The Face Behind the Hood
The small room is a white box, lined with metal eye-hooks. A red silken cord hangs from the ceiling, off to the side. The young male is on his knees. At the sound of my foot steps, his smooth back arches towards me. Glistening with perspiration, he resembles a caught fish.“Close your eyes,” I murmer and I proceed to fit a finely crafted leather hood over his head. The scents of live and dead skins fuse: dank and earthy.
My fingers smooth the leather over his face and tighten the laces that cross the scalp. His well-groomed hair, his sculpted nose and cleft chin are swiped into an ink-black, leather being. His face fills the hood, identity expanding into enigma. Without it, his blonde hair and pale, ruddy skin were too bare. The eyes that blink out of the hollows are a sheer blue, reminding me of the sky mirage reflected in glass buildings. Their translucent quality gives the impression that they are constantly shifting, that they could well shatter; but as his eyes are framed in leather, they remain steady. The leather mask allows me to see him.
Masks are instruments of ritual and enchantment. Throughout antiquity to present, cultures world wide have employed 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, (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 voracious 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 a deep, untouchable 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 talk show hosts. It was not posturing; the smile was his expression of wanting. So when I pulled the hood over his face, imposing darkness and a fixed O-mouth, James’ persona fell away, exposing something more honest: a face of open holes.
I had met James in the summer of 2001, at a fetish club in New York City amidst a play land of leather and latex clad deviants. 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 a coding-genius, a scrabble player, a West Wing 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, I was charmed by our conversations, but repulsed by his 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 seeking a satisfaction that my lips had not found. My fingers found the protrusion of his nipple against his shirt and dug in, as if to pluck the berry off its vine. His eyes instantly filled with a cloudy density and his mouth opened in a gasp. That was it; that pain was our first kiss.
Thus a relationship began, one of my most perplexing flames. James was a beautiful masochist. 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. Pushing new openings into him, my cunt grew wet, my head dizzy with lust. I slid a needle into the thick of his nipple and he screamed to my moan- an opera of sadomasochism. But when he begged me to kiss himm I would bring my face close to his and want nothing of it. In our euphoria, his features had seemed to open into one huge mouth, one black hole. If I pressed into it, even just to touch my lips, I felt I would lose my balance and tumble in.
By our third encounter, I decided to seal the portal shut. I pinched his lips together and slid a needle through both bits, sealing them closed. In my darkest desire, I wanted to needle the thin veil of eyelids closed, 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 my silk stocking from its garter and slid it off my leg. I gently wrapped it like a bandage, moist and musty from my sweat, around his wet eyes. The black, gauze blindfold calmed us both, each on either side, and I continued fucking him.
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 dissipated, not only my physical desire, but the sentimental, as well. 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, 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 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 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 and into the navel, heating the first embryonic orafice, the chakra point of power. The hole that closes upon birth so that all other holes may open.
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 to which 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 feel guilty that I loved the masochist and not the person. Finally, I confronted 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. 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 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.