, a caricature of desire.
I try to go down on her, kissing my way down her torso, but she pulls me up, whispers, “I just want you inside me.”
Do you, though?
I wonder how much porn she’s watched, and what lines she’s memorized. Then I start arguing with myself, even as I am inside of this girl; Who are you to take away her agency? She wanted you inside her, you’re inside her! Trust what she said!
Yeah, I say to myself in response, but something ain’t adding up here.
I wonder if her parents are younger than I am. We are nearly 30 years apart; this is the biggest age gap I’ve ever had with a woman, and for the first time ever, it feels as if I’ve finally found someone too young. I realize it would be different if I thought she really wanted me, but I sense no lust in her at all – just a longing to be longed for, and a compulsion to be judged captivating.
It is surreal – as if I am watching myself at 17, having sex with much older men. Could they tell I just wanted their praise, as I can with this woman? I think these thoughts, and I shut my eyes so that I don’t see her body, but I don’t stop what I’m doing. I keep going, hoping that something that one of us does will transform this from the painfully rote to the genuinely erotic.
She asks me to take her from behind. I do, wondering if it’s because she wants more distance, but not wondering enough not to do as I’m asked. She arches her back, looks back at me. “Is this okay?”
I hear the eagerness to please. I hear zero horniness. And finally, much, much, much, much, too late, I stop this appalling charade.
I pull out, and lie down beside her. We study each other. She looks away.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She shuts her eyes.
“No, I’m sorry,” I reply. “Have you ever done something like this before?”
She turns onto her side, presses back against me. “What time is it?” she asks.
“Can you wake me up in 45 minutes?”
I set the alarm on my phone and spoon her. She takes my right hand, puts it on her breast, then interlaces her fingers with mine. It’s the first thing she’s done all night that feels utterly authentic.
We doze off.
At 9:55, the alarm jangles. We get dressed, and I walk her out to her car.
I kiss her on the cheek.
“My name’s Helen,” she says softly, “I don’t think you know that.”
“I didn’t. Message me when you get home safe.”
She does. Home, she texts. Sorry I was such a baby about everything.
That hurts, as it should hurt. You did nothing wrong, I reply. I debate whether to add I’m sorry too; I am desperately sorry, but I don’t want to compound whatever she’s going through with guilt. Instead of an apology, I type, Take care of yourself, Helen. In your corner if you ever need anything.
That last sentence is what I often text to my mentees. For all the lines I’ve crossed, this one seems one of the most egregious – perhaps because it comes so long after I had already paid such a high price, and so long after I should have known so much better.
Helen reminds me that consent is always complicated. She wasn’t my student. She initiated our contact, invited herself over, undressed herself, asked me not to wear a condom, and told me which position to adopt. But if I put all of those facts in a left-hand column, they cannot outweigh what I’d have to put in the right, which was that Helen’s words and her actions let me off a legal hook but not a moral one.
I know what it is to use another person’s body like a razor blade against one’s own skin. I also know what it’s like to start an evening with determination, fantasy, and even a modicum of lust -- and then, even as one’s feelings change when confronted with reality, to pluckily force oneself through with it, faking in the hopes of making, determined to demonstrate agency in the arms of a much older person who ought to know better.
Many of us have been Helens. More of us need to know when to stop, and this is one of those times I very much wish I had.
Lori McKenna has a devastating song about age gaps, and I listened to it while I worked on this newsletter.
You want the lights off
He wants the lights on
So you can pretend, and he can hold on