Part One of a two-part series.
1. Winter Solstice
So you’re this person in a park. Can that be all, for now? People are always trying to figure out what kind of person you are, like you’re not a real person until they know how long you’ve been alive and where your parents are and your name, no, your real name, and whatever the fuck is between your legs. Why can’t you just be a person in a park?
It’s Prospect Park, the part that’s not flanked by white people’s houses, and it’s like three in the morning. It’s winter and the ground is iron-hard and crunchy, bad for running, especially in sneakers like yours, which have holes in the heels; but you’re running anyway, because there’s been some kind of incident on Flatbush and now the park is full of cops, whose least favorite kind of person is a young black person with dreads and baggy tattered clothes and no good reason to be alone in the park at this hour (sleeping is not a good reason). If you come across a cop and you happen to be that kind of person, run. Stay as close as you can to the trees. The trees don’t care what kind of person you are; they’ll stand over you and protect you for as long as they can. Twiggy and winter-wizened, they whisper their concern: Shh, they warn. Shh. But there aren’t enough of them to hide a person for long, and you’re probably about to get arrested or shot, because no shit, you’re the kind of person who gets arrested or shot. So much for running away to New York, where they say you can be whatever kind of person you want to be. Who says that, anyway? Not the kind of people who get arrested or shot. The growl of the police car is getting closer, and please please please streams out of you and floods the park until every crumpled brown leaf crackles with please, every pebble underfoot holds itself motionless with please, even the weak little stars above you ping please please please—and then your eyes adjust and you notice the hollow tree.
It’s a big tree—a huge tree—big enough to fit a person the size of you. The hole is dark and probably full of spiders and bugs, but you fall to your knees and crawl into the hollow and curl up into a ball, and the tree trunk seems to tighten up protectively, heaving a creaky sigh. Inside the tree it’s dark, so dark it doesn’t matter if your eyes are open or closed, but warm from your breath steam and fragrant with sweet cold dirt. Technically it’s a dead tree, and yet something in it feels radiantly alive—not another person, but someone, for sure, someone whose attention is as tangible as a hug. You’re not alone in here.
It’s not safe to speak aloud, but you know you’ve been heard. The not-aloneness hangs in the air around you, wraps itself around you and makes you radiantly alive, too.
Who are you?
The police car purrs away, fainter and fainter, until it fades into the general hum of distant night traffic.
What are you?
But the not-aloneness is fading away—it doesn’t belong to the tree, it just hung out in there for a moment to help you, and now that you’re safe it’s losing interest in you, leaving you even more alone than you were before.
But it’s gone.
(Then time moves again, faster and blurrier than ever before. The sun comes up, and eventually you find your way to Occupy, where you share a tent with this white girl named Qristin. At first you write her off as a baby dyke of the preeningly overdetermined variety, whose attempts at androgyny—shaved head, cheek piercings, fluffy underarms—somehow only enhance her girliness. Amateur, you think, to quiet the other part of your brain that’s thinking Lucky bitch. But it turns out she’s into some of the same freaky shit you are, so you start hanging out more and more. When the Union Square protest turns ugly, she’s the one who bails your ass out of jail—well, she gets her parents to do it—and afterward the three of them are so gentle with you, you’d think they threw you in there themselves. Maybe, in a way, they think they did. “We’re so sorry,” they say, their eyes opening up all wide and wet for you like porn star legs. “It must be so hard for you, right? Right?” They invite you over to their exposed-brick palace in Park Slope and feed you all this funny hamster food—seeds and seaweed and salad with actual flowers in it—apologizing all the while for how hard they imagine your life must be; and it’s like they don’t even notice what a mess you are, because they’re too busy begging your forgiveness to see you at all. Within a week, you’ve moved in permanently. There’s no talk of you finding your own place or even paying rent; in fact there’s little talk of anything, as if you’re an exotic but low-maintenance houseplant. You get used to it.)
(But it takes you a long time to stop thinking you’d do anything—anything—to bring back the not-aloneness.)
2. Spring Equinox
This is her first sex party, and she’s probably going about it all wrong. For one thing, she shows up alone, while the other guests arrive in couples and threesomes and larger polyamorous configurations, bearing floggers and extra rope in the spirit of a potluck. They all seem to know each other and find each other hilarious, in a grating way that she thought she’d escaped when she dropped out of college. She can hear them address each other with special scene names—Inanna, Inara, Charmander—for anonymity, but also, she supposes, for fun. She doesn’t have a scene name; she lacks the imagination, and she doesn’t care about anonymity. Or fun, for that matter. As she strips down, she decides to use her real name if asked. But no one asks.
The venue is a single-family brownstone right out of the Sunday Styles section, complete with a back garden whose weedy neglect implies the existence of a country house elsewhere. Leaf-dappled afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and hits the walls just so, illuminating an impressive collection of authentic-looking tribal art, for which she can hear the hostess, Qristin, apologize: “I know it’s appropriative as fuck, but I can’t get my parents to take it down.” The guests reassure Qristin that it’s fine, that they didn’t even notice the offensive masks, that they have eyes only for the complimentary bondage tape, the glitter-spanking station, the upstairs bathroom that’s covered in tarp and reserved for pee play. Someone fiddles with a MacBook Air, trying to make it play music, the selection of which produces a chorus of approving squeals: “I love Harry and the Potters!” “Jonathan Coulton is my jam!” “This is the nerdiest party EVER!”
They’re still ignoring her. Maybe they assume she’s taken. Naked except for high heels and a pearl necklace, she circles the living room as if competing for Miss Kinky America, and an observer might think it’s a scene, that she’s acting on the orders of an unseen dom and mustn’t be interrupted. But others can surely tell she’s here on her own, a submissive with no one to submit to; her need to be dominated is all but medical, so transparent and intense that it’s actually off-putting even to the most eager doms in attendance. She knows this is true because she can feel it herself—this constant urge to be beaten back into her body, as violently and painfully as possible, before she disappears or, worse, transforms into something monstrous.
Finally noticing that one of the guests is failing to mingle, Qristin takes it upon herself to chat her up. “Nice pearls,” is her opener.
“Thanks,” says the naked girl. “They were my grandma’s.”
Qristin frowns, and the naked girl correctly guesses what she’s about to ask: “Are you okay?”
The naked girl gets that a lot. Something in her voice makes her sound perpetually on the verge of tears; long ago she stopped raising her hand in class, knowing that teachers would respond to her most innocuous questions with a flustered “What’s the matter?” It’s only gotten worse since she returned to Greenwich and moved back in with her parents, who, instead of asking her why she left school, simply ask her over and over if she’s okay. “I’m fine,” she says to them, and to Qristin now.
“You sure?” says Qristin, a response to which the naked girl is likewise accustomed. “Let me know if anyone’s bothering you, okay? I want my parties to be a safe space.”
“No one’s bothering me,” says the naked girl, a bit dolefully.
“Awesome!” says Qristin. “Well, if you need anything, there’s a bowl of M&Ms over there, and vegan options in the kitchen—”
Then the naked girl stops hearing what Qristin’s saying, stops thinking, stops seeing everything except the person standing on the other side of the room. At first she can’t tell if this person is male or female, a boy in his teens or a woman in her thirties, beautiful or ugly—at a glance this person seems to have no gender or age or any qualities at all apart from anger. It’s not a showy kind of anger; this person doesn’t scowl or brandish a whip but simply stands barefoot on the glitter-gritty carpet, empty-handed and serious and still. Yet the naked girl feels this person’s rage like the heat from a burning building.
“Who is that?” she whispers to Qristin.
“Her,” she says, taking a guess, and points. The person is over by the glitter-spanking station, just watching, leaning against the exposed-brick wall with one foot crossed in front of the other.
“That’s my primary partner, Lex,” says Qristin. “Ze, not she. Don’t misgender zir, okay? This is supposed to be a safe space.”
“Why is sh—ze so angry?”
“What do you mean? Ze’s usually pretty laid back. Except when ze gets misgendered,” Qristin says pointedly, but the naked girl is already moving toward Lex as if in a dream, only vaguely aware of Qristin’s voice behind her: “We have an open relationship, so it’s cool if you want to play with zir! Our safeword is cilantro.”
Lex is tall, leggy, so strong—jacked, really—with short dreadlocks that could be raspy rough or velvety soft, she doesn’t know and needs to know, she wants to touch them and then be punished for touching them. She’s not aware of dropping to her knees, but she is on her knees before Lex, saying, “I’m sorry.”
And even though they’re strangers to each other, Lex gets it—Lex towers above her and looks down on her and says, “Bitch, you don’t even know.” Zir voice is husky, and quieter than you’d expect. “You think you’re sorry, but you don’t know what for. You don’t know shit.”
“I know—I’m sorry,” says the naked girl, and she wants Lex’s punishment so badly it feels almost like hunger, like Lex’s anger is something she can snatch away and eat. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Prove it, Pearls,” says Lex, and zir eyes are black bullets and Pearls has been shot.
So you’re domming the fuck out of this weird naked white girl in pearls, and at first it’s simple. “Mouth,” you say, and obediently she opens her mouth. You spit into it and say “Swallow,” and her milk-white throat pulses as she swallows your spit. “Tongue,” you say, and she sticks out her tongue for you. You bite it, she squeals, and you slap her face and say, “Come.” When she comes on command for you—instantaneously, and for real, no fooling, you know how to tell—that’s when you begin to understand what kind of sub you’re dealing with here. “Come,” you say again as soon as her squirming subsides, and she obeys once more. “Come,” you repeat, “come,” until her face is a scalded red and leaking tears and you’re starting to get tired, and for one dizzy moment you forget who’s on top here, because it’s like she’s submitting at you rather than to you, trying to break you with it—
Then Qristin comes up behind you and taps you on the shoulder, and when you look up you see that the afternoon light is fading. How much time has gone by?
“Sorry to interrupt you guys,” says Qristin, who’s chill like that, “but we’re gathering in the garden for a little Equinox ceremony, if you want to get in on that.”
“Oh, shit.” The strap-on makes a slurpy noise as you pull it out of Pearls. You’re not sure why Qristin’s religion makes you nervous. It couldn’t be more benign: she weaves crowns out of flowers, collects bird feathers and raw crystals, which she arranges and rearranges on her altar, inscrutably deliberate in a way that reminds you of a little girl playing with dolls. Sometimes she even leaves out milk and cookies for the faeries, like you used to do for Santa. Everything about it is lovely and sweet, just like Qristin herself, and you have no reason to look around the room for an excuse to skip the ceremony. Seeing the glitter on the carpet, the condoms and latex gloves glistening in the wastebasket, you say, “I should clean up.”
“Rosalia’s coming tomorrow,” Qristin reminds you, which you already knew, but you don’t want the maid to see this. She reminds you of your mom, who also cleaned white people’s houses (still does, as far as you know, which is not very far and you’d like to keep it that way). “Come on, we have like five minutes before the sun goes down.”
“What’s an Equinox ceremony?” asks Pearls.
Qristin sighs. “Lex, can you explain to her about paganism? I have to go.”
Pearls’s hair is a yanked-around mess, her eyes shine like round mirrors, and know she’ll believe anything you tell her. But how can you possibly explain to her about paganism? You can’t even hold it all in your mind at once. Sometimes, if you try, you get little flickers in the corner of your consciousness—a sleek brown limb, the whoosh of a passing swiftness, dark coiling vines and the taste of moon—but in the next moment it all vanishes, leaving the altar a lifeless pile of junk and you feeling foolish and ashamed, like who the hell do you think you are?
Instead you simply say, “Come see for yourself.”
The back garden is damp and shade-chilled. Everyone stands in a circle clutching a white candle, cupping one palm around the flame to protect it from the wind, a losing battle. Qristin leads the ceremony, and you try to listen but you’re still breathing heavy, aching pleasantly in those weird hip muscles you never feel except when you use a strap-on; your fingers smell of cheap vegan leather, condom latex, and wet silicone, with just the faintest trace of pussy; and Pearls is standing right next to you, so close that the wind is blowing her hair across your shoulder…
“Now we close our eyes,” you catch Qristin saying, “and make our wishes for the coming season. Focus your mind on what you most desire. Ask the Goddess to grant it to you.”
You don’t like closing your eyes in front of other people. Stealthily, you glance around the circle of rope-bruised, glitter-spangled white kids as they close their eyes and turn their faces skyward, knowing exactly what they want, demanding it, expecting it…
Beside you, so softly you can barely hear it, Pearls whispers her wish.
3. May Day
It’s her own personal Big Bang: first there was nothing, then there was Lex, and now, immediately, Lex is everything. Pearls wakes up every morning and the first thing she does is check her phone to see if Lex has texted her with today’s orders. (Rise and shine, Pearls. Don’t wear panties today.) Then she dresses for Lex, showers and shaves for Lex, does her hair and makeup for Lex, even on the days when Lex isn’t going to see her. (Kneel on the floor until I text you to stop.) Wintry-sepia Connecticut, hit with a great big glitterbomb of a springtime, has burst overnight into lush, blush-pink, bee-humming blossom; for hours on end she lounges in the backyard, combing the grass with her bare toes, dazed with sunshine but always poised to snap into action if her phone buzzes with further orders. (Slap yourself in the face, three times on each side, and say out loud: “I belong to Lex.” Shout it. Even if your parents are home.)She loses interest in meals, subsisting instead on candy and scraps—a cup of tea here, a packet of instant miso soup there, a handful of grapes, ice cubes all day long—and she walks as if on water, feeling bright and cloudless and pure. (Go to sleep, little one. That’s an order.) At night she curls up wide awake and giddy, praying into her pillow for a late-night text. (Touch yourself.)
Once a week, she takes the MetroNorth into the city to visit Lex. (She tells her parents she’s seeing a new therapist, out of network, sliding scale, $50 per session plus train fare, if they’d be so kind. There’s a grain of truth to this story, arguably, and their relief to see her getting out of the house keeps them from questioning it.) The texts grow cold and terse in the hours leading up to their date: You’ll be here by two o’clock or you’re in BIG trouble. Usually Lex texts her an order while she’s on the train: Spread your legs so the other passengers can see up your skirt. Or: I’m sending you a clip from Kink.com. Watch it now, wherever you’re sitting. No excuses. Or, once: Set your phone on vibrate. Hold it between your legs. I’m going to call you, and under NO circumstances will you pick up.
Sometimes she texts back, laboriously, her fingers stiff and clumsy from anxiety: But what if I get caught?
To which Lex responds: Pretty white girls like you are indestructible. You’re never going to get in trouble.
Except with me.
By the time her train pulls into Grand Central, she’s so nervous her teeth chatter, and so horny she physically aches. Blue clit, Lex calls it. She never gets there by two o’clock, and when she finds Lex tapping zir watch disapprovingly in the concourse, she throws herself at Lex’s mercy: “Please don’t hurt me. I promise I’ll be good. Please, I swear—” This isn’t an act; by this point she’s in tears, afraid despite her empty stomach that she might throw up. “I can’t do this,” she cries. “It’s too much. I want to stop.”
This is the point at which anyone else would break character, all gentle and concerned, and go Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you sure? But Lex knows better. Lex knows what she really needs, and it isn’t to be okay.
“Don’t pull that delicate-flower shit with me, Pearls,” ze says. “You can’t cry your way out of this one.”
“Shh.” Lex grabs her hand and digs a nail into her palm, hard, until she’s speechless with pain. Hand in hand this way, they ride the subway to Park Slope.
The bedroom is full of bondage gear—handcuffs, latex tape, ball gags and bit gags and blindfolds in every color—and Lex never restrains her the same way twice. Ze has a thousand ways to hurt her, too: sometimes ze can make a bamboo cane whistle through the air on its way down to her ass, and sometimes a simple bite on the thigh is enough to make her scream. At the first blow she goes into a kind of trance, aware of nothing but pain, scooped empty of everything but the need to please Lex, who stands tall and watches over her like a terracotta warrior.
When it’s over, everything changes: Lex grabs a fleece blanket and bundles her up in a cocoon, holds her on zir lap, strokes her hair. “Come back, little thing,” ze murmurs in her ear. “It’s all right, I gotcha. Come back to me, Pearls.” Little by little, she does. Sometimes she cries, and then Lex cuddles her even closer and kisses the tears off her face. Ze pours her a glass of water and feeds her vegan chocolate chip cookies, watching to make sure she swallows: “Gotta replenish your blood sugar, baby girl.”
Sometimes, in the midst of all this, she tries to touch Lex—reaches upward, hoping to cup Lex’s cheek with her hand, to run her fingers through Lex’s hair and see what it feels like. But Lex slaps her hand away in midair, grabs her wrist and holds it still.
“No,” says Lex. “You don’t touch me.”
“But I want to.”
“Well, you don’t get to. I touch you,” says Lex, and squeezes her hand to demonstrate. “That’s the deal. Got it?”
Lex kisses her on the forehead—they’ve never kissed on the mouth—and says, “Time for you to go home, Pearls.”
Her parents pick her up at the Greenwich train station. Even they notice the change in her, though they attribute it to the new therapist, a subject they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge except in jokey circumlocutions. “How did the shrinkage go?” they ask her in the car.
“Fine,” she says. She’s shaking all over, her ass so bruised that she winces every time the car hits a bump.
“You know, honey,” her mom says with a brief glance up from her phone, “I think you’re finally starting to lose some weight.”
Her dad, a self-described “creative executive” who prides himself on his sense of humor, roars “Because they’re SHRINKING her!” at a volume that would normally send her hands flying up to cover her ears, but today she only smiles.
“Have you thought any more about going back to school this fall?” her mom asks. “Or maybe a job? Part-time, even?”
“I can pull some strings at the office,” her dad says.
Ignoring them, she takes out her phone and studies Lex’s texts, memorizing the look of the word Pearls. No, she’s not shrinking—she’s expanding, growing so big, so fast, her heart has cracked open and light spills out in every direction.
Qristin walks in on you a lot. She has a characteristic knock, bouncy as a rubber ball, but she never waits for an answer before flinging open the door and stomping into the bedroom—which is fair enough, it’s her room, even when you’ve got Pearls tied to the bed. Qristin acts like she doesn’t even notice; she always comes home in a bad mood, or maybe just performing a bad mood, like she’s trying to play the hardworking dad in the world’s queerest family sitcom. “I am five hundred percent done with this job of mine,” she says, addressing the both of you. “My coworker Bridget is such a fucking ditz, I literally can’t even. You know what she asked me today?” She kicks off her combat boots and collapses onto the corner of the bed, which creaks under the weight of the three of you. “She asked me what femme invisibility means. It’s like, bitch, I’m not here to educate you!”
You’re lucky, you suppose, that Qristin is so cool about open relationships. In fact, Qristin wants to come out to her parents as polyamorous. You’re skeptical. “You really want to tell them about our sex life? They don’t tell you about theirs.”
“First of all, yes they do, and Mom’s into anal,” says Qristin. “Second, it’s not just about sex. We’re combating poly invisibility.”
“Third, they can totally hear you fucking Pearls when I’m not home. They told me.” Seeing your face, Qristin teases you: “What? Now you’re ashamed of your sexuality?”
Upon request, Qristin’s parents take you and Qristin to dinner at the Ethiopian place on Douglass Street. You’ve never had Ethiopian food before, and the flabby grayish bread reminds you of carpet padding. You tear it into increasingly small pieces, hoping no one will notice you’re not eating it, as Qristin explains to her parents about the situation with Pearls.
“Wow,” says Qristin’s dad. “Way to go, Lex.” His ponytail bobs as he nods approvingly at you.
Qristin screams in frustration—“Dad! That’s such a misogynistic way to react!”—and her parents apologize profusely.
“No hard feelings, right, Lex?” says Qristin’s mom. You’ve been crumpling your napkin into a ball, and now, rattled, you drop it to the floor. Every time Qristin’s parents look at you, there’s this urgent, panicked pressure on you to have no hard feelings.
“No, ma’am,” you say, which makes them laugh.
“Lex, we’ve been through this!” says Qristin’s dad. “There’s no need for sir and ma’am. What do we have to do to get you to call us Beth and Jonathan?”
“Sorry, sir—I mean, J—” It’s too weird, you can’t bring yourself to do it. Is this how they feel about you, too? Is that why you keep overhearing them call you she? “Sorry.”
You all return home, and Qristin’s parents retire to their weed-reeking art studio on the third floor. “That went pretty well,” says Qristin. “They’re learning, I think.”
With her parents gone, you feel taller and stronger already. Your voice comes out deep, the way you like it, when you draw yourself up above Qristin and say, “Pearls is in your bedroom.” You hold up your phone to show her the texts. “If she did what she was told, she’s waiting for me on the floor with her ass in the air.”
For once, Qristin is thrown. “Pearls is here?”
“I gave her my keys. I never use them anyway.” You stuff your phone back in your pocket. “What? Is this weird?”
“Why would it be weird?” she says, a little defensively.
“An ordinary mortal might get jealous.” You watch her face to make sure she’s flattered by this; then you rub her fuzzy-duckling head and say, “Good thing I don’t go for ordinary mortals.”
It works. Qristin beams. “See what I mean?” she says, before disappearing into the kitchen to give you your privacy. “Love is infinite.”
Qristin is fond of that maxim, although the love in this case is entirely theoretical: she’s never said the word to you in any other context. Once she told you that the word “hate” was forbidden in her household when she was a kid “because hate is a bad word”; you replied, “Hey, we had that rule in my house too, except for love.’” Qristin laughed, but it was true, and to this day you avoid the word even in your mind.
Frankie Thomas is the author of "The Showrunner," which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and "Equinox," which appeared on The Toast. Her fiction has also been published in H.O.W. Journal, Pear Noir, and BLOOM; her nonfiction has appeared on The Hairpin. She lives in Manhattan with two parakeets and the best dog ever.