Your message wasn’t delivered to because the address couldn’t be found, or is unable to receive mail.
Surprised, I considered the notification, checked the address, read through the email again, clicked send. It bounced. The email was no longer functional.
I leaned back in my chair, unsure how to feel. Relief and loss don’t usually sleep so close together.
ML and I had been together for five years, meeting through an online dating site in 2008, when I was 22. ML was an active member of the kink community, a domme, and our relationship was in keeping with her preferences – we were never “girlfriends”, but Mistress and submissive, albeit a very close pair.
It was not for lack of affection when things ended between us in 2013, and we continued to write to each other, periodically. In 2016, however, I suffered a nervous breakdown, and we fell out of touch.
Then, earlier this year, I began to dream about her. Again and again and again.
Sometimes, the dreams were sexual, but often she was simply there: drinking a cup of coffee, standing on the street corner, opening a door. In the most intense and oft-recurring dream, I stood before my bedroom mirror, only to feel the heat and weight of a body suddenly behind me. Don’t worry, ML whispered, laying a soft hand on the nape of my neck, her face materializing beside mine in the glass, it’s only me.
Eventually, I wrote her, hoping it would satiate whatever subterranean, unfinished impulse was causing her to surface, unbidden, night after night, from the backwaters of my subconscious.
And then the email bounced.
She was gone. Outside my reach.
Why not call her? Facebook her? Twitter? Instagram?
I can’t. ML made sure of it.
I do not have – and have never had – her cellphone number. I never met any of her friends or family. I knew what she did, but not where she worked.
In all the time we were together, ML and I were never once in the same room.
That was the way she wanted – insisted – it be.
The rules of our relationship were simple. ML commanded. I obeyed. As long I obeyed, I would be loved.
You have to understand this power dynamic in order to understand why I allowed her to have so much control over myself and our relationship. There’s a kind of freedom in submission. I’ve never been the type to do anything by halves.
All of our interactions were done via chat, including video, the mediums of her choosing, and we spent hours on it together each day. While our relationship was intensely sexual, much of what we did was just … talk. We discussed our mutual interests in literature, philosophy, cooking, the outdoors. We played chess and backgammon, exchanged books, details of our childhoods. Built intimacy. Like any other couple.
Unlike any other couple, however, if I disobeyed her, I was “punished”. If I refused to be punished, I would be “dismissed”, which is like being broken up with, except it is expressly stated you are unworthy of the other person, as opposed to implied.
Punishment was carrot-and-stick. The stick could be physical – you would be surprised what you are willing to do to yourself, if you believe the price of not doing it is to stop being loved. More often, though, it was emotional, a complex, psycho-sexual combination of berating, gaslighting and withdrawal of affection, the return of which – always conditional – signalled the end of retribution.
If this sounds like abusive behaviour, it absolutely was; abusive behaviour I agreed to. Everything was fully consensual, as ML would often remind me. Whether or not you can truly consent to something against which love is held as a hostage is another question I don’t have an answer to.
The carrot, inversely, was the promise that, one day, when I was “ready” – when I had proven my obedience – we would live together.
ML had a very elaborate, highly detailed description of this fantasy always at hand: what it would be like in our shared home, how pleasant it would be to serve her, days spent indulging in an array of sexual delights, tenderness and intimacy. A kind of life filled with a kind of love which regular people were too undisciplined and unenlightened to ever dream of attaining, made available to me when – and only when – I was worthy.
I knew this was a lie, intended to manipulate me. What I couldn’t understand – and still do not understand – is why.
Our relationship felt like a delicious secret, one that made me – a plain, rather unattractive young person, not at all confident in my body, my sexuality or even my gender – feel sexy, complex, even beautiful, things I had never felt about myself before.
ML encouraged me to go out and sleep with women I met in bars in order to “build my confidence”, but if I began to develop intimate relationships outside of her, I was strictly punished and threatened with dismissal. She wanted to keep me completely emotionally dependent on her, and to control me in ways that were deeper than the physical.
And yet, ML never asked me for money, never used me to undertake tasks for her, never photographed or recorded me; never, in short, abused her power over me in a way that would make such elaborate grooming, for lack of a better word, worthwhile. She often went out of her way, in fact, to help me, was a patient mentor who taught me some of the social, financial and emotional skills which a childhood of neglect had left me without. She read my work eagerly, encouraging me not only to write but to be a writer. She believed in me.
What was she getting out of this, if she never intended to be with me, or to use me in some other way?
That was the rub, and because I could not sort out her motives, I continued to believe, however faintly, that maybe – just maybe – ML’s intentions were genuine.
Maybe she did, truly, as she claimed, love me.
Maybe that’s what I was dreaming about – that looming, unanswerable why.
There were many reasons I left ML, but the catalyst was a small thing: her name.
Shortly before my birthday in 2010, ML did not come online. I wasn’t worried. I assumed it was a test of obedience.
When she remained absent for several days, I grew anxious – my gut told me something bad had happened. I was right. A major health crisis had put her in intensive care.
Naturally, no one told me, because no one but ML knew I existed.
I began calling the hospitals in our city, asking if ML was there. At each facility, I was told no patient had been admitted by that name. That was true. It would turn out ML had never given me her real name.
After three weeks of uncertainty and limbo, ML reappeared. Her health crisis was genuine, and terrifying, and she had a long and complicated recovery. It was several months before I could get her to confirm that yes, in fact, the name she had given me – the name I had been calling her for almost three years – was a pseudonym. She used it in the kink community, she said. That should be good enough for me.
It was not, in fact, good enough for me, although I tried to make it be.
I can’t fault ML. She was behaving in accordance with the rules I had agreed to. In many ways, the only person who was dishonest to me was me. Something in me drastically shifted as ML began to recover, however; I pushed harder for details, asked for more tangibles.
ML either skirted my questions or flatly refused to answer them. I began to pull away, emotionally, as it became harder and harder to believe the lie I told myself; that if I was patient, I would eventually be happy in this relationship.
It would be several years before I was able to fully disentangle myself from her, but that was the beginning of the end; if she wasn’t going to be honest with me in her most vulnerable moment, she never would.
I would always be left standing outside the door of her, my ear pressed against it, waiting with bated breath for a command to enter that would never come.
I will never know why ML kept things the way she did between us. Maybe she was married, and I was a diversion that got out of hand. Maybe she was not who she claimed to be. Maybe it was something I will never imagine.
The M in ML stands for Mistress. I didn’t like M; she was cold, dispassionate and manipulative. I don’t miss her and I don’t miss being her submissive. I do, however, miss L, the person she was when she wasn’t being Mistress.
L took her coffee black, read historical fiction and had an absolutely terrible tattoo on her lower back. She volunteered with children and had a soft spot for golden retrievers. L was brilliant and kind and bold and, if you caught her at just the right moment, fiercely vulnerable.
It’s taken me many years to realize it, but it’s L I loved. It was her I was waiting to be let into. Both women are lost to me now, and that’s probably for the best.
After I wrote the email, the dreams stopped. I think, now, it must have been L I was dreaming of. Not ML. Just L. Smiling, her face floating in the mirror, out of reach, her voice tender in my ear.
Don’t worry. It’s only me.