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Talking with Z Wasn’t Unpleasant photo

The final weekend of January I boarded a plane to Seattle to see, for the first time, a man I had met on a kink website. Or, as I had considered multiple times over the last two months during which we had maintained our correspondence, perhaps I was on a plane to Seattle to be kidnapped or murdered or meet some other horrible fate.

I couldn’t sleep. It was a full flight, and I had a middle seat. I sat straight up, watching the plane’s tiny rendering blip slowly across the U.S. on the screen in front of me. I used the free Wi-Fi to message my boyfriend: 3 more hours to go! I was flying to Seattle under the guise of seeing family—not a lie, really, as I
was going to see family while visiting. I reassured myself: all truths are incomplete.

Once in Seattle, I took the train to his neighborhood. I knew already he was well-off, but having known few rich single men in their thirties I had no clue what form that wealth took. I found out quickly: the sleek, black convertible, window-filled house with its views of the snow-drenched Cascades, every room containing the most advanced home technology. We hugged uncomfortably on the sidewalk. How do you greet someone who you know all about—including the ins and outs of their sexual preferences—but have never actually met? I needed
The Pocket Guide to Carrying on a Secret Correspondence with a Wealthy Stranger from the Internet for Months Before Flying Across the Country to Stay with Him.

The communication with kinky-internet-man—Z—began in a rush of imagination. I’ll make an account on this site and just talk with people. It’ll help me know myself better! I bequeathed myself a knew name, wrote a simple, fluid history. I chatted. Unsurprisingly, it mostly sucked; who could have imagined that messaging anonymous men from the internet vaguely about sex would be mostly unpleasant? But talking with Z wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it was wonderful. I tried to stick to my invented story, but as the weeks wore on it became more difficult. Slowly, I unraveled the messy parchment of my life: I’m in a long term committed relationship, but there’s a lot going on. No, he doesn’t know about you, or this part of me. I don’t know what I’m doing either. I’m not sure if we are going to stay together—things have been rocky—I think I want to, but it’s complicated. I love talking with you. After a month, I booked my plane ticket. I almost immediately canceled the booking in a panic—did I actually think I was going to fly to the other side of the country to meet this guy? I booked it a second time and didn’t cancel.

His house was tall and thin—room stacked on top of room, four high. During the days, we worked separately, and so on separate floors, though the open stairway provided little privacy. I listened to the rhythm of his voice and committed it to memory.
Hey Juliette, I just wanted to check in with you… Z, in turn, listened back, texting me from upstairs when he could hear the slight annoyance slip into my tone. Damn, Susan really needs to get her shit together. I grinned foolishly on my video calls, covering my mouth in shame-tinged joy.

In the evenings we walked the length of the city. We ate at restaurants I couldn’t afford, savoring spiced spareribs, mushroom dumplings, pastries that left butter smears on my jacket. We walked home eating ice cream, our hands freezing. Once, I looped my arm through his. Perhaps it was under some pretext—walking too fast, trying to stay together in a crowded length of sidewalk—but I knew the touch for what it was. Back home—
home an accident of language that felt too easy—we settled deep into the couch to play video games, our limbs carelessly interlocked. I lost relentlessly, my character flung from the track or throwing up its pixelated hands in defeat. I could hardly keep my eyes on the screen; every sense was turned toward my skin, toward touch. It was cruel and lovely, this rehearsal of a life that wasn’t ours. When he descended the many stairs to his bedroom, I was left to watch myself cautiously in the window’s reflection, mouthing you are not a bad person.

In Seattle, everything and nothing happened. There was no sex, regardless of what either of us may or may not have wanted. We did not kiss. I am not sure I ever even touched his face. Still, I seeded an even greater, riskier intimacy: I was honest. For the first time, I was honest about what I wanted. We are, mostly, choice and desire. As a believer in discipline, I thought I could control both. If I acted as though I didn’t want something, then I didn’t want it. Discipline meant doing what you know you should do, even when you don’t want to; anything else is indulgence. As Margaret Atwood writes, “To want is to have a weakness.”

So much of being grown is being wrong. How do I learn the disciple
to desire? To welcome the people I love into my well-kept room of wants? It was so easy to share everything with this almost-stranger—our relationship premised on shared inclinations—but felt impossible to do the same with my partner of five good years. Unwatched, small deceptions take to seed, sprout and grow tall. I had cultivated a small, but flourishing forest. I cried quietly on the train back to the airport. I imagined myself as the crying girl on the train—a girl who has, by necessity, secrets—within the lives of the other passengers, which made me feel both more and less alone.

Z and I had said goodbye unceremoniously at his doorway. Of course, I had left a neatly folded paper crane—one one-thousandth of a wish—and a note on the kitchen counter. Intimacy and ceremony are lovely sisters. Perhaps I will see him again; perhaps not. I can be cavalier like this only in language—it makes things simpler, if not easier.
If I pretend not to want something, maybe I won’t want it anymore. All truths begin incomplete. We choose which ones remain so.