What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire - Daniel Bergner (2013)

Chapter 6. The Alley

For her twenty-fourth birthday, Ndulu gathered with several friends at a restaurant downtown. The restaurant was a straightforward, undramatic place, and Ndulu lived a straightforward, undramatic life, but a few of her friends were gay men who did not worry as much as she did about what was and wasn’t appropriate. In addition, the dinner involved some drinking.

So, near the end of the meal, David called their waiter over and informed him that Ndulu needed a birthday kiss. By the time David was halfway through this overture, she had ducked her head and was covering her face with her hands. David had no idea how perfectly the waiter’s looks matched a longing of hers. And neither David nor Ndulu could have known how his wishes fit her fantasies.

Standing now behind her, he didn’t laugh at David’s request. He didn’t tell David no, and he didn’t give Ndulu the suggested kiss. Instead, he leaned down over her shoulder with his lips close to her ear. “Go into the bathroom,” he said softly, though not so quietly that her friends didn’t glean his words.

She stayed in her chair. Her friends—especially David, an aspiring musician who was used to plenty of sexual conquests and who campaigned regularly against Ndulu’s reserve—were jubilant, riotous with this development. They pushed at her with their hands. They pushed at her with their words. They managed to send her in the direction of the wooden bathroom door.

These are fantasies, the first harbored by Isabel, the rest by others:

“My grammar school principal. I’m in a skirt. Eleven or twelve years old. He has silver hair; he’s overweight; he’s wearing a blazer. He finds a way to call me into his office. He’s married. He has a million reasons not to do this. It’s not that perversely I think he’s attractive; it’s that I’m attracted to the fact that he’s so attracted to me. He’s risking that someone might walk into this office; he’s risking his job to be with me.”

“A shower in a hotel with multiple people.”

“A random guy on the street. I don’t want candlelight.”

“Oral sex with a man I can trust. I know that sounds mundane, but I suppose this stems from growing up in conservative, backwater, buttfuck Kentucky, where blow jobs were expected and relished in discussion but eating out was either gross or wasn’t discussed at all.”

“I am a young virgin peasant girl whose family is one of many that works the land of a rich landowner; the landowner or his son forces himself on me, and I know I have no choice but to let him do what he wants. Or I am the school whore or a social misfit, and the football team is taking turns with me. I am still coming to terms with the fact that things that I find to be wrong—rape; taking advantage of those without power—are the things that bring me to mind-blowing orgasms.”

“Not scenes. Textural sensations playing through my head.”

“Another couple having sex, near me, where I can see them. Someone licking me or touching me, maybe two people, and then a man entering me from behind. I wouldn’t say it’s violent. Maybe vigorous—is that a dorky word to use?”

“The rape scene from The Accused, I’m ashamed to say.”

“A married, older man that I work with, who I’m not even all that attracted to, fucking me from behind against a whiteboard—we work at a school—and hitting my face against it. Then he turns me around so that I can fellate him. Him coming on my face.”

“Once in a while I dream of dreamy stuff: kissing and fluffy desserts we feed to each other. Quite often I dream of many men, servicing me all at once.”

“A stranger, usually a construction type, peeking in my window.”

“Essentially rapes. I started masturbating when I was around ten or eleven—the most common one back then was a middle-aged bald man while I was chemically paralyzed. Receiving pleasure wasn’t my fault if I was being raped; I didn’t have to explain myself to Jesus or my parents. Where the bald man came from I have no idea. Then, when I started having sex with my husband, it turned out that orgasm was kind of a lot of work. It was very important to him that I have one whenever we had sex, and sex with him was nice, but orgasm required that I fantasize. Reenter the bald man.”

“Thinking about the girl-on-girl ads on Craigslist.”

“The bored housewife who lets the FedEx man take advantage of her, only to be seen by the postal delivery guy, who forces himself on her next. The bored teenager who pretends to fall asleep while lounging by the pool in a loosely tied string bikini while a construction crew just happens to be working close by.”

“The part in Excalibur where Arthur’s father transmutes into the form of another man and has sex with Arthur’s mother while wearing bloody armor.”

“I used to have rape fantasies, but now they have been replaced with walking into a room and seeing the man I’m dating sitting on a chair with a college-age girl straddling him, facing him. She’s always thin with big breasts—so stereotypical, I’m sorry—and long, shiny hair all the way down her back. He has one hand wrapped up in that hair and the other fingering her anus.”

“Earlier in my life it was wooing: parks and lots of looking at the moon. The violent aspect did not develop until later when the malaise of my first marriage settled in. I remarried and here’s the deal: I’m super competent. I run the house, do ninety-nine percent of the kid care, have a PhD and a successful career. I am absolutely in control all the time. In bed, fantasy allows me to feel out of control while being in control. I don’t give myself away, but I imagine giving myself away. ‘A sordid boon,’ Wordsworth would say. No, I imagine myself taken away. I would like my life to have more of that: I’d like my husband to take control. But he’s not able to. I don’t know if it’s the no-means-no message he’s gotten since health class in middle school. So I create a world in my head.”

“Being tied up and blindfolded while someone I love shares me with a number of people I can’t see. Multiple people desiring me and concentrating on me alone. Or if I’m feeling particularly tired or unhappy and my body just isn’t responding, I’ll make it rougher. This releases me from all the other thoughts, from worrying if my son did his homework and when the mortgage is due.”

“A man eleven years younger than me, a boy really, who I had an affair with. I’m married ten years this week. I’m thirty-eight. We only saw each other maybe once a month, sometimes longer between. And we never talked by phone or email unless we were arranging to meet. Now I’ve broken it off. And I buy all kinds of outfits for him that he’ll never see. The way he would look at me when I opened the door is what I hunger for. Or the afternoon he taught me how to really give a blow job, in my backyard next to my pool, the sun shining on us—I have never in my life wanted a cock in my mouth as badly as with that man. In replays now that it’s over, I slide my mouth over a dildo I keep hidden. With my husband, I’m just making love.”

“What I’d like to do with my boyfriend. A public place, a subway platform, a park.”

“The noise my lover makes when she climaxes.”

“We’re a conservative couple and my husband is the only man I’ve ever been with, so when I close my eyes, his body is the one I have an image of. Lesbian sex, adulterous sex, I’ll find myself wandering sometimes into the forbidden, but I always go back. His body is simply erotic. It’s mine. I know it. I understand it. I have fantasies that I whisper to him in bed about tying his hands behind him and making him watch me masturbate. I always think it’s funny that people who find out I was a virgin—by choice!—when I got married think I’m naïve or prudish. If only they were in my head.”

“Males and females, males more when I was single, females more now. Images as mild as the curve of a hip or as hard-core as full-blown bondage.”

“Older brother–younger sister incest (I should add that I’m an only child).”

“A visit to a male gynecologist, with me naked in the stirrup-things. The doctor inserts various instruments; he fingers me to make sure there’s nothing wrong with my cervix. A sexy female nurse starts examining my breasts. Young male medical students come in to watch, to be taught how to conduct the pelvic exam. The doctor instructs the nurse to play with my breasts, to make sure that arousal is functioning normally. He checks my clit. I start squirming with pleasure. I’m vulnerable and completely exposed to a figure of knowledge and authority. Or being raped. It’s a twisted paradox, but in my head rape equals control equals trust. I don’t have to worry about anything, because the other person has power over me, I know he could kill me, so it’s his responsibility to make sure that I’m safe. The rapist is often a soldier, Serbian or Russian, not American, because of the stereotypes about Eastern European men being dominant and rough. He’s always a stranger. He uses his own strength, as opposed to a rope or gun, to control me, usually by pinning my wrists above my head against the floor. At first I don’t want it, and struggle against him, but he knows when I start to enjoy it. Occasionally I fantasize about being raped as punishment for having anti-feminist fantasies.”

“An older man sitting on a chair and masturbating while I have sex.”

“I’ve always battled with my weight. So being someone else and looking completely different than I actually do. Sex with a celebrity, sex with a cute bartender from the other night, sex on stage, with one spotlight and one chair like in Cabaret. The feeling that I am desire in the audience’s loins.”

“The first fantasies I can recall involved having sex with men in their twenties or thirties. I had found some porn magazines of my father’s. I was around eleven. My favorite scene was of a man in his thirties approaching me from behind and pushing me up against a chain-link fence, pushing my clothes aside but always having a firm grasp on my body. Now my fiancé is in Iraq. Ninety-five percent of my fantasies involve him. We have the photos we send each other. I hear I’m kind of a small-celebrity army pinup.”

“My boss; a stranger in a bar; my father’s friend. Horny and demanding and forceful. So consumed by me that he can’t help himself. . . . As an undergraduate I felt like I had to monitor my internal and external life toward consistency. In other words, if I truly believed in women’s equality with men, then I’d have to have sex and imagine sex that reflected that—no domination, no rape fantasies. One result was that I married a nice liberal man who shared my convictions on how sex should be. Seven years later we divorced.”

“A really sexy girl lies back on my bed. I grind against her face with my vagina, making her eat me out kind of violently.”

“Rape—which, until very recently, I had trouble admitting even to myself. It seemed to fly in the face of all my participation in Take Back the Night rallies in college, all those women’s studies courses. Men take turns holding me down.”

The appeal of rape—in the mind, in the lab—haunted Meana and Chivers and took our conversations to uneasy places. Two of their sexologist colleagues, Jenny Bivona and Joseph Critelli at the University of North Texas, had gathered data from nine earlier studies and offered a sense of how commonly women turn themselves on in this way. “For the purposes of the present review,” Bivona and Critelli spelled out, “the term ‘rape fantasy’ will follow legal definitions of rape and sexual assault. This term will refer to women’s fantasies that involve the use of physical force, threat of force, or incapacitation through, for example, sleep or intoxication, to coerce a woman into sexual activity against her will.” Depending on the study, between around 30 and 60 percent of women acknowledged that they took pleasure in this kind of imagining. The true numbers, the authors argued, were probably higher. The subjects conjured the scenes while they had sex, welcomed them while they masturbated, daydreamed about them.

One explanation invoked the same reasoning as the woman who said, “I didn’t have to explain myself to Jesus.” Rape fantasies removed guilt. Women embraced them to escape the shame imposed, from the beginnings of girlhood, on their sexuality, to escape the constraints imposed going back and back in time. Another theory took imagining and relishing rape as a type of taboo-breaking.

An experiment carried out at an amusement park by Cindy Meston, a University of Texas at Austin psychology professor, contributed to yet another explanation. Hundreds of heterosexual roller-coaster riders were shown photos of the opposite sex; the subjects were asked to score, in Meston’s words, “dating desirability” before and after the ride. The thrill of fear spilled over into eros: following the ride, the scores rose. The phenomenon, which Meston labeled “excitation transfer,” hinted at interweaving circuits of terror and sexual arousal within the brain, and perhaps made sense of what one woman told me, that she felt as though her rape fantasies had an immediate physical effect, that they coursed straight to her groin, causing the contractions of orgasm.

There was anatomical logic to the idea that calling up thoughts of rape and feelings of fear—or feelings of shame brought on by transgressing taboo—could quickly provoke the spasms of climax. The theory belonged to Paul Fedoroff, a psychiatrist at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research, who treated paraphilics, people whose main erotic compulsions fall far outside the norm: fetishists, exhibitionists, zoophiles, sexual serial killers, pedophiles. Like so much surrounding our under-researched sexual selves, Fedoroff’s reasoning was backed by informed speculation rather than proof, yet his theory had resonance. Some of his patients, he had told me, when I was researching a book about paraphilias, seemed to suffer from what he called a “sticky switch” governing their parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. These are two branches of our autonomic circuitry, the wiring that regulates our automatic functions, like heart rate, sweating, and salivation. The parasympathetic system controls arousal while the sympathetic sends us into climax. “The natural progression during sex,” he said, “is that the parasympathetics are set off, and at some point when we become sufficiently aroused a switch flips and the sympathetics kick in and we start to have an orgasm. But the poor paraphilic has a sticky, sluggish switch and needs to do something extreme to get the sympathetics going.” Besides orgasm, the sympathetic system takes over in situations of emergency. Fedoroff’s idea was that some paraphilics use the deviant, the forbidden, to stoke their sense of danger or mortification—to create an emotional emergency, put extra pressure on the resistant switch, open up the sympathetic paths, and propel the brain and body into ecstasy.

Many of Fedoroff’s patients were convicted criminals, but he told me about a case that wasn’t criminal at all. A heterosexual couple had sought him out; the woman could no longer climax, not with her partner. She’d taken to having sex with a series of men in the same night, to watching videos of women having sex with animals, to making videos of herself masturbating—these sent her toward orgasm. Climactic sex with her partner seemed a hopeless cause “until,” Fedoroff wrote in a journal article, “it was discovered that she consumed large amounts of L-tryptophan, available in health food stores, to help her sleep. This substance is metabolized into serotonin, which is known to cause difficulty reaching orgasm. She was advised to discontinue taking L-tryptophan. Soon afterward, her ability to reach orgasm through intercourse with her partner returned, and with it, her paraphilic interest in group sex, exhibitionism, and zoophilia disappeared.”

According to Fedoroff’s theory, fantasies of sexual assault might well serve, for some non-paraphilic women, as a way to unstick the switch; they might supply an emotional emergency and enable orgasm.

But for Meana, rape fantasies were rooted in the narcissism that was imbedded in the female sex drive. As we talked, she narrowed her ideas into an emblematic scene: a woman pinned and ravished against an alley wall. Here, in her vision, was an ultimate symbol of female lust. The ravager, overcome by craving for this particular woman, cannot restrain himself; he tears through all codes, through all laws and conventions, to seize her, and she—feeling herself to be the unique object of his unendurable need—is overcome herself.

Right away, she regretted what she’d described, the alley image she’d called symbolic. She hadn’t used the word “rape,” but the scene evoked it.

“I hate the term ‘rape fantasies,’ ” she said quickly. The phrase was paradoxical, she stressed; it had no meaning. “In fantasy we control the stimuli. In rape we have no control.” The two ideas couldn’t coexist.

“They’re really fantasies of submission,” she continued. She elaborated on the pleasure of being wanted so much that the aggressor is willing to overpower, to take. “But ‘aggression,’ ‘dominance,’ ” she sifted through the terms that came to her as she tried to express the wish. “I have to find better words. ‘Submission’ isn’t even a good word.” It didn’t reflect what women were imagining as Meana’s scene culminated: their willing acquiescence.

Yet she looked vaguely stricken; she knew her parsing of language couldn’t tame the subject. The fantasy of the alley, no matter how much she focused on vocabulary, retained its aura of violence. And as Bivona and Critelli had pointed out, the paradox in logic, in conjuring one’s own lack of control, didn’t exactly mean that the fantasizing woman wasn’t immersing herself in an experience of sexual assault. The assault wasn’t real, of course; the immersion was only partial; but the violence, the overpowering were being lived, if only in the mind. The fantasies occupied a realm that was both infinitely far from the actual and yet psychologically close to it. Were they different from any of our other intensely felt and yet idle wishes? To commit crimes and become rich? To inflict awful harm on our enemies? We don’t act on these imaginings, and in one sense we don’t want to transpose them from the world of the mind to the world of the real. We don’t want that at all; we would then have entered a nightmare. Yet our fantasies do speak of our desires.

When Meana first talked with me about the alley, I was interviewing her for a magazine article. Just before the story went to print, we spoke on the phone. She suggested a change in the way I presented things: I should specify that it wasn’t a stranger who pressed the woman against the wall; it was someone she knew.

I didn’t remember this detail from our discussions. I asked if she was sure the change would represent the truth of her thinking. She hesitated. She worried that without the addition, the scene would seem very much a rape and that she would appear to be endorsing this kind of attack. I assured her that I had made the difference plain: between the gratifications of the invented and the horrors of the real. But she was in agony. She believed that all of her work would be reduced to the alley, that it was all people would remember. That dark place seemed to loom in her mind, almost as if it really was the only thing she had spoken about. We went back and forth about noting that the man was not a stranger. I asked her, Who exactly was he?

And we discussed possibilities: his being a date; his being someone the woman had just met. But there was no nailing it down. It seemed more faithful, not only to her thinking but to the variations within women’s fantasies, to leave the man undescribed except for the force of his desire.

We agreed not to make the alteration, she in deep discomfort, still wishing somehow to soften the scene. When the article came out, she was barraged. Her in-box filled with hundreds of emails. Oprah asked her to be on her show. “I’ve become the overpowerment lady,” Meana said to me later, when I met with her again in Las Vegas. The alley wall had been central in the reaction to her words. And some of the reaction was vehement. “There was hatred. People said I was part of the machinery that puts women down, that I was inciting men to rape.”

Yet there were plenty of other responses. Oprah, as she introduced Meana, voiced her own troubled feelings about the alley but played, at the start of the segment, a taped interview with a perky, middle-of-the-road woman who echoed the allure of Meana’s scenario. And the emails were also full of gratitude. “There were lots of messages from high-powered women thanking me for allowing a discussion of elements of sexuality that don’t fall neatly into an ideological box,” Meana said, relieved. “One woman, in the art world in New York, told me, ‘I could not say what you said without feeling shamed, as though my eroticism made me a willing participant in a patriarchal system.’ ”

Still, Meana remained unsettled. All the attention had churned up something submerged, a latent distaste about studying sex at all, a shame about it, a fear of it. “Even we who do this research have internalized the culture’s sexophobia. It was fine when it was just me in my lab, me with my students. But with the spotlight on—no. Suddenly I was asking myself, Why was I studying something so inconsequential? Why couldn’t I be studying depression? Why couldn’t I be studying suicide? I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself, In what way is sex inconsequential?”

She paused. “I have no insecurity about my feminism,” she said. “I feel on solid ground. What I said in the article stepped outside what have become the conventional, comfortable ways of talking about female sexuality, the soft ways, the ways that leave everyone feeling good, not anxious. I don’t think what I said was misogynistic. I don’t think it was harmful. Now, do I know whether certain turn-ons excite only because of a social structure that disempowers women? Whether certain fantasies are an eroticization of disempowerment? No, I don’t know. But I do see the world from a feminist perspective. And part of that is wanting women to be able to be who they are sexually.”

She sounded almost at ease. She seemed almost to have located solid ground. Yet the footing seemed unsure, as if at any instant it could turn treacherous. The alley was no place to stand.

Did the fantasies, as Meana asked, “excite only because of social structure”? What about the narcissistic longing that lay beneath, that led to the grammar school principal, to the landowner’s son, to fantasizing about the rape against the pinball machine in The Accused—was this “an eroticization of disempowerment”? She raised the quandary that was always near: culture or genes?

To think back to Deidrah was to see an immense societal impact. How else but culture to explain the vast difference between Deidrah’s aggressive sexuality, her stalking of mates, and women’s desire to be desired, which dictated the pleasure of being chased? Men made objects of girls and women; girls and women, living in a male-run world, absorbed the male outlook as their own and made objects of themselves. Hadn’t culture taken Deidrah’s drive and, in women, both partially quelled and completely recast it?

Yet when Meana contemplated the psyche, she called herself an essentialist, mostly. About the interplay between nature and nurture, she placed more weight on the inborn. She placed the weight gingerly. Her essentialism was a hunch, a sensibility; there was no way, she knew, to measure the inherent against the acquired, not for the time being; there was no way to assign a percentage to its role in narcissism, in rape fantasies. (A wealth of pop psychology writing declares confidently that there is an all-determining link between inborn levels of testosterone and myriad forms of aggression or passivity—sexual forms high among them—in men and women. Genetic factors give boys and men a lot more of the hormone, as counted in the bloodstream, and this makes boys and men a lot more aggressive. But among the list of problems with this seductively simple logic is evidence that comes, again, from Deidrah. Compared with male rhesus, females have as little testosterone as women do in contrast with men. Yet female rhesus run the sexual show, incite warfare, and rule the world of rhesus politics.)

Meana’s intuitive leaning toward the innate added to her uneasiness about the appeal of the alley scene. Emphasizing the genetic meant that there was no escape; it meant that the allure was fundamental.

Chivers was haunted in a similar way. She saw the culture’s relentless sculpting of women’s sexuality, but her mission was always to look past that, to seek and examine what lay beyond society’s reach, and this put her into a wrenching confrontation with rape. She knew about emerging results from a close colleague’s experiment: genital blood flow spiked when women listened to rape scenes in a lab. (An experiment of her own demonstrated, as well, that situations of fear or euphoric excitement triggered no vaginal pulsing if sex wasn’t involved. In one comparison, she played videos of a woman being chased up a flight of stairs by a rapist or by a rabid dog. Only the sexual scene flooded the genitals.) She dwelled on studies of victims that documented not only lubrication but sometimes orgasm during sexual assault. And she remembered—from her postdoctoral program in Toronto, when she had done work as a therapist—rape survivors who’d confided their own arousal, their own climaxes, to her.

How to understand this? How to comprehend this harrowing evidence? Was something deeply scripted, something intrinsic, at work?

Chivers felt that it was. And she helped to develop a reassuring theory: that prehistoric women had been constantly subject to sexual attack, and that the ability to lubricate automatically in reaction to all sorts of sexual cues evolved genetically as a protection against vaginal tearing, against infection, against the infertility or death that might follow. Genital arousal might not represent desire, she argued, but might, rather, be part of a purely reflexive, erotically neutral system, a system that was somehow intertwined with but separate from the wiring of women’s libidos. And the instances of orgasm might reflect nothing more than friction.

Yet the theory of separate systems was elaborate, precarious. It defied more straightforward thinking: that being wet meant being turned on, that there wasn’t much that was neutral about it, just as was true for men and being hard. Gradually Chivers settled on what had perhaps, she told me, been obvious all along, that it was possible to be stirred by all sorts of things one didn’t, in fact, want. By sex featuring bonobos, by sex featuring assault.

“I walk a fine line, politically and personally, talking frankly” about rape, she said. “I would never, never want to deliver the message to anyone that they have the right to take away a woman’s autonomy over her own body. Arousal is not consent.”

This was one of Ndulu’s fantasies: “A faceless white man slams me against a wall and holds me in place with his elbow as he strokes his rock-hard dick. He whispers into my ear all the vile things he wants to do to my body. He tells me he’s going to shove his cock so far into my pussy I’ll feel it in my belly; he says if I don’t behave, he’ll call in his friend, who’s right outside, ear pressed to the door, violently masturbating, to come fuck me as well. Would I like that? he asks. Would I like two hot cocks in me? He takes me rough and hard from behind, standing up. Just when he begins to call out loudly as he comes inside me, his friend bursts in and comes on my ass. Both men are calling out in such pleasure that it almost sounds like they’re crying.”

This was the way Ndulu’s imaginings usually went, and the violence of the men, the unrestrainable lust of the men, the ecstasy of the men that poured out in their “almost crying” were made more heated for her—and terribly painful for her—by race. Ndulu had grown up on American oil company compounds in West Africa and Europe, gone to college in the American Midwest, and now lived in New York, where she worked as a graphic designer. Over the course of her childhood, her adolescence, and her young adulthood, she had learned to believe that her skin and hair and features added up to an overall appearance that fell somewhere between tolerable and not. This was true, above all, about the shade of her complexion. “In winter,” she said, “it’s medium. In summer, though, no matter what I do, it gets dark. In summer, I can’t even look at myself.”

She spoke of how her mother had always made it clear that lighter skin was more attractive than darker. During her own childhood, Ndulu’s mother had watched her mother’s adoring eyes on the paler face of Ndulu’s aunt. “In black families, there’s always this issue,” Ndulu said. “It’s no different in Africa. My aunt was the belle of her village, because she was so light. My grandmother spent all her time on her.”

As a teenager, Ndulu had done what all the girls of her West African city did, what she had begun to learn from her mother before she could talk. Into her hair, to make it less kinky, she slathered a grease that was the pale yellow of custard. “It wasn’t as thick as butter, but it was thick, and it was oilier than butter, and you had to put a lot on. It would drip down the sides of your face in the sun.”

These days, in New York, she was trying to wean herself from oil by wearing her hair fairly short. But she hadn’t yet quit; she didn’t expect to. “It’s so common. I don’t think I know a single black woman who doesn’t use it. It’s just something we have to do. To make our hair look more white. I hate it. It reminds me of what I am and what I’m not.”

She added, “I’ve read The Bluest Eye,” and she talked about the lessons of Toni Morrison’s novel. “I know how I should be, I know the way it’s supposed to go—the whole empowerment thing. In college I wrote essays out the wazoo about everyone being equal and equally beautiful. I don’t feel any of that.”

Her college was close to 100 percent white; her friends were an insular group of black women. They talked often of the black pop stars and students they fantasized about, of the superiority of black men—the size of their penises, the hairlessness of their skin. Her gay friends now—white, Asian—did the same. And all the while what she felt was that to be the focus of a white man’s violent need—“all of my fantasies are of a white man; and except when he is faceless, he is beautiful, beautiful beyond words; he is tall, with azure eyes and thick, dark hair”—would be to know, in the most absolute way, that she was desirable.

The waiter was tall enough, broad-shouldered, with blue eyes and dark hair. “He was gorgeous,” she said later. She stepped into the bathroom; he followed, turning on the faucet, opening the tap fully, the water loud. How much noise is kissing going to make? she asked silently, as they began. He leaned back against the wall, pulling her toward him. She braced her palms against the tile on either side of his shoulders; his fingers spanned her ass. At some point, he slid his cock out of his pants; she felt it rigid near her waist. She wished she was the one with her back to the wall, but it didn’t matter—the thought was crushed by the strength of his hands.

The faucet went on providing its white noise. “Suck it,” he told her.

Even more than his features, his voice now seemed to spring directly from her imagination, her moments of private lust: the way the two words he repeated held not even the undertone of a question.

She lifted her hands away from the wall, straightened, took a step back. Again, he told her what he wanted.

“I have to go,” she said.

“No, you don’t.”

“I have to go.”

“Stay.”

When she tried, when she turned, she couldn’t get the lock unbolted.

“I’ve been drinking,” she protested. “I have a boyfriend.”

“Do you really?” He held her forcefully.

“I have a boyfriend,” she lied. “I need to go.”

Something shifted in his face, and when he spoke again the presumption was thoroughly washed from his voice, as though by the impact of a wave. He looked disoriented, lost. “Okay,” he said. This time, she managed the lock.

Her friends were in a clamor when she emerged. They assumed she’d gone further than kissing. David insisted on a description of his cock. He often regaled her with the dimensions of his conquests. “I’m not going to talk about that,” she said. Seconds later, she confessed that she hadn’t carried it through. When they groaned, she apologized, and when they asked why, she answered that she didn’t know. “I just couldn’t,” she told them. Then she went home and lay down and let the scene unfold—differently, from the moment of his demand, from her inability to unbolt the door—as she touched herself, let it unfold until she came, let it splinter her mind, obliterate her, obliterate her again the next morning, again the next night, again on more mornings and nights than she could count.