The Cure

It suddenly seemed clear that she was not free from the instinct to please men — she had just opted out of having sex with them.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

It happened in the summer. He was an old college friend. Someone with whom she’d always enjoyed a mutual attraction. They had nearly slept together once, and the episode had deterred her from ever trying again. She enjoyed their attraction the same way that, as a child, she had enjoyed the skin that formed on a cooling bowl of hot cereal: compelled by the physics of it, the surprising cohesion, the way a substance could be relied upon to change in a predictable way. One bite, two, and she gagged, pushed the bowl away. The same mutability that had attracted her then repelled her.

She had gone on a date with a woman. It had not gone well. The woman was a casual friend, and they had been talking for weeks on the phone at night, mostly while she had been traveling for work. Amid the characterless dark of hotel rooms, the sound of the friend’s voice had seemed more familiar than it was and her longing to be home had turned romantic. On the coarse, neutered sheets of the hotel bed, they had had phone sex—something she’d never done before. The date had not been acknowledged as a date, but at the candlelit table just a few blocks from her apartment, it had unmistakably been one. She had leaned into it, flirted with the confidence of someone who is risking nothing, still running on the fumes of longing, her unpacked suitcase at home on the bedroom floor. The friend had responded with ambivalence, and a tiresome conversation had ensued, snuffing out any erotic intrigue and stinging her with rejection. She was not even really attracted to her date! It was not even really a date. Which is all to say it was a typical kind of lesbian date.

Her friends were always complaining about the deficit of available women in New York—that was why they kept dating one another, and one another’s exes, and one another’s friends. It had seemed a ridiculous claim when she was younger and had lower standards. It was New York City! How could one run out of lesbians in New York City? But now, when she flipped through the profiles in the dating apps, it was a roulette of familiarity: a friend of hers, an ex of a friend, her own ex, her ex’s ex, an obvious alcoholic, too young, too old, too many references to allergies or emotional triggers, too many misspellings, too many cats. She left the restaurant upset, at first at her date, then herself. Even when she found a romantic prospect, why did it feel like her intrigues were always a few inches off the mark? They wanted her too much or not enough, and occasionally both. It is difficult to gauge one’s own desire when one is calibrated to the desires of others. She had not even particularly wanted to have sex with her date, though she would have. She had just wanted her date to want her, to mistake that pleasure, even briefly, for desire.

As she walked home from the restaurant, she thought of something her therapist had once said to her: You can’t get enough of a thing you don’t need. She had rolled it around her mind for years, tugging at the riddle of its meaning, testing it against every kind of unhappiness. She couldn’t get enough movie popcorn because it was terrible for her. She couldn’t get enough episodes of the BBC crime dramas because they were an escape. She couldn’t get enough money by working overtime because she already had enough money. She couldn’t get enough approval from a boss whom she despised because she did not respect him. She couldn’t get thin and fit enough because she still aspired to an absurd patriarchal ideal of female beauty. She couldn’t get enough attention from a woman she wasn’t really that attracted to because why should she crave it? These desires were insatiable because no need could be met—like fire, they grew when fed.

Not for the first time, she felt disgusted by how oriented she was to the interests and esteem of others. She enjoyed sex most when her lovers seemed satisfied. There was, of course, nothing wrong with this, except that it was to the exclusion of her own satisfaction. That is, her satisfaction was almost entirely contingent on her partner’s pleasure. She had once read about a study that found lesbians to have an outrageously greater number of orgasms during sex than heterosexual women. This gave her a self-satisfied zing of pleasure, as if she’d given a correct answer on a game show. The reason offered for this was that women are socialized to be oriented to their partner’s pleasure rather than their own. Reading this, her satisfaction dwindled. It was great that lesbians had co-opted the instinct for their own gain, however inadvertently, but still it depressed her to understand that women cultivated this instinct for men. Her whole life seemed defined by unfulfillable desires, by the effort to satisfy the interests of parties she didn’t even care for. When she got home from the failed date, she called her best friend to complain.

“I’ve run out of lesbians,” she announced.

“You have not run out of lesbians,” said her friend. “You are tired of pursuing the wrong lesbians.”

“I called you for sympathy,” she said. “I didn’t call you for the truth.”

“You have to stop looking for your self-esteem in a lover,” said the friend, over a mouthful of something crunchy.

“If I wanted this kind of advice,” she said, “I would have called my therapist. Are you eating a carrot?”

“A pickle. I think you should just go use someone.”

“Like, for sex?”

“Mm-hm.” More crunching. “Make it about you. Text an old college friend. Tell him to come fuck you. It will make you feel better.”

“I’m gay,” she reminded the friend.

“So what?” said the friend. “If I remember correctly, you’re capable of enjoying sex with men. All the better to practice not caring about his feelings. You can stop if you don’t like it.”

Was that true? One of the things that she remembered about sleeping with men was that it was hard to stop even if you didn’t like it. Inexplicably, it usually seemed easier to continue than to stop. Well, inexplicably to her then. One of the gifts of no longer sleeping with men was that she became capable of seeing clearly many terrible truths of it. It was easier to just keep fucking them, because then you wouldn’t have to emotionally clean up afterward. It was easier to keep fucking them than to find out how awful they might be when sexually thwarted—a potential she had learned was hard to overestimate. Masculinity was a glass vase perpetually at the edge of the table. In high school, she had once made out with a soccer jock at a party. She’d never had sex with a man and didn’t want him to be her first. After she rebuffed him, he spread a rumor about the sex they’d had, alleging that she had made some bizarre erotic requests of him. It was a cruel and transparent reversal of his own rejection. Still, those details followed her for the rest of high school. She had been a relatively unknown character at the school and thus, to many, became defined by those humiliating fabrications. She knew it could have been worse. When a childhood friend had halted a sexual exchange with a boy, she had been raped.

For the last fifteen years, she had, somewhat smugly, considered
herself free from the bondage of pleasing men. But if she was really honest about it, she had often had sex with women when she didn’t feel like it, too. It suddenly seemed clear that she was not free from the instinct to please men, she had just opted out of having sex with them, mostly by virtue of the fact that she simply preferred sex with women. Like those people who took drugs that prevented other, more harmful drugs from working—it didn’t cure their addictive behaviors, it just rendered the one option impotent. One had to learn how to not do a thing to really be free of it, she thought. Even though there were hardly any men in her life, she still functioned in ways designed to privilege their pleasure. Like craving the desire of people she didn’t like and caring about every orgasm but her own. If she truly undid this instinct, extracted it at the root, perhaps she would really get free.

She texted an old college friend and invited him to come over. While she waited, she imagined explaining this to her therapist and knew that her therapist would find it a very bad idea. Luckily, it was August, when all the therapists in New York City go on vacation, and she wouldn’t have to explain until September, which seemed a long time away. He had not been a pretty child (she knew from pictures)—gangly with incongruent features, and she could already see that he would not age well. He had thin lips and pale skin and dark hair that was already receding. But he was tall and broad-shouldered with strong cheekbones and a pretty cock. She knew that the window of time during which she had known him would be the one in which he was beautiful. He was a nice guy, she’d always thought, by which she meant that he wasn’t terrible.

He had arrived on her doorstep twenty minutes after she had texted him, an impressive time to travel from Williamsburg to Bed-Stuy on foot. Had he run? She imagined it and laughed and didn’t explain as she led him into her apartment. “Are you hungry?” she asked him. Normally she didn’t ask visitors this, especially this late, but the fact of her intention to use him for sex seemed to demand a compensatory performance of consideration for his exploited body. To her surprise, he said yes, he was hungry. She had very little food in the apartment, having been out of town. She took a veggie burger out of the freezer and put it on a plate. She would have microwaved it for herself, but she took out a small frying pan and dripped some oil into it. As it cooked, she told him about her failed date.

A few months earlier, she had lunched with him. They had enjoyed the same attraction as ever, and she had not considered having sex with him. Now he stood in the room that served as her kitchen and living room and office, and she thought, Sure. She would fuck him, and if she didn’t like it she would stop. He was not a good kisser. As they backed toward her bed, she wondered if fucking a man would be similar to watching porn featuring men, which she sometimes did. That is, would she want to disappear him the instant she came? When masturbating to porn, she often closed the laptop before her orgasm had even completed its arc. Nothing was more grim than pornography post-orgasm.

His cock was not grim, thankfully. It was shapely and hard, and she liked the feeling of it on her thigh as he sucked on her nipple. There was a thrill as he penetrated her, owing in some part to novelty. Within a couple of minutes, however, it became the familiar tedium of being thrust upon. She knew what came next, and it was not her. Still, she dutifully turned over onto her hands and knees and let him fuck her from behind. It took a good five minutes for her to realize that she was waiting for it to be over. It took another five for her to work up the gumption to tell him to stop midthrust. But then, before she could speak, he sputtered to a finish and there was no need. She wanted him to leave afterward. But he seemed to assume that he would be staying over, and she was very sleepy. When he curled up against her as big spoon, she scooted into him. This was a position she was used to, having been shorter than all of her past sleeping partners. But those people had been women. His size made her feel claustrophobic and overheated. His body hair prickled her unpleasantly, and his profusion of sweat repulsed her. A person only wants to be drenched in the sweat of someone she loves, and not always then. With a calculated shifting, she nudged him away from her, and eventually he yielded, content to press his face into her shoulder. His breath shuddered against her neck, slightly congested, like that of a child.

In the morning, she dressed for work, and together they walked to the café before parting ways, each with a coffee in hand. She kissed him on the cheek, pretended not to see the moony look on his face, and walked purposefully toward the train. Confirming that he was out of view, she strode past the station and walked home. It was her day off.

When she closed the apartment door behind her, the pleasure of solitude was so great that she closed her eyes and leaned back against the door with a vocal sigh. She drank a glass of water and made her bed. Her bedroom, having been intruded upon by his ungainly presence, felt sanctified in his absence. She took off her clothes and lay on the taut blanket. She did not watch pornography; she thought about stopping him as soon as the sex became boring to her. She thought about stopping the moment it became an exercise in placation. The orgasm was deep and silent, the kind that opens a room in the body and then fills it with light.

When he called that afternoon, she surprised herself by inviting him over. He was eager again, like a dog before dinner—standing too close, mouth open. He commented on his hunger without prompting, but this time she didn’t feed him. She handed him a glass of water and walked into the bedroom. They kissed for a few minutes. He had not learned how to kiss in the previous twelve hours. She thought about instructing him, something she remembered doing with men in the past. She decided not to perform the surgical tact required to teach him without offending his pride. This decision excited her. She turned her head away from his mouth and pressed her pelvis against him.

When she mounted him, it was exciting for only a couple of minutes. I’m going to stop this, she thought. If he complains, she thought, I will never speak to him again. He didn’t complain. She climbed off him and walked into the kitchen. She returned with a glass of water. He was still on the bed. He reached out his hand, for her or the glass it was unclear. She gulped the water.

“I’m done,” she said, not unkindly. “You should go.”

In college, she worked for a year as a professional dominatrix. One of the activities that her clients routinely asked for was “teasing and denial.” This usually meant a very slow hand job. Sometimes she would tie up her clients and pretend she was going to deny them an orgasm. Sometimes she would make them do it with their own hand. Stop! she’d shout at them. Go! But she always, or almost always, let them come at the end. She considered whether this had anything in common with that and decided that it didn’t. Like all of the things she did as a dominatrix—from inflated balloons to sensory deprivation to face-spitting—it was prescribed by the desires of her clients. Her interest in her old college friend was the opposite. It was the prioritization of her own pleasure that she found surprisingly erotic. She had imagined this exercise, this counterinstinctual conditioning as a kind of work, as that year she’d spent during college was work. She had not imagined that it would be pleasurable, that she would be driven more by her own pleasure than by any abstract objective.

After he left, she walked slowly around her apartment, observing it as a stranger would. She sipped the glass of water and touched her books, a photograph on the wall, the dishes dried in the rack beside the sink. She put herself to bed as gently, as lovingly as if she were her own child. She ran her hands softly over every inch of her body, as if she were washing it. This orgasm was a veil that drew over her, and when it ended, she was asleep.

The third time, he was anxious, sulky, his narrow mouth drawn like a tightened stitch. He was leaving the next day, he informed her. She did not feed him. She did not give him a glass of water. She told him to lie on the floor and touch himself. She lay on the sofa, where he only had a partial view of her. “Stop,” she said. Then she masturbated to climax, not caring or even thinking about what noises she might be making. Afterward, she could feel him there, shimmering with desire and frustration. His frustration was not a problem for her to fix, though that idea rung familiar, like a song wafting from the window of a passing car. She sat up and looked at him, there on her floor with his cock in his hand. He was the last man she would ever have fucked. He wouldn’t call once he left, she thought. Or maybe he would call incessantly. She didn’t care. Her not caring was voluptuous, sensual. It was a most substantial absence. It filled her like a good meal. She had had enough.

Excerpted from Kink: Stories, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell. Compilation copyright © 2021 by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell.

The Cure” copyright © 2021 by Melissa Febos.

The Cure