fiction: Liminal State

She was languid in the passenger seat, seat back reclined, one leg stretched out and the other bent, knee resting against the door. She could see her still limbs reflected brightly in the windshield, trees on either side of the freeway streaking through the image. When she wasn’t dozing, she passively observed the countryside and sky.

He drove in silence so as not to tax her with conversation. It made him inscrutable; she supposed the reverse was true as well. He had woken early (awake again, at a time when he was more likely to be awake still) so that he could meet her at the airport and bring her home. His home, at least.

It was warm in the car. Drowsily warm. He mostly left her to herself but occasionally he beamed at her and murmured a few words. Sometimes he squeezed her knee ­– to demonstrate his affection to her; or to reassure himself of her presence. Or both.

She’d been travelling for most of a day. It began when she had checked her luggage and gone through security and, though still in her city, in a way was no longer really there. Then the flight to a larger centre. In and not really in that city. In and not really in her country. Schrodinger’s airports. The interminable flight, the time zones. Just a few hours since takeoff and already it was hard to make sense of the time displayed on her watch. Neither here nor there.

As a seasoned traveller, being on a flight didn’t feel so far outside her normal life. Landing at the far end, she knew to expect that oddly familiar feeling of unfamiliarity: How is it possible that I’m really here? How can this place actually exist outside of a photo?

Passport control, that rite of passage. Then trundling her luggage cart through the double doors of frosted glass…

…And beyond, spotting him almost immediately, closing the distance quickly. Arriving safely, into his arms and care. Fait accompli.

Except… not quite. There was still the drive home. His home, at least.

On the flight, she’d imagined the exchange at the border: Business or pleasure? Oh, pleasure, for sure – sex, actually. She had smirked at herself. But it wasn’t just that. She had come here to see if she could trust him enough to submit to him, if she had the strength to allow herself to do that. Trust as an act of brute will – was that even possible?

She was almost sick with the vulnerability of it.

Something would, probably, change in the atmosphere between them after she arrived at his house. That was a big reason why she was here. They were already lovers. He could have started the game during the drive but he hadn’t and didn’t seem likely to now. But the closer they got to his house, the sooner she would be thrust out of this liminal state into… something else. She was weary and had no desire to prolong the time between herself and a proper bed, but by this point, being in the car was known and therefore comfortable in its way and she regretted just a little bit that it would end soon, because then what? When would it start? Or would it start at all? Would they pass the entirety of her visit in light amusements, without even a glimpse of the depths?

He turned from the freeway onto a city street, and the altered tone of the engine was enough to curdle her vague worries into a knot in her stomach. Six minutes later the tires crunched onto the gravel driveway.

“Here we are.”

I don’t feel safe

I don’t feel safe. I mostly mean sexually, but this could apply to other things too; I’m not sure.

Intellectually, I know that I am safe. Wolf and I have been together for a lot of years, and while there have been rare mistakes or missteps, I’ve never felt that he he looked down on me, disrespected me, or used me. Since I’ve been more aware and deliberate about trusting him, I’ve made a bit of progress but not as much as I would have liked.

I seem unable to feel safe. It’s like I don’t have a sense of safety because I don’t have the organ, nerve, bulb, whatever it is that I need to sense it. Or maybe my sense of safety exists but is partly impaired, since I’m perfectly attuned to detect the slightest whiff of danger.

Not feeling safe means I’m always reflexively on my guard such that I don’t necessarily even notice the tension. (It has recently occurred to me to wonder whether my chronic physical tension is connected to this.) Because of my history with Wolf, I can choose to let my guard down a bit but it takes a great deal of effort, and it’s imperfect because I don’t fully understand why I’m on my guard in the first place.

The other night, Wolf and I cuddled the way we always do. Ordinarily he’d touch my back and rub my neck, and I’m happy to let him because he knows through lots of experience what I like. But it still feels to me that he’s in control.

This time I was thinking about my feeble sense of safety and what I could possibly do to develop it. We decided that I’d tell him what I wanted and he’d do it, or he’d stop if I said stop. I often ask him to touch or massage one spot or another, but this time I just told him “touch me here” or “massage me there”. It’s a minor grammatical difference but it was enough to make me feel a little emotionally vulnerable. I hope I’m not imagining this, but when I told him to hug me a certain way because I needed reassurance, it seemed to sink in more thoroughly than usual.

With Jaime, dealing with my inherent feeling of unsafeness is more challenging. He has demonstrated his trustworthiness to me in myriad ways but we don’t have the same length of time together, and most of the time that we do have is long distance, which is qualitatively different and can’t really address issues of physicality.

I think this is why I haven’t really progressed beyond splashing around in the shallow end of the BDSM pool. BDSM often uses a dash of fear to heighten physiological arousal, but when I don’t feel fundamentally safe, all it seems to accomplish is to make me even more cautious and guarded.

I’ve been thinking about how things are with Jaime, and how I’d like to go deeper but I feel like I’ve plateaued. This relationship started with a BDSM flavour and the undercurrent is still there but right now it’s very quiet. I feel a bit disappointed about that. My difficulties with depression and low libido have been a significant issue, and in response to my general mood Jaime has chosen to back off, BDSM-wise.

Thinking about some of the BDSM things that we’ve done together that didn’t go so smoothly, I realised that I’ve probably deferred to him too much, trusting his domming experience more than my understanding of myself and my needs. And frankly, I’m not always that good at knowing my own needs, so it’s really attractive to believe that someone else knows what they are and will satisfy them.

Now, I like to know why things are the way they are, and when facing a current challenge, I often revisit my childhood to see if there might be some early learning colouring the way I think about things now. One of my tentative conclusions is that my parents were not very responsive to me when I was very young. This difficulty is that you develop your earliest sense of self from what is reflected back to you from your caregivers. If my parents weren’t good at knowing me, then they couldn’t teach me to know myself. As an adult, wanting someone else to know and satisfy my needs without my having to figure it out myself sounds like a mind-reading fantasy. But isn’t this basically what parenting young children is about?

But despite the past, I’m an adult and I now understand myself better than anyone else does. “Just going along with things” is a theme in an awful lot of my sexual experiences, and historically the results for me have been neutral ranging through to actively bad. If I’m going to submit, I think I need to trust myself more and be more assertive regarding both process  (how and when we communicate, how I express my needs and concerns) and substance (the activities I agree to).

I believe that it’s possible to be both assertive and submissive, but what I’m struggling with is whether it’s possible for me to do so, in my way, in this relationship.

trust 2: the other shoe drops

When I started reading about BDSM, I kept running across the advice that both partners need to be able to trust each other and, in particular, the sub needs to be able to trust the dom. No problem, I thought. Whatever we might get up to, at least I’ve got the trust angle totally covered. Hadn’t I just become aware of how trustworthy he was and how deeply I trusted him? Sorted.

We continued to have sex and then started experimenting a bit with BDSM, and the backsliding I’d feared never materialized. Over the years I had gotten so used to being the source of bedroom difficulties that I was a little surprised to finally discover that Wolf had some issues of his own, but they’d never come up before because we’d never been in a position to test his limits. So, yes, we ran into a few glitches, but trust was never a problem, at least.

Fast forward to my vacation with Gawan, whom I felt I knew better than any of my friends and most of my family members. It was novel, an adventure. I was confident that he wouldn’t pressure me to do anything I didn’t want to, although I was less confident that I wouldn’t pressure myself.

Then we finally — finally! — met up and travelled to our little slice of sunshine, thousands of miles from whomsoever might think badly of it… and all my hard-won sexual open-mindedness seemed to vanish in a puff of diesel exhaust.

I was nervous, on my guard. The things we did together (well, other than the spanking and flogging) were things that I’d first done with boyfriends way back in high school, a fact that left me feeling simultaneously vaguely comforted and slightly unsettled. OK, so I’m no libertine, but the extent to which my prudishness was resurrected took me by surprise.

There were so many variables on that trip, some directly relevant and some merely coincidental, that it took quite a while for me to finally parse my feelings about it all. It didn’t seem to be about lack of chemistry, or fretfulness about non-monogamy. But whatever it was, I felt torn, and my head and my heart were clearly in disagreement about something. Eventually, it occurred to me that the vague anxiety I’d felt around Gawan seemed really familiar: it was, in fact, a lot like how I’d felt with Wolf before the epiphany.

Hear that? Yeah, that’s the sound of the other shoe dropping. Ugh.

Wasn’t I done with that particular variety of angst? What the hell was that epiphany about anyway, if not this? I was sure I hadn’t been mistaken about the source of my sexual shame, but what else was there?

I retraced my steps and recalled that pre-epiphany realization about trust. Perhaps it was more important than I’d thought at the time. So here’s a theory: What if the epiphany hasn’t actually dislodged my maladaptive script about sex and it’s still actually in place? What if I fundamentally feel just as vulnerable about sex as I always have? What if it was my profound trust in Wolf that allowed me to create an exception just for him? If Wolf was the only person I was sexual with, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish between an exception for him and “100% fixed”.

From my own experiences, I know I feel comfortable establishing a relationship and having the sex happen later. Living vicariously through the writing of other sex bloggers (non-fiction works so much better for me than does fiction for this purpose) has given me the opportunity to get a sense of how I’d react to activities outside of my range of experience. But even when the accounts are full of glowing post-coital bliss, I’m certain that I’m turned off by one-night stands, sex with a complete stranger, BDSM play with someone I hardly know, swinging, or leading with sex while hoping for a relationship. I’m ambivalent about the idea of friends with benefits. All of this is consistent with my theory about my sense of vulnerability and the role of trust, so I feel like I’m on the right track.

If I’m right, it would mean I couldn’t fuck someone without having first established a deep trust, and that I’d have to go through this trust exercise with any boyfriend.

Such as Gawan. We’ve spent less than two weeks together in person, so my trust in him is based mostly on about a year’s worth of words, typed or spoken, which is a good foundation but it’s also primarily an intellectual experience. Trust doesn’t seem that efficacious when it’s just in my head — I need to feel it in my gut.

So now the question is why do I need so much trust? Why do I feel so profoundly vulnerable? In other words, what am I afraid of?

trust 1: groundwork

It’s pretty much impossible for me to identify a single moment that represents “the beginning” of my new, healthy sexuality. My epiphany — when I realized that I had inherited my mother’s sexual shame — marks the moment when I took full ownership of my own sexuality, but that was only the last step in a long and complicated process.

A couple of months before the epiphany, I’d had an important realization that turned out to be highly significant, even though at the time it didn’t seem especially earth-shattering, and in some ways it struck me (afterwards, of course) as blindingly obvious.

After Wolf and I had been together for about two years and sex had already become infrequent, I continued to get more and more tense about physical displays of affection. I had a set of incorrect beliefs that amounted to a twisted and unhealthy logic. Touch was a continuum, from non-sexual at one end to sexual at the other. If I consented to Wolf touching me in a non-sexual way, that seemed to automatically include (or dispense with the need for) consent to be touched in the most intimate way I had ever agreed to be touched by him in the past, i.e. sex. In other words, if hug then sex, if that’s what he wanted. That conclusion is patently ridiculous, but through a combination of family history and dating experiences, that’s what I subconsciously believed and it scared the shit out of me. This flawed logic led me to conclude that the only way to effectively control or avoid sexual contact was to control or avoid all physical contact. So Wolf agreed he wouldn’t initiate hugs or anything else and would leave that to me.

By instituting this rule, I felt a certain amount of relief because it meant that I didn’t have to be on my guard against unwanted contact. But of course I wasn’t much inclined to initiate. After some time, I mellowed on the hug issue, but still felt uncomfortable with most forms of physical affection.

Years passed.

While Wolf was in the UK not so long ago, I had lots of time and space to think. There was no one around who I could possibly need to protect myself from, so after about two years my guard eventually came down. I didn’t consciously let it down, because I didn’t know how. It simply atrophied from disuse.

Once my guard came down, I got thinking about this history of ours and I calculated how long it had been since I had imposed the no-touch restriction. It had been ages, the better part of two decades, for fuck’s sake. And in the spring two years ago, in that quiet moment while I was leaning on the kitchen counter and just thinking, it finally bubbled up into my awareness that Wolf had faithfully followed the rule I’d laid down for all that time. Was he trustworthy? Yes, obviously! I couldn’t imagine what else he could possibly do to prove it any further. He had gone so far above and beyond. Did I in fact trust him? Yes. Unreservedly.

Because of other difficult things that were going on in my life, I had been reading and learning about boundaries, a concept that was entirely new to me. In some areas my boundaries were too porous, but this was an example of one that was too rigid. Like a person who is too focused on dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk, or simply on her own feet, I’d failed to notice this 20-foot tall emotional wall made of grey cinder blocks and topped with barbed wire. Huh. Time for some demolition work.

I first imposed that rigid boundary to keep me feeling safe, then maintained it for years out of habit. It had become obsolete without my noticing it; it had served me for a while but I didn’t need it anymore and it had become a hindrance rather than a help. I didn’t have to police Wolf. Rather than maintaining that wall, I could just draw a line on the ground and leave it to him to respect it.

Wolf had been demonstrating his trustworthiness for ages; I had developed a certain amount of trust in him, but not as much as he had earned. After becoming aware of both the trustworthiness and the trust, I allowed myself to relax into my trust of him, to allow myself to be vulnerable because I was perfectly safe with him.

Until very recently, I had thought that this realization about trust was a precondition for my epiphany about sexual shame, but now I think that trust and sexual shame are separate issues and not connected in a linear fashion. Instead, I see them as parallel strands that are equally important. If I’d worked out the sexual shame issue first, perhaps trust would have been the epiphany. Either way, I figured it out.

My new knowledge and attitude was in one sense hard-won: sexuality had been a troublesome issue essentially all my life up to that point.

In another sense though, it couldn’t have been easier. I’d been doing reading and work on personal growth, spurred by some incidents that were entirely unrelated to any of this. I started with interpersonal relationships and “know thyself” type reading, and then, because I decided to follow where my curiosity led, I ended up reading about sex and relationships too. When I finally stumbled over my grand solution, it felt like an unlooked for gift, like a duffel bag filled with stacks of unmarked bills in a garbage can in the park.

Maybe it seemed too easy and thus necessarily superficial. For a while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then, after I’d forgotten about it, it did.

Anne Katherine, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Jan Black & Greg Enns, Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997).


overcoming my fear of cock

For a long time, in my mind “cock = bad”, or perhaps more specifically “dangerous”. I had absorbed the idea that a cock was a source of bad things, including degradation.

When I started having sex, this idea proved to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deep down, I mostly didn’t want sex. My body knew this but my brain didn’t acknowledge it, and so it was uncomfortable or actively hurt (because I was tense and not wet) and it didn’t provide me with any particularly pleasurable sensations. I just didn’t get the point. In addition to the fact that I tend to be a little squeamish about bodily fluids, I was also a little paranoid about cum (and even pre-cum) because that’s the stuff that ruins lives by making babies.

When I was about 10, I learned about blowjobs from a photo in a magazine belonging to my friend’s older brother. It made me uncomfortable and I found it degrading (although I probably didn’t even understand that word yet).

The first blowjob I ever performed was for the perpetually demanding and insensitive Bad Boy. He worked me over and pestered and I eventually allowed myself to be talked into it, but I didn’t really want to do it even while I was doing it. Nothing awful happened (I don’t think he even got off), but being pressured served to reinforce my distaste for the whole business.

The first (and, for years, only) time I went down on my partner was during our early days. I’d bought a flavoured condom for the occasion, which served to make me feel safer even if it didn’t add anything directly to the aesthetic experience. He didn’t pressure me in any way, but I pressured myself. He remembers it fondly — me, not so much, but that’s nothing to do with him and everything to do with me not listening to my gut.

I had always considered it to be an inherently degrading act. When I read That Book and started considering hard and soft limits, I knew fellatio was a hard limit for me, although I appreciated the fact that it was depicted positively. It’s one thing to see this in erotic fiction, but when I began reading women (mostly bloggers, such as Hyacinth) who truly enjoy cock, it was a revelation.

I was not interested in cock, nor did I much want to touch or handle one. If my partner asked and I was feeling sufficiently brave, I would touch him over his underwear. I felt that this touching was something I should do but wasn’t always able to do. The only way to honor his request for attention involved pushing myself. Not good.

But it occurred to me recently that I had an excessively firm boundary about any kind of touch. He had earned my trust a long time ago, but I only realized it recently. When I began deliberately trusting him, it changed the dynamic radically. Instead of fretting about a violation and thus vigilantly policing the boundary (believing this was the only way to keep myself safe), I now figure out where the boundary is and let him know, then leave it to him to respect it and he does. I’ve chosen to remove the wall and be vulnerable and am rewarded with more intimacy. It’s fucking awesome.

I’ve been consciously working on expanding my boundaries while conscientiously respecting my gut. Sometimes I touch his cock simply because I feel like it — he has repeatedly assured me that he will always welcome it, so I don’t fear rejection. If he requests it, I understand that he’s not trying to pressure me. I also don’t pressure myself — if it doesn’t feel right in the moment, I go with my gut and say no. No big deal.

I started testing ideas by fantasizing about them and was pleasantly surprised when these (previously challenging, even distasteful) thoughts actually turned me on, which told me I was on the right track. Now the ideas seem merely “naughty” (and fun), rather than “bad” (and unfun). From touching with lips and cheek, to licking and kissing, I accomplished my first freely and lovingly given blowjob a few days ago. A milestone!