What Splits Us by Mark Farrington

Mark Farrington is assistant director of the Johns Hopkins M.A. in Writing Program. Mark’s short story, “Motherlove,” won an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve’s 2011 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Other stories have appeared in The Momaya Review, The Louisville Review, and other journals and anthologies. He has recently completed a novel, Manion in Darkness. A native of Massachusetts, he currently lives with his wife in Alexandria, Virginia.


Things were going well with my girlfriend. Surprising, since we were both near forty and had never been married. Sara had one serious relationship, but the longest I’d been involved with a woman was five months. My fault, probably. Something gets in my head, I can’t let it go. Like that piece of meat stuck between two teeth when there’s no floss handy; you pick and suck but never free it all.

Sara and I taught at the regional school, third grade for her and middle school math for me. Our rooms at opposite ends of the U-shaped building let me gaze across the lawn at her standing at her window, and sometimes she’d lead her kids out the back door for a nature walk. She had dark hair falling to her shoulders, parted in the middle, and a sweet looking face with honest brown eyes. She wasn’t fat, but her body was fleshy enough to make me want to hug her. She was the girl next door, Mary Ann not Ginger, and I’d had a crush on that wholesome castaway since I was young as the kids in my class.

We both had third period free, so we’d talk in the teachers’ lounge and, sometimes, on those crisp New England autumn days, take our own private nature walk. I was new to the school but not to New England, where I’d grown up, then left twenty-two years ago. Sara was New England through and through, and hanging around her made me remember all the girls I’d secretly lusted after in high school.

Things moved quickly: out to dinner on a Friday, back to her house, a cute little bungalow on a quiet street. We made love and it was great. She must have liked it too because after breakfast, before I left, she asked if I’d come back later and stay Saturday night as well. Of course I said yes.

That night after dinner we were necking on her couch when she said, Bob? Can I ask you a question?

Sure, I said.

Do you ever think about trying something different? In bed I mean.

I pinched my eyebrows. We had the lights turned off so it was hard to see her expression, if she was blushing. Different? I replied. I’m not sure I know what you mean.

She wriggled to make space between us. We were still fully clothed, although with my shirt half unbuttoned, I felt a chill ride across my chest.

Maybe there’s something one person might like the other to do, she said. That if that person didn’t ask, the other would never know.

I thought, How lucky can a guy be? You don’t have to do anything special for me, I said. I just love touching you, and holding you, and being held by you, and being inside you. There’s nothing more I want.

Maybe there’s something you’d be willing to try for me? she asked.

I was dumbfounded. Is that what she was after? Something I could do differently for her?

Immediately I flashed to the things we’d done last night. Is there something special you like? I asked Sara. I’ll do anything that makes you feel good. Just tell me.

She moved again on the couch, bringing one leg beneath her, straightening her back, fortifying herself, and when she drew back the hair from her face, tucking it behind her ears, the headlights of a car going by outside showed determination in her eyes.

There is something I’d like, she said.

Tell me.

She gave a little shrug, and when she spoke again, her voice had lost much of its confidence. I’d like it if you’d spank me.

I smiled. Have you been a naughty girl?

No, she said, and looked offended.

Oh. I thought—

I’m not asking to play games. It’s just that being spanked, it sets something free in me. It makes the sex afterward incredible. This, with a laugh both enticing and defensive.

I sat without speaking. This was a lot to process. Not just how this woman I still didn’t know all that well wanted me to take her over my knee (I guessed) and spank her. The way she talked, this wasn’t some secret fantasy she’d read about in books: She’d been spanked before. And had sex with the guy afterward.

Plus I was reeling from the revelation that my performance the night before hadn’t pleased her, at least not the way she wanted to be pleased.

I’m willing to try anything, I said, hoping that wouldn’t turn into one of those polite phrases you wind up regretting later.

It struck a chord in Sara, who bounced to her feet, grabbed my hands to help me stand, said, Come with me, and led me toward the bedroom.

Now? Is what I wanted to say but didn’t.

She led me inside, closed the door behind us.

What do we do? I asked.

She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room, as if deciding which new wallpaper would look best. We don’t need these, she said, and kicked off her shoes. I followed suit.

Now you go sit on the bed.

When I did, she gestured me to move back and center myself against the headboard. I climbed atop the pillows, the added height making me feel like a king on a throne.

Sara scurried around to one side of the bed. Now I lay across your lap, she said, a little breathlessly.

She dropped to her knees on the bed, but right away I saw the problem. I’m right-handed, I told her.

Oh. She hopped up, face flushed, and hurried around to the other side.

You’re sure you want to try this? she asked.

Sure, I said, trying to sound like a laid-back guy and accepting of everything, all part of life.

I’ll be right back, she said, and raced from the room.

I figured she was just doing whatever she needed to do to get ready for sex. Then, to my surprise, I heard the television come on. Loud. I recognized the theme music: Law and Order.

She appeared a moment later, a big toothy grin. Her jeans were unbuckled. Hi, she said. I’m back. Ready?

I nodded, flashing back to a summer day in college when a girl and I prepared to jump together off a big rock into a lake. Ready? she’d asked, and we’d gripped hands and raced forward.

Sara tugged down her jeans, taking her underwear with them, over the widest portion of her hips, leaving them wedged at mid-thigh. It’s better this way, she said, flashing a red-faced, angelic smile before settling over my lap.

I felt the warmth of her, not so much her weight but her substance, and something in me stirred. Mostly though I was struck by this first-time close-up view of her bare ass. It was kind of like an artwork, framed by her clothes. Her bunched-up underwear was yellow with little purple flowers.

She leaned on her elbows, head down, her hair closing like curtains across her face. I put my hand on her flesh. Caressed her. Kneaded her. Maybe I was thinking if I got her excited enough this way we wouldn’t have to go farther. But my touch coaxed no sighs or moans.

Should I just start?

Whenever you’re ready. She didn’t look back over her shoulder.

Where to strike first? Far side, I decided, and brought my hand down. The noise was mild, like a polite handclap. Her flesh jiggled.

You can do it harder than that. A bit of irritation in her voice.

I brought my hand close, measuring like you might a practice golf swing. Then I raised up and came down hard. Harder, anyway. 

Hang in there, I said, before she could complain. I’m finding my way here.

But in truth, I was struggling against an urge to ease off, right before the moment of impact. My mind could decide, I’m going to strike hard, but some force inside me wouldn’t let my arm follow through.

One time the smack sounded loud, a teacher’s clap to quiet a rowdy classroom, and when my hand raised up, I noticed a pink cloud on her flesh. Sara’s body had tensed too, and a moan seeped out of her. I quickly smacked her again, just as hard, and she groaned and wiggled, and the pressure brought me fully to life.

That’s it, she cried. Then: Harder.

I struck again and again. I’d broken through my resistance, but my arm was getting tired. Sara moaned and hissed, in approval I hoped, and once cried out, Oh, shit! Which made me pause until she shouted, No, don’t stop! And I spanked her again. Following the pattern of pink allowed me to spread the smacks around. Usually her muscles would tense, not when I was about to strike but right after my hand landed. Odd, I thought. I’d have figured she’d tense up before the blow, not after.

We’d not talked about when I should stop. My hand stung and heat rose off her flesh. She’d moved during the spanking, her head and shoulders dangling off the side of the bed, ass farther up in the air. I found a spot I hadn’t struck before, in the middle near the bottom, and she bucked and shrieked, Oh, God! I thought, This is the spot, but before I could strike it again she jerked up and off me, her movements like an angry lioness roused from sleep, and then she was gripping my head and kissing me so hard my teeth hurt, and tearing at my clothes, and I went with the intensity, as we undressed ourselves and each other, and when she climbed on top of me I felt huge and powerful, and when we flipped over, I enjoyed seeing her wince as her sore butt ground into the mattress.

Eventually we collapsed, boneless and aching. Panting, splayed out on our backs. Sara’s wet hair matted across her face. Beads of sweat trickled down the side of her breast. Shifting, she winced, and when she managed to stand, I was amazed at how red her ass still was. She admired it in the full-length mirror, turning her back to the glass and peering over her shoulder. She glanced at me and gave a surprised, satisfied laugh.

When she opened the bedroom door, the TV seemed extra loud. Was the show still on? Could we have been at this less than an hour?

Then it occurred to me this was the cable station that ran four, five, six episodes back-to-back. As far as this show was concerned, we could have been at this all night.

.  .  .

Her face lit up when she saw me at school on Monday, and when no one was looking, she rose onto her toes and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. Thank you, she said, for the weekend.

I looked at her differently now, standing at my window gazing at her classroom across the lawn. Having seen her naked, I studied her dressed in clothes both sturdy and stylish and pictured myself removing those clothes, piece by piece. But sometimes an image flashed across my mind, right in the middle of class: her bare ass, framed like a painting by her clothes, and I’d feel a stirring in me like the pressure from her body lying across my lap. If I’d just been an observer, or if she’d been a stranger, an actress maybe. . . In all my life, I’d never even slapped a woman. And I wondered: For us to make it, would I have to become a person I was not?

I don’t remember a thing we talked about all week. I know what we didn’t talk about, and that was fine with me. We agreed not to see each other on school nights, but on Thursday she asked, Do you think you might want to come over this weekend? and I said, Sure, and then, brilliantly I thought, How about if I take you out to dinner on Friday? You don’t need to, she said, and I replied, I know I don’t need to. But I want to. How about it? And she said okay.

I took her to the only French restaurant in a twenty-mile radius of this rural area. I drank heavily, in part because she’d agreed to drive home, after seeing my car had a manual transmission, as her car did too. That led to a conversation during dinner about how hard it was to find new cars with manual transmission these days. Nobody teaches people how to drive them anymore, Sara said, then added, proudly, My father taught me.

From what she told me, her father seemed to be a cross between Mr. Rogers and Mr. Wizard. Gentle and serene, he could solve any problem. Her mother was more volatile, but her parents had been together forty-two years, and they’d loved each other deeply all that time. She had a younger sister, too, who was married and recently had a baby.

She added other details, but my mind got stuck on her parents. Wait a minute, I said. Your parents loved each other?

Sure they did. She seemed surprised at my question. It was obvious, anyone could see it.

But how did you know?

The way they talked to each other, the way they looked at each other. The way one of them moped around when the other was away, as if it wasn’t just a spouse they’d lost but a piece of themselves. How affectionate they were with each other. She giggled. Like the time I got an early ride home from college, I got there the night before I was due and decided to surprise them, and I walked in on them sprawled across the kitchen table, going at it.

This was astonishing to hear. My parents hated each other. They never touched, unless it was my mother, drunk, flailing to slap my father’s face, and my father, not yet drunk, halting her wrist in mid air. To this day, I don’t know how they tolerated each other long enough to have sex and produce me. Nor do I understand why they stayed together so long afterward.

Your parents loved each other, I said again.

My parents loved each other, and they loved my sister and me. That’s something I always knew.

You never doubted?

She shook her head.

Luckily, the waiter brought our food then. I was still stunned. I’d heard about happy, loving families, but I figured those people only believed they were happy because they hadn’t dug down deep enough into the muck below the pristine surface. Peel away the fresh paint and you’ll find rotting boards in every home. Yet here was this woman who liked to bare her ass so her boyfriend could beat it raspberry red, claiming to be the beloved daughter of parents who also loved each other.

It was that beating part I really wanted to ask about, and emboldened by wine, I looked to make sure no waiters were lurking, then leaned forward. Can I ask you something? I began. About what we did last Saturday?

I expected her gaze might drop submissively, perhaps a blush would rise, or else she’d get angry and lecture me about keeping bedroom talk in the bedroom. But she said, as casually as if still discussing manual transmissions, Sure. What do you want to know?

I gulped some wine. When did you first realize, you know, that you liked that sort of thing?

She gazed beyond my shoulder. I don’t know exactly. I remember watching a movie, the heroine was acting like a spoiled brat, and the hero yanked her across his knee. My eyes almost popped out of my head, and I started feeling a twitchy kind of warmth down there. I didn’t know what was happening, or why, but I knew I was identifying with the heroine, not the hero. I was about thirteen I guess.

Your father never—you know—when you misbehaved?

She laughed. You seem to have trouble saying the word “spanking.” Her voice sounded loud, causing me to look around again, but no one had noticed. I had a roommate in college who hated spiders so much, she continued, that she freaked out just hearing the word. So we had to call them SP’s. She looked up. That would work in this case as well.

I’ll get used to it, I said, and her eyes replied, You got that right, Buster.

Anyway, no, I never got spanked as a child. We had time outs, and we had our misdeeds explained to us—why they were misdeeds, why we shouldn’t do them again. If we got grounded, my father made it clear we’d made a trade-off. Like if we stayed out two hours after curfew last night, we were trading off the right to go out again tonight—whether we knew it at the time or not. She laughed in a not-completely-positive way. Very progressive, my parents.

I could imagine a woman spanked as a child wanting to be spanked as an adult to recapture that childhood. But why would a woman who hadn’t been spanked as a child want to be spanked now? Of course I didn’t ask.

What I did ask was also delicate. Was there something she’d done, something she felt guilty about, that she deserved to be punished for? Like those medieval Christians who engaged in self-flagellation to purify their souls.

She smiled. Sorry, she said, but I don’t think there’s anything psychological here. Getting my butt smacked like that, it turns me on. It’s all sensation, how it feels, how it makes me feel inside. I told you. It loosens something inside, sets me free.

Are you able to spank yourself? I asked.

She stared at me, then burst into laughter. I could, she said, but it’s not as good.

I’d asked because of another question I didn’t have the nerve to unbury: other people. Guys she’d been involved with. Had they all spanked her? She told me she’d once been engaged; Had that guy spanked her? Had he ended the engagement because he didn’t want to? Or maybe she’d ended it for the same reason.

It was weird. At our ages, I expected we’d both had sex with other people. But her lying across somebody else’s lap seemed more personal than sex. It made me feel squishy to think there were other guys walking around the world who knew that about Sara, who had done it to her.

I was barely-able-to-stand-up-without-assistance drunk by the time we got home. Sara helped me undress and get into bed, even set a paper bag on the floor by my side, in case I got sick. Of course I was too drunk to spank her. We didn’t even cuddle.

.  .  .

We fell into a routine: Saturday became “Spanking Night.” We maintained our separation during the week, socializing in school but heading to our separate homes afterward. On Friday, we’d have dinner at her house, or out (the restaurants grew less fancy the longer we were together), and we’d go to bed early. We’d hold each other, talk in soft voices about anything we wanted— except that one thing—and sometimes we’d make love, simply and quietly, no need to turn the TV up loud.

On Saturdays, we’d run errands together, ride bicycles, or go hiking amid the red and gold leaves in the New England woods. We’d get home and take showers, sometimes together, but if we got aroused, Sara made sure it stayed an hors d’oeuvre before the main meal.

Our behavior changed after dinner. Sara turned into a child on Christmas Eve allowed to open only one gift before bed. I took the opposite approach, playing Scrooge. You’d better behave, I’d threaten, when she started acting like one of my middle schoolers. Or what? she shot back, hands on hips. Or I’ll take you over my knee, I started to say, then halted and laughed. Or I won’t take you over my knee.

Immediately she drew to attention. Yes, sir! she barked, and saluted.

The build-up was easier when we joked like that. Assume the position, I’d command, and she’d put her hands on her naked hips (she now took off her clothes in advance) and answer, I can’t assume my position until you assume your position, sir! Pointing to the pillows at the head of the bed.

I suppose I was getting used to it. Having it scheduled for Saturday night made it seem a bit like our every-second-and-fourth-Wednesday faculty meetings, or like the time I joined a gym. You went three days a week and didn’t have to think about exercising otherwise.

Sara and I never officially chose Saturday for spanking, it just happened. So I never completely trusted the schedule. I’m not saying that out on a hike, I feared she’d back into me as we gazed at a magnificent waterfall, then ask me to go cut a switch. But sometimes I did think that way, a little.

I developed into a pretty good spanker. I learned what she liked and didn’t like. A few smacks on one side, then switch to the other. The one with the profoundest effect came down flush in the middle, near the bottom. After I hit her there, she’d try to wriggle away, or protect herself, which made me think she wanted me to avoid that spot. But as I grew more comfortable in this upside-down world, I realized her trying to escape meant the opposite.

She didn’t like to role-play, which was a relief. I don’t think I could have handled her coming out with her hair in pigtails, wearing a schoolgirl uniform. The few times Sara and I talked about her special interest, I took a tactical approach: Is there anything I’m doing you don’t like? I asked her. That I could do better? When she gave me a suspicious look, I shrugged. Always aiming to improve, I said.

It turns out I’d been right about that spot in the middle, near the bottom. It’s where the sensations were most intense. But if I hit her there too early, or too often, she said, it hurt.

I understood she was talking about a different kind of hurt. Having the flesh of her ass reddened “hurt,” but it wasn’t real hurt, not like when you stub your toe at night, or when your mother screams she’d rather be dead than put up with you and your father.

 I understood that other hurt, too. When I was a kid, I liked to dig my fingernail into my gums. Not enough to make them bleed, but I found something sweet and delicious in the way they stung. 

I was wary of prying. Sara had never asked about my masturbating habits, for instance, which had become quite prolific over the years, my living alone so much. She never asked what pictures filled my head when we were having sex.

Still, I had questions. What do you think about, I asked her one night, when you’re getting spanked?

She looked at me oddly. Think about? You mean, do I plan Monday’s lesson?

What’s in your head? You have to see pictures, right?

Not really, she said. I’ve never been especially visual that way. Even in school, I was a hands-on learner.

I thought, There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I let it go.

It’s just sensation, she said. Feeling what I feel.

She was sincere, but I couldn’t buy it. Her desires had to be connected to some guilt she’d developed, likely at a very young age. I know it’s not so simple, I told her, where you can point to one action or event and say, That’s why I feel guilty. It’s not so cut-and-dried. Maybe the guilt developed over a long period of time and you never knew it. You’re not even aware you feel guilty.

It’s like going to church, I continued. You can be living a good upstanding life, but you go to church and you leave feeling as if some burden’s been lifted. Even though you hadn’t felt burdened going in.

So you’re wondering if getting my bum smacked makes me feel like I’ve atoned for all my sins?

It sounded ridiculous put that way. At least she wasn’t over my knee at the time. We were in bed, it was dark, that week’s spanking over and done with.

I’ll tell you what I think, she said. An edge to her voice made me tense. The way I feel about getting my ass spanked, is it physical? Psychological? Spiritual? Maybe it’s all those things and more. But really, it’s sensation. It just fucking makes me feel hot, Bob. Can’t that be enough?

I held her in my arms and promised it was enough. I was sorry. I didn’t mean to keep bugging her about this, it was still new to me, and I was only trying to understand. Her frustration made me feel like crap, and then like a total shit when the tears started. It’s okay, I promised. I love you. I love everything about you.

Everything, I said again, and hoped I would believe it was true.

.  .  .

For Thanksgiving she took me to meet her parents, who lived seventy miles away. Sara’s father was tall and lean, with a receding hairline I’d always heard indicated intelligence. His big hands were warm and welcoming, and his smile said, If my daughter likes you, I do too. Sara’s mother looked like Sara with thirty years and forty pounds added on.

Her sister didn’t resemble any of the family, with her platinum hair and nasal voice. Her husband seemed like a wimpier version of the girls’ father, but they had a cute baby who distracted everyone from awkward silences.

I’d had enough experience talking about myself in a general way—where I grew up, the places I’d been, why I enjoyed teaching math—and her family didn’t pry. I’d have to say I had a good time, and it helped that her father kept refilling my wine glass. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Sara’s special interest, if her parents knew, or maybe her sister, although the two girls didn’t seem close. I’d get this crazy-funny idea that maybe all the men spanked their women in this family, and after dinner we’d have a spanking orgy in the living room. Or, since she seemed so different in every other way, maybe Sara’s sister spanked her husband.

When I got these thoughts, accompanied by disturbing pictures in my head, I gulped more wine to chase them away, but the wine broke down my defenses, making it easier for these oddball thoughts to crop up in the first place.

We spent the night in Sara’s childhood bed. She showed me some treasures, everything from stuffed animals to a scorecard from a Boston Red Sox baseball game her father took her to. She showed me her high school yearbook (Most likely to be spanked?) and some old photographs of her as a kid. 

In bed I felt relaxed, and randy too, despite all that wine. With no TV to mask the noise, when I began caressing her, she whispered, We have to be quiet, and I was. I moved slowly and gently, and as I settled on top of her, she wrapped her arms around me and squeezed tight, both of us making small movements, just enough to keep us alive and hungry. It was delicious. She stared into my eyes. The light coming through the window let me make out a smile on her face that said, This is where I am and it’s a very nice place to be. Then she squeezed and gasped and giggled, and we held each other close and hard, and I wondered if we could possibly stay like that all night, all the rest of our lives. All my life I’d felt empty and frightened, but I didn’t feel that way then.

We left on Friday afternoon, after her mother had packed a lot of turkey to take with us. Sara and I were both tired, and we didn’t talk much on the drive back. But I was thinking about last night, about Sara’s family, and thinking something I’d never thought would be possible for me: I might spend my life with another person.

If I had to explain why my previous relationships ended, I’d say I couldn’t get close to the woman and got bored, or else I got too close and fled. Of course a few women dumped me first, but if I wasn’t who they wanted, I figured we were better off apart.

The point is, I’d never believed I was capable of living with another person. Of sharing my whole life. I always felt self-conscious around others, as if I had to meet their expectations. As if, should I let down my guard and be myself, that me wouldn’t be good enough. Even during my time with Sara, I usually went home on Sunday mornings, pretending I had school work to do, although I knew she wanted to do something together in the afternoons. After forty or so hours locked in each other’s company, I had to get away to breathe.

Now a different future seemed possible. Perhaps we could take a trip over Christmas break. Should I ask about moving into her house?

There was still the issue of Sara’s “special interest.” I’d grown to accept our Saturday nights, but we needed to remove the uncertainty from the rest of the week. We had to make rules.

Officially naming Saturday “Spanking Night” would free me to show my love more openly the rest of the week. Also, I’d recently started searching the Internet, and I’d learned some people who liked being spanked eventually moved to using implements that raised welts or brought blood. I wasn’t about to sign up for that.

A Saturday night spanking as a prelude to sex, using my hand or a hairbrush, that was the least I could do for the woman I loved.

We were so exhausted when we got home from her parents’ that we took a nap. A few hours later, Sara wriggling around woke me up. From the darkness I guessed it was around eight o’clock. Should we get up and have something to eat? I asked.

She groaned and curled up, her back to me. I’ll never eat again.

I’d eaten a lot too but I was picturing that drumstick her mother’d packed for us. We’d both stripped to our underwear before getting into bed, Sara trading her bra for a T-shirt. I got up and slipped on my pants and padded to the bathroom, then to the kitchen, where I raided the fridge. I didn’t bother with a plate, I just laid that big old drumstick on a paper towel, sprinkled it with salt, and wrapped my fist around the handle.

Finished, I washed the grease off my hands and face and went back into the bedroom. Sara had turned on a lamp and curled up again beneath the blankets. I was awake now but figured I’d lie with her, as she’d go back to sleep or get up herself soon. When I was settled, Sara turned and pressed close against me. To my surprise, I could feel beneath the blankets that she was nude from the waist down.

“Umm.” Her moan mixed contentment with something more. Then she raised one leg over mine and rubbed her thigh against my penis, which woke up to greet her.

Can we play? she whispered. Her hand replaced her leg and I wriggled.

Just a little, she coaxed.

“Play” was the word she’d come up with a few Saturdays ago. I guess she thought I was still uncomfortable with the word “spanking.” “Play” was easier to say, but using it that way affected how I thought of the word in other, benign contexts, as if “play” was a favorite shirt that had gotten an unremovable stain.

Sara looked like a giant iguana about to crawl up my body. A happy, excited iguana. It’s Friday, I said.

We’re not all tuckered out from a week of work, she answered. We’ve been off since Tuesday afternoon.

I thought about saying, We’ve had a long trip, a stressful time with your family, although none of that was true. Let’s just wait until tomorrow, okay? I said. I don’t feel like it right now.

I thought, She’ll have to give me this. But she turned into a pouty child.

What’s the matter? Her voice dripped with sarcasm. You don’t want to play?  What, are you not up for it?

Her rendering of the word “up” I found especially snide.

I just don’t feel like it, I said.

Afraid you might hurt your hand?

Don’t try that on me, I said.

Or what? What are you going to do about it?

I had to fight to smother a laugh. That’s how upside-down our world was. “Or what?” didn’t mean the same as it did for normal folks.

She hopped out of bed, turned her back to me and stuck out her ass. At the same time, she looked over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue. Then she started pacing. 

Jeez, she complained. What’s a girl gotta do to get a spanking around here? What do you do with a boyfriend who refuses to give you what you want? What you need?

The pressure squeezing my brain wasn’t just from that moment, it never is. It had been building for weeks, months, years. Sara kept muttering, You’re no fun, and, He says he loves me but he won’t even play. As if confiding to her best friend or her dog. And I thought, Maybe she isn’t playing. Maybe she’s known all along I’m inadequate, and she’s only kept me around because I agreed to “play.”

I imagined her saying, I’ll just have to get what I need elsewhere and storming outside in nothing but that T-shirt.

I heard my mother’s voice, too, and then all the pressure ramming against the valve cover burst through, and I heard someone yell, in my voice, I’ll show you who’s up to what, and I grabbed her by the wrist, hard, and yanked her down. She wasn’t just Sara anymore but lots of people, and I sat on the edge of the bed and started blistering the flesh in my lap. She bucked but I had a good grip, I kept her arms pinned and even corralled her legs. I think she was shouting and then cursing and eventually I’m pretty sure she was crying, but those distant-seeming noises could have been coming from the TV. I was scared but I kept striking. Maybe I was trying to beat it out of her, this need of hers.

Or maybe I was enjoying how powerful I felt.

When I let go she tumbled off my lap. My palm felt like I’d slammed it into a brick wall. I grabbed my clothes and fled to the living room, dark and quiet, no TV to mask the sounds tonight. Since it was November, the windows were closed, but I had this panicky fear that all the neighbors had heard, they all knew what I had done, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a mob coming after me.

But the street was quiet.

I’d put on pants and my shirt and shoes but forgotten my socks, and the cold air snaked around my bare ankles. My mind was working fast: Get in your car, go. Call in sick on Monday. Start looking for another school.

But at the door, I realized I’d left my keys and wallet on the table beside Sara’s bed.

The night was perfectly quiet. I saw one house down the street with the porch light on and I grew anxious for whoever might still be out. The world seemed a dangerous place all of a sudden.

Stars filled the sky. Recognizing the constellations had always comforted me, as if some geometric artist of a god had delierately placed them in patterns. But now, they looked random, as impersonal as ice.

She was in the bathroom when I returned. I collected my things and perched on the edge of the bed, waiting to say goodbye.

She came in wearing a long, loose white cotton nightgown she often wore on non-spanking nights when we made love. I liked the way the material glided over her body when I caressed her. One time I’d come close to asking her to wear it for her spanking, imagining myself drawing it up to expose her rear.

She looked at me with a sheepish smile. I didn’t see any puffiness around her eyes, no signs that moments ago, she’d been bawling.

Instead, she looked relaxed. You really blistered my butt, she said.

A simple statement of fact, with a bit of surprise, perhaps, and maybe pleasure.

I’m sorry, I said.

I deserved it. I was being a jerk.

I hurt you, I said. I could still feel the throbbing in my hand.

I’m pretty tough. I can take it. She backed up to the long dressing mirror in front of her closet, raised her nightgown in back, and peered over her shoulder. As much as I didn’t want to look, I couldn’t help it.

She gave a little laugh and let the nightgown flutter down. Forgive me if I don’t sit with you, she said.

I stood and she came into my arms. I slid my hands down her back, bending my knees to reach her waist. Careful, she said, and flinched when my hands moved lower, hissing when my open palms cupped her buttocks. Her flesh was warm, like a just-unplugged heating pad.

I dropped down, intending to sit again, but found myself on my knees instead. As I wrapped my arms around her waist, one of Sara’s hands pressed on my shoulder, while the other stroked my hair.

I closed my eyes, feeling tears well up. I didn’t think they’d spilled until a cold wet spot on her nightgown touched my cheek. She massaged my scalp. Ssshhh, she said.

When I had control again, she stepped back, took my hands, and drew me to my feet. Let’s go to bed, she whispered.

I moved into a corner clear of her and began to undress. I should have gone out to use the bathroom, turn off lights, make sure the front door was locked. But I didn’t want to leave this room.

Sara tried easing herself into sitting on the bed. She was holding her breath, and as soon as she touched down, she popped back up and sighed. She looked at me and smiled. Tonight, she said, I’ll be the one on top.