Giving Up the Ghost, or, How I Sold My Dominatrix Equipment at the Ebay Store
by Melissa Febos
Most relationships after a certain age begin with a body or two under the bed. Usually these are ex-lovers, whose legacy manifests tangibly in shoeboxes of old letters and photos, those morbid and sentimental curations that pulse faintly from the closet shelf. Or maybe they are the specters of bad parenting, grade school bullies, criminal records, actual deaths, and surely, in some rare cases, actual cadavers. In my case, it took the form of a garbage bag full of S&M equipment.
I hadn’t been retired long from the “dungeon” when I met my last boyfriend, the friend of a former client. On our first date, my skeletons were nowhere near the closet, but perched, rather, on the table between our plates of soy chicken and blanched greens. He knew before we met that in addition to having a hearty collection of exes, I had been a sex worker, a heroin addict, and a writer—an occupation loath to let sleeping ghosts lie. I had already begun building the Frankenstein of my checkered past: a memoir based on my vanquished habits of spanking men and shooting dope. As a man with possessive tendencies, he should have known what he was getting himself into. But love makes us stupid.
Also, I may have had a worrisome past, but my present practically defied its existence. I was a college professor who hid my tattoos under pearl-buttoned cardigans, who went to bed at 10pm, and hadn’t had even a cocktail in years. The door to my former life seemed firmly closed, and, three months into our relationship, the door to our new apartment opened. I left my loft in the hipster ghetto of Williamsburg and moved to the leafy haven of Prospect Heights, where there were more baby strollers than bars, and prepared to enter the next level of domestication.
And then the paddle slipped out from under the bed. It was black, the length of an arm, and outfitted with a strip of sandpaper on one side. I found him standing over it one afternoon, brow furrowed.
“Do I want to know what that’s for?”
“Probably not,” I laughed, and kicked it back under the bed, hoping my nonchalance was contagious. He stared at the floor where the paddle had been, and then up at me. I scrambled to think of something to distract him from whatever he wanted to say.
“You planning on using that again any time soon?” He smiled halfway and cocked an eyebrow.
“Of course not! I just need to get around to selling it.” I reached across the bed to the window and turned up the air conditioner. He was still looking at me when I finished, so I grabbed a stray t-shirt and began folding it. “You know, what I really need to do is get on eBay.” I didn’t look up again until I felt his gaze move away from me.
The paddle wasn’t alone. Its sharp edges had simply chewed a hole in the black garbage bag that housed a wide assortment of similar artifacts. Leather cuffs, corsets, rubber (disinfected!) enema bags, and platform stilettos nestled into a cocoon of a latex catsuits, nurse uniforms, and pleated miniskirts. When I had hung my floggers up for good and cleaned out my locker in the dungeon dressing room, I had shoved it all—thousands of dollars worth of equipment and costumery—into the industrial strength bag. It sat under my bed in Williamsburg for months and then among the last of my boxes as I’d moved, its fate uncertain. As I’d stood over it in those final moments, the pang I’d felt—something between the feeling of throwing a birthday card from your grandmother in the trash and the feeling just before you answer a phone call from someone you know will probably break your heart—was too strong to override. The body in that bag was still too warm. I rationalized that the contents of the bag were worth too much money, and carried it to the moving van.
A month after the paddle incident, a red, leather, riding crop wandered out from under the dust ruffle. My boyfriend was at work this time, and I got down on my knees and tugged the lumpy mass out from under our bed. When I unknotted the bag’s neck, it exhaled a ghostly breath: the scent of stale incense, body sweat, leather, my old perfume (Dior’s “Addict”), and rubbing alcohol. My heart and stomach lurched in unison. It was the smell of the dungeon, the smell of my past, the smell of desire and money, of secrecy and sex. It was the olfactory equivalent of an old mix tape: a sensory time capsule.
I reasoned that the memoir ought to have presented a graver threat of the past’s reincarnation. But my writing happened in silence; it didn’t have a smell. Reliving the past in writing was intense, but also left the memories flattened somewhat, defanged. The act of writing down a story places it firmly in the past, draws a line between then and now, the story and its telling. So long as my alter identity—Mistress Justine—and her interest in the business of desire stayed on the far side of that line, my boyfriend could see her as evidence of my depth; she was enough to render me exotic, but not too dangerous.
But the objects in that bag did have a smell. Their presence was a tangible reminder of my reluctance to let them go. I knew they would only get louder, their smell more pungent. And I felt my boyfriend’s wariness—a texture in the air between us that hadn’t been there before, as he must have felt that body under the bed go bump in the night.
I didn’t keep the bag around for its monetary value, true, but the straight life was cash poor. I knew it was time to unload the past, but I wasn’t so dramatic that I needed to burn it in effigy. Sifting through the contents of that bag, half in inventory, half in nostalgia, I thought of the iSold It On eBay store on Flatbush Avenue, a few blocks west of our apartment. I’d noticed it the day we moved in, was reminded of Catherine Keener in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and had since nurtured a warm association to the bland storefront.
So, after a thorough wipedown with rubbing alcohol, I loaded the corsets, heels, leather goods, and nurse uniforms into a compact wheeling suitcase. The latex, dildos, clamps, gags, and rope I left in the garbage bag, reknotting the neck. I dragged both down the apartment stairs, and unceremoniously dropped the bag into the garbage can on the corner of our block. The pang I felt this time was manageable.
It was summer, not sweltering yet, but enough that after four blocks in jeans, pulling the suitcase as it bumped cheerfully over every crack and pebble, I boasted sweat-stains and a shiny forehead when I arrived at the door of the iSold It On eBay store. I had spent the walk awash in memories of my old life, the exhilaration and shame that I’d felt each day, going to a job that paid me in cash and desire. For what? What had I been selling then? My body, fantasies, my own deep-seated need to be desired. As fantasies always had, the ones I traded at the dungeon had allowed me to lose myself. They’d forced me to. The symbolism of this imminent act wasn’t lost on me. I was selling my disguises, the freedom they afforded, and the alienation they afflicted. Regardless, it hadn’t dawned on me how public an act the private sale was going to be. When I entered the air-conditioned store, my sweat turned cold as I beheld the small crowd inside. Building a secret life almost always happens in private, but eschewing one, it seems, never can.
I joined a short line of waiting customers and watched as they were each delegated to an iSold It employee. The sellers plopped their unwanted valuables on the long sales counter and the employees examined them. The iSold It employees performed searches on eBay for similar items, and then affixed tags with a comparable prices to the objects in question, to be posted live at a later time. As I moved closer to the counter, my palm slipped on the suitcase’s handle. I wiped both hands on my jeans and cleared my throat, watching the door for other hopeful sellers. Dear God, I thought, I know I must be some kind of exhibitionist, but let there not be an audience for this. Two of the employees were men, youngish, not ostensibly the type to have encountered the sort of contents my suitcase held. But then, I knew better than anyone the misleading superficiality of covers. Nonetheless, I prayed to be assigned the woman employee, who looked like the kind of bland, hearty stock that could at least affect a nonplussed disposition. She wore pleated chinos and a face like uncooked poultry. Hoisting a complicated looking baby napsack over the countertop, she smiled earnestly at the man in front of me. Nice, she looked really nice. Not at all like the type to try and trade her services for spankings, like a personal trainer to whom I’d once made the mistake of divulging my work. I desperately hoped she was nice, as sturdy as her body. Perhaps in the narcissism of my own fear I was like a child petrified of a honey bee – oblivious to the outlandish threat of my own size. A different person would have been worried for her, I suppose.
It only occurs to me now that I might have been seeking such a thrill. One of the principle pleasures of being a dominatrix had been the shock I could elicit from almost anyone. In my book, I’d already admitted my lifelong fascination with “the ability to appear one thing, and to be another.” I had always sought to embody polarities—high school dropout with a graduate degree, marathon-training smoker, summa cum laude heroin junky—because they empowered me to not only defy social prescription, but also upset just about anyone’s expectations. I loved the look of shock on people’s faces when I told them I was a dominatrix. Because I was nice. I didn’t hate men. I could have gotten real jobs if I’d wanted to. I was a sex worker by choice, not out of desperation. The high of exercising that power was part of what I dreaded surrendering.
But I didn’t feel empowered as I stood in the iSold It store in my girl-next-door outfit with my suitcase full of domme gear. I felt quietly horrified. There is a high in horror, I know. But if there was pleasure in that moment, I sure didn’t feel it.
I got the woman.
“Hi there!” she chirruped. “And what do you have for me today?”
I smiled and hoisted the suitcase onto the counter between us. She tilted her head to the side, waiting for some further introduction. I knew there was nothing for me to say, so I let the silence swell between us until she finally gave a little, “N’kay,” still cheerful, and unzipped the suitcase. She opened it, and stared inside for perhaps only a few beats longer than if it had held a collection of doilies. I surveyed her surveying my old bondage equipment, and didn’t take a breath until she raised her gaze to mine, mercifully suggesting that we “take this to the computer in the back, where there is a little more room.” Her tone in that moment may have contained a note of humor, but it was so subtle that I didn’t dare respond, except to say that yes, a little more room might be nice. Though we spent the next thirty minutes head to head, poring through the trappings of my old persona, she went no further to acknowledge the remarkability of my wares. Not that I wasn’t grateful for the gesture. It broke my heart a little, in that sweet way, her effort to circumvent both our embarrassment.
“And what would you call these?” she asked me, pulling the leather, fur-lined cuffs from the suitcase.
“Cuffs? No, leather restraints.”
“N’kay. Leather restraints,” she repeated in her pragmatic voice, typing the words in the search window. Together we watched similar images appear on the screen. I could feel the warmth of her shoulder, inches away from my own, smell her clean, powdery scent as we priced stilettos, a riding crop, a paddle, and uniforms. I didn’t have the heart to argue when she vastly underpriced the value of my favorite corset.
Leaving the iSold It store with my empty suitcase was like waking from a dream. Not a nightmare, but one I was glad to wake from nonetheless. The garbage bag with my dildos in it was still at the bottom of the can on the corner when I passed by on my way home.
My boyfriend was relieved when I told him I’d sold the body under the bed. The checks arrived by mail over the next few weeks, a small fraction of what I knew my past was worth. I wasn’t done, of course. I let go of that life, yes, but not the story. I couldn’t lay that body to rest until I’d learned how it ended. The book sold a year later, and not to an anonymous buyer on eBay, whom we’d never have to face.
The relationship with my boyfriend didn’t survive in the end. There wasn’t enough room in our home for both my story and ours, and we never managed to fit them together into one narrative. Now, he haunts me, and surely my new love wishes his phantom gone, as I do the phantoms of my love’s past.
Of course, it is we who are most haunted by our own histories, who absently run our fingers over old scars, our gaze drifting out windows at the familiar notes of old songs and the scent of sweatshirts pulled out of storage. But it is also the living inhabitants of our lives who suffer their presence. Who hasn’t nurtured the private exhaustion of loving patience, and wished for the exorcism of our lovers’ ex-lovers? Our lovers’ former lives? We want our loves to ourselves; we want to occupy the parts of them that belong to other people, other places, things that cannot be exiled because they are already gone. We harbor this desire out of selfishness, but ultimately, perhaps out of fear. The most considerate partners try to keep these corpses out of sight, behind the dust bunnies and unused workout equipment, or even better, finally lugged out with the objects we keep out of sentiment. I haven’t always been this kind of partner, but I have tried. And I’m not sorry to be haunted by my ghosts. They guide me from one life to the next. But I am not sorry to let them go, either.
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Melissa Febos’s memoir Whip Smart was released March 2, 2010.
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