Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
My friend Sarah and I were shopping for lingerie together, as a group activity, the way some people catch up over brunch. The two of us had already downed several cocktails when we slipped into the store in Williamsburg with seductively posed mannequins in the windows. The universe operates by different rules on a sunny Saturday afternoon in New York City when no one has other plans and you both have had an indeterminate amount of mimosa — maybe we’d get tattoos or septum piercings next, who knew for sure? But for now, lingerie.
I slipped into a slinky black one-piece, a bodysuit with a deep lacy V-neck, while Sarah asked about sizing.
“You should send that to Mark,” Sarah said, an eyebrow cocked suggestively as I peeked out from behind the dressing room curtain. “Take a selfie, send it to him. You look hot. Trust me.”
An introduction to Mark (not his real name) had been her first gift to me when I arrived in New York City wide-eyed and lonely. Sarah and I had met to get a drink together, which became two drinks, which became me confessing that I had fantasized about BDSM but never engaged with it outside of incognito browsing tabs on my laptop.
Sarah reacted as if I had asked her where to find a good sushi spot. This was not someone easily scandalized: She had experimented with dungeons in college and now had a profile on FetLife, the social networking site for self-identified kinksters. She and her boyfriend were also in an open relationship, and she had a number of partners on the side who she “played” with, in her words.
“Oh my God, you’d be perfect with Mark,” she had said, pulling up a FetLife profile that showed a man taking a mirror selfie from the abs down. “He and I used to play together, but it’s actually been a really long time. He’s sweet. And you’re exactly his type.”
“What’s his type?”
“Pretty little newbie submissive.” Sarah smiled and gave me a once-over. “Honestly, I should be getting a referral fee for introducing him to you. What a gift I’m giving him.”
Mark, I soon learned, had dark hair and a thick Brooklyn accent and an apartment that overlooked a glittering city and ten years on me. He and I got dinner together. And then we went on another date. And another. He called me “Lady” and carried me Officer and a Gentleman–style to bed.
Mark took care to expose me to elements of kink slowly, to teach me safe words, to check in and make sure I was enjoying myself. The first time we had sex, he tied me to his bed using the restraints he already had attached to his bed frame and spanked me until my skin was beet red.
As weeks went by, we fell into the habits of people who were in a relationship — dinners together, spending the night at his place, planning trips in our heads, calling each other “baby.” What I usually enjoyed most, though, was his attention, the way his brown eyes looked into mine and then became hungry as they ran down my body. I liked his dominating me because it meant he wanted me, that he thought about me and imagined new ways of torturing and disciplining me. I would willingly become an object so long as I was the object of his affection.
BDSM wasn’t the only element of our relationship I had no prior experience with. Mark warned me he didn’t do monogamy, and didn’t imagine ever being in an exclusive relationship with me, but his words were the trombone honks of adults in Peanuts cartoons. I didn’t understand exactly what he meant, and I didn’t care. I was an over-confident 22-year-old who heard “no monogamy” and thought “challenge.”
Like Sarah suggested that day in the lingerie store, I sent him the picture of me in the black bodysuit. He didn’t reply.
A few hours before the worst blizzard of the year would hit New York City, Mark and I took a trip to Home Depot so he could buy wood to finish a bookcase he was working on. (Like my own personal Aiden from Sex and the City, he was also a woodworker.)
“Will you build me a bookshelf?” I asked, trying to keep pace with him as he charged down the aisles of planks.
“I can do that,” he said. “I’ll finish this one, and then we’ll take measurements for your place, lady.” It would be perfect. People would come over and I could point it out: My boyfriend made me that. Oh that? Yeah, my boyfriend builds things. No, he’s a lawyer, just good with his hands.
The snow began to fall as he was loading the wooden planks into his car. They were too long for the trunk, and so he tilted them on an angle from the floor of the backseat up to the front seat, jutting out between us.
“So I actually have dinner plans tonight,” Mark said, looking at the road. “With a friend. She and I made these plans a while ago or I would have cancelled.”
“A friend that you sleep with?” I noticed a pattern in the time we had been together. “Friend” was usually Mark’s descriptor of choice for the other women he was dating or fucking, or had dated or had fucked.
“Not that it matters,” Mark said. “We used to, but we don’t anymore.”
The snow became heavier, wetter and denser. The upcoming storm was the only thing anyone was tweeting about. Work had already emailed and said the office would be closed the next day. It didn’t matter who she was; there was no way Mark was driving anywhere tonight, even if he didn’t realize it yet.
By the time he pulled into his garage, the windshield wipers were going full speed, and making no progress against the onslaught of snow. It felt like we were the last car on the road. On his 37th floor apartment, the windows were stark white, completely blank. We were entombed inside a darkening cloud.
“You’re not seriously going out in this, are you?” I asked. My brain had filled with fantasies of spending the blizzard under a blanket with him, drinking hot chocolate and red wine, spending all of the next day watching movies in his apartment.
“We made these plans a while ago,” he repeated.
“That’s insane. I wanted to spend the blizzard with you,” I said, hearing the whining in my voice. He didn’t even respond, just looked at me like I was a bratty child. I began pulling my coat back on.
“I’ll walk you to the subway,” he offered, and, with ten inches of snow on the ground, during the heart of the worst blizzard of the winter, he and I walked in a straight line, heads down on abandoned streets, to the station. He kissed me on the cheek before I descended the damp, dripping stairs to the train, miraculously still running. I was the only person on the train the entire 40 minute ride from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side.
He broke up with me a few weeks later via Facebook messenger while I was at work. He said I was too jealous. I cried in my office bathroom while I wrote back telling him I was sorry, so sorry, sorry sorry sorry.
It took me a while to see that I, naïve as I was, had made a crucial newbie mistake in entering Mark’s kinky world: I’d assumed that what he liked to do with me in the bedroom was related to his feelings about me, and about monogamy, and about how we could be together outside the bedroom.
The mistake was twofold. One: The attention I got when he was dominating me, so heightened and electric in the moment, made me feel like our connection was too intense for him to be interested in anyone else. I allowed myself to believe that was true, even though he’d been clear from the beginning that he was interested in being with other people. Two: I believed I couldn’t argue for things I wanted, if I wanted him to want me at all. I was a submissive, his submissive, but I conflated submission in bed with emotional masochism.
That night of the blizzard, when I finally made it home, my roommate and I had sat on a blanket spread out on the floor of our living room. We had just moved in a week before, and we hadn’t bought any furniture yet, so we huddled together under a duvet, sharing Red Vines beneath the gray light coming from the window. I didn’t tell her that Mark had more or less kicked me out of his apartment.
“He’s great,” I said when she asked how we were doing. “He said he’d build us a bookshelf.”
Dana Schwartz is the author of forthcoming memoir Choose Your Own Disaster.