Safe Words

In kink communities, “red” as a safeword is common enough to be clichéd. As far as safewords go, it is a good one for newbies to the BDSM scene. It’s easy to remember: red is the final color of street lights.

A definite and recognized command to stop.

Of course, red is also the color of a matador’s cape. The one he waves to enrage the bull and prompt its charge.

[TW for discussion of intimate partner abuse and sexual coercion]

Within my marriage, I became a woman who submitted. Or perhaps I should say: I learned I was a woman who will submit. It’s hard to know what I am now — or how I might behave, should I ever again invite another human to run electric fingers along the skin of my thighs, or the nape of my neck. It’s even harder to imagine taking that risk.

I do know that one who submits is not the same as one who is a submissive. It is hard to get farther apart than these two states of being are from one another.

Another thing I know? I have never gotten past the shame I carry to voice my own deepest kink. Which is simply this:

I wish you would be kind.


Officially, the ex and I got married on Christmas Day, 2004, at a restaurant on 2nd Street, with only my parents, two friends, and the other diners as audience. Through a process Pennsylvania calls a “self-uniting license,” we didn’t require any officiant — only to declare our commitment to be wed in front of two witnesses, who then signed a form that we mailed back to the Commonwealth. We chose that day because my parents arrived in town on the 24th, and my mother had vowed to disown me if I got married without her there.

Back at my apartment, my now-husband called each of his parents — neither of whom had been invited, or even officially told about our engagement. His father asked to speak to me.

“I guess you’re now my daughter-in-law,” he said, while I made affirming noises into the phone. “And I guess that makes me your father-in-law. So, tell me, what have you done to my son? I never thought he’d ever get married.”

Honestly, the day of our unofficial wedding was a lot more fun.

Several days before Christmas — on a Tuesday, because the happy hour specials were better — the ex and I invited a handful of friends to meet at our favorite local bar, and we did a dry run of the whole thing over candy-sweet specialty martinis and finger foods. We used the duplicate half of the license, the one you’re supposed to keep for your records, as our witness log. The waiter, who knew us all as regulars, signed as our 6th witness, and my friend N brought a handful of cigars that some of us smoked on the sidewalk later, as we made our way to a nearby ice-cream parlor for after-wedding sundaes.

My relationship with the ex ended during a holiday season too, although another month would pass before he threw me out of our shared home and another six months before I completed the process to divorce him. At 4am on New Year’s night, as 2010 passed into 2011, half-naked and on my knees across the dirty cement floor of a private NYC bondage club, I felt my marriage break into pieces. Into sharp glass shards, like the ones I felt dancing inside my head.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.


I’ve read how Harry “Handcuff” Houdini escaped padlocked straitjackets and coffinless tombs. How he regurgitated cached keys and dislocated his joints. With ankles shackled, he had himself lowered headfirst into a water torture cell, and I can only wonder: how did he feel in his glass enclosure, once the curtain dropped?

Houdini defied the laws of flesh, until a ruptured organ finally took its revenge and killed him.

Today, in places like Las Vegas, the artist who escapes a water torture cell is almost always a man. A woman usually accompanies him, wearing a sequined gown and brandishing a vaselined smile, as she pulls the curtain closed to hide his sleights-of-hand and open again to reveal his mystical release. As he bows, wet hair dripping onto the stage, she leads the audience in its applause.

I can imagine her thinking, “At least it’s a better gig than getting sawed in half.”

I wonder if female magicians stay away from this trick because they know: for a woman, the illusion is not in how securely she gets trapped. The illusion is that she ever escapes.


From time to time, I think about my former father-in-law’s question. What had I done to his son? What had made me seem so special? Why had the ex chosen me?

I have decided I now know.

Our relationship differed from all those he’d had with past lovers due to one core belief we shared. He told me, long before we got engaged, the conditions under which he would someday leave me. He told me how that leaving would be sudden, abrupt, and total. He told me precisely how I would be the cause. The difference between me and the others? — was that I believed him.

I always believed that’s how it would end, perhaps if/perhaps when, that day came. I knew what a liability I posed, to anyone who would dare love me.

When we were first dating and I told him about my past challenges with mental health, I felt relieved he didn’t see my history as a barrier. I was grateful he looked through it to see the whole woman I was. To love the complete person I brought to the body standing before him.

It took me a long time to realize: my vulnerabilities were a feature, not a bug, in what he found attractive.


Snow White didn’t put herself into that glass coffin. She was tricked into it by a red, red apple and someone she should have been able to trust.

She didn’t get herself out, either. Her escape came at the kiss of a man wearing gold trim and a pedigree, a man who saw a woman lying dead in a box and thought, “I’d tap that.”

If I had been Snow White, I’d like to think I’d have come back to life roaring in outrage and bitten off his lips as they pressed into mine. Gnawed his royal face off his royal skull and licked my fingers when I was done, too, like I’d been relishing a fine roast chicken. All the while thinking to myself, “Zombie princesses don’t need no stinkin’ table manners.” 

I’d like to think that’s how I’d have done it. And not, as the story goes, made sheepish apologies for my having been dead.

I wish Snow White could have an ending in which she never marries her charming necrophile.


Over the seven years we were together, arguments between me and the ex devolved into things like how many times that day had I washed my hands really, or how frequently he ran the lintbrush over the pillows we slept on — yet did I ever thank him. “The fact that you can’t see a difference does not mean that your life is not materially improved,” he told me more than once.

This is what we fought about. Except, of course, it isn’t.

Our disagreements weren’t even about how he was always right, or how I was just one-seat-over from being a contagion raised by barnyard animals.

He argued for his right to feel loved. I defended my ability to be loving.

It was never going to end well.


Six months before we separated, my ex told me, “I’ve decided to stop listening to you. All you ever do is say no.”

What do you do, when even saying, “Let’s eat somewhere else tonight,” will have consequences? When saying, “I don’t like how they fix their eggplant parmesan here,” may be used against you later as evidence of your fundamental inability to love as other humans do?

Tell me: what words then are safe, when the disagreement becomes something that matters?

Please don’t tell me how we are all responsible for teaching others to respect us. Or that people treat us the way we let them. Or that I was the one who gave away all my power first.

Or even, “He sounds like a jerk. You shoulda left him then.”

It’s not that I think you’re wrong. It’s that the broken record in my head already conveyed that message a hundred times today, and I was hoping you could bring some variety to the noise.


I once walked down a street and came upon a woman trapped within a glass enclosure. She beat against its walls, seeking a thin spot. A weak spot. Any hairline fracture she could exploit with her frantic fists and shatter herself an escape hatch.

Around her, a crowd of desultory observers clapped halfheartedly. “She’s certainly got enthusiasm,” they seemed to be saying, “but really — another mime-in-a-glass-box routine? How cliché. And why does she seem so angry?”

“I am not drowning but screaming,” I tried to tell them. But the thick glass surrounding me blocked all sound out, and all sound in.


We have arrived now at the heart of my story. New Year’s Eve. Four years ago.

Tell a story like this, and you find people always ask if you had a safeword that night. As if any single word exists that can spread out its wings and protect you from a partner who has already declared void your right even to hold the word “no.”

Imagine: a man decides to break the final no you have left, a no you have held fast for years. The no that says, “I will not let you beat me in public.” It’s four in the morning, and he denies you have ever said this no, even as the sound of it still echoes in the room and the taste of it still echoes in your mouth.

How would you tell this, if it were your story to tell?

I’ll set the scene. It’s four in the morning, and you are in a place neither of you has been to before. The lighting is dim, and there are far too many rooms, all filled with giggling 20-year-olds in their underwear and solemn-faced adults wearing even less. You look at his face, at the face of this man you married, and realize that the only way you are going home without first going on your knees is if you seize your entire life definitively in your hands at this moment — and snap it in half. It will break like a cracker. You realize you will be left with only pieces and crumbs, and even though you feel like only pieces and crumbs already, one more loss feels like one loss more than you can possibly bear.

How does the story go next, when you tell it?

Do you, too, find yourself kneeling down?


I prepared to hold the pain outside myself, in the hard glass box just beyond my left temple where I always put this kind of pain. At first, it hurt like I expected. Then it became something different, something more — a sharp screaming along intimate nerves that made me wonder if I would be left permanently damaged.

I focused on keeping the box shut that held the pain and on imagining how I would explain this to him later.

I was sure he would be sorry.

I was sure it was a mistake.

It had to be a mistake. Over-eagerness coupled with a certain anatomical ignorance. Even he had to know I did not agree to this, back when I was not agreeing to any of it.


Heading home, I was pleasantly surprised to find I still walked almost normally. We stopped at a 24hr deli around 6am and bought sandwiches. We ate the sandwiches sitting at his desk with a South Park episode streaming on the computer.

After a bit, my ex turned to me and asked, “Well, what’d you think?” The excitement in his voice seemed to be asking, How soon until I do that to you again? 

I chose my words cautiously. “When you hit me…like that…it really hurt.”

I paused, then repeated, “It really hurt. It hurt bad.”

I looked directly at him. His face glowed with a joy I cannot begin to describe, except to say that remembering it now still turns my stomach. His voice was practically a carol as he replied, “I know! I thought that would be fun!”

You know the sound you hear, when your head is underwater and everything is silence? How a white noise buzzes in your ears as if the ocean is roaring at you from a very great distance? My ears began to fill with that sound, although the rising tide that threatened to drown me was not outside my head, but within. I felt waist-deep in water, then neck-deep — trapped, pounding with futile fists against the enclosure that was my skull. From behind my eyes, I looked out and saw only barrenness in his. I gave myself over to the watery swell as it drove out the last of my oxygen.

He and I both turned back towards the computer screen and finished our sandwiches in silence. The expression I chose to drape across my face felt placid as a tomb.


Today, there is a door inside my head that I always keep closed. Behind that door is a glass tank filled with water, and inside it floats the body of a drowned woman, like an abortion preserved in alcohol.

I open the door by accident every now and again and linger a moment in the doorway, mesmerized by her back-lit shape and how her face almost looks like mine. Then I back out slowly and shut the door as I go.

Sometimes though, when the door opens, I find I am myself the drowned woman. I am torn, in these moments, between wishing my water-logged lungs could still draw breath enough to call out to the person standing in the doorway — and longing only for the door to close, leaving me again to my quiet death.

# # #

“Safe Words” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.

15 thoughts on “Safe Words

  1. I stopped breathing in there at some point. Horrifying, and understandable. The reasons we suffer so greatly at the hands of others are as numerous as the reasons we could love such a creature to begin with. Sigh.


    1. I often (always?) forget how hard this piece is to read. Not sure why…especially considering that when I wrote it, I put down all the interstitial parts first: the Harry Houdini act, Snow White eating chicken, etc. I needed a pausing-to-breathe structure already in place, before I could start writing hard stuff into the blank spaces.

      Thank you for reading, and for sharing your thoughts. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It really is incredible, and nearly left me speechless – except for the compulsion to comment – to say SOMEthing. The way the scenes play out is so beautiful, it makes me wish incredibly hard that is were completely false. You managed to make something extraordinarily difficult to experience into a work of Art here. Xoxo with humble respect.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you, sincerely.

          I am utterly fascinated with how writing out trauma eases the experience of trauma: because I am no longer carrying the memories; I now only need to carry the Art.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And thanks for translating that emoticon; I don’t think I’d have understood otherwise. (Looks kinda like a zombie to me, actually, what with the outstretched arms…which also sounds appropriate.)

      Here! A hug back (and an addition for your .gif collection):


  2. Reblogged this on coffee and a blank page and commented:

    One of the most powerful tools blogging has given me is the ability to look back over a record of key moments from this journey I’m on. (I believe it’s the one kids these days are calling “life”?) Writing this particular post liberated me in profound ways, both personal and artistic. Stunning to realize I finished it only one year ago today…

    While I haven’t produced much complete writing these past few week due to — …whaddya call it again? oh right, “life” — I’ve been missing you, my blogosphere buddies! And now I’m curious: is there a piece of writing that most represents a turning point for you? Feel free to leave a link in the comments, if it’s still on your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have no words, only a genuine and swelling respect and love for you that you are who you are today, and no longer have to be that other girl…

    If it were mine to give, I would gift you with pure peace, as well as the ability to completely erase that from your mind and life… know I am THRILLED to know that YOU know you are worth a thousand times a thousand more than that type of manipulation and pain.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I can’t begin to find words to respond after reading this post, so I won’t because any would be insignificant in the face of what you lived. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m borrowing words from Roxane Gay today: “This is my story, what I can tell of it. I am sharing it because perhaps we do need to hear more and more of our stories. Perhaps we need to hear so many of these stories we finally learn what to do with them and how to take care of the people who have to carry these stories. In an even more ideal world, perhaps by sharing our stories, we will raise a generation who will have no such stories to tell.”

      Liked by 2 people

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