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Author bio | Spanish translation

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Therapy
by
Elissa Wald

Elissa Wald
Therapy

"I want you to tell me where it hurts."
       These soft words were spoken to me by Dr. Isaac Landau somewhere in the course of our first session. It was the turning point of the consultation, the moment I knew I was in the hands of a pro. It was when I knew I would want to keep seeing him. And it was when I started crying as if I'd never stop.
       I can remember just a single moment like that in my own career: my interview with Spot, the only client I've ever reserved for my own personal use. I called him Spot because dark birth marks were splotched all over his body. He had never been to a dominatrix before and his epiphany came with my first question:
       "How long have you known you were a slave?"
       He looked at me in wonder and tears came into his eyes. No one had ever recognized him before, and I waited while he wept with gratitude and disbelief.
      
I'd heard that Isaac was extraordinary, special. This came from my friend Ione, who should know. She must have tried forty shrinks and he was the only one she ever liked. She couldn't have more than a consultation with him, though, because she worked at the same small firm as his wife.
       It was exciting to make that first call to his office. To finally admit that something was really wrong. I called on a Monday, a slow day for me.
       "Hi, my name is Vanessa; I got your name from Ione Matthiesen. I've never had any form of therapy before, but I would like a consultation with someone very soon. I've recently become quite unhappy at work."
       I didn't mention what kind of work it was. I left my number and the times I could most easily be reached. It happened that he was out of town, so when the phone rang several days later, I had nearly forgotten about him.
       "Hello?"
       "Hello. This is Dr. Landau, returning your call." His voice held just the faintest trace of Israel.
       "Oh. Yes. Hi."
       "I'm sorry it has taken me a few days to call, but I just returned to New York this afternoon. Do you have a few minutes to briefly discuss some things?"
       I had another hour before my next session. "Yes, that's fine."
       "You mentioned, in your message, being unhappy at work. Could you say just a little bit about this, to give me an idea of what you mean?"
       "Yes, all right." But I hesitated, unsure of how to put it. "I- well, actually I work out of my own home. I'm a dominatrix. Do you know what that is?"
       "I believe I have some idea," he said. "But it would be best for you to tell me in your own words what it is."
       "Well, generally speaking," I said, "I am paid, usually by men, to dominate and discipline them."
       "I see." A pause, during which I thought I could hear him writing. "And how long has this been your line of work?"
       "I guess it's been a little over three years now."
       "And when did it take, shall we say, a turn for the worse?"
       "It's hard to pinpoint exactly. I'd say somewhere in the last few months."
       "Has anything changed about the job itself? Or only your feelings?"
       "It's me. Everything is just the way it's always been."
       Another pause, a rustling of papers. Then: "I imagine you set your own hours?"
       "That's correct."
       "Would it be a problem to come to my office tomorrow evening at seven?"
       I glanced at my schedule. "So far, so good."
       "There's a one-time consultation fee of one hundred and thirty dollars. Is this within your means?"
       "Yes it is." I felt smug for a minute about making more an hour than a doctor.
       "Good. Then I look forward to meeting you tomorrow."
        
When I make an appointment with a first-timer, it's very common for them not to show up. I wondered if it were the same for shrinks, because until the last minute, I didn't know whether I would really go. Even as I stood outside his office, beside the doorbell marked with his name, I considered just turning around and going home. There would be many times I wished I had.
       After I'd waited a few minutes in his waiting room, he appeared in the doorway of his office. There was nothing physically compelling about him at all. He was thin and Lincoln-solemn, with a receding hairline, dark mustache, and beard.
       Good, I thought. Clearly, everything I'd heard about tortured transference would not apply to me. He couldn't have been further from my preferences; the men I'm attracted to are imposing, and I have a specific aversion to facial hair.
       He ushered me inside and indicated my seat. His was directly across from it, maybe three feet away. I sat down and waited expectantly but he said nothing, just looked at me. He looked at me like a Red Cross doctor might look at a starving woman. His gaze was direct and unwavering, full of pained empathy.
       "Hello," I said. The word itself was a challenge; I was already annoyed.
       His head tilted ever so slightly to one side. And his silent inquiry seemed to intensify a notch.
       "Look, I don't know how this is supposed to work," I said. "Can you help me out here?"
       "I'd like you to talk for a little while," he said quietly.
       "Just talk? About what?"
       "Whatever you think is important." He spoke so softly I could barely hear. "And why you're here."
       I took a breath. "All right. I told you on the phone that I'm a dominatrix. This seems to be bringing me a lot of misery lately. I don't like doing it anymore, but it would be almost unthinkable to quit. I've invested too much, too many people need me, the money's too good, and I'm too good. It's spoiled me. I couldn't stand a regular job."
       "But what brings you here today?" he wanted to know.
       "I just told you. What I just said."
       "But why now?" he persisted. "Instead of last week, instead of next week?"
       "I don't know. What does it matter? Here I am."
       He resumed his sorrowful gaze. It irked me. What was so fucking tragic?
       I tried to go on, looking past him and through the window behind his back. "It's started to spill over. Into my real life. I'm becoming a full-time bitch."
       Silence.
       "I've started to believe my own PR. You know? That I'm a goddess, someone entitled to worship, and that I should have my own way all the time. It's hard to just snap out of it after so many hours."
       Silence. Sorrow.
       "Every encounter seems to become a battle of wills." And then, as if to illustrate my point: "Would you say something already? I mean, what are you waiting for?"
       "I'm waiting to learn why you're here," he said.
       "I told you already. I've been telling you this whole time! What the fuck do you want from me?"
       "I want you to tell me," he said, and his voice seemed to go even softer still, "where it hurts."
       It caught me completely by surprise. My mouth opened but for the first time, no words came. My eyes filled instead and spilled over as I stared at him in amazement. I thought then that I knew how a tree must feel when a siphon is tapped gently, unexpectedly into its side. Past the layers of bark and wood to a deeper place, where something it didn't know it had begins to flow.
      
My tears ended a few minutes later, as abruptly as they had begun. But things had shifted. I had been humbled. And I wasn't sure I could forgive him.
       "Are there any questions you would like to ask me?"
       It was an offer I would not hear again. I didn't know much about the therapeutic process, but that much I could guess, so I took it.
       "Oh yes," I answered. "Many inappropriate questions."
       "In here," he told me, "there is no such thing as an inappropriate question. I may not always answer your questions. But you should never hesitate to ask anything."
       "Fine," I said. "Do you ever get aroused by your patients?"
       "That's a general question," he remarked. "Perhaps what you really want to know is whether or not I am aroused by you."
       "Well, yes," I said. "That too. I'd like to know whether you get aroused in general, as well as if you are aroused by me."
       He was silent a moment. Then: "That does sometimes happen," he said. "In your case... I would prefer not to answer the question."
       Good, I thought. He's good. That was a perfect response. If he'd said he wasn't aroused by me, I would be upset. But if he had said he was, that would bother me too.
       "All right, then. What if," I said, "I came in here wearing this transparent dress I have? What would you do?"
       "What would this mean to you? Why would you be wearing it?"
       "Just to fuck with you," I said. "To see what you'd do."
       "I think it would depend on whether or not I could do therapy in that context," he answered slowly. "If I were too distracted by it, unable to get beyond it, I would call off the session."
       I felt a rush of hope. At least he wasn't easily taken aback, wouldn't shy away from confrontation.
       As if he could hear my thoughts, he said, "Let's go back to something you brought up earlier. About every encounter becoming a battle of wills. Tell me about that."
       "When I meet someone for the first time," I said, looking at him pointedly, "I find it hard to relax until I've established a certain control."
       "And who do you think will be in control here?"
       "Well, obviously, if I can intimidate you and control you, you won't be any good for me. On the other hand, since I've said this, I can envision you going overboard to prove you're on top. And if you do, I'll be too irritated to want to even deal with you. I guess if you're exceptionally good—though maybe it's too much to hope for—you'll be able to walk that line."
       I heard myself. I was no different from any of my clients. I was asking him to be the boss, on my terms. And in the slyest, most manipulative of ways. Setting it up as a challenge: "If you're really good .."
       He didn't rise to the bait. Instead he said, "Tell me about the line you walk." He would do this over and over. Turn my statements around, make them about me, with no transition.
       My line. It was thin as the edge of a knife and I had to keep it honed and glinting all the time. Could he ever understand what a delicate balance I had to strike every time? Could I ever explain it?
       "I have to give my clients what they want without appearing to care what it is," I said. "I've got to . . . accommodate as I dominate. I need to inflict exactly as much pain as each man can take—no more and no less. And I have to instill terror and dread, yet make the net equation yield ecstasy."
       "That sounds like a lot of work," he said. "And if you're going to work that hard, one would hope it would be at something that's personally rewarding."
       "Well. I guess that's my problem."
       "Tell me, do you think you'll be able to work well in here with me?" he asked.
       "I think... that I'm going to piss you off. Get under your skin. Make you wish you'd never taken me on."
       He studied me for a moment before speaking. "My main concern about that," he said, "is that you seem to be anticipating an adversarial relationship with me, whereas this process relies greatly upon our alliance. If you feel you could achieve this condition more easily with someone else, I can give you several excellent referrals."
       He would give me up? That easily?
       "No," I said. "I want you."
        
Spot was waiting outside my building when I got home, just as I'd told him to be. I wordlessly brushed past him and unlocked the door. He followed me up the stairs to my apartment. I turned my back so he could ease the jacket off my shoulders and hang it up. Then he stripped down to a leather thong and put his folded clothing out of my sight. Only after he had done this did I speak to him.
       "Cigarettes. Coffee."
       He took my pack of Marlboro Lights from the mantel above the fireplace, put a cigarette between my lips, and held the light while I drew. Then he went into the kitchen.
       I loved watching him move in near nakedness around my apartment. He was lean, well muscled, and I secretly thought his birthmarks were beautiful. He looked jungle-spotted, wild: an exotic animal I had tamed.
       Spot was the only client I'd ever found who could take what I gave out. Who truly wanted to serve me and had the endurance to do it. I wore myself out on him, beat him till I couldn't lift my arm anymore. I raised welts. Drew blood. Left bruises that lingered for weeks. He was my prize, and because of this, I no longer charged him. He was my slave, my only real slave.
       Tonight I was feeling tender. When he came in with my cup of coffee, I almost thanked him.
       "Do you want your own?" I asked him. It was an unusual gesture for me.
       "Oh no, I'm fine, thank you, Mistress," he said in surprise.
       "Come here, then," I said. "My feet need some attention."
       Massaging my feet was Spot's special fetish. He knelt beside the divan where I was sitting and happily took my shoes off. A moment later, his strong, warm hands were enclosing my tired left foot. He always started with the left foot. They all had their particular ways, and I knew them the way I imagine a lion tamer knows his cats. In any case, he was making me feel good. I leaned back and began to give myself over to it.
       After a few minutes, I realized—maybe from the way he kept glancing up at me—that he wanted to ask me something. It was my rule that he could not speak until spoken to. This made for many long and peaceful hours. There were times when he came over, carried out every instruction on a written list, and left without a word exchanged between us. If ever he felt the slightest resentment, he never betrayed it. He was a good boy.
       "Go ahead," I said to him.
       "Mistress?"
       "Go ahead and ask me about whatever's on your mind."
       "Forgive me, Mistress. It's none of my business."
       "Of course it isn't. But I just told you to ask me. Don't make me repeat an order."
       I enjoyed his brief panic as he tried to decide which was potentially more dangerous, an audacious question or an attempt to evade a command. Some mistresses create these situations deliberately, to have an excuse to punish a slave regardless of what he does. This was something I never did. I punished Spot only when I was genuinely angry.
       "I was wondering where you went this afternoon," he said, lowering his eyes. Trying not to cringe.
       "If I tell you it's all right to ask me something, then it's really all right," I told him. "It doesn't mean I'm going to answer you."
       "Yes, Mistress."
       "I would, however, like to know why you were wondering."
       "Mistress, it's because you seem. . ." He trailed off.
       "Tell me," I said.
       "You seem more relaxed, or happier, or something."
       It occurred to me that he knew me as well as I knew him. Maybe even better.
       "Well, Spot, for some reason I can't begin to fathom, I'm going to tell you where I was." I paused and studied his face. It was flushed with pleasure, though he didn't dare to raise his eyes.
       "I was seeing a shrink to find out why I keep you around," I said. He laughed softly, then turned his attention to my right foot. I could see he thought I was joking.
      
In Isaac's waiting room, I watched a gray-faced, middle-aged man emerge from his office. This was the patient who was immediately preceding me. Last week it had been a little old lady.
       He must look forward to seeing me. I have to be more interesting than these people.
      
"Tell me," Isaac was saying a few minutes later, "what you get out of domination."
       "Up to five hundred dollars an hour," I answered.
       "What else?"
       "Expensive gifts. Clothing, jewelry, champagne. Roses. The men who can afford me are very wealthy. Some of them take me shopping for what they want me to wear."
       "Yes, and what else?"
       "A spotless apartment. Anything I want done. Essentially I have a chauffeur, masseur, cook, maid, and errand boy at my beck and call. Any or all of them. Around the clock."
       I thought I could feel him hating me. How could you not hate someone who had just recited such a list?
       "Anything else?" is all he said.
       "Well. I'm good at it. Really good. These guys can't believe their luck when they find me."
       "Tell me about that," he said.
       "You have to understand," I told him, "that what brings these men to me is a need, a need almost no one understands. When you need something that badly, you'll overpay, and gladly, for any semblance of it that you can get. No one expects it to be great. They stopped expecting that long ago. The S&M scene is pathetic for the most part."
       "And you?"
       "I'm by far the best thing most of them have ever found. I'm young and I'm beautiful. My body is beautiful. My face is pretty and not too hard.
       "Beyond that," I continued, "I have a deep understanding of their desires and how to meet them. I'm perceptive about the subtleties—intuitive, and discerning. I don't snarl, I don't yell. I never overact. They're incredulous when they meet me. Overcome by their luck. Do you know how it feels to be that good at what you do?"
       I was sure he did.
       "Is there anything else?" he asked.
       "Well, the power. That's an incredible feeling. I feel desirable and untouchable. Like royalty—like someone men would kill and die for."
       "And the work itself? What are your feelings about that?"
       I considered this for a moment. "My feeling is, most people want to think that S&M has nothing to do with them. That it's over there, in that freaky leather bar. But S&M is everywhere I look; those dynamics are in all of us, and they pervade everything we do.
       "Sometimes, I think that the practice of S&M is the healthiest, most honest thing in the world. That the people who do it recognize the truth about themselves and aren't afraid of it. They create a safe, consensual space to work it out and don't let it wreak havoc in their real lives.
       "Other times, I think I can't do another session, can't stand one more grown man sniveling and begging and sucking on my toes. I want to kill them, or kill myself."
       Okay, Doctor. What do you make of that?
      
"You seem very deeply conflicted," Isaac said.
       Oh God. Add him to the list of people to kill.
      
"Is that the best you can do?" I asked. "I've never met anyone with such a passion for the obvious."
       The smile didn't reach his rnouth, but his eyes gave him away. "What is it you imagine I m going to do for you?" he asked.
       "You're the enlightened one, you tell me. What am I paying you for?"
       "You're the one paying," he pointed out. "What do you think you're paying for?"
       Maybe I should cut my losses. Just walk now.
      
"I can tell you what I hope you're here for," he said after an interminable silence. "I hope you want me to help you understand your conflicts. So that you can better make the decisions that will bring you the best chance for fulfillment."
       I stifled a yawn. "Did you really need med school for this?" I asked him. "I could do this. It would be a lot easier than what I'm doing now. Just to sit there and utter shrink platitudes from some very short list of acceptable shrink phrases."
       He wasn't smiling anymore. Not even his eyes. Well, he couldn't say I hadn't warned him.
       "You're thinking I'm as much of a bitch as I told you I would be," I guessed.
       "I'm thinking," he said, "that you left something out when you explained why you're drawn to your profession."
       "Is that right? And what could that be?"
       "Your rage," he answered.
       Rage. It leapt within me as if answering to its name, a wild clawing thing that had taken me through a hundred domination scenes—and how I wished this were one of them. I wished I had a whip to crack, wished he were tied down and at my mercy. I channeled all the fury in my body at him, hated him with all my strength, and he looked straight back at me with nothing in his face. Therapists must wait for such moments, to prove they will not break under anger like the camel's back, nor turn to stone as before Medusa's gaze. It was an entirely new sensation, directing all my wrath at a man who neither cowered nor cringed, who wasn't afraid, who would do nothing to appease me.
        Poor Spot. I almost pitied him. Someone was going to have to pay for this.
      
Later that afternoon I was in top form. I had demonic energy for my session with Peter, whose fetish was stiletto heels. He had given me the pair I was wearing, the black leather pumps that made me five inches taller. And I was in exactly the mood to give him what he wanted, to fuck his mouth with them as he knelt before me, naked, with his hands tied behind his back.
       I put my foot against his face, the toes pressed to the bridge of his nose, and slid all five inches of the spike heel into his mouth. In and out, in and out, hard and fast and mean. He closed his eyes, sucking in a trance of ecstasy, and looking into his rapt face I saw security for the rest of my days. Nothing in the world could keep him from this. He would travel any distance, pay any price, to be force-fed the heel of a cruel woman's shoe.
       Before the session, he'd presented me with an outfit he'd had tailor-made to my measurements. A cherry-red vinyl dress that was beautiful against my skin and clung to every curve. I wondered how I could find a pretext for wearing it the next time I saw Isaac. I wanted to make that bastard break a sweat.
        
"Am I supposed to call you Dr. Landau?" I asked during my next session. I was in jeans and a flannel shirt. I had been unable to concoct any earthly explanation of why I would be wearing the vinyl dress and besides, he had already told me what he would do if I looked too provocative.
       "Why don't we talk about what that means to you?"
       "Answer me first."
       There was enough tension in the air before he spoke to let me know he did not like being given orders.
       "You can call me whatever you want," he said evenly.
       "Good. Because I don't think of myself as your patient."
       "Oh?"
       "No. I'm your client. Okay? I consider you a peer. After all, I'm a therapist of sorts myself."
       In the silence that followed this declaration, my eyes found his shoes. They were unassuming black shoes, the leather slightly worn. Scuffed around the toes. They needed a spit-shine.
       If I tried hard, I could remember the taste of boot polish.
       "What are you thinking?" Isaac asked.
       If you only knew.
       I tried to recall what we had been talking about.
       "I'm thinking you're irritated by what I just said," I answered. "That I would call myself a therapist. Compare myself to you."
       "I'm wondering if you find it hard to imagine the idea of being a therapist and a patient at the same time," he said. "For instance, would it surprise you to learn that I myself am a patient? A patient of another psychiatrist?"
       It shouldn't have. I'm the one who always says that true mastery requires an apprenticeship of slavery. But it did, it really startled me. It was hard to imagine, him in the other chair.
       "No, I'm not surprised," I told him. "That's, like, practically a cliche by now. That shrinks are the most fucked-up people of all." And glancing at my watch, I added, "Looks like the hour's just about gone."
       I watched the time. I was always the one to announce when it was up. He might have had the power to keep me coming back. But I wasn't going to let him dismiss me.
       He probably sighed with relief each time the door closed behind my back.
       The bitch is gone for another week.
      

In Jacob's fantasy, I was a queen. In my dungeon was a very ornate metal chair I used as a throne. Spot assisted me with this scene, dragging the shackled and terrified prisoner before me where I sat in my velvet gown. A tiara left over from New Year's Eve in my hair. Struggling to stay awake.
       Jacob crawled to me slowly. "Your Majesty..."
       I planted my foot in the center of his chest and sent him sprawling with a kick. "Were you granted permission to approach the throne?"
       We would repeat this bit a few more times, varying it just slightly, before Jacob achieved his end result. Which was poignantly simple. What he wanted was to kneel between my legs, surrounding my calves with his arms, and rest his head against my inner thigh. He would hold this pose of supplication as long as I would let him. Occasionally he would cry. And sometimes, I would rest my hand on his head and stroke his fine light hair.
      
My sessions with my own clients began to affect my sessions with Isaac. My mind would start to wander as we talked. The following day, in his office, I pictured myself kneeling before his chair. Embracing his trousered legs and resting my head just above his knee.
       "I've started looking at my clients more clinically," I told him. "Trying to imagine what went wrong."
       He smiled. His whole face changed when he smiled. The stern angles melted and he became beautiful.
       "And what conclusions have you come to?" he asked.
       He had begun to take notes during our sessions. I watched him write on his yellow legal tablet. He had beautiful hands too.
       "Oh, they're all so different. It would be impossible to generalize."
       His shirtsleeves were rolled to just above the elbow. And his arms. I'd always thought of them as thin, but now I saw that no, they weren't thin exactly, they were sinewy.
       "And what about with you? Did something go wrong for you?" And something inside me flared up again, without warning. "What do you think, Doctor? Do you think I'd be a professional sadist if nothing had gone wrong? Why do you play so fucking dumb all the time?"
       I bet he'd love to wash my mouth out with soap...
      
"What do you think went wrong?"
       "I think it's your job to figure that out."
       ...put me over his knee...
      
"It's not a job I can do alone," he said. "In fact, you're going to be the only one who will really have any answers."
       ...and sometimes I wish he would.
        

"You're lying," I said to Philip.
       "No, ma' am," he whimpered.
       "Do you think I can't tell? You're only making it worse for yourself."
       We were at the table. He was stripped down to his underwear and handcuffed to a chair. I turned the desk lamp so that it shone directly into his eyes. I'd turned the heat way up, which would leave the apartment sweltering for hours after he left. Philip liked to sweat.
       The lengths I would go to. Even now, when I was so burnt out. But then again, he was one of my highest-paying clients. And this was his standard scene: interrogation, torture, confession.
       "I gave you very specific instructions a week ago," I said, "about what you weren't allowed to do." I paused to get up and walk over to his chair. He was trembling, sweating bullets. "But you couldn't resist, could you? You jerked yourself off against my orders—and if I'm not mistaken, just by looking at you, not only once or twice, but every single day. Maybe even twice a day. Didn't you? Answer me!"
       "No, ma' am!" he pleaded.
       I slapped him across the face as hard as I could, followed immediately by a backhand blow. It was an immensely satisfying moment. He cried out. Looking down, I saw the erection straining against his waistband
       "Do you really think you can get away with lying to me? I know what you do. I know all about you! But the worst offense you committed this week, Philip," I continued, "was thinking of me while you did it. Do you know how sick it makes me, knowing that I'm on your filthy mind while you indulge in this sordid habit?"
       Always, the hardest part of this was keeping a straight face.
       "I'm sorry." His voice cracked. "I won't do it again, I promise.
       "That's what you say every week, you pathetic fucking scumbag. What do I have to do to you?"
       "I can't help it," he sobbed.
       "Yes, Philip, you do seem beyond help. But that doesn't mean I can't keep trying to beat it into you."
       I uncuffed him from the chair and, pulling him up by the hair, bent him over the table. He begged for mercy as I selected a paddle, came up behind him, and jerked his underwear down. It always went like this. I would start out hitting him lightly, then increase the force of the blows until I was blistering him pretty well. I would beat him until he came, then resume the verbal abuse.
       "You fucking maggot, did I give you permission to come? To shoot your repulsive wad all over my table?" And seizing the back of his neck, I'd force him to lick the surface clean. "That's right, you bastard, lick it up. Yeah, you better get it all. ... If I find so much as a drop left... How many girls have you forced to swallow your scum? Next time you're tempted to believe it's God's gift to the female species, I want you to remember this."
      
Isaac's interrogation was gentler. He asked me about everything. My mother, my father, my sisters and brothers. Teachers and counselors, caretakers, lovers. And I told him everything. Almost.
       It reminded me of being six years old, in the office of our family pediatrician, who tested my reflexes by tapping all around my knee with his rubber mallet. To see from where the involuntary kick would come.
       But there was nothing involuntary about my responses with Isaac. I revealed what I wanted to reveal. I especially liked giving him the details of my clients. Unburdening myself of everyone else's secrets. I entertained him with my domination stories, served them up for his amusement.
       He would only let this go so far. "Those are their fantasies," he said. "I want to hear your fantasies."
       I was less forthcoming with these.
       "For instance, what are your fantasies about me?" he asked. Did he think he was going to get them that easily?
       I had many.
       I fantasized that I was his favorite patient. That he scheduled me for seven on Saturday evenings because that hour marked the end of his analytic week and he was saving the best for last. That he then ran home, all fired up, and fucked his wife on the kitchen table while their rice burned on the stove. I didn't mind him fucking his wife as long as I had something to do with it.
       I fantasized that he could see me as I dominated my clientele. He watched from the wings as I held them in thrall. He had more privileges than even Spot; he was there for every scene. I looked over at him and winked.
       I fantasized about lying on the couch. He had explained that it wasn't for me; it was for psychoanalysis, not psychotherapy. I argued that it should be for any psycho who wanted it and he laughed but did not invite me to lay my body down. The truth was, I was tired. I wanted to surrender to its gray safety, rest my head. Close my eyes.
       Oh, Isaac. Take me in your arms. Cradle me against your chest. Croon to me until I fall asleep. I fantasized that one day he would reach for me, hold me like his own baby, and never put me down.
       But he had no way to force these fantasies from me. He wasn't going to put me under the lights, turn up the heat, take off his belt, and work me over. So I didn't relate many of them. Instead, I gave him facts.
       "You'll be glad to know I've decided not to take on any new clients," I told him. "I've withdrawn my ads from the underground directories. From now on, I'm only seeing the clientele I already have."
       "I'll be glad?" Isaac asked.
       "Well. I imagined it would please you.
       He tilted his head and regarded me. "Must you please me?" he asked gently.
       The question rattled me. The presumption of it. Half a dozen sarcastic answers sprang to my lips, but for once I checked them, and thought before I spoke.
       "Yes," I said finally.
       My answer pleased him. In spite of himself, his face lit up.
        
I was as good as my word. I pared down my clientele, seeing only about fifteen different men with whom I had established a considerable history.
       Alan was one of these men, and in fact, I saw no reason to ever give him up. His craving was for sensory deprivation and he was by far my easiest client. He was the head of a multimillion-dollar corporation, and the three-hour lunches he took on Fridays were questioned by no one. All I had to do was supervise his transformation from corporate executive into latex-swathed mummy and secure him to my padded restraint table. There he lay for a full ninety minutes, in an interlude without time or space, in silent, sightless suspension. His entire head was covered along with his body. The only opening was a thin black tube inserted between his lips, through which he could take in air.
       As the overseer of this strange ritual, my only responsibility was to make sure he was breathing. Next to Spot, Alan was my favorite submissive. He was sweet and polite, appreciative, had a certain dignity.
       "What's it about, Alan?" I asked him. I was always curious, about all of them. "Is it just wanting to check out once in a while?"
       "No, no," he said. "It's deeper than that. It's the deepest thing you can imagine. Beneath the ocean floor, the other side of a black hole. I could never convey it to you in words."
       Once, as I was wrapping him up, I heard him sigh something under his breath. Eyes, ears, and nose had already disappeared, and I leaned down to catch the words escaping what was left of his mouth.
       Erase me," he whispered.
      
After several months of questions and answers, intimate disclosures, warmth and flirtation, Isaac suddenly pulled back. I came in one evening and he didn't speak to me.
       "Hi," I offered.
       He nodded briefly, held his peace.
       "How are you?" I tried again.
       "Good."
       He was waiting for me to talk, as he had in the first session. But as on that day, it was hard for me to just start by myself. I said something about that morning's client, mentioned that my landord was raising the rent. I rattled on for about five minutes before my voice became unbearable.
       I thought maybe he was angry, though he didn't seem to be. He was looking at me as attentively as ever. But he offered nothing of himself. No assistance.
       "Why are you so quiet?" I asked.
       "Do I seem quiet?"
       "You're not talking to me."
       "What am I doing, then?"
       "Come on. I mean, you're talking when you absolutely have to. But it's not the same as it usually is."
       "That's true," he said. "And I'll tell you why. I think that the interactive therapy you prefer takes the focus off you and shifts a good deal of it onto me. And I think it's important at this point to intensify our focus on you.
       Could he be serious? And did he mean to keep it this way for all time?
       "But I hate it," I protested.
       "I know it's not as comfortable for you. But I think it will ultimately be more useful."
       I couldn't believe it. Couldn't bear it. "Well, why have you just arrived at this decision now?"
       "Because now you can take it," he said.
       It reminded me of the catchphrase used by so many dominants: "limits respected and expanded." To me it was a diabolical phrase of pure doublespeak: I'll respect the fact that your threshold only approaches A, while taking you on to B, C, and D.
       But he held his position. It was a permanent measure. It was like a shade being pulled down over a window, and everything exciting about the sessions evaporated. The electricity was gone, the texture flattened. Only my monologues filled the stillness.
       I had been punished with silence before. But that didn't make it easier. My throat started to hurt when I arrived in his office, and it continued to ache for hours after I'd gone home. I began to resent traveling all the way there from my neighborhood, only to return without feeling that I had ever truly arrived. If he didn't fully respond to me, I found it hard to believe that I was even really there.
       Listen, I wanted to tell him. You're wrong—I can't take this. Only the fiercest pride kept me from saying it. I held my own silence.
        
I saw Peter in Taylor's Bakery. It was my day off, and I was exhausted. I was in thermals and a pair of those black slippers you can get in Chinatown for two dollars. My hair was tied in a knot, loose ends straggling out. No makeup. No nothing. He looked over at me and his jaw dropped.
       Oh no, I thought. I was used to not acknowledging clients outside. Most of them kept me a well-guarded secret. But Peter wasn't with anyone.
       "You—" he sputtered.
       I waited.
       "I—I didn't recognize you!"
       Well, this isn't my most glamorous hour.
       "And you—I thought you were taller!"
       Five inch heels tend to create that impression
       "My God," he concluded, in a kind of daze. "I guess-I guess I didn't think you were real."
       I could feel his agony. He was more than disappointed; he was crushed. So I gave him what I knew he wanted more than anything. I gave his fantasy back to him.
       "Have we met?" I asked. I gazed up at him, looking sweet and bewildered, and spoke in a warm tone he had never heard.
       He gaped at me. "Aren't you—?"
       "I don't believe I know you. I'm sure I've never seen you before. Perhaps you have me confused with someone else?"
       He took it. It didn't matter that it was preposterous. He needed it and he took it, and his relief was palpable.
       "I'm so sorry, miss. The resemblance is remarkable. But now I realize I was mistaken."
      
This encounter inspired an experiment. Before my next session with Isaac, I sat on the steps of the brownstone across the street from his office. Waiting for him.
       I had never seen him on the street. Never seen him anywhere but across a three-foot space in his office. His office, his turf, which he presided over like the only adult at a children's party. Where a game of musical chairs never ended.
       But there he was, at the end of the block. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and knew it was him without having to turn my head. He was walking quickly, bundled into an old coat. He looked small inside it, like an old gray mouse. It was touching and terrible at the same time. What was incredible was his innocence, the idea that I could sit there at my vantage point and watch, like God, as he moved innocently down the street.
       I felt that. And yet, at the very same time, I thought: He must know I'm sitting here. He's pretending not to know. In another second, he'll look over and drill me with his all-seeing gaze.
       I toyed with both premises until the moment he unlocked the door and let himself in without glancing my way. And then I knew he'd been clueless. He wasn't omniscient. He wasn't larger than life. And he would never help me pretend it hadn't been him.
      
 A few days later, during one of my sessions, a client named Cyril pressed his naked erection against my leg. And for the first time in my career, I snapped. In my scenes, my rule was no contact with genitalia. Absolutely no skin contact. If I jerked someone off, which was very occasional, he wore a condom and paid a hundred dollars extra. At this violation, I leapt away from him and let out a scream.
       Spot appeared instantly at the door of the dungeon. "Mistress! What is it?"
       "I want him out!" I shrieked.
       Spot needed no information. He immediately advanced on Cyril, who backed away, shouting, "What the fuck!" I did not understand the extremity of my own reaction, but there it was. I was trembling with rage.
       Spot wrapped one powerful arm around the naked man's windpipe. He didn't know what Cyril had done. He didn't need to know. He understood that I had been badly upset.
       "Let me hurt him, Mistress," he begged.
       I was tempted. I wavered. I stood there actually considering it, not thinking clearly.
       "Look, I'm sorry!" Cyril panted. "I didn't mean anything!"
       "Mistress, please let me hurt him."
       I knew I couldn't allow that. But I could punish him. Really punish him; my way, not his. "Put him on the wheel," I told Spot.
       Spot dragged him to the floor-to-ceiling torture wheel that he himself had built for me. It's a very specific torture, spinning on that wheel. The people who don't love it usually can't tolerate it.
       "What—what the hell are you doing?" Cyril protested. "Is this supposed to be part of the scene? I never asked for this!"
       "Shut the fuck up," Spot said. He slapped my client onto the center of the wheel, secured each of his limbs to the restraints, and set it to spinning with all his strength. Cyril began to howl.
       I couldn't think with that noise. I had to leave the room. Spot followed and stood at a respectful distance while I tried to regain my composure. He kept his head down, chafing, clearly distressed. But he was too well trained to ask any questions.
       What was I doing? This was insane. I breathed deeply and made myself count to ten. Cyril wasn't going to bring this into court, but that didn't mean it was all right. It was nonconsensual; it was wrong.
       "Spot, take him down and just get him out of here," I said. Which, come to think of it, was probably the worst thing I could do to him.
      
I had barely gone over these events with Isaac when he said, "Okay. I'd like to talk about that some more next week."
       "Next week? What do you mean?"
       "I mean, I'm afraid your hour's up."
       It was impossible. My eyes shot to the clock. It read 7:30, and I had arrived at 7:00. What was he saying? I felt disoriented suddenly, dizzy and sick. He was telling me to go.
       "I'll see you next Saturday," he said.
       Even in my confusion, I knew I was going to cry. I bent to gather my belongings, kept my head down while it clogged with tears. I let my hair hang in front of my face, hiding it.
       Still bent over awkwardly, I pulled on my coat.
       "Vanessa."
       I couldn't look up, couldn't answer.
       "Vanessa, would you really sacrifice a full fifteen minutes of your rightful time—the time you pay for—rather than protest to me?"
       It was almost a minute before his words made sense. Another before I could speak. "You bastard."
       "I don't blame you for being angry," he said. "That was a low-down trick on my part."
       I stood up. Tears ran down my face.
       "Vanessa, please don't go."
       "What?" I choked out. "What did you just say?"
       I needed to hear it again. Needed him to beg, or come as close to it as he ever would. And he gave it to me. It was the least he could do. "I said please don't go."
       I dropped back into my seat and covered my face with my hands.
       "You're what we in the profession call well defended," he told me. "I felt I had to try some guerrilla tactics."
       He could've left me dangling upside down.
       "I had to make sure," he said.
       "Make sure of what?"
       "That one of your most important issues is dismissal."
       I heard myself whimper.
       "Vanessa, who else dismissed you?"
       How much time was left? Ten minutes? He was going to open this wound and then I'd be turned out onto the street, bleeding mortally. Again.
       "We have time," he said. Another lie. There wasn't enough time to tell him, not even to start to tell him. I wouldn't know how to start.
       "Who was it, Vanessa?"
       His name? No, I couldn't say his name, couldn't even think his name....
       "What happened?"
       He dismissed me from his service with no explanation. My own master. Mine.
       "Tell me about it, Vanessa."
       And I didn't contest it. I considered it a point of honor not to contest even that final command. My last service to him was to go away without a word. But I broke the way mercury breaks. Into a thousand shining self-contained pieces, irreconcilable and dangerous.
      
And I said: Never again. And I crossed the road. Just to get to the other side. Like in the joke.
      
"You're going to have to tell me," said Dr. Landau.
       And if I didn't finally know better, I would've thought that was an order.

1995 Elissa Wald

Author bio | Spanish translation

"Therapy" was first published in Meeting the Master (stories about mastery, slavery, and the darker side of desire) by Elissa Wald, published by Grove Press, 1995. Book ordering: Amazon and Internet Bookshop

This electronic version of "Therapy" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author and Grove/Atlantic.


This excerpt may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

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