The house where Thorn was staying with her boyfriend was up in one of the canyons behind Hollywood, where all my favorite Francesca Lia Block characters lived. I’d only been there two or three times, when we were meeting on our way to go somewhere else, and I’d never made it too far beyond the entryway. Yet every time I sat in the backseat of a Lyft and watched out the window as we traversed the twisting roads that made my stomach flip, I felt like I was riding right into one of those FLB novels. I glimpsed the white oleander and roses flickering like candles in the waning light, and I marveled at how close I was to reaching out and touching those flower flames, after admiring them from a distance for so long.
From the street, Thorn’s house (her boyfriend’s house, really—Thorn actually had her own apartment too, though she didn’t spend much time there) appeared to be a small, dark one-story building, but that was only because it was built into the hillside and sprawled out below the street level, descending two stories into the earth. This August evening, as I exited the Lyft and walked down the little cobblestone path, I smelled summer like something damp and earthy beneath the sweetness of the orange trees, and I heard an invisible bird calling with a tone high and clear as bells.
I did my best to breathe, but it felt like my throat was clogged with smoke, and only a trickle of oxygen made it to my lungs. Which was good, I told myself—I didn’t need all that air weighing me down. I wanted to be light, to float above the path like a winged creature. After all, I was heading into something I’d been dreaming of my entire life.
Thorn answered the door in a tank top and shorts. She must have just taken a shower; her dark hair was wet and little water droplets glistened on her pale skin. But somehow, she still looked as formidable as she did in her black leather and heels at the dungeon.
As I stepped inside, one strap of my flowered dress slipped down my shoulder, and I tugged it back into place. Thorn didn’t stop me, but she took that same hand off my shoulder and led me through the little entry room, down a set of stairs to the bowels of the house, where I’d never gone. The air held a sweet but earthy scent, like burning sage. “I’m so happy you could come over,” she said. “Ben”—her boyfriend—“is out of town for another week, there’s no parties and I’m so bored. Here, take off your shoes and I’ll give you the tour.”
I stepped out of my flip-flops and my feet sank into a deep gray carpet, so soft it made me think I could curl up here and never leave. The big living room was breathtaking: floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on the canyons, revealing a brighter, more fiery world than the darkening street I’d left behind. Here the red and orange blossoms burst like miniature explosions in the last rays of the sunset; the grass and leaves were a green so electric it didn’t seem real. I could almost see the eyes of coyotes and maybe other, more mysterious creatures watching from the shadows, waiting for the darkness to descend before they emerged.
“It’s amazing,” I said, eyeing the long three-part leather couch that looked both sleek and inviting, and, off to one side, an even sleeker leather spanking bench. Somehow I guessed Thorn didn’t always keep that piece of furniture in the living room.
“This room is actually pretty tame,” Thorn answered, dropping my hand for the moment, “compared to the rest of Ben’s…style.”
She led me down a hall, then down another set of carpeted stairs, flicking dim lights on as we went. It was still dark, though, and I wondered just how far down this house extended. We had to be in the basement now—did canyon houses have basements, though?—and I followed Thorn as she opened a door and—
I jumped back, letting out an involuntary gasp. A seven-foot-tall furred creature with red eyes, one clawed paw extended as if about to strike, was guarding the entrance.
Thorn gave her bell-like laugh. “I like to surprise my guests with that one. Ben’s a set designer, remember?”
He was and, as I also now recalled, he specialized in horror and dark fantasy movies. Thorn turned the lights up, and I saw that the creature was just a statue, an overgrown werewolf of some sort with glass eyes and stiff, unmoving limbs. “We call him Larry,” Thorn said, and patted the monster’s furry shoulder.
I laughed, suddenly less nervous and more excited—although perhaps I should have been the opposite. “That’s awesome!”
“If you ever stay the night here,” Thorn said, “you can have this room.”
That I wasn’t so sure about.
Thorn led me through the rest of the ground floor, where we encountered statues of goblins and demons, horned creatures with angular faces and unnaturally glowing eyes, some taller than I was and others small enough that I could pick them up and rest them in my palm. I remembered the dark side of Francesca Lia Block’s books, the demon boys and the long-nailed, violet-eyed witches. Here, in this canyon home that was somehow as real as my little Hollywood apartment, as real as the buses I took every day and the ordinary Lyft that had carried me into this place, the underworld I’d read and dreamed about for so long was coming to life.
I had to stop myself from touching every precious creature, every remnant of a movie set and of a celluloid fantasy. I wanted to convince myself it was all more than a mirage; I wanted to make this moment last forever.
By the time we made it back up the stairs to that big living room, the world outside had turned to shadows, a haze smothering the palm fronds and blossoms so that it still half felt like we were underground. Thorn took my hand, and I saw something kind and almost motherly in her eyes, as if she were Demeter about to lead me back out into the light. Then it passed and her usual gaze was back, darker and more knowing. “Do you want to get on the spanking bench?” she asked.
It was a big, masculine bench like the one in the Venus room at the dungeon, like another of the monstrous manmade creatures that lurked throughout Thorn’s house. I climbed up and Thorn pulled up my dress and started spanking me, and like always, the sharp edges of my anxiety softened. Over the past eight or nine months—was it so close to a year already, since my life had transformed?—the sensation of being spanked had become comfort, it had become home. This punishment-pleasure would sing through my blood like a melody to guide me.
And Thorn, of course, was an expert spanker. She warmed me up till the blood spun on the surface of my skin, then progressed to heavier paddles and straps till the endorphins buzzed like living creatures inside me. Somewhere along the way, I lost my underwear. I arched my hips higher, asking for more—more of what, I wasn’t sure.
Then Thorn stopped, suddenly. “Do you have work tomorrow?”
“Not for a couple days,” I answered, my voice sounding—as it always did when I entered this other-state, this sub-world—quiet and as if it came from a distance.
“Good,” she answered, and the strap came down one last time across my ass cheeks, slashing bright as a flame. That would leave a mark.
“I think that’s enough,” Thorn said, rubbing my ass with one soft, cool palm. She guided me up till I was standing. Her face was so close to mine, now; even without her red lipstick, she still had the lips of a fairy-tale queen. Just like the first time I’d met her, I didn’t know whether to draw closer or pull away. So this time I avoided the choice entirely, and knelt down to kiss her bare foot. I always felt a little silly when I did this, but I couldn’t help myself.
“You’re so sweet,” Thorn said. “Come here.” She grabbed a blanket off the sofa, laid it on the floor and knelt, beckoning me over to her. She guided me onto my back, brushing a stray hair out of my face as she did so, then her hands moved down to my bent legs and parted them, and before I could breathe her lips and tongue were there, and I gasped.
Shouldn’t this be the other way around? I wondered. I had never done this before—had never wanted a man to do it, had never been with a woman—and I worried that Thorn could tell. I tried to relax my suddenly rigid legs, tried to remind myself, This is what you wanted.
It went on for what felt like hours, but was probably only a few minutes. I reminded myself to make little pleasure noises, because this was pleasure, right? But I wasn’t sure. My sense of what did and didn’t feel good, the threads of pleasure and pain inside me, had twisted and tangled so much over the last three-quarters of a year. That was already longer than Persephone had spent in the underworld, before her mother came to rescue her.
Eventually, like all bodies do, mine softened. My little noises became real. My insides grew warmer, the red threads of desire overtaking the blue and black ones. I quaked and released, quaked and released, and finally Thorn lifted her head and smiled at me.
“You’re so quiet,” she said, “I can’t tell whether you’ve come or not.”
I’d come a thousand times, and I hadn’t come at all.
I smiled back, allowing myself to feel light and dizzy and happy for a moment, but too soon the worries returned—did Thorn expect me to reciprocate? I didn’t know how to do that. I wanted to remain in the more passive role, the comfortable, familiar one.
Thorn must have known, must have understood, because she got up, grabbed another blanket from the sofa and wrapped it around me. “Stay here,” she said, and returned a few minutes later with some water bottles. I gulped the water down, trying to become heavier again, earthbound, so I could walk out of this place without floating away. Time passed in minutes or hours, who could have known, and maybe Thorn talked or maybe we just sat there together, quiet, and my heart said that as much as I thought I wanted this, it wasn’t quite right. I still wasn’t quite sure who I was, but I wasn’t this girl sitting next to a beautiful woman I feared as much as I desired, my nerves singing with the aftershocks of the light sensations and the dark ones.
Or at least, that girl wasn’t all I had inside me.
Eventually, I had to get up and put on my sundress and go home. I had to take care of my dog, who was sleeping alone, waiting for me.
I ran away. Even as I walked slowly, sleepily down the flower-lined path to the Lyft, inside, I was running. The shadows of Thorn’s hands and mouth on my skin were already slipping off of me, dissolving like smoke into the darkness.
Maybe I never truly believed I deserved Thorn’s attention, her affection. Maybe I had put myself in a different kind of cage.