Like everyone who trolled the Internet, Susannah occasionally enjoyed porn. No live webcams, videos, or photographs. She was a purist who enjoyed the written word. Some unpleasant surprises marked her initial forays into the seamier side of electronic life, but Susannah had persisted in sussing out a few key sites that blended smut with enough plot and characterization to keep her from feeling too grimy post-denouement.
Susannah’s general introduction to pornography had occurred in high school via the local Goodwill store. She discovered a tome among the used books that she thought was The Marquise of O— and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist, which her English teacher recommended she read to assess the technical details. Susannah was in a hurry, not remembering the specific title or author, but firm in her mind about the “O,” so she plucked the book off the shelf.
“Having a good day?” The cashier, a dark-haired man with too-white teeth, had the tawdry manner of middle-aged men who couldn’t accept their years, dreaming that one day they might overwhelm a blond with lust and land a quick screw in the bathroom. Sometimes even shy teen-age blonds who wore gray cat-eye glasses, the cheapest frames the optometrist sold; blonds whose fine hair couldn’t hold a curl in humidity, rendering it scraggly no matter what they did with a curling iron; subpar but young enough not to matter blonds.
“Yes, a fine day, hope you are too,” she said.
The cashier rang up Susannah’s purchase and glanced at the book when he bagged it.
“Yes, what, missy?” His voice slid from overly friendly to stern.
“Yes, sir.” Susannah was surprised but well-trained in Southern niceties. She gave the cashier 27 cents. Before she could withdraw her hand, he lifted his fingers and trailed them softly down the underside of her fingertips. She jerked away. He smiled.
“Enjoy the book, young lady,” he said.
Susannah picked up her bag and ran.
Late that night alone in her bedroom, Susannah discovered that more than one “O” existed in the literary canon of women who had unusual sexual experiences. Although she didn’t learn the term BDSM for several more years, The Story of O by Pauline Réage proved quite an education into the three aspects of that erotic appetite: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism.
Over the course of the novel, O expressed the depths of her love first to her lover Rene and then to her master Sir Stephen. The training requirements escalated from being blindfolded, bound, chained, and whipped to undergoing labial piercings and brandings. O even had to give herself, in a constant state of sexual readiness, to other men for use. Those men, her swains’ fellow members of a secret society, strode through the castle wearing hoods and crotchless leather pants. Susannah considered crotchlessness to be an odd symbol of dominance, yet she realized men had reveled in their singular ability to produce a jutting penis since the first whispers of religion rose with the pillars of Göbekli Tepe. Susannah also questioned O’s unbridled pleasure coming not from orgasms but from submitting to the whims of two men who demonstrated less care for her than they would for a blow-up doll. (Puncture wounds likely having a debilitating impact on said doll’s ability to perform.)
Susannah had never idealized slavery. There were people in the dark reaches of her hometown who said that African-Americans had enjoyed being slaves, that their owners cared for them, providing food and shelter and giving them a sense of purpose and extended families. That was utter rot designed to give white people ancestral deniability for institutional racism. Still, Susannah trembled at the thought of belonging to someone beyond words—an irrevocable connection in a disposable, alienating world.
As a child, Susannah played with a Skipper doll. The other little girls had Barbie. Susannah’s mother went the Skipper route to prevent her from developing an unrealistic body image. Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister. She had the blond hair, but Skipper was flat-footed, flat-chested, waist-free. The lack of an idealized buxom figure could be downplayed with wise clothing choices. Nothing hid the feet. Barbie had the delicate, pointed feet of the twirling ballerinas atop the velvet-lined jewelry boxes that made Susannah’s heart ache every time she opened the Sears catalog. Skipper’s feet were earthbound—sturdy, smaller clones of the feet already inhabited by Ken, Barbie’s golden boyfriend. Skipper had man feet.
From an intellectual standpoint, Susannah could acknowledge the rightness of her mother’s actions. But possessing a doll with man feet had signaled those girls that she was an outsider. Susannah had never since managed to convert to insider status. Something about her was always off, different enough to make others wary, and she was too quiet to push past that native fear and make friends. Except for an intrepid few, both sexes gave her a wide berth. Sometimes she imagined the words “man feet” were seared into her skin. Experimentation with clothespins and hot wax marked Susannah’s senior year. She didn’t enjoy the pain. Each bruise, each burn bloomed her skin into a hand-hewn map of incandescent moments where the hurt bit through her isolation.
Further pornographic education came at the hands (so to speak) of her brother. Payne was a junior at Georgia State University in Atlanta when Susannah arrived for her freshman year. He shared a house with two other straight guys—a situation that resulted in the living room wall opposite the sofa becoming a mural of old-school porn torn from the pages of The Classics (Oui, Swank, Celebrity Sleuth, Cheri, Hustler, Juggs, Black Tail, Over 40, and Barely Legal).
The arrival of parents or first dates on-site spurred the housemates to pull a long curtain across the length of the wall behind the television to hide the installation. Susannah didn’t merit such discretion. She spent many an hour in the company of those adult models during various parties. Gin and tonic in hand to ward off the bong and tabs of ecstasy and acid, she sat in a side chair listening to indie rock bands (morphine was a favorite) or death metal, depending on the mood of surrounding male minds, and she studied the women. The pictorials always ended with the women’s legs spread or mouths wide open with questing tongues, although faces were not a necessity. In the spread-leg scenario, the women used long, pointed acrylic fingernails, usually painted a harsh red or cotton-candy pink, to open themselves for optimal viewing. The effect, to Susannah’s eye, was that of a newborn marsupial ripped from the pouch and pinned for display like a reluctant specimen in a Victorian curiosity cabinet.
Susannah ditched her glasses for contacts, dyed her hair black, and began wearing miniskirts and fishnet stockings with ankle boots. Then boys joined her perusal of the mural at parties. Somehow the harder edge made her more approachable, as if she were primed for use.
“They’re hot, aren’t they?” the boys said, mistaking Susannah’s anthropological curiosity for arousal. “Which one’s your favorite?”
“They look unhappy,” Susannah replied. Beneath the seductive expressions lurked a core falsity, an air-brushed lust built by long hair, fake eyelashes, and layers of lipstick.
“What?” the boys said.
“In their faces,” said Susannah. “Their eyes.”
Most guys found an excuse to move on at that point. One looked at a petite Asian model’s face and said, “You’re right. Not a fun day for her.” He was the first boyfriend Susannah slept with. He and the boyfriends that followed brought her momentary happiness. She found the orgasms denied to O, but she didn’t feel bound to those men. Most often, she wished the boyfriend would leave before breakfast so she could relax. She’d been alone so long that she didn’t know how to bring men in from the periphery. They couldn’t see who she was. They didn’t last.
In a boyfriend-free period late during her senior year, Susannah tried gay porn magazines to see if she could feel any excitement objectifying anonymous male bodies. About that same time, Rona, a tall, dark lesbian sculptor and collage artist who’d also frequented Payne’s parties, started stockpiling back issues of Oui and Hustler. Multimedia collages followed, featuring burnt-edge photographs of waxed female genitalia, sherbet-hued bobby socks, seven-inch patent stilettos, barbed wire, and peacock feathers.
One day Susannah went to Rona’s apartment, their friendship long cemented through the discussion of personal dreams and world events while they’d watched the play of shadow and light over Payne’s porn mural. When Rona opened the door, a heavy perfume of chocolate, fruit, sugar, and butter poured into the hallway.
“Hello,” said Rona, oven mitt in hand and a kitchen towel thrown over one shoulder. “I’m baking.”
The apartment had been transformed into a live-action Candy Land game, pies galore at every turn, starting with blueberry, apple, and cherry on the entry table. Speechless, Susannah followed Rona down the pie-lined hallway. She stepped carefully to avoid putting her foot through a top crust or meringue.
In the kitchen, Rona checked the oven with a tense glance. “Not ready yet.”
Susannah leaned against a bowl of chocolate cream sitting on one counter.
“Why the pies?” she said.
“I adore pies,” said Rona.
“But why so many? It’s an apartment of pies.”
“I just relish a good pie. Is that okay with you?” Rona threw the mitt on the floor. Tears ran down her face. “I want to bake the perfect pie. They’re so beautiful if they’re right.”
“That’s fine,” said Susannah. “A little time-consuming, maybe. How are your classes?”
“I haven’t been…” Rona picked up the mitt and folded it into the waistband of her apron. “There’s no time for that.”
The trashcan overflowed with imperfect pie. Magnetized photographic close-ups of vulvas and vaginas held scribbled recipes onto the refrigerator. Intimate flesh and corresponding interpretations in dessert. Susannah grabbed the towel from Rona’s shoulder. She walked to the sink and turned on the faucet.
“I’ll wash up so you can keep going,” she said.
Rona muttered a thank-you, her attention taken up with a bowl of whipping cream.
After Susannah stacked the drainer with clean dishes, she went to the bathroom and called Rona’s mother on her cell phone—way too many pies to do anything but that given how close Rona and her mom were despite the two hundred miles and the hometown that separated them. Rona’s mother left her father and moved in to handle all kitchen duties. Susannah put away the gay porn, deciding to stick with written erotica. Visual stimulation seemed problematic. She had no desire to get off on penises and balls, however pretty, that made obsolete the very real humans they were attached to.
For her first position as a marketing assistant, Susannah returned to her natural blond, replacing the miniskirts and ankle boots with pencil skirts, wide leather belts, and four-inch sexualizing but mostly walkable stilettos. She also switched out the fishnets for a more discreet seamed stocking. Her boss Andrew, a 36-year-old vice president, issued commands and watched her ass. The scope of those orders expanded three months into the job during a conference at a Las Vegas casino complex. In the hotel elevator after a night out with clients, he herded her into the wall and stroked her jaw with his thumb, their bodies separated by a breath.
“Ask me to fuck you,” Andrew said, his mouth ghosting the corner of her lips.
Susannah felt enveloped. “Please,” she said, “I need this.”
“What do you need? Say it.” His thumb traced down her throat to rest on her collarbone. His fingers circled her neck.
“You, to fuck me.” She leaned in to press herself against him.
Andrew brushed a kiss across her mouth and stepped back again. “Good girl. Open your blouse.”
Susannah didn’t move. The black silk stayed in place.
He reached up with his free hand, cupping her left breast, squeezing. “Two choices: Yes or no. Do what I say, or don’t get fucked. It’s that simple.”
Those eyes. Those hands.
I could have more than O, she thought. He wants me to let him in, a two-way tether.
Susannah unbuttoned her blouse. She got fucked.
Two weeks later, she was going down on Andrew in the conference room in the middle of a workday while he leaned back in the CEO’s chair. He wouldn’t touch her or allow her to masturbate. She had to survive the rest of the day smelling him on her and making sure no one else got close enough to smell him too. That night he took her bitch-in-heat style: ass raised high, face and breasts pressed into the sheets.
Another month and Susannah spent much of her free time naked, leashed, and crawling on all fours. Andrew called her Puppy. She didn’t slap him upside the head. She was his. She barked and begged to suck his cock.
Two more months passed, with Susannah going into the office at 5 a.m. to keep her evenings and weekends free for him. “I wish I had your drive,” said Anna from customer service. They ate lunch together several days a week by the fountain in front of their building. “I can’t decide between Frosted Flakes and yogurt for breakfast, let alone chart a career path.”
“Once you find what you’re meant for, you’ll go after it too,” said Susannah.
One Friday night Andrew told her he was getting married to his girlfriend.
“What?” said Susannah. “I’m your girlfriend.”
“You know better, Suze. You’re my slut, not my girlfriend.” His black knit boxer briefs were low enough to highlight the V where hips met lower abdomen. Usually the sight of those ridges made her want to lick things. This time, she just felt queasy.
“You’re with me all the time. You practically live here. Who the hell else could be your girlfriend?” Susannah stood upright and jerked the leash from his hands.
“Alicia’s been in New York for the past year in an accelerated Master’s program. I go up once or twice a month to see her.”
“You didn’t think I should know that before now? I work with you. How did I not know? I love you,” she said. “Don’t you…?”
“Come on, Puppy. We’ve got a good thing. It doesn’t have to change. You need this.” He made it sound so reasonable. His face was perplexed, annoyed, honestly so. Nothing sly or mean about him. He gave her what he thought they both desired: fantasy made real in the moment but still fantasy. What had been left unsaid wasn’t understood. It was unsaid for a reason. She was an unpaid addendum to his bonus package. His true life was elsewhere.
I have less than O, Susannah thought. She gave herself to breach the limits of their love. I never saw the boundary lines.
Yearning for a shadow of her own devotion: The source of O’s rapture fed Susannah’s desolation. Empty words (“Good Puppy!”) and regular fucks were treats born from bonds of black leather, not the reciprocal connection she sought.
Susannah swore she could feel the pitted, ropey “man feet” brand dig into her skin once more, but she decided a little scarring was better than complete pretense. She dumped Andrew and found a new marketing position without assistant in the title. Research led her to a rabbit vibrator to ensure good orgasms no matter where the whole penis thing stood. That category of vibrators featured a vast array of wildlife: butterflies, beavers, seahorses, turtles, and panthers. However, she preferred to stick with the classic cottontail. On some, the leporid was a more abstract interpretation. Susannah chose a vibrator in a day-glow purple with a surprisingly realistic bunny, complete with two ears and a wee tail, for maximum clitoral stimulation. The bulbous clear base of the shaft held multi-colored balls. Battery power made the balls churn inside the shaft and made the life-like head wiggle in invitation. All in all, the rabbit vibrator put Susannah in mind of a high-tech Pez dispenser. No flesh, no heat, no question who was in charge. Need and neediness both held in check by the combination of festive plastic and her online Favorites list.
Several years on, Susannah added e-books to her repertoire. The Victorian classics The Romance of Lust and The Pearl became her favorites. Power plays were window dressing, giving men and women alike the opportunity to use their pricks, bawbles, cunnies, and bubbies to “spend” wherever, whenever with whomever they could, again and again.
Susannah focused on her career, at twenty-nine becoming the youngest senior vice president of marketing in her new firm’s history. She cultivated friends, male and female—she’d stayed close with Anna. Rona too, who achieved positive mental health outcomes once she’d had therapy and switched to the more restrained medium of bronze.
“I still don’t know why I lost it back then,” said Rona one night on the phone. She rarely mentioned their senior year. “I wasn’t sexually conflicted, and even in college, I saw other live cunts up-close and personal on a regular basis. I can’t explain my obsession with the photographs or the pies.”
“True, cunts are your forté,” said Susannah, “but usually you know their stories. I think you were trying to tell the stories of all those nameless cunts, take them off the patriarchy’s sexual assembly line and make them custom jobs, humanize them so to speak.”
“I prefer your theory over anything my therapist came up with.” Rona laughed. “I went extreme, though, losing my mind like that.”
“Don’t be sexist,” said Susannah. “You’re an artist. A guy would chalk it up to an exotic quirk of creative genius. You didn’t lose your mind. You found your path.”
Sometimes Susannah craved more than friendships. Online dating kept live males in the mix for additional fun and emotional balance. Susannah didn’t want to be the woman who named her vibrator and told it about her workday.
One night she had dinner with a man who appeared promising after a few lunch dates: surface average in looks but possessing a quirky smile and the prettiest eyelashes she’d ever seen apart from Oprah Winfrey’s mink ones; nice, so unafraid of friend-zoning, yet he didn’t give the impression he believed his niceness merited reward; and not boring, unashamed of reading newspapers and other word-based media to give him something to talk about besides sports and work. On the way back to her home following their meal, the man kissed her in the condo elevator. Her back banged against the cool metal wall, prompting a flashback to Andrew, her false assumptions, her propensity for make-believe. Susannah pushed the man away, hard. He stumbled then caught himself.
“Ask me to fuck you,” she said. Unsure of the response she wanted, Susannah conducted a split-second review of her options. Handcuffs were tucked in the bureau drawer alongside her vibrator. Condoms too. Stun gun in her evening bag—it could get ugly if he did as he was told and she said no after all.
The man seemed to suffer momentary speechlessness, but desire hived in his eyes, a golden balm that drizzled over the crevices of her own need. Susannah reached out and stroked his jaw. She smiled.
“Answer me,” she said. “Quick, like a bunny.”