SEX, LIES & LEATHER
April 1, 2003
I gulped the last of the red wine, tossing back my head. The cheap alcohol burned my throat, then forged a painful trail to my stomach. The red plastic cup crinkled under the force of my grip as if that would relive the ache. My anxiety was getting the best of me. That, or the beginnings of an ulcer. I shuffled through the apartment and muttered to myself, “I’m too young to feel this old.”
I stared at the wine bottle as if it wouldn’t corrode my gut all over again if I had another glass. Except we didn’t own wine glasses anymore. We barely possessed anything in our now stripped-down apartment. My roommate, Polly Benson, had systematically thrown everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor into the dumpster. We were only weeks away from graduation and Polly needed to see it. Feel it. Tonight was honestly our last chance to party one more time prior to buckling down for finals and defending the forty page, eight hundred pound gorilla that had been looming over us since Freshman year— The Princeton University Senior Thesis. Between the three of us living in the apartment, only Caroline Carson—CC, or sometimes just Cee—as Polly liked to call her—was finished. Her thesis on how Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nothing more than S&M role play was sure to be a hit among the more conservative faculty members.
“What the hell, Sam?”
I cut my eyes at whomever had come to badger me once again about staying in. “What the hell, Caroline?”
Polly joined us in the main room. The confusion on her face matched the deer in the headlights expression of her down-to-party counterpart. “Samantha, what the hell?”
I lifted the empty cup to my mouth, the last drops of Two Buck Chuck lingering on my bottom lip like a bad lie, before dripping onto my sweat pants.
“Why aren’t you dressed?” Caroline circled me like an angry dog, and it was making me dizzy. Or maybe it was the wine. I blinked a couple of times, checking out her tight jeans and see through top—my top.
She waived me off and walked away. It was customary for us to share party clothes, but we always asked. Caroline never did.
“Are you trying to show the Bobbsey Twins? Or was the bra merely a thoughtful reconsideration? You know there’s a matching camisole for that. More importantly, why are you wearing my shirt?”
Polly breezed into the kitchen, gripping the wine bottle by the neck. She searched for a clean plastic cup. She wouldn’t find one. “Stop changing the subject, Sam,” she said searching the kitchen. “Seriously, why aren’t you dressed?”
Polly’s getup was more modest than Caroline’s, but I knew what was going down. CC was on the prowl for sex tonight and Polly was the wingman who didn’t want to wing it alone. I got it. I’d been there—out with Caroline. Watching her meticulously select her next victim was nerve wracking. The stepdaughter of a wealthy businessman with his eye on a senate seat, she’d been lectured by her own parents to watch her step. It didn’t seem to matter. In fact, it fueled her fire.
The manner in which she seduced men at the bar caused Polly and me to wonder if we’d find her lying on our couch the next morning, or on the side of the road—dead. She was wild. The kind of girl you couldn’t tame and you couldn’t talk down. Polly and I decided after too many nights of wondering if Caroline would make it home safely, to let her live her life—to let her go. Tonight, I was letting them both go.
Pushing myself from the couch riddled with torn seams and a couple of cigarette burns, I walked away, tossing my cup into the overflowing trashcan. “I need to work on my thesis.”
“Well …” Caroline patted herself on the back. “I’m finished.”
Polly rolled her eyes in disgust. “Oh for fuck’s sake CC, we know. Just because you’re obsessed with people being tied up and banged balls deep, doesn’t mean Shakespeare liked it that way, okay?”
Caroline surrendered, her hands in the air. “Jesus, Polly, I was making a joke. You don’t have to be so sensitive.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m not joking, Cee. I’ve seen the marks on your body. What the hell are you doing to yourself?”
“What makes you think I’ve been doing anything to myself?”
Polly grabbed her by the arm, pulling back the flouncy cuff of her shirt. The bruises around her wrists were more than visible, they were alarming.
I gasped. “Caroline. What’s going on?”
She pulled the sleeve down without looking at us. “Sex. That’s what’s going on. Fucking.”
“Sex?” The word came out of my mouth in a breathless gasp.
“Holy shit,” Polly said, choking on her words.
“Look,” Caroline began. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
I couldn’t move—my eyes fixated on the discolored bruises around her wrists. I searched her exposed skin for more signs of torture and quickly found them at her ankles. Polly circled her, her eyes never leaving Caroline’s body. “It’s him.” Polly sat on the couch, her head in her hands. “Isn’t it?”
My ears pricked up, and I exchanged glances between my roommates. “It’s what?”
Caroline corrected me with a judgmental glare. “Who.”
Polly stared straight ahead as if she couldn’t stand the sight of us. “I’m right. I know I’m right. I want to be wrong, but I’m not. Am I, CC?”
“I’m confused.” The wine buzz was blurring my ability to comprehend anything, and I’d only wanted it to dull my racing thoughts for an hour.
Caroline crossed her arms and stood in front of Polly, proudly facing the obvious firing squad. “I don’t know what you think you know.”
Polly scoffed. “I sure as hell know it’s him.”
“Who’s him?” I asked.
“Jesus, CC!” Polly stood to pace the room. “You are so stupid. Why would you get involved with him? There’s no scenario where this ends well!”
I raised my voice, feeling the words stick in my throat with emotion. “Someone better explain to me what’s going on, because you’re both starting to piss me off.”
“I saw you with him, Cee.” Polly’s voice had reached a tinny pitch. She was hurting my head. “Last week. I acted like I didn’t. I tried to make up an excuse in my head why he’d be touching your face like that, but—”
Caroline snapped back. “It’s really none of your business, Polly.”
“What are you talking about?” I shouted, my voice cracking with anger.
Polly pulled her crazed stare from Caroline, finally blinking in my direction. She dropped the accusing finger she pointed across the room. “CC is sleeping with her professor.”
I felt the wine bubble up in my throat. “What? Which one?”
Polly raised her brow, silently asking me to think for myself.
“Not Dr. Knight.” The words barely came out of my mouth. “Please say it’s not your theology professor. The sanctimonious asshole who prays over the class before lecture?”
Polly walked between us, cutting off my questions. “That short, paunchy, balding prick is tying you up and beating the shit out of you.” The words seethed from Polly’s mouth in judgement. I was still in shock.
“That’s not true. Is it?”
Caroline dropped her chin in guilt.
I gasped. “No.”
Polly answered for her. “Yes.”
“Stop it, Polly.” Taking Caroline’s hand in mine, I begged her to look me in the face. It was the only way I knew to get a truthful answer. “Let her speak for herself.”
“He told me I was beautiful.” Caroline whispered the words and my heart sank. I squeezed her hand, turning it over to examine her bruised wrists. “He told me my thesis was devastatingly brilliant.”
“You are beautiful,” Polly said, taking her other hand. “And you are brilliant. But what he’s doing with you? To you? It’s wrong. It’s so wrong.”
“It’s just sex.”
“He’s married,” I said. “His wife is a professor in the econ department.”
Polly brushed her fingers across a bruise. “Not to mention the fact he’s hurting you.”
“He’s fucking me.” Caroline pulled away to hide her tears. “It’s nothing more than a little friendly sex.”
“Whips and chains are not friendly,” Polly said.
“He’s whipping you?”
“It’s a game, Sam.”
“Beating you during sex is a game?” Polly asked, now circling the room. “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why? You’re the most brilliant student in your major.”
“What does that have to do with anything, Polly?” Caroline shouted.
I walked away, retrieving my plastic cup from the trash and poured another glass of wine, drinking it down in one swig. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I pointed to my roommates. “Sit. Both of you. Sit down.”
I was amazed they followed my directions and stopped their bickering to take up posts on opposite sides of the couch. The buzz in my head raged and I searched my mind for the right words now that I had their full attention. “I love you both. And as much as I want to pick a side here, I can’t.” Sandwiching myself between them, I turned to Caroline. Her bruised ankles and wrists were so evident to me now and I wondered how I missed them before. Was I so wrapped up in my own life? My own struggle to finish school that I didn’t care about anyone other than myself? I stared at her black and blue arms and knew the answer was yes.
“Caroline, just tell me. Do you care about Dr. Knight? Or is this just some weird game you play with him? Because the last time I checked, you were totally into that guy. The ah—” I snapped my fingers, searching my foggy mind for his name.
“California poli-sci dude.” Polly’s voice erupted quietly from the other side of the couch. Caroline and I both leaned over to look at her as she stared straight ahead.
“Yeah. Him,” I said. “Blonde hair, blue eyes with the great bro-drawl. He’s adorable. And he’s so into you, Caroline.”
“His name’s Jim. Jim the poli-sci guy,” Polly continued, sarcasm lacing her words. “And you should be letting him knock your head into tomorrow. Not the creepy, balding, fat-ass Professor Knight. Seriously, he’s like a character out of a Harry Potter book. He’s too short for you, CC. And those tiny hands of his. He’s gotta be hung like a tic tac. We all know that’s not your type.”
I took a deep breath. Caroline was silent when I turned back to her teary face. “Thank you, Polly, for that unsolicited and awkward, yet heartfelt diatribe. But what I think is most important is how Caroline feels.”
I paused, waiting for our bruised roommate to reply. She didn’t. She stared at her battered wrists, turning her palms upward. The extent of her injuries was so obvious and alarming on the palest parts of her skin, and I found I couldn’t hold back my shock. “Caroline.”
“In the beginning, it was kinda fun,” she said hanging her head. “I never thought it would get, you know, out of hand.”
“Out of hand?” I asked, trying to remain calm. “Are you saying you’ve asked him to … stop?”
Polly came off the couch. It was evident she wanted to see Caroline’s reaction.
“Cee?” Polly asked. “It’s okay. You can tell us the truth. I promise. I’m not going to say anything else to piss you off. I’m already sorry for saying what I did. Just tell us.”
Caroline brought only her eyes from the floor. “It’s hard to explain.”
I pawed at her hand, desperate to give her my support. “Try,” I said, watching her bottom lip tremble like a kindergartener on the first day of school.
“I stayed after class to ask a question. That turned into meetings in his office and then … you know.”
“No,” Polly said. “We don’t. How does a question after class turn into him beating you while shtupping your brains out? Are there other marks on your body too? Tell me now. Don’t make me strip you down.”
I held up my hand, begging Polly to stop with her questions.
“Just tell the truth, Caroline,” I whispered. “No one can ever hurt you for telling the truth.”
“Besides,” Polly said, now pacing the floor. “It’s against Princeton policy for a faculty member to be in a sexual relationship with a student.”
“They’re both consenting adults.”
Polly shot me a look of dismay. “Didn’t you read your student handbook?”
I shook my head. “No. Did you?”
“I had a crush on my History TA and before I made my feelings known, I checked it out. Undergraduate-faculty sexual relationships are prohibited when the faculty member is in any way part of the student’s academic supervision or evaluation. It’s considered an abuse of power.” A look of shock overcame Polly’s face. “Wait a minute. Isn’t Dr. Knight the second reader on your thesis?”
Caroline said nothing. Her face told us everything we needed to know.
“He is fucked,” Polly shouted. “And not in a good way.”
“Stop it!” Caroline stood, her fists clenched. “Both of you, stop. In the beginning, I wanted it. It just …” She nervously tucked a red curl of hair behind her ear. “It got out of hand and when I wanted to quit, he didn’t.”
“So, he beat you?” I asked.
“The sex got rougher and more dramatic when I told him I didn’t think we should see each other again. You know, when I’d met Jim.”
Polly sneered at me. “Geez Sam, keep up. Yes, poli-sci Jim.”
“Sorry. It’s the Two Buck Chuck.”
“I told him it was over. I said, you’re married and I’ve met this guy. A really nice guy who’s my age.”
“Yeah,” Polly interjected. “And he’s not a hobbit with a dick the size of a gherkin.”
“Polly, please,” I begged. “Go on, Caroline.”
She pushed back her sleeves to show the deep bruises on her arms. “It got worse.”
“Caroline Carson.” I stared in disbelief. “We have to tell someone.”
She shook her head and sat on the couch. “I can’t tell anyone. We’re graduating in three weeks. My thesis is finished. If I do or say anything, he’ll ruin me. I just need to get out of here with my diploma. I’m moving to DC. I’ll never see him again.”
“You may not want to tell us this, but exactly what has he been doing to you?” I asked.
Caroline reached across the couch for her laptop. It came alive with a glow and she double-clicked on a folder full of hundreds of jpeg files. The thumbnails were too small to make out. “What is that?” I asked, pointing to one of the tiny images.
“I was afraid of him, so I used your fancy camera to take some photos and videos.”
“You did what?”
When she opened the first photo, there was Dr. Knight in all his glory. Dolled up in leather, he was naked, save for a harness around his torso. Polly was right. His manhood was disappointing.
“Looks like it was pretty damn cold in there,” Polly said.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve seen more meat in a vegetarian restaurant.”
“Really?” I asked, scolding her crass, albeit funny, remark.
“I have to tell you,” Polly said, ignoring both of our scowls. “As a psych major, I’ve done a little poking around on this stuff.”
I knitted my brow, pulling my attention from the disturbing photo in front of us. “Have you now?”
Polly pointed to the photo. “I’m just saying, he’s not a dominant. He’s dressed like a submissive. At least from what I’ve gathered.”
Caroline wiped a tear from her eye. “Polly’s right. After he beat the hell out of me that night, I couldn’t very well pull the camera out of the hiding place. I also got these.”
Caroline scrolled through to the end of the thumbnails to double click on the final fifteen or so photos.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Holy. Shit.” Polly repeated.
“You bet your ass it’s holy shit,” Caroline replied. “That’s Dr. Knight taking it up the ass from some unknown six foot five, three hundred pound man.”
I clapped my hand over my mouth in shock. “What are you going to do with these?”
Caroline smiled for the first time all night. “I have a plan. You know me. I’ll have the last word. I’m going to graduate from Princeton with honor and then I’m going to blow this motherfucker’s world wide open.”