First published in Looking Glass Magazine 2009
The small room is a white box, the perimeters lined with metal eyehooks drilled into the walls. The only stray color is a thin, red cord that hangs from the ceiling, off to the side, for no evident reason. He is upright, on his knees. His naked body arches in the spot light, a smooth back glistening with perspiration, resembling a caught fish, curving on a taut line. I’m holding a crafted piece of leather in my hands and I coo to him as I slip it over his head, “Close your eyes.” I inhale the brewing scents of live and dead skins and sigh. The leather smells dank and earthy. I smooth it over his face so that the tailored holes match over his eyes and mouth. “Let yourself dissolve into the leather. Let everything you are supposed to be, all that you know yourself to be, let it fall away to reveal the raw insides of you…”
I tighten the laces that line the back of the scalp. His well-groomed hair, his sculpted nose, his cleft chin are smoothed down into a black, leather being. His face fills the hood, identity expanding into enigma. Without the hood, his blonde hair and pale, ruddy skin are too bare, too vacant. I feel as though I haven’t any point to focus my gaze. The eyes that blink out of the hollows are a sheer blue. They remind me of the blue mirage that reflects in glass buildings, not eyes that I normally enjoy. Their translucent quality gives the impression that they are constantly shifting, that they could well shatter, but as they are framed in the mask, they remain safe, solid, held. The leather mask allows me to love him.
Masks are instruments of ritual and enchantment. Throughout antiquity to present, cultures all over the world have utilized masks and hoods in ceremonies and theatre, religion and entertainment. The oldest mask relic found is carved from stone, from the pre-ceramic Neolithic period dates to 7000 BCE, (kept at the Musée de la bible et Terre Sainte). Its eyes are perfectly shaped circles in an egg-shaped face. A slim chiseled nose sits atop a vacant, friendly smile. It seems that early man knew as much about psychology as we do, in our era of overabundant psychotherapy and antidepressants. The first mask of man is that of happiness.
When he did not have the hood on, the man with the sheer eyes, James, wore that happiness mask—a continuous smile that unnerved me. It bothered me not because of the seemingly optimistic joy that was being expressed, but because it relayed so much of its opposite message, that of deep, deep sadness. It was not a fake smile, not the kind that spreads on the lips of the hungry car salesman or the kind that stretches the mouths of Christian missionaries. It was not posturing; the smile was a sincere expression of a flipped emotion. A life of twisted circumstances had reprogrammed his mind-to-gesture communications. So when I pulled the hood over his face, imposing darkness and an expression-less mouth, James’ fixed persona fell away, exposing something more honest. The face of open holes was sincere.
I had met James in July, 2001, at a fetish club in New York City amidst a play land of leather and latex clad hipsters. By most standards, he was a handsome man, a kind of well-groomed pretty man, but it was his wit that drew me in. He was funny and intelligent, a computer genius, a scrabble player, a West Wing (the television series) addict, and, most importantly to my sadistic needs, he was a masochist. By the end of the night, having left the club to sober up on diner fries and 3am omlettes, I was charmed by our conversations, but hesitant in my kiss. It was like kissing a child or a younger brother and I pulled back. I almost turned to leave, but instead my hand trailed up his chest as if seeking a satisfaction that my lips had not found. My fingers found the protrusion of his nipple against his shirt and dug in, behind the berry as if to pluck it off its vine. His eyes instantly filled with a cloudy density and his mouth opened in a gasp. That was it; that was our first kiss.
Thus a relationship began, one of my most perplexing flames. James was a beautiful masochist. Every pore and orifice of his body opened to my wants. At the slightest pet, his flesh rippled and my nails would press the skin and rip in. I could spend hours lying on top of him, his naked body bound in chains to the bed, arousing myself with a cluster of medical needles. I’d push them ever so slowly through his skin, groaning as though I were pushing myself through. Slivers of steel needles stitched along the insides of his arms, three adorning that tender inlet of the elbow, another three along the wrists. Pushing new openings into him, my cunt grew wet, my head dizzy with lust. I slid a needle into his nipple and he screamed to my moan. It was a sadist’s opera. But as I bent over him, my thighs straddling his waist, he would beg me to kiss him and I would bring my face close to his and want nothing of it. In our sadomasochistic euphoria, his features had seemed to open into one cycloptic opening. If I pressed into it, even just to touch my lips, I felt I might lose my balance and tumble in.
By our third encounter, I closed the portal. I pinched his lips together and sliding a needle through both bits, sealed them closed. In my darkest desire, I wanted to sew those eyes as well, but I withheld. In this game, it is not the control of a sadist over the masochist that is the greatest stake; it is the sadist’s control over oneself. Instead, I unclipped a silk stocking from its garter and slid it off my leg. I gently wrapped it like a bandage, moist and musty from my sweat, over his eyes. The black, gauze blindfold calmed us both, each on either side of it, and I continued making love.
From then on I began wrapping James’ head in scarves, blindfolds, and leather hoods every time we played and fucked. It became the first part of our ritual, the binding and burying of his face. I found that once he was hooded, my desire to kiss his mouth would come. I would kiss and taste the leather and his lips combined and press my body against his. I would even display the gentle caresses of an adoring girlfriend, touching the leather cheek and forehead with care, fingering the outline of his ears. But when James was not wearing the hood, my passion grew indifferent, not only my physical desire, but in my heart. I enjoyed our companionship, but had no compulsion to hold his hand as we walked down the street. When we parted at the 42nd street subway station and he became just another body in the hive, I felt no ache of romantic attachment. It was akin to the kind of relationship that one labels “friends with benefits” except that our benefits required the symbolic lopping of his head.
In many cultures, masks are imbued with magical properties. They may connect the wearer to the spiritual world or create a shield of protection from evil spirits. In the ancient days of my Chinese ancestors, elaborately carved “Swallowing Animal” masks were used to protect the home, not by deflecting or warding off danger, but by absorbing the disaster. Perhaps I was using James as my swallowing animal, as that September brought the tragedy of the World Trade towers crashing, thousands of lives wiped away. Tantrum bombs flared on our television screens. An absurd war began. In his small bedroom, I poured hot wax down James’ chest, letting it puddle in the navel, where the heat would burn like an incensed chakra, the supposed chakra point of power. I was careful to use candles with low melting point so that the drizzle wouldn’t burn the skin permanently. I didn’t want to damage him permanently.
I knew that he wanted the pain. We were full grown, if not mature, consenting adults. But I still felt guilty, not for inflicting physical pain—I had put the shame of being a sadist to rest years ago-- but because of my insistence to keep our relationship inside the white boxed bedroom. I knew that James wanted more. After all, our play didn’t feel like just hot sex, it was no simple pleasure. One day, I entered his apartment and he laid a pair of slippers at my feet. He had bought me white slippers with silver stars sewn at the toes. I complained that they were difficult to walk in and tossed them to the back of his closet.
Masochists often speak of a wish be “broken,” to feel a cathartic release of emotions flood from the intensity of pain. The final exaltation is usually that of gratitude. Sadist, too, can be broken. It’s a high that travels through lust, rage, mad joy and deep sadness. After breaking, I am always filled with a natal love, a desire to crawl into the wounds I’ve just inflicted and to sleep there like a marsupial zygote. I’ve had partners whom I’ve loved dearly, partners I’ve wanted to spend my life committed to, who have never given me such utter satisfaction as masochists do, as James did.
At the time, a close friend asked me if I loved James and I replied, “I love him when he is wearing a mask.” My friend blinked in shock and we sat there thinking of all the possible things I had meant by that. Soon after that conversation, I began to be bothered by the fact that I didn’t love James, that I loved the masochist and not the person. Finally, to try to justify the interim apathy, I said to James, “I want you to understand that I am using you.” To which he replied, “Well, maybe I am using you, too,” and then he smiled.
By the end of October, I ended the relationship. I believe that our break devastated James, but he literally disappeared from my life by packing up and moving to Berlin. That Halloween, New York was wild with the need to howl. Revelers flooded the streets and parties pulsated in every corner of the city. Witches, clowns, ghosts, and political imposters danced, drank, got high, and shook with survival. I wrapped my body and head in white drapery as a voodoo priestess and walked downtown. Everywhere painted faces, sparkling disguises, and the many, many masks swarming around me revealed their open eyes and open mouths. I searched the crowds for the next masochist to play with, the next body to feed on. I was searching for love, for happiness, for the next face to fill my leather hood.