My boyfriend, John, and I were having dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant when he brought up Valentine’s Day plans. “We should go see ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,'” he suggested. John was ravenous for the books. Like millions of others, he found them arousing, though the only thing they aroused in me was confusion.
“How can you be so turned on when the writing is so bad?” I wondered. I didn’t love the movie idea, but it seemed better than an overpriced dinner or some other forced romantic gesture, so I agreed. “We’ll see a hot naked guy, hear some Beyoncé and have a few laughs—how bad can it be?” I joked. John wasn’t amused. He looked at me with disgust, like I’d just murdered his dog.
“Forget it. I’ll go with someone else,” he snapped.
A cold, awkward silence sat between us. John pulled out his phone. I poured another glass of wine.
“Are you mad about the movie?” I asked.
“Mark, I met someone else,” he confessed. “I’m sorry, but he’s a lot more adventurous.”
“Like a mountain climber or something?”
“In bed,” John continued. “You’re just too vanilla.”
John called for our waiter; I poured the last of the Montepulciano and thought: Shit, I’m single again, a lousy lover and, worse yet, I’ve now lost my appetite for gelato. I needed something to take my mind off John, so I cruised men on Grindr. Despite the number of hot, headless torsos looking for a hookup, I was too self-conscious. I wanted to hate John for making me feel this way, but he was right: I’m really boring in the bedroom.
A 37-year-old gay man who has lived in New York City for nearly years 20 years, I should have volumes of sex stories that would put “Fifty Shades of Grey” to shame, but I’m so boring that I’ll only have sex in a bed, with the lights off and my eyes closed, and I won’t have intercourse without a condom, even with long-term boyfriends. At times, I feel like I’m the only person looking for monogamy.
John, on the other hand, was willing to try it all, which I didn’t expect from a 52-year-old tax attorney from rural Virginia. When we first met, eight months ago at an NYU alumni dinner, John was in a three-way relationship. “We’re looking for a fourth, if you’re interested,” he said, and I was both flattered and uncomfortable.
“That’s not really my thing,” I replied.
“That’s OK,” continued John. “Maybe I’ll just keep you for myself.”
I didn’t take him seriously, but I agreed to meet for coffee, which turned into dinner and drinks. I was drawn to John—he was successful and sexy, like Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman”—and I wanted to sleep with him right away, but I was preoccupied with the other men he was screwing. We kept seeing one another, casually, and then John broke up with his other boyfriends. “I can’t explain it, but you’re the only one for me right now,” he told me. Now, I really wanted to have sex with him. I was incredibly nervous, but John made me feel both safe and sexy. Though we both enjoyed the experience, I worried that John would soon tire of my habits and insecurities and I tried to change them. Yet, when he suggested something outside of my comfort zone—such as bondage or water sports—my face turned red, my body tensed up, and I chickened out. John said he understood, but I felt deflated and depressed. Three months into our relationship, I saw a sex therapist who said, “You have serious repressed guilt and trust issues, and always feel the need to get your way."
“Well, I’m a gay Irish-Catholic from the Bronx, and the youngest of four. What do you expect?” I asked.
I understood why John wanted to move on, but I wasn’t ready. I got stuck on the word "vanilla." It made me feel like a prude, and I imagined myself as a 1950s housewife who could only sleep with her husband once a month while wearing a frumpy nightgown and reading a magazine. Surely, I wasn’t that much of a cold fish.
“Was our sex life bad?” I asked an ex-boyfriend.
“A little,” he said. “I mean, we had fun, but you always seemed uncomfortable.”
Now I felt even worse. I needed to prove to John and everyone else that I could lose my inhibitions and be kinky, too. My journey began with an online fetish test. It seemed harmless enough to do at work, until a Dominatrix appeared on my monitor and asked how I felt about getting spanked while wearing nipple clamps. My shrieks of “Ouch,” and “No way” quickly drew the attention of a nearby co-worker.
“What are you doing over there?” she asked.
“Just one of those dumb Internet quizzes.”
“Oh, is it the ‘Friends’ one? I got Rachel!”
I turned to a chat room, where I foolishly announced myself as a newbie willing to try it all. My inbox blew up with invitations to be fisted, whipped and turned into a human ashtray. One guy wanted me to pop balloons while he masturbated. It was too much for me, and I decided to end my mission—until I received an offer to attend a “classy gathering” for feet enthusiasts.
I wasn't a foot man, but a group event alleviated the pressure of a one-on-one situation and allowed more freedom to explore on my own terms. I walked into a generic Upper East Side apartment, which looked better suited for a dentist’s office than a kink party, and was greeted by Patricia, a geriatric drag queen who asked for $10 and informed me of the rules: No sex. No nudity. No sucking anything but toes.
"What about fingers?" I asked, and got an elongated, “Huh?” in return.
“Any more questions?” she asked, not the least bit interested.
"Do I leave my sneakers with you?”
She scowled and pointed toward a pile of shoes by the front door, but I was worried someone would steal mine. They weren’t expensive, just a pair of old Nikes, but I wasn’t wearing socks and the thought of my feet coming into contact with a sidewalk made me queasy.
“Are you coming in or not?” asked Patricia.
With a sudden rush of adrenaline, I ripped off my cross trainers with the intensity of a stripper and headed into the party. I made it as far as the kitchen, where I became best friends with the pretzel bowl and watched everyone else have a good time. There was no inhibition: one guy rubbed another’s foot in his crotch and moaned with delight, while others tickled one another’s toes, which reminded me of playing “This Little Piggy” with my mom when I was a kid in the Bronx -- one of her tricks to get me to sleep when loud music and screaming teenagers filled the nights of East 238th Street. Then, I thought, "I'm thinking about my mother at a foot-fetish party, is it any wonder I’m standing in the corner alone?” Soon, however, I was approached by a tall, husky guy with a big beard and flannel shirt.
“You have little feet,” he whispered.
“Thanks, Paul Bunyan,” I replied, then quickly apologized for my flippant attitude.
“It’s OK. I get that a lot”
“Sorry. But if it’s any consolation, I think lumberjacks are hot.”
“Lumberjack? I work at Starbucks. Anyway, I’m Brian, you interested in a massage?”
Sensing my hesitation, he took my hand and rubbed it gently, his grip much softer than I expected from someone his size. He led me to a dimly lit corner, got on his knees, and rubbed my toes using his fingers and tongue. It actually felt kind of nice, and I closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the experience, but I couldn’t relax. I was too concerned with someone stealing my shoes.
I found my sneakers and went home defeated. Later that night, I got a text from John. “Friend of mine said he saw you at a foot party,” he wrote. “Told him no way it was you.” I was so tempted to craft an angry response and make John eat his words, but what was the point? Maybe we’d talk about my experiences, and perhaps he’d take back what he called me, but would that really change who I was? I deleted his message, then went back to that Italian restaurant and ate a ton of gelato by myself. Vanilla never tasted so good.