When I was a very young woman, I was enthralled by two promises, neither of which involved me. I heard the first at the wedding of a friend. She and her husband-to-be had written their own vows and they read them to each other at the ceremony. The groom led with this indelible sentence: If you wake in the darkness of your soul, I promise to hold you until light.
I read the second in a personal ad at the back of a gay men’s s/m magazine: I’ll have you praying for dawn.
These vows would seem antithetical to each other. One offers comfort, the other torment. But I was in my early twenties, an age when both of these seemed essential to romantic happiness. Moreover, both recognize night as the crucible in which our most harrowing hours unfold. Both are night promises.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
According to our creation story, night came first: darkness upon the deep. Put another way, night is older than day; night is older than time; night is the womb from which the world emerged.
Driving home is nothing like driving away, and night is nothing like the day. Life is different at night; we are different. Night tends to strip us of our titles, our worldly roles, our formal clothing and our credentials. Most of us retreat into our private lives and often we seek out secret forms of gratification. Our fear is sharpened, our loneliness honed. Fevers run higher at night and chronic pain tends to worsen.
Henry Miller wrote: Night is longing, longing, longing, beyond all endurance.
Mark Twain said: In my age, as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse. I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race – never quite sane in the night.
I’m grateful to know I’m in good company.
My early twenties – the era of the two promises – also marked the start of my stint as a stripper. During my first month at a club I’ll call The Catwalk, I worked an afternoon shift that drew most of its customers at lunchtime, when they could avail themselves of a limited buffet (hot wings, spare ribs, rice) along with the view. The men would come in, fill their paper plates, and sit politely around the periphery of the stage. Most of them brought a thin sheaf of singles for the purpose of tipping the dancers, and these were yielded up one at a time until they were gone.
No one ever seemed to get too hot and bothered. Rather, the prevailing attitude was affable, companionable. As in: you’re working; we’re working; nice to see you.
Within a few weeks, I traded this early shift for the very late one – the one from 8:00 in the evening until 4:00 in the morning — and never looked back. The night shift was different from its daytime counterpart in every way. For one thing, there was real money to be made. By the time I walked in at 7:30 p.m., the walls of the place were pulsing with raucousness, testosterone and heat.
Because strip joints fill up at night. Lounges and clubs and bars fill up at night. They fill with people who come in and cast off their everyday, workaday selves like kicking off a pair of sensible shoes. They let their yearning rise to the surface. They’re raring to go for broke. They confess and plead and posture and preen and empty their wallets and don’t know when to stop. They come as their night selves.
I’ve had a night self, a secret self, for as long as I can remember. Even as a very young child, I liked to go to bed because it was my chance to lie in the dark and bask in my fantasies. The scenes I conjured were usually drawn from stories I’d heard, but I cast myself as the victim in each one. I wanted to be held captive like Beauty, imprisoned like Rapunzel, caged like Gretel, enslaved like Cinderella: so many stories began in torment and ended in comfort that it would seem as if torment led, inevitably, inexorably, to comfort. Suffering was nearly always the lot of beautiful female characters – right up until the last moment, and very few words were ever spent on the redemptive endings. And they lived happily ever after failed to engage my imagination.
I’m thirteen years old and babysitting for the Kaplan family. It’s around ten at night and both kids have long been in bed. I’ve already rummaged through their parents’ medicine cabinets and dresser drawers, and now at the bottom of Mr. Kaplan’s clothes closet, I find a stash of magazines with titles like Penthouse and Hustler.
For the next few hours, I lie on the floor and look at these. With a shiver of something like recognition, I come upon an image of a woman on her knees, wrists tied above her head. Then another with a studded collar and her hands cuffed behind her. Still later, a model bound by the wrists and ankles to the four posters of a bed.
These pictures are a revelation, the very first time I understand that it isn’t just me.
A second revelation: that the soft-spoken and unassuming Mr. Kaplan — a member of the P.T.A. and the coach of his son’s Little League – has a night self too.
I’m fourteen and my favorite album is The Stranger by Billy Joel. I listen to the title track every night:
Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone;
Some are satin, some are steel,
Some are silk and some are leather:
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on.
I’m sixteen and my nascent sex life has not progressed beyond heavy petting. I’ve never shared my true desires with any of my high school boyfriends. Tonight I’m alone in the kitchen with the Yellow Pages, calling a recruiter for the U.S. Marines.
(So much about this story seems unlikely to me now: I managed to reach him late at night? He was willing to have an extended conversation with me? And over the phone, sight unseen? But this is what I remember.)
“Sir?” I say in response to the self-identified sergeant on the line. (It’s possible I’ve contrived the whole venture just for the chance to call a man sir.) “I’m thinking of joining the Marines when I finish high school.”
“When do you graduate?” he wants to know. His voice is resonant and self-possessed.
“In May,” I tell him. “But I have a couple of questions.”
“Well, fire away.”
“Okay, first – would I have to cut my hair? It’s very long.”
“Is your hair your security blanket?” he asks.
And I feel a quickening within me. Yes, this is what I envisioned when I opened the phone book. Someone – a man, not a boy — who would take my measure and call me out.
“You know, that’s an interesting question,” I tell him. “I never thought about it that way.”
“You’ll learn a lot about yourself in the Marines,” he tells me. “Things you never knew. You’ll find out what you’re made of. Does that scare you?”
“Yes,” I say. It’s the first true thing I’ve said.
“Are you willing to let someone break you down in order to build you back up?”
“I guess that’s what I need to figure out.”
“It’s not for everyone,” he says.
I’m a senior in college, living in an apartment off campus. There is no internet yet, and I go to copy shops to fax the text of my personal ads to The New York Press. Women get to publish their ads for free and the paper makes money when men pay to leave voicemail for them. Messages are accessed by a code punched into a touch-tone phone.
Here is one of the ads I run during this time:
HOUSEGIRL POSITION SOUGHT: Vagabond wants to come home. SWF, wandering Jewess, charming waif, love slave will cook, clean and entertain master of the house for room and board. I’ll be your muse, masseuse, and charlotte russe. Take me in? Serious replies only.
At night, after my schoolwork is done, I listen to my messages and call the most promising men. The first one ever to respond is in his early forties. He’s a priest and the headmaster of one of the most prestigious Catholic schools in Manhattan (a man with whom I will remain lifelong friends). It is less and less a surprise to me that such people also have night selves.
I don’t have sex with these men, and I meet very few of them. But I talk to them, and the talk is a potent fix. Every conversation is an interview of sorts. The men have their own ideas of what the proposed arrangement would look like and the fun is in hearing the details they’ve dreamed up.
One man informs me that I wouldn’t be allowed to touch myself without his permission. He speaks slowly to underscore the seriousness of this point. “Every… orgasm… you ever… have again… will be at my discretion,” he says.
Another tells me that I’d never be allowed to say the word “no” in his presence. He doesn’t mean just that I could not refuse an order, or withhold anything from him. He means that I also couldn’t say No kidding, or There’s no ice cream left in the freezer.
“Sir, may I ask a question?”
“If I’m not… denying you anything, or defying you in some way, then what is the point of this rule?”
“Besides forcing you to think before you speak, every time you speak to me,” he says, “the point is what it will do for your head to get rid of that word.”
Night splinters our resistance. In the lyrics of Jackson Browne: You’re gonna want me tonight/ when you’re ready to surrender./ Forget about who’s right/ when you’re ready to remember./ It’s another world at night/ and you’re ready to be tender.
Once in a while, when the messages in my box are uniformly unsatisfying, I call my ex-boyfriend, whom I left several months ago. I don’t want to get back together with him, or even to have sex with him. I want him — I beg him — to come over and beat me with his belt.
After college, I get a job as a phone sex operator, another position with shifts around the clock. But as with stripping, the work is very different depending upon when I’m there.
Of course there are exceptions, but in general — at least in my experience — a day shift isn’t very demanding. I often get a kick out of watching my co-workers take the intermittent calls. Oh sugar, baby, give it to me, yeah, that’s it, just like that, ooooh, oh God, oh yeah, I love it, right there, ahhhh, they will say while leafing through a magazine or filing their nails. One afternoon when the place is unexpectedly short-staffed, I’m working alone during lunch hour and two phones ring at the same time. After a moment of panic, I pick up a receiver with each hand.
“Honey?” I drawl into both phones at once. I have one at my right ear, the other at my left.
“Yeah?” the two say in unison.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe you called, I’ve been lying here thinking about you all day,” I tell them. “I was just waiting for you to walk in and undress me. Would you please come here and take off my g-string?”
“Hell yes, I will,” the first man says, just as the other one answers, “Here I come, baby.”
It goes on like this, surreally, two nearly-identical conversations happening in stereo: both men glad to let me lead, neither aware that I’m on two calls at once, and – most incredibly – both of them achieving release at the same moment. As I simultaneously replace the two phones in their cradles, I think: If this were a scene in a movie, I’d hurl a shoe at the screen.
By contrast, most night conversations can’t be conducted with a standard script. The late-night callers are exquisitely specific. One wants to watch me suck my boyfriend’s big black dick, and then he wants me to taunt him about the pathetic dimensions of his own member. One wants me to dress him up in my clothes and I have to describe every thread of the ensemble, from the ruby-hued shoes to the black lace panties to the red satin teddy. One wants me to be his little sister: to crawl into his bed, clinging to him and crying after a bad dream.
At night, I have to pay attention, summon compassion, go deeper.
To illustrate the day/night dichotomy another way: the average caller is like a young man with a poster of Pamela Anderson on his wall. Sure, he finds Pam hot, and yeah, he’d do her in a second, but what truly, deeply stirs him beyond expression is the idea of a female quadruple amputee. He’s not going to talk about this with his friends, or display a picture of a limbless woman. But that’s his innermost vision of bliss.
By day, for the most part, the callers were happy to get it on with Pamela Anderson. But in the deep of night, they needed their secret and unseemly ecstasies.
A few months later, I secure a volunteer position on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where I’m a housemother in a boarding school. I supervise the kids’ afterschool activities, help them with their homework, play games with them before bedtime, and listen to their life stories.
Once they’re asleep, my time is my own until the following afternoon. But here, there is no way for my night self to seek gratification from any external source. There is still no internet and I have no phone. There are no nightclubs or bars on the reservation; there’s not even a café or movie house or bookstore. The social center of the town is the gas station, with its tiny convenience store; inside are two or three tables next to a few arcade games.
Here I can’t act out my fantasies, or talk them out, or even find facets of them in fiction or film. The only way to bring them into being is to write them. One s/m-themed story after another emerges, enough to yield my first book.
At the end of the school year, I go back to New York City and start making up for lost time. I follow a friend into the stripping business, where I don’t intend to stay for more than a few weeks. In order to lease a studio apartment in Manhattan, you need the first and last months’ rent as well as a security deposit and broker’s fee. The plan is to make enough to land a place of my own, and then find a regular daytime job.
But the strip joint is a place I can be paid to stay up all night. A place where I can dance nearly naked in a cage, for fully-clothed men who come and talk to me through the bars. I’m there to serve, and the stage is an auction block, and the highest bidder can keep me for the length of a song or bring me into the back room for an hour or two or four. (The back room is $300 an hour, but all it really buys is privacy. The men talk to me back there; they tell me the fantasies they’ve never told their wives.) I end up staying for the better part of four years.
My night life isn’t limited to the strip joint. I go to s/m clubs like Hellfire and The Vault. I tour houses of domination like The Nutcracker Suite and Pandora’s Box. I attend fetish events and “play parties” and leather contests. I watch people being whipped, fucked, fisted, pissed on, branded, burned with cigarettes, covered with dripping wax, shocked with cattle prods.
In the midst of all this, a rarefied dream persists: of a dominant man who is serious, deliberate, devoted to form, gentlemanly in his way; a man who will initiate me into his service and own me forever. This man will always be a stranger to me, because in spite of our ongoing liaison, there will always be so much built-in distance (not to mention inequity) in our relationship that it could never truly be intimate. He will train and enslave me, summon and dismiss me at will.
This dream is unoriginal; it’s at the heart of just about every s/m novel on my shelf.
My nights in the New York City netherworld show me that I’m a lightweight. I’m often unsettled by the extremity of the s/m scenes unfolding before me, though I always feel privileged to witness them. I’m fascinated by how far people are willing to go, how far they need to go. By turns I’m mesmerized and transported and shocked and vexed, dazed and aroused and uplifted and troubled, breathless and desolate and stunned and moved. But I never come near to finding what I want.
It takes me years to understand what now seems as self-evident as the night is long: that a fantasy is exactly that.
Today, I’m married with children and people often ask me whether s/m is still a part of my life. Whether it has a place in my relationship with my husband. As if I might have cast it away, or fled from it. It’s hard to know how to answer.
In the early days of our marriage, my husband was still a relative stranger to me. On our wedding day, we’d barely been together eleven months. Nikolai grew up in Russia, came to the U.S. alone at the age of seventeen, and didn’t see his family again for eleven years. In this way, he was essentially an orphan: alone in New York City with no money, no contacts, no English, no nothing. He almost starved during his first year. Once he went a full week without a mouthful of food.
By the time I met him — at a start-up I.T. venture where I was the copywriter, he the head engineer — he was solvent and secure. He disliked talking about his early struggles in America and could rarely be persuaded to do so. He didn’t like to talk about Russia either. We were engaged and then married and still I hadn’t met his parents or brother.
When other Russians addressed him in their native language, he would answer coldly in English. He collected night vision paraphernalia and Kevlar vests. Special agents were always showing up at the office for a word with him. In so many ways, he was a mystery to me, and this was a considerable part of his charm.
During our courtship and a few months into our marriage, we brought many elements of s/m into our sex life: bondage, spanking, play-acting that went on for hours.
But when I became pregnant, I didn’t want to play this way for the duration. And once our daughter arrived, sex of any stripe was relegated to rare and uninspired interludes between the never-ending demands of a newborn. Night was no longer about adventure or escape, but a bleary-eyed expanse continually broken by nursing an infant. My body was given over to its most utilitarian purpose, my mind to maternal concerns.
A little later, with a child and then two children sleeping across the hall, I found I couldn’t lose myself in s/m scenes anymore, even with the door locked. Besides, by that time, my husband was too familiar to me.
The night self relies on the torment of strangers.
What I want from my husband now seems to be comfort, unadulterated.
I often think of these lines by Alice Munro: I come back again and again to the center of my fantasy, to the moment when you give yourself up, give yourself over, to the assault which is guaranteed to finish off everything you’ve been before. A stubborn virgin’s belief, this belief in perfect mastery; any broken-down wife could tell you there is no such thing.
In the dailiness of long-term intimacy, where does the night self go? Not long ago, out alone for lunch, I sat near a man and woman who were clearly married but not to each other. When she said, “I can’t do this anymore,” I thought I knew the conversation they were about to have. I was mistaken.
“We’re not doing anything,” the man said.
“Well, exactly. And it’s too hard to be around you for that reason.”
“Listen, we’ve talked about this. If I didn’t have kids, it’d be different,” he told her. “But I grew up watching my father cheat on my mom and I’m not doing that to my sons.”
“If you really wanted me, nothing would stop you.”
“You know I want you,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want you? But it’s not going to happen.”
“Well, I need to not see you anymore.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said, irritated. “Cut it out, would you?”
“You don’t get it,” she told him. “I’m obsessed. I lie in bed next to my husband and all I can think about is you. Every single night.”
“Well, don’t think about me every single night,” he said, as if it were an obvious solution, and just that easy. “Look, the situation is what it is, but we have a connection. A real one, a rare one. Why does it have to be all or nothing?”
What startled me as I sat there, staring into my soup and listening with all my might, was that I felt closer to the man’s pragmatic stance than to the woman’s impassioned one. Come on, I tried to chide her by way of telepathy. Isn’t it enough to know that the feelings are there, that they’re reciprocal? A relationship of mutual restraint, friendship with a frisson of desire: how delicious that is and how nourishing; can’t you just let it be there?
If I’m not at the mercy of my own night self anymore, it’s not because I’ve outgrown or disowned it. Nor do I regret the bittersweet mystery of its long tenure in my life. But somehow, it’s become possible to just let it be there, or – as on the reservation — to harness it in service of something else. It’s become enough to feel a warmth, a twinge, a wistful pang; for me, now, there is pleasure in these things and less goes a longer way.
Even the man who wrote The Stranger told us later, in another song, sometimes a fantasy is all you need.
Lately our five-year-old daughter has been coming into our bed in the middle of the night. Usually she’s whimpering as she runs into our room. From a dream? Fear of the dark? Or just loneliness? She’s never been able or willing to say.
I’ve heard a lot of advice against letting her sleep with us. “Once they’re in your bed, you will never, ever get them out,” a friend with young twins has warned. And my own mother often tells me, “I never allowed you in my bed. Not once.”
Still, my tendency is to let her stay. What never fails to move me is how swiftly she drops back into sleep once she’s nestled against me. My chance to offer her perfect comfort will be all too fleeting; I can’t imagine relinquishing, ahead of time, what will so briefly be mine.
If you wake in the darkness of your soul, I try to tell her without words, I promise to hold you until light. For as long as you’ll let me. May you never have to pray for dawn.