A dominatrix moves to the country

I was sure my quaint new town would shun a tattooed lesbian with a shady past. But maybe I was the one judging them

Published September 14, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

When we pulled up behind the moving truck in front of our new home in Clinton, N.Y., my girlfriend and I looked at each other and grinned. May sunshine bathed the little house in radiance and stretched down the street, lined with thick-trunked trees and well-groomed lawns. I jumped out of the car and led our 70-pound pit bull out of his nest in the back seat. For a moment, Red stood dazed in the brilliant light, ears lopsided, watching a bumblebee hover over the overgrown lawn. He tilted his head toward the ground and collapsed onto the grass, flinging his legs into the air and rolling with glorious abandon.

Next door, our neighbor weeded her garden.

"Hi there!" I called out, peering around a tree.

"Hi!" she called back, pulling off her gardening gloves. "I'm Patti."

Patti introduced herself as a college professor and area native. I told her I'd recently accepted a full-time position at a nearby college and (a bit more nervously) that my girlfriend and I recently moved from Brooklyn. I didn't tell her that before joining the professorial ranks, I'd been a professional dominatrix and drug addict, or that I'd recently published a memoir about my days of spanking and shooting heroin. It unnerved me in that moment how much my recent success felt like something to hide. It just seemed impolite to mention.

But I was accustomed to hiding. In my early 20s, I juggled the life of a heroin-addicted dominatrix with that of a successful college student. It almost killed me, so good was I at keeping that secret, at maintaining my manners and appearance. For my first three years of teaching college, I covered up my tattoos for my students. I had been dating someone for three years, but in the months leading up to my book's publication, I never even told his parents what it was about. Concealing parts of me that might upset other people was a way of life.

But the year before I moved upstate marked an end to all that. The book came out, exposing me completely. I broke up with my girlfriend. I stopped wearing long sleeves to class in the middle of summer. And I fell in love with someone who gently reminded me that I had nothing to hide. It was the most terrifying and liberating year of my life. After five minutes in the country, however, I remembered how much easier it is being the person you think other people want you to be.

Later that day, I strode across the street to meet another neighbor gardening. She introduced herself as Barb.

"Where did you move from?" Barb asked without smiling.

"Brooklyn," I said. "My partner, Sini, and I, and our dog, Red." Through the picture window we could see Sini moving boxes and Red peering out with a worried look. Barb's gaze traveled from the window to my battered Converse and cut-off shorts to my illustrated forearms. I felt a wave of anxiety, and wished I were wearing long sleeves.

"Oh," she said. "The city."

That night, I lay in bed listening to the crickets outside the open window. No sirens, no yelling, no car alarms, no footsteps on the floor above. The breeze drifting in the open window was sweet, but it took me a long time to fall asleep.

- - - - - - - - - -

I didn't want to become one of those people who never left New York, and never stopped whining about it: the cost, the filth, the lack of space, the people. I didn't want to become one of those artists who never finished anything because they were too exhausted by making ends meet. And the life of an adjunct professor was turning me into one of those people.

My new dean had described the area around the college as a "red county in a blue state," but it hadn't really sunk in until we were driving through it looking for a home. In some of these towns, I didn't want to get out of the car to pump gas. The people looked angry, they drove pickups and smoked menthol cigarettes, and I spotted a Confederate flag flapping from one porch. We looked like we didn't belong there. We looked unmistakably gay. It was difficult not to judge people based on superficial things, even as I was afraid of being judged myself. In fear, I resort to assumptions and narrow categorizations too easily. I think we all do.

It was with an equally unmistakable pang of liberal, middle-class guilt that I acknowledged how much more at ease I felt when we rolled through Clinton. My girlfriend grew up poor, and so feels less shame in her bourgeois tastes. Clinton is "quaint." It has bed and breakfasts, a health food store, a population of under 2,000, and the highest median income of the surrounding towns. It is the Park Slope of our county, minus any people of color, and minus the lesbians. Well, up until now.

We were pleased to find a large gluten-free selection in the supermarket, and plenty of almond milk. But I started to feel the subtle double takes people made in the dairy aisle. They weren't unfriendly, but a little surprised, and perhaps a bit embarrassed. I was not embarrassed, but something else. Something I hadn't felt in a long time.

In the city it isn't notable to look gay. To say that our culture is post-homophobia is as ridiculous and infuriating as claiming that we are post-racism, or post-sexism, but I have lived in New York City for all of my adult life, and there are simply so many of us, so close together, that tolerance is a natural result of exposure. No one gawks at anything, certainly not a couple of tattooed lesbians. Less so in Clinton.

On the way home, Sini and I saw a middle-aged man and woman strolling across the village green. "Can we hold hands here?" she asked.

"I think it's safe," I finally answered, my tone hopeful.

"Yeah, but do we really want to?"

When I imagined living in the country, I saw the two of us in Adirondack chairs, grilling summer squash in the glow of tiki lights. But there was work to be done. We needed to build a fence in the backyard for Red, to prevent our friendly but aggressive dog from wreaking any havoc on the tranquil neighborhood, and I was eager to start our compost pile. So I went to Home Depot alone. People still stared, but only because I was virtually the only woman in sight, and certainly the only one cruising paint buckets in three-inch wedges and mascara. I made a mental note to save my heels for the city, where I wouldn't feel so much like an off-duty stripper. When the fourth employee in an orange apron asked me if I needed help, I squirmed at the snarl of feelings the attention provoked -- the simultaneous urge to preen and to run away. I remembered feeling that way in my small Massachusetts hometown, during the one year I went to high school, where I was the only self-proclaimed feminist and queer.

Later that week, our dryer was leaking gas, so I called a local plumber, which turned out to be two men with the same name.

"We tried replacing the tubes," I said, leading them to the basement door. "But it's still not working." They were friendly, but I found myself faintly hoping Sini wouldn't emerge from her office. Being stared at in the supermarket was one thing, but having to witness that moment of recognition in our own house felt too exposed, too vulnerable. That snarl of contradictory feelings emerged again: protective and defiant at the same time. I wanted to spare Sini any discomfort, any regret in moving here for me, but I knew the answer was not to let people assume that the "we" I referred to included a husband somewhere out of sight. In the following days, we were visited by the cable technician, a fence estimator, and the plumbers a second time. Every time, I felt torn between wanting to be understood, and not wanting to be judged.

Still, we became more comfortable -- people here were all friendly, and if they objected to our gayness, they didn't say. In the city, strangers on the subway reached out to touch my tattoos and tell me about their own. Here, it was a different kind of friendliness. People were polite, for which I was grateful, but also unnerved. One day, I was shelving books in the living room and a man rode by on a bicycle outside. I recognized him by face but not name. He looked right into the window and waved. Shocked, I fought the urge to hit the floor and army crawl out of sight. Privacy, like friendliness, was different in the country.

- - - - - - - - - -

In mid-June, I drove Sini to the city to work for a few weeks on the documentary she's directing. As I crossed the George Washington, and sped down the FDR, I felt strangely heartbreaky. Seeing the East River beside us, so gorgeous and contaminated, was like bumping into an ex you're still in love with. The city wasn't mine anymore, and it hurt to see it looking so beautiful and so familiar. Driving down Second Avenue, we saw the usuals: skater kids and college students, queers and models and junkies. My heart hurt more and more.

To distract myself from my growing anxiety, I began obsessing over the fence. I pulled over on country roads to inspect strangers' pickets, their welded wire and split-rails. I Googled, and watched YouTube videos illustrating the proper operation of post-hole diggers, and post-drivers. I convinced my generous and handy younger brother to drive out from Western Mass. to help me build it.

A few days before he arrived, I drove to the town center and took a stroll around the tables, reusable shopping bag dangling from my arm. I watched locals chatting over handmade crafts and jams, kids racing around their legs, and I felt such a powerful surge of loneliness that it almost knocked me over. I fled back to my car, and drove up and down the rolling hills outside of town, smelling the lush twilit perfume of summer, the smell of my childhood, and wept. All of it: the beauty, the tears, the chirrup of crickets, even my own sadness was reminiscent of some past self. Change does that, brings back younger selves. The uncertainty of moving forward jostles the sleeping lions of childhood fears: that I am alone, that I am not seen, or seen wrongly. That I have made some terrible mistake. That the loneliness will last forever.

I'd felt this way before, and I knew to fight the instinct to isolate. So I invited our neighbor Patti over for dinner. I was nervous, chopping garlic and washing vegetables, and at first it was awkward, as I'd feared. But Patti was funny and humble and kind, and we bonded over our mutual love of Middle Eastern food and Apple computers.

"This place is more interesting than it seems on the surface," she told me, and I wondered if she could sense my trepidation. "I make a pretty mean baba ghanoush," she added. "I'll save you some next time.

As I walked her out, she paused by the refrigerator.

"Is this the cover of your book?" she asked. Indeed it was, an early copy of the paperback cover, magnetized to the fridge.

"Um, yeah," I said. I took a deep breath. "Why don't I give you a copy?"

I regretted it almost immediately, and worried about it all the next day, as my brother and I struggled and failed to build a fence. Had I ruined the only alliance I had in town? What if she never spoke to me again? Feeling like I was just in the way with the fence, I grabbed a rake and decided to do something about the mess of grass clippings in the front yard. My jeans kept sliding down, and my T-shirt kept riding up, but I persisted until the yard was covered in neat green piles. Sweaty and rumpled, I shoved them all into a single giant trash bag to lug to the compost pile.

"Nice work, Melissa!" said Barb as she stepped back into her house. My heart whirred with nervous pleasure.

That night I sat alone in my home office and watched the live Senate hearing on gay marriage. As it passed, 33 to 29, a cheer rose up in the hushed Senate chamber, but our neighborhood was dark and silent. I imagined the celebration on the city streets, remembering the glee I'd shared when Obama was elected. I picked up the phone.

"The gay marriage bill just passed," I told Sini, wiping my nose with my sweat-shirt sleeve.

"That's amazing!" she said. "Why do you sound so upset?"

"What if we did the wrong thing?" I asked, and felt something crack in me. I'd wanted to say that for so long. "I'm so afraid I dragged us up here, so far away from our people ..." I deteriorated into sobs.

"You're just scared," she said. "Change is scary, but it doesn't mean it's wrong. You can be scared, and be changed. There's enough room for all of it."

The next day, as my brother and I came back from our last trip to the hardware store, Patti came running across her lawn, holding a Tupperware container. I pulled over and rolled down the window.

"Baba ghanoush!" she said. "I made it yesterday."

"Thank you so much," I said, accepting the Tupperware.

"I read your book," she said.

"You did?" My palms were sweaty. I fought to maintain eye contact.

"I loved it," she said. "Will you stop by and sign it for me later?"

All I could do was nod.

- - - - - - - - - -

My brother finished the fence that afternoon. Excited, I led Red out the back door, and unclipped his leash.

"You're free!" I said, waiting for him to race around, commencing his freedom. Instead, he just lumbered to a sunny patch of grass a few yards away, and rolled onto his side, happily panting. I had to laugh. Sometimes, it's enough just to know that we're safe. We don't necessarily have to do anything differently, or be anyone but who we've always been.

People who don't love the city talk about the freedom of the country and its wide open spaces; they marvel at how one could live in so cramped and crowded a space. But I always felt free in Brooklyn. I found safety in its enclosures. The city let me relax into being myself. Being who I am in New York doesn't feel like an action I take -- it just feels like living.

But I am free here, too. It is beautiful, and it is safe, and it feeds me in a way I think I need. I'm starting to breathe a little deeper. And I don't have to hide myself. I've come to recognize that pressure as an internal one, mostly. In fact, being visible here means something. It's more important to be honest when it's difficult, and visibility is a kind of honesty. When you underestimate other people and their ability to see, you impose limits on your own experience of the world. Being here, for however long I am, may not be the easier life we fantasize about when the city wears us down, but I have a feeling it will make me a better person. I suspect that it already has.

By Melissa Febos

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, "Whip Smart." Follow her on Twitter at @melissafebos.

MORE FROM Melissa Febos

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Lgbt Life Stories Love And Sex