The room is rented. It doesn’t belong to you. It is nicely anonymous, even luxurious, the kind of rustic that the internet has made famous: high, unadorned walls, a beamed ceiling with a triangular window well above anyone’s line of sight hung with a gauzy white curtain. Everything—the walls, the beams, even the hardwood floor—is immaculately white.
There isn’t much furniture. A long empty table against one wall, a white door on white sawhorses. Against the other stands a tall white bed with a white iron frame, bars on the headboard, the bed made with ironed, much-washed sheets, four pillows in pillowcases, and a thick down comforter in a duvet cover. Beside, a tall white lamp.
Sometimes the room is more like a hotel room, with a slim flatscreen mounted above the table and a small closet in one wall. Sometimes it’s messier, with piles of clothes and books of poetry, smudged half-empty cups of water on the floor, a pair of glasses lost under the bed. But the room stays white.
If there’s a door, you don’t know where it is.
Who is he? You couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, would struggle to describe him to another person. His height, his weight, even the shape of his body: unfixed. His face is blurry when you try to look at it. In shadow his skin is swarthy, blue-dark, but in the scanty light from the high window it rounds up rosy, pale, alabaster. His hair shades from black to pale, hangs in his face or disappears. Wet with sweat, it curls.
You try to urge the man into a familiar image, your friend, your coworker, your teacher, your student, your uncle’s best buddy, the guy at the gas station, the waiter who’s always nice to you, the produce clerk who leads you to the avocadoes at the grocery store, the tall foreigner with the impossibly fragrant cologne you once passed on the street, the college boy who helped teach you high school French, the grown man who paid you to tutor him for an important professional test, the kid who smiles at you in the bookstore, the friend’s son you watched grow from a waddling baby into a skinny, taunting adult. You could organize these men on a gradient, a timeline. Try to plot him on it.
Sometimes he is one of these people. You can force him into that shape for a few minutes, half an hour, once. But then something distracts you, some feel takes you, and he is faceless again.
Most of the time it doesn’t matter. You need his lips and tongue and eyes and nose. You don’t need to see them. Then over hours it creeps on you, that sense of being lost, of needing a referent. The horrible sensation from dreams of losing your sight in bits: your peripheral vision blacks first, and then you can’t see in front of you, as in ocular migraine. Waving your right hand in front of your face, trying to see. Like the recurring nightmare that comes just before waking in which you live in a tunnel, careening and blind, and the world hurtles past in mundane asteroids.
You try to find his features. You can’t. But the white room is not a nightmare. The man’s blurriness is a sign of his acquiescence. Of your power. Who cares if his face is only dimly grasped? You are not there to look at each other.
You come here from elsewhere. A curtain of dense red velvet is drawn between your life and the white room.
In your life you step out of your day clothes and into your nightclothes. You brush your hair back from your face, pin it at the nape of your neck, bow your head to clean your teeth and skin. You go to the bedroom and slip into bed. If it’s a cold night, you might sleep in a sweatshirt and pajama pants, or just a t-shirt and the pants. More often it’s just the t-shirt and a pair of underwear, or more often still, no nightclothes at all, only your own sweet humming skin. You pull the covers up, tuck your hands between your thighs, and close your eyes. The lights are put out.
Then you’re there on the edge of the tall white bed. The man found you, sought you out.
He knew what to say to get you to the white room. He recognized a tendency in you, a habit of lingering, and spoke the unlocking words. A spell you don’t know, couldn’t repeat.
You sit beside him on the bed. Or maybe you stand facing him, next to the desk.
You are nervous and casual, drumming fingers on the comforter, humming a little. There is no small talk in the white room.
“I’ve noticed something about you,” he says.
“I can tell that you think about it all the time.”
There’s no point in asking what he’s talking about.
“It’s fine. It’s normal. What, are you embarrassed?”
Maybe you blush. His hand floats to your face.
“Why are you flushing?”
“It’s involuntary,” you tell him.
You’ve heard this before. Your face shows your lack of interest. He will have to try harder.
“I don’t think it’s involuntary. I think you do it on purpose.”
You lean in. “How would I do that? Why?”
His hand goes to your neck, cups the curve there. “Because it looks good. C’mon.”
The first kiss is good. His tongue rubs yours, twists against it, triggers an adolescent memory: the first time you felt desire in your mouth, hot and hopeful. That’s what we lose, that’s what goes away: hope, mistakenly thought to be urgency. Excitement of the new. Joy at the idea it will continue.
He breaks the kiss by taking a handful of your hair and drawing your head back.
“No dark thoughts,” he says.
You look at him. “Sex is dark thoughts.”
“Not that kind of darkness.” He tightens his grip on your hair and everything inside you stops. He’s good. This is something he does, you think with relish. What you wanted. An expert.
“Look,” he says. “I want to mess around. Okay?”
“Okay.” You are aware of your shortened breath. The room swims.
He releases your hair. You lunge to kiss again, but he pulls out of your reach.
“You gotta tell me,” he says. “What we’re going to do.”
You cock your head, a question.
“What I’m going to do,” he says.
You don’t blush this time. “Bite my neck,” you say. “Hickeys.”
He bends his head, takes a mouthful of your skin, and pulls it against his teeth with his tongue until a red spot grows behind your closed eyes.
Hickeys. Love bites. Spit-swabbed wounds, impossible to cover or ignore. Has there ever been anything better than hickeys? The little throbbing wound under your chin left by teeth that want your blood. A wonderful tree of bruises bloomed into your life around your fifteenth birthday. By the time you were twenty-five they wilted on the vine.
Other women tell you they hated them. Such a pain in the ass to cover the damn things with turtlenecks or awkwardly tied scarves or caked makeup. So inconsiderate. What did men think these other women were, teenagers?
You loved them. Marks that said mine. The idea of being marked. You were the thing marked mine.
Blood vessels burst under his sharp teeth, spreading an uneven purple cloud of bruise across your neck, beautiful and sore. You become just the skin in his mouth, your brain drifting beneath the surface of a pink sea.
Then he stops. You are used to sadness, but it surprises you every time: how quickly it rushes in to fill everything up.
“Put your hand on me,” he says.
You put your hand on his shoulder, a warm round bone that fits into your palm, and he laughs.
You are both clothed, but like his face the clothes are impossible to fix. You’re wearing whatever. The oxford shirt, jeans, and suede brogues you wear to work. A sundress and sandals. Black leggings, a black blouse, black shoes, and black eyeliner, what you put on when you need, desperately, to feel like yourself. It could be something overtly sexy, a backless dress or short-shorts, the kind of trashy teenage costume you love but rarely wear anywhere but your bedroom. But normally it isn’t, and why would it be? The white room isn’t a place where clothes stay on.
What he wears matters even less. Pants and a shirt. Maybe jeans. A suit. He wants you to touch the delta of his crotch, where an erection strains against his fly. He hasn’t laid a hand on your body save for your face and neck and your waist, which he used to steady himself during the hickey, but now he invites you to grope the most obvious part of his own. He doesn’t have to ask twice.
For what have you loved more than the feeling of an erection through pants? You have loved the fleshy bas-relief from your first initiation into the unsubtle charms of the hard penis. You loved it poking into your sixteen-year-old thigh as you love it now cupped under your left hand, warm and insistent. You lower your head and rub, nosing him, pushing the round end into your cheek, feeling grateful. You can smell his loamy scent through his pants. Or maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s just sweat, or your own smell. You tongue the fabric.
“Okay,” he says, laying his palm down on your neck. You search out the fly, bracing yourself against a childhood terror: teeth against zipper.
“Not yet,” he says.
You immediately sit back up, rigid as an ironing board. You don’t want to do anything he doesn’t want. You are well trained. You have learned through long and painful experience how badly this can go. Everything can change now. You can be lifted out of the room as you have so many others, a yanked puppet, and every single pleasure can be taken from you, locked away in a high cabinet, the key melted and remade into a bullet loaded into the gun that hangs on the wall above it. But you thought that this wouldn’t be an issue here in the white room, that you wouldn’t find yourself doing the same thing you always end up doing. Pleading with a man for sex.
All of the tapes begin to play in your head at once. You’re not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not young enough, not interesting enough, you didn’t let him start the way he wanted, you should have tried watching porn first, he’s probably just tired, men always want sex in the morning but women want it in the evening (is it the evening? No way to tell in the white room), men like to be in control, give him his space, don’t be so pushy, just don’t think about it.
So many people have told you: honestly, I think you just think about it too much.
You lean back, away from him, as far away as you can get. You think about a door. None appears.
Maybe the white room isn’t what you thought it was. Maybe it’s just normal. The world.
You smell his hand before you feel it smooth your hair: spit.
“It’s my turn,” he says.
He undresses you. He isn’t rough, or mean; he doesn’t strip you, or rip your clothes, as happens in certain ridiculous films (is that sexy? you always wonder, watching the actress peel off her torn cocktail dress). He is thorough and focused. Coolly brutal, if you will.
It’s another thing you’ve been looking for: brutality. Too many men have confused this desire for a kind of limp masochism. You’ve never been disciplined enough to be a true masochist, or sadist, for that matter. But true masochism isn’t what your hapless lovers have expected; instead, they have fumbled for a kind of porno masochism. A woman in a not-too-tight headlock begging for it from behind, calling some blank-eyed penisbearer “Sir.” That’s not it, either. You can play at that, but it’s like crab stick in a California roll: it gets the job done, but you know the difference.
What you’ve been after is what’s happening now: a man’s full attention. Nothing else behind his eyes but the sight of you. No tentativeness, no confusion. He takes off your clothes in the order you put them on: unbuttoning your shirt, undoing and unzipping your fly, until you stand before him in a bra and underwear. You stare at the white wall, trying to keep your breath. Something will go wrong now, you’re sure. You have learned to always temper excitement with caution.
In darker moments you’ve considered finding a man for this very purpose. And it has been the very thing that has prevented you from doing so, because what man—what high school classmate, barfly, supervisor with boundary issues, shut-in neighbor—could be counted on to do what this man is now? To strip you bare and then just look for a second with wet eyes?
“On your knees,” he says.
Giving oral sex from a kneeling position is a banality that you’ve elevated to sacred rite. You grind your kneecaps into the hard floor and unzip his fly, expecting every moment to be told to stop. But the command doesn’t come. He says nothing at all. You hear only his breathing, slow and steady. You reach in and pull out his cock.
On the internet, you once found an amazing image: a bouquet of erect penises, thirty or forty all edited together, circumcised and not, every shade of skin at every possible angle. An image created for bachelorette parties and email pranks. But you found the dick bouquet deeply moving. You couldn’t find them funny, the cocks massed there like that. They were lovely and vulnerable. Some women, you realized, have actually seen that many. When you were younger you felt a certain pride at your relatively limited experience, but now it just seems like another failure. Your eye was drawn to the thick vein on the underside of each disembodied flower-cock, the squiggly line of pleasure you love to trace with your tongue.
This penis is very nice, exactly the right size. Although there is obviously no right size. Aside from one lover, you’ve never taken issue with any man’s dimensions. All penises are strange and otherworldly. Each is touching in its way. Like holding someone’s heart in your hands.
You got that from some book, long before you ever saw one: a cock in your palm is like holding somebody’s heart in your hand. You liked that. Said it to your first boyfriend when you did it for the first time. You don’t remember his reaction.
You close your mouth on him, feel him harden slightly, twitch. It makes you want to cry. You find the vein with your tongue.
He puts his hand on the back of your head and holds you there, gently at first, then unyieldingly. You labor and labor under his hand, gasping for breath and repressing your gag reflex. You open wide and wider. His breathing deepens. Sometimes he readjusts your head or moves your hand, which you appreciate. Your favorite thing is just to suck and lick and bob. Your favorite thing is your job. This work.
His hand is unrelenting. Your neck starts to hurt. White paint flakes up under your knees. Time is passing around the two of you. Close your eyes. Memorize this. Taste the salty musk. Swallow your spit. Inhale.
He pulls you off by your hair, puts his hand under your chin, and tilts your face up. You see his eyes in a blinking, rotating aura. Blue.
“I wanna be nice to you for a while now. Make out with you and shit like that.”
“Yes. I’d like that.”
You stand, stretch, and sit on the bed. He takes your face in his hands and kisses you until there’s nothing left, his thumbs grinding into the red lace cups of your bra. He gropes everything, the doughy rise of your tummy, your flattened thighs, their white down. He jams one hand into the crease between your thigh and labia and just pushes, reminding you of the most wonderful day when you were twenty and a boy touched you like that and you died and died again of good feeling.
He puts his hand in your hair and closes it in a fist, pulling against your scalp. He takes your earlobe between his thumb and forefinger and presses hard until you see a purple spark. Then he twists it, hard.
Before you can say it—I thought you were going to be nice—he thrusts his mouth and licks and licks and you’re fourteen again and a boy is showing you what his tongue can do to your ear. Between your legs you pulse and spurt.
It’s fucking perfect. He pulls away from you, sniffs the air, rubs the hand against your crotch until it comes away damp. He raises the hand to his face and breathes.
“Fucking perfect,” he hisses, pulling your hair.
The bra comes off easy. He hooks his thumbs into the waistband of your underwear and takes them down.
He takes off whatever he’s wearing, drapes his jacket over a chair, unbuttons the dress shirt, slips the t-shirt over his head. Steps out of his pants. You see him briefly in his underwear—briefs boxer briefs boxers—and then they’re gone, too. You’re both in your flesh suits, and he’s on top of you.
In the cosmic joke that is your sex life, or more accurately your lack thereof, you haven’t had a lover in years that didn’t prefer you to be on top.
The world’s image of sex, of the sexual dynamic between men and women, is like a funhouse mirror of your reality. You are not dumb or uneducated. You know all about the forces behind that image, who made it and why, who makes the money and where it goes. You know it’s bad. But sometimes that quotidian, problematic badness seems pretty appealing, if it means a man could want you, want to get on top of you. If it means that your man would.
In the white room the man lies full-weight on top, breathing filth into your ear, licking your neck. His hand works between your legs. How you’ve missed it, this jumble of limbs and parts, the awkward back-and-forth between his hand and cock, your crotch battered by half-droplets of the stuff best called pre-come and your own slick moisture.
“Spread your legs.” His hand lingers at your throat. You do, reaching to clear the tangled overgrown pubic hair, but his other hand stops your wrist. With a quick swipe of curled fingers he does it for you and moves inside.
How you’ve missed it: that first sting of entry, the sense of being reorganized by his cock, the gentle bob of his balls against your perineum. Whenever this happens in movies it’s always soft-focus and stupid, some wide-eyed naïf opening her eyes even wider. As if every penetration is another iteration of deflowering. As if it’s always the same.
It’s been a while, so it does hurt at first, but he handles himself well, pushing deeper and deeper each time, eyes steady on your face. He knows how to lean so that his pelvic bone presses against your clitoris. You imagine your insides as a quilted wall of pink diamonds. Again and again he enters you, and it never gets old. He holds your hands above your head. He turns you over and buries your face in the thick pillows. He takes you from the bed, sits you on the desk, and enters you that way, standing.
You feel a wonderful fire. The head of his penis pulls at a swollen knob inside and unleashes the flame. You scream. You promised yourself that if you ever had the chance to scream at good sex again, you would, and loud.
You’re getting close. He holds you at the waist, biting your neck again.
“Please,” you say. “Please.”
A feeling like static electricity builds in your feet, your calves, your knees. You see stars. Close your eyes. Stars.
“Say it.” You shake your head. His hand comes back to your throat. “Say it.”
“I’m going to…”
He quickens his pace, holding you tight at the hips, looking at you. You seek his face, but it’s not there. “Say it.”
When you do, it’s straightforward, almost calm. “I’m going to come.”
And just then, on the edge, glow shining a corona around your skull, he takes his right hand from your waist and slaps you hard across the face.
He reaches immediately to catch you, his hand cupping the back of your head to protect your neck.
Pain. Beautiful golden electric pain. Back to brutality.
The buzz lingers. The red shape of his hand is embossed onto your face. You are back on the bed. He kneels and licks at your sex.
The hours upon hours of your life you have spent dreaming of this act. Oral sex. Cunnilingus. Eating pussy. Eating out. The most reverent and tender of the sex acts. The female genitals receive kisses better than any other human part. How many lovely folds to kiss and plumb, how many deeper depths to penetrate with tongue and finger. He eats until you are just the parts that touch his mouth.
This is what you wanted, all that time: to disappear.
You walk on the rim of your mind, peering down at the two of you there on the bed in the white room. From above, washed of all color, his body and yours look like a famous photograph, a Western landscape, a study in light and dark, a meditation on light.
Before, when he was fucking you, you felt light gather and adorn every bone. Now it’s different, now you’re filled with pain and electricity and joy. Power. Power. Power.
He does what you always wanted but didn’t know how to ask for, turns you over and eats you that way, his nose tapping your wet asshole. You arch and moan and moan.
When you are exhausted—when there is no more capacity for pleasure in your shot nerves—he turns you onto your side and lies facing you. Then, he reaches for you, kisses you, and enters a last time. The two of you bob on eachother, eyes slitted, until everything glows and explodes and deep inside you feel the warm liquid comfort of his ejaculate.
When you start to cry, he returns to the space between your legs and licks you clean.
The white room swirls shut. You are alone. Hands tucked between your legs. Prayer position.
A stab against darkness. That’s what it is. People think that darkness is in sex, and they’re right, but they don’t see the difference between the rich, rejuvenative darkness of the night sky or the thick purple of the Pacific Ocean, and the dull darkness of loss and hurt. You’ll never understand women who hate to be touched, who treat love as a chore. You bristle with jealousy at what they’ve got, the luxury of turning down touch and rejecting coitus.
You cling to memories of summer days when you did it in the middle of the afternoon, the times you woke in the middle of the night to a map of desire in the shape of a man’s body, the early morning times when, barely waking, you ventured under the covers and met there. You limn these memories for their gold, the moment of your young husband drawing back the covers to the bed after a perfect evening, the way he opened his arms and drew you in.
These things don’t last forever. No one will give them back to you again.
When people complain or joke about sex—when they disapprove of varieties of it, when they are disgusted, when they are tired and turn away—you are moved almost to violence. You think, I would cut it away from you. I would take it. I would cut it away from you and have it for myself.
You see it as you fall asleep: a knife of bone or tooth drawing a swift cut on the other body. Falling blood. Escape into the luminous wet night. Outside: another new place.