Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Eve with "The Filthy Boys"

He looked pretty darned clean to me.

    I was just about to knock on the door to Apartment 1B when I heard a terrible sob.
    "Please don't -- not again!" a young man cried.
    Then I heard a whack. And another one.
    "I'm sorry I was bad! I'll do anything you say," the trembling voice pleaded.
    Then another voice -- this one harsh and cold -- shouted, "Shut up, or I'll put the gag back in, you worthless piece of shit. Give me those ropes. Hands behind your back. Now bend over."
   "Oh God, not the whip again, Daddy. I can't bear it." There was a struggling sound. "Not the whip!"
    I had forgotten to breathe. My hand was still frozen in knocking mode. What should I do? I was concerned. I was scared. And, frankly, I was curious. So I did knock, as if I were a pert and determined Avon lady.
    The two guys were flushed, breathless, smiling. One wore a diaper, the other a scanty, black leather outfit. "May I borrow a corkscrew?" Couldn't I have avoided saying "screw" somehow? "Come in!" they replied.

"Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm pulling for you now." Foo Fighters
    This was my first Christmas Eve in New York City. The holidays mean nothing to me, but a friend at work had given me a bottle of rather expensive Italian wine, so I had made an aromatic couscous entree, and a Caesar's salad to go with it. I even lit a candle, just for the hell of it, and arrayed in the center of my table the pine boughs and sparkling lights my mother had overnighted to me. I was listening to Issac Hayes' "Hot Buttered Soul" album, when I proceeded to open the wine.
    Shit -- a cork? I had never had a bottle of wine with a cork before. I always bought the big, cheap jugs, and the burgundy tasted as good to me as "the superior vintages" I was served when I was taken out to dinner.
New York overstimulated me. This calmed me down.
    It would be more than a year before I became an alcoholic, but I just had to have that wine, to complete the elegant ambiance I had created for myself. I had even stopped at a thrift shop on Broadway that afternoon, to buy one very nice wine glass for 39 cents. I felt proud that I had "curated" -- as they say ad nauseam these days -- a tasteful and meaningful experience for myself. Some day, when computers were finally invented (what the hell took so long?), I might even mention it in a blog post.
    I had just had a shower, and I was wearing a Cinderella nightgown that someone back in Salt Lake City had given me as a gag gift. It was hilarious, soft and girly -- not my style -- but the blue was pretty, and the gathers at the top made it look as if I actually had some boobs.
    With my hair still damp and smelling of Wella Balsam conditioner, I took the elevator down to the first floor, hoping to have my delightful building superintendent, retired Estonian seaman Erik Sakslad, open my bottle for me. He was a hearty, booming man, who would give the cork a big yank, and me a little spank, before sending me back to my dinner-party-for-one.

    Erik had made my transition from hearth-and-home in Utah to apartment-dwelling in the Big City a breeze ( He was very protective of me, and a wonderful friend, even though he was a rabid bigot in many respects. He'd informed me that everyone in our small building was pretty nice, except for the tenants in 1B.
    "They're filthy boys," he said ominously, leaving it at that.
    Erik wasn't at home. Knowing him, he was probably over in Manhattan's Yorkville sector, eating sauerbraten, drinking Jack Daniels and doing the polka with whomever he could charm onto the dance floor. I had gone with him once. It was a blast over there -- like being in Bavaria.
If you're drunk enough, and your partner knows what he's doing, you can polka forever, no lessons required.
    Since Erik wasn't available, I had impulsively turned to 1B. And as soon as they opened the door, I could see that these were not "filthy boys." They were deliciously clean. Darren, the one in the leather getup, was tall, olive-skinned and supermodel gorgeous. Sean, who looked surprisingly inoffensive in his diaper, had an angelic face and tousled blond hair.
    Even from the hallway, I could smell the lovely aroma of patchouli wafting from their Den of Sin, and I heard the faint sounds of Persian music. When the guys led me inside, I was stunned.
    Sean and Darren had transformed a generic, bare-bones West Side apartment into a lush, sparkling wonderland out of the Arabian Nights. They had hung chiffon from the ceiling and walls to create the atmosphere of a sheik's plush tent, and covered the floor with Persian rugs and comfy pillows. 
I was mesmerized by this beautiful refuge, with its burnished glow and warm, fragrant breeze.
   I was enchanted. I have been intrigued by hidden gardens and secret passageways since I was a child, and this place gave me that same sense of wonderment. I felt that I must be dreaming. Finding such a place in our homely little building was almost as incongruous as the fact that it had been lovingly created by two men who engaged in intimate rituals that I found very disturbing. This seemed like an island of peace, even spirituality.
    The decor seemed to be inspired by the old Rudolph Valentino sheik movies of the 1920s:
Valentino in "Son of a Sheik," circa 1926.

    I walked around, marveling at the richness of it all, the witty flourishes and the Middle Eastern artifacts. As I explored -- forgetting where I was, who I was, what I had just been hearing from the hallway -- they told me a bit about themselves. Darren was a freelance model -- who was getting some very prestigious magazine and runway gigs -- and he was a window-dresser at Lord & Taylor as well. Sean was tending bar about a block away on 72nd Street while he studied to become a certified radiology technician.
    "I wish this were mine -- I would be in heaven," I swooned, overwhelmed by the beauty around me.
    "Do you know what I wish was mine? That Cinderella nightgown!" Sean blurted. "Oh, this is so rude, but I am about to poop my pants, I love it so much. Could I borrow it some time? Could I borrow it right now? It smells so lemony!"
    "You can have it," I said, pulling it off, over my head. What came over me? I have no idea. I have never done anything more impulsive (and perhaps repulsive) in my life, but I felt no self-consciousness whatsoever, standing there in my white cotton underpants. It probably had something to do with the exhilaration and sense of security I derive from being in the company of gay men.
I preferred khakis and combat boots.
    Sean grasped the nightgown and threw his arms around me. Tears were in his eyes. "I adore you! I will never, ever forget you! This is so dreamy, especially on Christmas Eve," he sniffled. "And I really do want to get out of this diaper, even though it's quite fun to wear. I loved being a baby." 
    "So now I get to dress you, which I've wanted to do since the minute I saw you in that ridiculous Disney getup," Darren grinned. He startled (and thrilled) me by rashly yanking a large panel of sea-green beaded and filigreed chiffon off the wall, and draping it expertly around me into a sort of Scheherazade sari. It looked fabulous. 
    "You're a knock-out," Darren said, surveying me with satisfaction.
   "I know!" I exclaimed. "Well, not me, but this dress. It's magic!"
    While Sean was changing into my Cinderella gown and putting on a bit of makeup, Darren sat me in front of a large, antique mirror. He pinned back my hair, and adorned me with gold chains and bangles, even one around my forehead. His closeness, and his scent, and those brown muscles triggered slightly inappropriate thoughts in me:
"Darling -- are you sure you're, like, totally gay?"
     "You're going to have to stay for drinks, because you fit the color scheme perfectly," Darren said. "We are trying out something tonight that is legendary for being 'mysterious' in its effects."
    "In what way?" I asked uneasily.
    "Oh who knows -- it's advertising hype of course -- but it's 110 proof and has 130 ingredients, mostly herbal, so it's bound to do something fun to us. It's called Chartreuse."
    "Monks make it, so it must be OK," Sean added reassuringly. He had re-emerged, looking so snuggly in the Cinderella gown, I wished I could put him on my lap. The creme blush and the rose-toned lip gloss enhanced his endearingly innocent face. "Those sweethearts wouldn't hurt a soul," he added.
    I agreed to have one drink and then leave  -- which I don't think has ever actually happened -- and we plopped down on the heaps of ethnic-patterned pillows to do some serious sipping, accompanied by dates, figs, Lighvan cheese from Iran, and pistachios.
    The Chartreuse hit me like a "pow!" in the prefrontal cortex, and then it melted and flowed, like when they pour oil over your forehead in Ayurvedic medicine.

Oh my god -- it was so delicious!
    When I told Darren and Sean that I worked for Bess Myerson, they screamed. It seemed that the whole city was in love with the former Miss America, although no one I'd talked to about her had ever screamed before. Gay men seemed particularly drawn to both Bess and Bette Midler at the time -- go figure. I didn't have the heart to tell Darren and Sean that the regal Bess despised "sissy boys," irrationally claiming that they wanted to "destroy" her.
     (When she got into considerable trouble with the law a few years later, “Myerson blamed her troubles on ‘a conspiracy of vindictive homosexuals,' saying, "They're out to get me...They're jealous because I'm the two things they can never be: a woman and a Miss America,’" according to journalist Shana Alexander's book, "When She Was Bad." (
She usually smiled for the cameras, but not when she was facing 30 years in prison.
   But for me, the chitchat about my job; my social escapades among the rich and famous, and the equally enjoyable ex-convicts; and my former "life among the Mormons," seemed like a mere delaying tactic. There was an elephant in the room, and he wasn't just part of the exotic decor.
    "So where are all the whips and whatever?" I asked casually, holding out my glass for a refill.
    "Behind there," Sean pointed toward a neon-lit beaded curtain. "Let's take you in and put on a little demonstration. Maybe you'd like to try it out."
    Considering that I was a 21-year-old from the Land of Zion, I was reasonably knowledgeable about the "goings on" -- both above-board and underground -- of the world, but I hadn't yet taken the time to give the psychological underpinnings of sadomasochism the attention they most certainly deserved. I was interested. Actually, sex in general is very interesting to me, but only on an intellectual level. I don't want to do it. I don't get it. It seems like inappropriate behavior, if you like the person. It's boring, sticky and ugly. It hurts. 
    Give me a smoke, a drink, and some decent conversation, please. Or let's go for a brisk walk through the darkened city. Or "Let's Groove Tonight," as Earth, Wind and Fire would counsel, at some crazy dance club. Then tuck me in, kiss my cheek, and lock the door behind you. Thanks for the nice time.
    Darren and Sean reminded me that their unconventional pastime was a small part of their relationship. "Don't define us by it," Darren said. "We're in love. We're partners. We have a whole life together."
I was glad they reminded me of that. I think we tend to forget.

    "Our little 'playroom' is terribly meager," Sean apologized. "Some guys have the coolest dungeons in their basements. Bare concrete. Dark. All echoey. And tons of paraphernalia. The scariness gives you such a rush."
    "We just mess around with this whole thing pretty casually, except for the occasional night out at one of the 'fist' bars," Darren added. "We're really not into the heavy stuff."
    "Good for you," I said encouragingly, praying that "casual" S&M isn't akin to a "gateway drug."

These S&M dungeons exist in real life, but they are also a weird part of my psyche. I think it relates to mortality.
     It would be a couple of years later, when I almost got engaged to a gay architect, that I went to a leather bar and found out what "fisting" is, and saw the raised-stage orgies -- involving hideously trussed-up, blindfolded men -- amid rooting, freaked-out spectators, and heard the piercing cries from some god-forsaken hideaways downstairs. That was the end of my gay bar-hopping era, as much as I had loved the rowdy dancing at the more innocent ones (
I got "tranced out" on the dance floor. I was honored that the gay guys didn't evict me.
    As you can imagine, I wasn't at all sure I wanted so see what was behind the beaded curtain. But I am a journalist, and I rarely turn away from anything that sheds light on human behavior. I didn't fear physical harm from these gentle men, but I was concerned about the emotional aftermath. I've never come anywhere close to the trauma of being a war correspondent, of course, but I have experienced what I regard as enduring scars from what I've confronted in my reporting.
    "Well let's stop this dallying, boys," I said gamely. "Let's forge ahead, into your mystifying world. Or actually, let me throw back another shot of 'Chartreuse courage' first."

Couldn't we just haul out a Jane Fonda workout tape instead?
    As I might have expected, Darren and Sean had not forsworn their interior design sensibilities in their Romper Room of forbidden fruits (or I guess not fruits -- that sounds prejudiced). It was clean, colorful and quite tasteful. I guess they couldn't bear for anything, not even this thing, to be grotesque.
   "See, there's the bondage cross and the restraint chair, and the bent-over thing...what's that called, Darren?"
    "Who the hell knows?" Darren said.
    "What are these?" I asked, pointing to a bowl. 
    "Oh the usual: nipple clamps, butt plugs, nothing avant garde," Sean reassured me."We're pretty conservative -- like an old married couple."
    (They were 24 and 27 -- which did seem pretty old to me at that time -- and had been together less than two years.)
    There was a bed with an easy-clean naugahyde cover (yuck: bodily fluids), which had retractable cuffs at both ends. A rack held all of sorts of restraints-- some of which looked like barbed wire -- and "dog collars," and creepy costumes. They gave me the chills. There was a cage, a mirror, a lineup of paddles, and an assortment of hoods that had a surprising effect on me: I felt both terror and titillation. Maybe that's the point.

"Look out baby, cause here I come."  The Temptations
    "Don't peek in the drawers," Sean said. "That would be a bit much for such a fresh girl. Your freckles would pop right off."
    "There's some big, mean, delicious stuff in there," Darren added, with an edge I hadn't heard since he told Sean to "shut up" during their earlier "session." 
    "I could blow your mind, babe. I could blow your fucking mind!"
    As soon as he saw my fear and unease, he changed personas again. " Oh shit, I am really sorry. I got carried away. Honest to god, I meant no disrespect. Let's be friends, OK?" 
    We hugged, and went back into the living room to finish off the Chartreuse. I told them that I found sex in general to be pretty baffling, but I was really mystified by what they were doing. Why would you deliberately hurt or be hurt by your lover? They told me "it's deep," and that even they weren't sure about what had created the urges in them. 
    Scientific articles have cautioned against lumping S&M in with child sexual abuse and rape. The phenomenon has been variously classified as dissidence, as pleasure, as escapism, as transcendence, as learned behavior, as intra-psychic, as quasi-pathological and as "inexplicable," but is generally viewed in terms of individualized internal conflict, rather than as a societal issue. If you find this confusing, join the club.
    Why the whacking, the ramming, the screaming, yelling and pleading? Why the humiliation? They admitted it would require a shrink to figure that out, but they weren't inclined to seek therapy. They were content with who they were. They weren't tormented. They felt no shame.
Is it a perversion, or part of the spectrum?
    They explained quite well the dynamics involved in their sessions, and how these dynamics intensified their intimacy. They described what was for me a new concept (and which I still experience as true every day in my workouts): That pain can be pleasurable. We know now that endorphins are released, whether you're ripping your pectorals apart trying to press 80 pounds, or eating a hot chili pepper, or slicing your thighs with a razor, like Princess Diana. Pain can create a sort of silvery aura within you, a temporary feeling of release and contentment. 
At least he isn't whipping horses or elephants. I hate that more.
    There is ecstasy in being whipped, Sean told me. Devo's iconic song echoes that sentiment. Whip it good! (It, but not me.)

When a problem comes along
You must whip it
Before the cream sits out too long
You must whip it
When something's going wrong
You must whip it

Now whip it
Into shape
Shape it up
Get straight
Go forward
Move ahead
Try to detect it
It's not too late
To whip it
Whip it good!
    So if the pain is critical to the pleasure, why not just pump iron, or do crunches until your abs are on fire?
    "For one thing, that's not sex," Darren patiently explained.
    The role-playing is crucial to the S&M dynamic, they told me. It brings fun, excitement, unpredictability and creativity to their encounters. They never know what new twist, so to speak, might emerge. It's an ever-morphing game, like Dungeons (appropriately enough) and Dragons, where your persona evolves, your tolerance ascends and new rooms in your psyche open up all the time. It is both self-exploration and the night-by-night construction of a relationship.

    "It's educational -- we are always expanding our horizons!" Sean told me. "That seems up your alley. We're doing something constructive, instead of watching 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' or 'The Brady Bunch'."
    I wanted to know why S&M is so ugly. Why is it deliberately made to be menacing? Why does it go to such hideous extremes to bind, gag and blindfold people, to spread their eagles in such a totally spread way? To duct-tape them, and hang them upside-down, and force them to perform degrading acts (which I will leave to your imaginations)? Why are blood, sweat, tears, and every other bodily excretion required?

    Why do it in a dungeon, instead of in a lovely solarium, with flowers, and birds in gilded cages, and some nice jazz or classical music? Why that nightmare-inducing, Nazi-sounding, stomping, howling shit they have echoing through their chamber? 
    Why not do it in their beautiful bedroom?

"Take me where we don't care anymore."  Boz Scaggs
     Their only answer was that this was their turn-on: rough, tough and excruciatingly cathartic. 
    Over the years, I have come to believe that the sanitized, monogamous "lovemaking" that our culture projects as normal really isn't. I think it's an artifice that exists for social and family cohesion. There's plenty of evidence to show that the average male's preferences go well outside of these bounds, and that the desire for aggressive domination and control are just beneath the surface, not to mention the epidemics of statutory rape, pedophilia, child pornography, and strip-club culture.
    The one imperative that Darren and Sean impressed upon me was consent, and this is emphasized in the literature as well. There must be consent, and there must be limits, and there must be a "safety valve," when "please stop" really means please stop, and isn't just part of the script.
"Don't stop believin' - hold onto the feelin'." Journey
      We were sprawled on the pillows, and Sean put his head in my lap. It was so cozy -- I was euphoric. I stared at his incredibly long eyelashes and held his hand.
    "The Madonna and child," Darren said wryly.
    "This is the best Christmas Eve ever," Sean mused, looking up at me. "A yuletide surprise if there ever was one! A princess from the Planet of Straight gets thrown in the door by Santa Claus!"
    It wasn't really the Planet of Straight. It was the Planet of Zip. That even sounds better, don't you think?
    I was touched by their gratitude for my open-minded interest in their lifestyle.
    "It's totally unheard of for someone to just ask us about ourselves, instead of giving us dirty looks," Darren added. "That's a gift in itself."
    Sean had a proposition -- a way to "give back" (another expression that makes me cringe). He must have been quite drunk by then. He offered to tie me up "very loosely and gently with lavender satin ribbons," and then he and Darren would "pleasure" me. 
    "Nothing invasive," he hurried to add. "Just some stroking, a little tickle with a feather, some light kisses. I would kill to nibble your ear, even just for ten seconds. That way, you might understand better how nice it is to be helpless, to give away your freedom and responsibility. You lie there, and let others have their way with you. It would be 'bondage lite'."
"What are you doing down there? Uncuff me!"
    When the lavender tie-me-down was suggested, I had two diametrically opposing reactions for the second time that night. One was a shiver of excitement -- just a tiny tingle -- the other was embarrassment and panic.
    "I can't. I have to go  back upstairs," I said abruptly. "Thanks for being so candid with me. I've learned a lot. But I've had enough."
    Then, fearing I'd sounded too harsh, I added, "I'm sorry to be such a prude."
    I began removing the gold jewelry Darren had put on me. 
    "Keep the one around your forehead -- it's so pretty on you," he said. "And keep the sari as a memento of tonight."
My sleep was haunted by a conniving little sadomasochist sitting on my abdomen.
    And so, almost 35 years later, that exquisite swirl of filmy, glittery fabric hangs in my closet, ready to be transformed into a ravishing gown should the appropriate occasion ever arise again. Fat chance! But I love seeing it there whenever I open the door.
    Happy holidays, Darren and Sean -- wherever you are. Here's lookin' at you, kids -- lyrics courtesy of "Handsome Devil":
 Tie me up, tie me down
I just want to be the one
I just want to be the one you love
And in your bed, I'll be your pet
You think I'm crazy well you ain't seen nothing yet
You've got the will, I got the whip
Take me over, and I'll take you on a trip
Wait and see, baby wait and see
Tie me up, tie me down
I just want to be the one
I just want to be the one you love
As I recline may I remind you one more time
I want to be there when you want to cross that line
Pleasure and pain, hit me again

  Christmas Eve the following year was equally enchanting for me:

    And so was the next one:

    But nothing compares to my New Year's Eve with the Generalissimo: