Nag champa smoke swirled in the purple light. I loved your dimples and how your ears were just a little too big for your shaved head. I was a freshman, you a junior. I thought it was cool you donned drop crotch hippie pants, refused to wear shoes, and held tea ceremonies in your dorm room. You talked about always feeling in between, your mom white and your dad Japanese—existence intercontinental.
I felt in between, too. My entire childhood, I went back and forth between my parents’ houses. For my single mother, I played the role of vegetarian, obedient only child who read quietly in a corner during her feminist book club. For my father and stepmother, I played the role of daughter who ate chicken nuggets in front of the ever-blaring TV, and never complained when my older step siblings called me ugly or spat in my face.
College held the promise of belonging, but making friends was tougher than I’d imagined. I didn’t like drinking. Didn’t like loud parties. Opted instead to watch you loop melodies late into the night as you beatboxed and played guitar.
We sat on my bed, close, but not yet touching. We’re both Aquarians,I said, star children from the future.
And then you kissed me.
Naked, I felt even more connected to you. I’d stashed a box of condoms under the bed, but before I could say anything, you put your cock inside me. I wanted to speak up, tell you we needed protection, but your tongue filled my mouth and your body weighed me down.
After you kissed me goodnight, I wondered why having sex with someone I liked so much could leave me feeling used up like the incense on my windowsil, now reduced to ash.
Funky bass grooves and party chatter filled your house. You’d say: I want to be closer with you.Then go weeks without texting me back. I wanted to show you I could withstand your distancing tests. You went to grab something from a walk-in closet, and I followed you inside. Closed the door. Our friends and the girl you were dating on the other side of the wood.
I pressed my body against yours and kissed you. You kissed me back. I asked: Would you rather go home with me, or with her? You chose me, and I was triumphant. I also had a disregard for monogamy, another way I thought we were compatible.
Underneath you that night, I knew I’d feel empty when you left. Knew I’d have to chase you down all over again.
When you said you preferred a woman’s natural face, I stopped wearing makeup. Around you, I dressed in twirly skirts and floral sweaters that I thought would make me more appealing.
Once, you said I brought out a strange part of you, but you refused to explain.
Sweat pooled on our sleeping bags as we fucked inside the tent we’d just pitched. We were trying to be quiet, just the sound of fabric rustling. Outside, we heard the voices of our new housemates milling around the campsite: Pass the bowl! Let’s play frisbee. Who wants to see the Floyd cover band tonight? I was excited to live in this community of stoners and music enthusiasts with you my sophomore year.
The rest of the weekend, we traveled in packs. Bounced from stage to stage to hear reggae and jazz and psychedelic rock. Grilled veggie burgers over fire. Rolled doobie after doobie. But you were never in my pack, seemed to walk away if I drew near.
You decided to sleep under the stars. I slept in the tent alone.
Trees cast shade between us as I pined for you across the campsite. Watched as you spun your asalato, bobbed your head to their percussive clicking. I wanted to be the dirt between your toes, close and inevitable. Then I realized how sad that sounded, wishing to be reduced to filth just to touch you. So I wished better for myself and decided if you missed me like I missed you, you’d come find me.
You never did.
The whole year we lived together, we barely spoke.
Pinks and oranges melted into each other as we smoked a spliff on my roof and watched the sun set over Chinatown. From up here, we couldn’t smell the city’s hot summer garbage. I’d moved to New York for a semester “abroad.” You’d moved after you graduated to work in the company of other Japanese speakers at what you called a Tokyo-style cocktail bar:formal, intimate, and meticulous.
For the first time ever, I saw you in jeans and close-toed shoes. Your hair was shaved on the sides, longer on the top. You looked so adult and sexier than ever. I’d forgotten how wide your smile, how deep your dimples. I knew I looked good too, in a sundress and leather boots, legs toned from all the city walking. I’d considered not wearing makeup, but pushed that thought aside. I didn’t want to appease you anymore.
Taxis whizzed by as we watched, side-by-side at the edge of the building. You spoke: I’m sorry for freezing you out. You always wanted me more than I wanted you… Your want scared me. My want had scared me, too, but I didn’t tell you that. Instead, I said: I wished you’d shared that with me at the time.We agreed we didn’t then have the skills to navigate the mis-match in expectations for our relationship, but now we were ready to be friends. I knew I wouldn’t forget the ways you’d harmed me, but I still felt a pull toward you.
The conversation moved on and we talked about your roommate who went to school with us. I’d heard he’d assaulted multiple women, but didn’t bring this up. A few months before, a close friend had a crush on him and asked if she should go for it. I made the decision to say: I would steer clear. I’ve heard he’s a rapist.
I’d never said anything like that about you. No one had ever asked.
Servers brushed past me with huge trays of dumplings and egg rolls as I searched for the wooden door you’d told me to look for. The restaurant was a cacophony of clinking silverware, staff and patrons speaking Chinese, buzzing fluorescent lights. When I finally found the door and crossed the threshold into your speakeasy, I was transported into a candlelit room where people whispered. Above the bar hung an angelic-themed mural. In the center, a little boy sat within a hole in the sky, eyes downcast. He had both wings and horns.
In your shiny work vest, you made me the most delicious cocktail of my life. Citrusy, sweet, with mint. I was embarrassed that I drank it in three pulls of the straw, but you said: The best drinks are meant to be consumed quickly, you don’t want the taste diluted by ice. Then you made me another, and I thought of how consumed I once was with you, how quickly it happened. As time passed and our ice melted, I kept on sipping. You pushed our glass away.
Senior spring, I pulled an all-nighter to finish a short story about a girl with synesthesia. Like a mirage, you appeared outside the window of the computer lab where I was working. You were visiting campus, hadn’t told anyone you were coming. Didn’t have a place to sleep. Just like you to travel without a plan, knowing things would always work out in your favor.
While I was happy to see you, spending time with you held less appeal now. I’d discovered polyamory and had more autonomy than ever before. I was enthralled with my current boyfriend and the freshman I was sleeping with. He’d asked me to train him sexually, and I was happy to oblige. Abundance made me choosier.
I offered you my bed since I wouldn’t be using it that night.
Early morning light slipped in through the shades as I crawled into bed with you. I liked the warmth of your body, the way your beard felt on my shoulders. Then you ground your hard-on into my back and said: I’m kind of horny.What you meant was: Can I use your body to get off? I rolled away from the hungry hands and hungry cock that had once paralyzed me: Go take a cold shower.
You weren’t used to hearing no from me, but didn’t press. I like to think you felt the power behind my words.
Water pulsed from behind the closed door of my bathroom. I fell asleep. When I woke, you were gone and I was relieved.
A couple years later, you’d moved to Japan to work at a real Tokyo cocktail bar. I imagined a dimly lit room with a gleaming wooden counter. The boy who once took mushrooms alone on the top of a mountain he’d climbed barefoot was now a bartender who wore a suit, tie, and spectacles.
An American woman sat in front of you. You served her a lychee martini or shochu on the rocks and started chatting. She asked: Where did you go to college? You answered, and she asked if you knew me. When she told me the story, she said you looked like you’d seen a ghost.
When you told me the story, you said you’d noticed her nipple rings through her shirt. She and I had been close in high school, but hadn’t talked in a few years. One of the most memorable nights of our friendship, when I was sixteen and she was eighteen, I’d used her ID to get my nipples pierced. She even came with me into the shop. We looked so similar, big blue eyes and pixie cuts, no one noticed it was her face on the license and not mine.
You asked if I still had my nipples pierced, and I said yes. You asked if you could see. Clad in a short skirt, fishnets, and nothing else—I sent you a picture. I wanted you to know I was still hot, in control of my sexuality. You responded with something bland like: nice.This only made me want more of a reaction from you, so I told you how hot my girlfriend was, how we had threesomes with our other partners.
That seemed to get you more interested, replying faster. You said you could never do polyamory, but that you had sex with other women and never told your girlfriend. Poly cured me of my tendency to cheat, I said, wanting you to feel shame for rejecting a lifestyle I thought would allow you to be a better, more honest person. You said you had to go, your girlfriend asleep in the next room. I wondered how well she actually knew you.
A lone cicada screamed in the muggy auditorium, interrupting speakers about climate change and high altitude weather balloons. I was in Portugal for a work trip, half paying attention to sexting you and half searching for the cicada hiding under a seat at the back of this hall. The audience sat toward the stage, some people groaning and others laughing at the noise. I would check under a few red-velvet seats then attend to my buzzing phone. Check under more seats, then text you back.
I sent you pictures of my tits—first in a zebra print bra, then without the bra while I kneeled on my bed. I want to see your face,you complained. I complied, complimented that you wanted more of me.
You sent me a video where you sat on a tatami mat and your girlfriend worked your cock in her hands and her mouth, her oversized t-shirt riding up to reveal a black lace thong. It was hot until you told me she didn’t want anyone else to see the video, didn’t consent to being watched. I deleted the file.
I checked rows and rows of seats until I finally saw the rogue cicada, shiny thorax and translucent wings. I had hoped the insect would be beautiful. But he wasn’t. He was just a bug, a pestering bug. I cupped him in my hands, wings beating against my palms.
I left him in the tall grass, and never texted you back.
Pain overtakes my body as my partner lashes my legs together, throws rope over the bamboo, and hoists me to my tippy toes. Gravity pulls me downward, and I whimper as the wraps cut into my skin. My arms are already bound to my chest, a jute line reaching from my back to the bamboo. He hoists my legs higher, higher until I cry out in pain. I’m inverted, suspended in the air, spine twisted into a deep torsion that feels like my vertebrae may break. Good girl,he says, and I smile through the pain. My breathing is ragged, but I focus on slowing it, easing myself into the agony I’d asked for. In and out through my nose, I calm myself, testing my capacity to process hurt.
Semenawa is literally translated as torture rope. It’s a subset of Shibari, or Japanese rope bondage, where a person is tied into extremely difficult positions that emphasize helplessness and endurance, both emotionally and physically. Rope is as mental as it is corporeal. At any moment, I could call the scene off. I have an out, a safe word. But I choose not to use it. Mired in discomfort, I find strength and healing in my perseverance. Power in opting for pain when before pain had never been a choice. In this way, my suffering isn’t isolated; the beauty of Semenawa is that my suffering is in conversation with all the other pain I’ve ever experienced. This is especially true as I’m being tormented by someone who reminds me so much of you.
He wears the same kind of hippie pants you once did, goes to festivals, and spins poi like you spin asalato. He even looks like you. Sometimes, in the purple light of my room, I shake my head to remove the image of your face transposed onto his.
It’s been two years since we last spoke, nine years since we met, and still I wish to impress you. Impress you with the hundreds of hours I’ve studied Shibari—both how to tie and be tied. Impress you with my growing knowledge of Japanese vocabulary and culture, how yugen means we must note shadows if we wish to appreciate light.
You weren’t the first or the last man to rape me.
Yes, you raped me, and yes, I had consensual sex with you. I write you a letter explaining this. Explaining I found both power and defeat in sexting with you, because I wanted your approval, wanted control of our narrative. Explaining I once loved you, still love you, despite it all.
I never send the letter. Maybe one day I will, but until then there’s this:
I imagine the day I travel to Japan to study rope and tell you I want to see you. I’ll ask if you want me to tie you, and I know you’ll say yes. We’ll strip to our underwear. I’ll kneel behind you, tie your arms behind your back. Bind your shins to your thighs so you can’t walk. Trace my fingers along your neck, your mouth. You’ll get hard, but I won’t care. At any moment, I could leave the room. Abandon you on the floor—tied up and gasping.
Raina K. Puels is a queer/poly Boston-based writer, educator, and kinkster. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and reads poems for Split Lip Mag. You can find her writing published or forthcoming in The Rumpus, PANK, Dream Pop, and many other places listed on her website: rainakpuels.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rainakpuels.