I have a cell phone and a black dress in my hand. I am going to a holiday party for a New York-based publication and I want to invite Marie. It was a year ago that the paper, whose tone was once described to me as “never earnest,” published a piece about my friend Marie. The profile described her as a “new literary seductress” and dug into the details of a story she wrote about sleeping with an older male writer. I wanted to invite Marie… but you never know how it is between source and journalist after a story.
The party was held in the old Bungalow 8 space. White wine in hand, I mention Marie as I moved through the guests, their eyes all glittery. “Invite Marie. That’s the sort of thing that will make people think this party is more glamorous than it is,” a man said. He grabbed some sort of raw tuna dressed in a paper crepe from a tray. I text Marie the address and tell her to get a cab and come.
I first met Marie on the internet, where she is a micro-celebrity, a word that reminds me of those cheap mini-kaleidoscopes and how they project your world into a dozen plastic-crystal facets all at once.
Marie and I started chatting because I also interviewed her for a large feminist/celebrity gossip site. One whose coverage of Marie would need to be slightly snappish. But I couldn’t get it right and the piece never ran. Marie and I kept chatting, though. “Mew,” she’d say. “Hey babe,” I’d answer, and we’d talk about whatever was going on.
It was spring and I remember it as a long stretch of sluggishness. Of scrolling endlessly through Tumblr, in pink bedding, dirty hair and limbs all knotted. Marie became one of those pillar chat names for me. The ones you reach to while staring into the white void of your laptop screen, feeling lost or anxious or whatever. Happy. Marie always got it. She was a Tumblr girl, the sort of girl I used to request without knowing on MySpace. The ones like you, who seem to live only online.
“When I move to NYC, I want to get a job as a pro-sub” Marie said over Gchat.
“O? That is dangerous :/”
I knew from writing about kinky sex that a pro-submissive is the opposite of a pro-domme, or professional dominatrix. If you’re a pro-sub, kinky men pay to restrain you and then hit you with props/whips/etc. Dangerous by definition.
“But if you want to do it, I will support you in that decision, of course.”
Marie had done sex work in the past. And I’ve never done sex work. But I would support her. I got it. I was a Tumblr girl, too. Though my initial reaction was left there, a hangnail. “<3” I typed.
Marie showed up at my apartment at the time we were to leave for the dungeon. “We have to be there at two…” I said.
“I think we’ll be fine.”
Marie asked if she could have a beer. The winter afternoon was making the apartment bright. I opened the beer and handed to her. “Do you want me to do your eyeliner?”
Here is how The Dungeon was decided:
- Marie is now living in New York.
- Marie forwarded a link to a dungeon, where she had applied weeks ago but hadn’t heard back.
- I offered to go with her, so she could apply in person instead. Marie was into this, this was a plan.
- Later, I asked if I could write about the experience.
- After she said yes, I took initiative and called the dungeon. “Hi. I’m calling, uhm, for a friend? When could she come by the dungeon apply? She wants to be a pro-sub.”
Marie sat in the bathroom and I uncapped the eye pencil and gently pulled her eyelid down, coloring black onto the waterline, “I’ve never done this before, my eyeliner this way I mean,” Marie said, her eyes rolled up to the ceiling as she took a of swig of beer.
“You are, like… the only person I would trust to drink before a job interview” I said.
Since getting to know Marie, here are some things I have noticed about her:
I stand back to look at Marie’s face and accidentally knock over her beer. “Oops.” I leave to grab a paper towel and tell Marie to check out the eyeliner. “You are my first friend with a real apartment,” Marie says to me, into the mirror. I am the older friend and Marie is the younger friend. There is always a weight to age-gaps.
There is a secret entrance way, a secret buzzer and then the dungeon, which is all exposed brick and candle-light. “Hello,” The house mistress, an older woman wearing a floaty yellow garment greets us.
She gives us the tour and I note that the place is different from what a friend of mine — an older friend — once described. I didn’t see the room full of Rococo mirrors and plush cream carpet where Penthouse once shot.
(My friend had worked at this dungeon nearly 15 years earlier, and when I asked her about it she told me she’d done did out of “writer’s curiosity.” Then she said “I think you have that, too.” I wanted her to go on. She was older, she knew things. I just couldn’t picture myself at her age. I couldn’t imagine who I would be.)
“I can tell you are very submissive,” the woman says to Marie as she sits for the interview. I hang back nearby, feigning interest in a wall of knotted ropes and floggers. Marie doesn’t have dungeon experience so the house mistress asks about her experience with kinky sex. Marie lists things off: candle wax, human ashtray, humiliation. Her voice is even but faint.
“Oh, you like humiliation. I’ve got someone for you for Monday. He’ll make you feel so bad. Like the worst thing in the world. He’ll make you feel like a speck of dust.” She shakes her head, enunciating each syllable with a thick New York accent.
The house mistress stands up when a client comes in. “Stay back here,” she says, and I turn my head for politeness. She sends the client to a room and then plans out props with one of the dominatrixes.
“And here is his bonnet and pacifier, and he has his own toothbrush in case you want to brush his teeth.”
“Does he have his own bottles?”
“Here he needs this, too, I think.”
She comes back, sits down and explains the details to Marie. Marie can start Monday but it’ll still just be training. She won’t be officially hired for six weeks. She won’t be paid until she’s trained, and clients want to book sessions with her. She needs to buy tall shoes and latex clothes before she can train. The woman has Marie stand up to look at her body… so she can be sure. “O, wait. What did you want your name to be.”
“Marie,” says Marie.
“No. Not Marie” she shakes her head. “Guys won’t like that.”
After we leave and Marie promises to be on-time on Monday, we go to a sex shop so she can buy a shiny black top and six-inch heels — items her contract says she will need.
I am waiting for Marie outside of a bar in Williamsburg. I am nervous.
Hours before I had received an email back from this girl I know from the internet. She works as both a pro-domme and a pro-sub. In the email she explained that working in a dungeon can be dangerous. She explained that the screening process is too lax and that clients are hardly ever blacklisted, even if they assault you, in her experience.
The bar is dim and full of Victorian sofas. There is an astrological mural on the ceiling in gold and turquoise. I order us two bloody marias, with jalapeno tequila and cilantro. “I’m nervous,” I say to Marie, staring at a starry scorpion painted on the ceiling. “About the dungeon.”
“I’m nervous, too.”
I tell Marie I feel weird, like maybe I encouraged her? Marie makes a face, sort of drawing her lips and eyes in closer. “It’s been helpful having you to talk about this with,” she says.
We sit on the couches and drink. Marie finishes the bloody maria and orders another. We start talking about sex work and feminism and decriminalization and abolition.
“Yeah. And I think what I am asking myself is… I’m not sure sex work would exist without sexism,” I am saying, feeling something, guilty or confused.
“I understand supporting women’s choices…” I say and continue, regurgitating things I’ve learned on the internet.
“I mean, ideally I think we’d live in a society where people don’t want sex work and there are good jobs and safety nets… but that is utopian,” Marie says looking at her straw clogged with cilantro leaves.
“I mean I think, though, I mean… there is the view that it can be empowering…” I say, vaguely realizing I don’t have a hot clue about it.
“I think people have this idea that sex workers make a lot of money. But in my experience a lot of people who do it aren’t well off. The men who are paying, they have the money and at least a lot of the power,” Marie says.
I’ve had two drinks and Marie has had four but she seems fine. It’s dark now and a neon sign is flashing beneath the bar’s lace curtains. “I’m not sure what kind of friend I am,” I say. “Like, when my friend is having an affair with a married man all of my other friends are like telling her how terrible he is I am just like, What’s that like?”
Marie laughs, “I feel like I’m the same way.”
“Like, I feel very strongly about personal ethics, you know? Trying to do things with intent and… what’s the word? Like, being virtuous? But then I feel pulled into this extreme skepticism. About everything. And just do what feels good, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” “Integrity,” Marie answers, fishing through her purse.
After the next cigarette, Marie puts her arm around me and I let my body collapse into her armpit. “You know it’s rare for me to find someone I like. It’s rare I find girls I can relate to or want to be friends with.”
“I hear you,” I say to Marie.
She is sipping another drink and her eyes close and I realize she is very drunk. 22-years-old drunk. She hiccups. I help Marie hail a cab, and I help her get in, face first, ass in the air, then into the car.
By the time of the holiday party, weeks later, Marie had quit the dungeon job. There were some problems, a horrific client, the day the house mistress made Marie “train” and do a demo in front of the other girls with some guy who wasn’t associated with the dungeon. A self-described top who the other girls thought might be trying to perve for free. Other things, I don’t know. Marie took the six-inch heels she’d bought and left.
At the former Bungalow 8, some male-novelist-slash-artist is talking to me. I am telling him that I think there is a stigma that comes with sex writing and he is telling me that this just isn’t true. Not anymore, not in New York.
When Marie gets to the party, we lean against the bar. She’s just missed the free drinks. “See that guy over there? The tall one? He seems to be interested in getting laid if you are into it,” I say, and Marie checks him out. “He’s been, like, negging me all night.”
Someone from the paper buys Marie a drink, and tells her to come to the bar where everyone is going for an afterparty.
“Seems like it’s all men,” I say to Marie. The bar holds two afterparties, the one for the holiday party we’d just been at and one for some other company whose hired a Santa and has left cold pizza on a back table.
“Don’t I know you,” some guy says to me.
“Yeah, from the holiday party. The party before this” I say.
“You. I know you,” he squints and points a finger at me.
Marie points out a guy who she thinks is cute but won’t talk to her. I go over and introduce myself, we start discussing a new novel we both liked. But then a woman, his girlfriend, interrupts us, saying they need to leave.
I go to find Marie but somehow get caught in a conversation with that author-artist guy. I don’t know. Maybe I said hi to him — I could have — I don’t remember. But he is talking about BDSM. “I think secretly everyone is submissive,” he is saying, his huge arms outspread, voice all boomy.
Marie is walking toward us. “Marie, this guy says he thinks that secretly every woman, or everyone, is submissive.”
“I used to work at a dungeon and I definitely don’t think that is true” Marie says. “There are some guys who are submissive. But I think a man, I think men who say that all women are submissive, say it as a way to get away with raping women.”
Marie and I are smoking outside, all abuzz. I take a drag of her cigarette. “Some guy in there literally told me, I would make out with you if you want me to. I said, What the fuck?”
“I know you!” says that guy who said the same thing before. “Hey! I am getting a lighter, be here when I get back,” he calls, turning the corner.
“I’m leaving.” I hug Marie but don’t look back, leaving her smoking outside the party.