Chapter One

I’d never been so happy in all my life. Every morning since I’d given notice at my job, I’d woken up smiling. I recited the affirmations my New Age friend and performance partner, Sasha, had insisted I try months earlier, but unlike in the past, I believed the hokey words I told myself. The whole drive to the office, I calculated how many hours I had left before I was free from my job. When I got bored at work, I imagined what I would be doing in two weeks, when I was done with nine-to-fives forever. Nine more days and I’d be a full-time aerial dancer and not a receptionist spending all her free time rushing between trapeze classes and the occasional performance gig. Finally, after three and a half years of saving and struggling to be an aerialist without a day job, I could live my dream.

It had been a long slog of classes, rehearsal space rentals, and many years of training, but it was over. At last, I’d devote myself full-time to aerial dance. I’d never make it into Cirque du Soleil, but I could have a career teaching my skills and dangling upside down off a trapeze at corporate parties. I’d lined up a few teaching gigs at studios around the Bay Area and arranged two afternoons a week working the front desk at my favorite aerial school, Kirkus Radix, in exchange for open studio time for practicing my routines. I’d created an extremely tight and creative budget. Dining out, alcohol, recreational shopping, and using plastic baggies only once were to be things of the past. With my savings and the half dozen classes I was teaching, I had about eight months to start making better money from aerials, or else find another nine-to-five. But I had an absurd amount of optimism about the number of performing gigs I’d book and how much they’d pay.

Nothing fazed me. I wasn’t bothered by the snooty clients, the tedium, or the flickering fluorescent lights of the office. I beamed all day at everyone. I sang along with the radio on the way home. I skipped up the steps of my battered West Oakland apartment building. Humming, I grabbed our mail. Even the junk made me happy.

Halfway up the stairs, I stopped in my tracks. A routine-looking letter from our management company revealed that our rent was going up in sixty days, and it was jumping fifteen percent.

“Fuck,” I hissed.

“What, honey?” asked Mrs. Lester from down the hall, fiddling with her purse as she passed me.

“Did you get one of these?” I held up the offending letter.

“Oh, that,” she said with a sniff. “We saw that.”

“Are you going to stay in the building?”

Mrs. Lester shook her head. “We might move in with my daughter. They have a cottage in the back. This building is going to get filled with San Francisco people.” She said “San Francisco” like a slur.

Fucking hipster techies,I thought as she lumbered down the stairs. I dragged myself through the door to my apartment and started calling for John.

“Cooking,” he answered cheerily.

His boyfriend, Ollie, added, “He’s making blondies.”

I burst in with the letter held above my head. John was wearing his bright blue apron, his shoulder-length dreads held back by a rubber band. Ollie was still wearing his tie from work but had rolled up his shirtsleeves, glass of wine in hand. They looked so perfect and happy, Ollie with his bright gap-toothed smile and his hazel eyes set against his brown skin; John tall and handsome, his dark poreless skin and his seemingly endless muscles. They looked, I thought, like they should be in an ad. I ruined the domestic scene by blubbering, “Did you know about this? They’re hiking our rent up by hundreds of dollars!”

Ollie and John froze.

“What are we going to do?” I screeched. “I just quit my job.”

One of my favorite things about Ollie and John was that they were untroubled by my lack of preamble or social graces. Maybe they were just nice people, or maybe being my roommate for almost six years had made John immune, and being John’s boyfriend for three of those years had done the same for Ollie. But that evening, they exchanged a long look, the kind that was a silent conversation.

“Actually, Phoenix, we have something to tell you,” John said gently.

“Ollie’s going to move in, yeah, I know,” I said impatiently. “You guys have been talking about it for a year. So maybe that will solve the problem, but really, if they’re raising it this much, they could do it again. Do you think we need to look for another place? Everything’s getting so expensive.”

They shared another look, and John set aside the batter he was mixing. “Maybe we should all sit down,” Ollie suggested.

“Huh?” I stared at them, not understanding.

“Come on,” John said. He took me by the arm.

Once we were all settled on the couch, John held my hand. In his gentlest voice, the one he used with his rowdy preschool students, John said, “Ollie and I are moving in together, Phe. But the thing is—”

“I got a librarian job,” Ollie interrupted. “It’s really great, at a public library, with a focus on the young adult section just like I wanted.”

“That’s awesome!” I cheered. I jumped up and hugged him. “Congratulations!”

One more look between them, and finally John said, “It’s in Boston.”

“What?” I whispered.

John squeezed my hand. “I love Oakland. I’m always going to love Oakland. Ollie’s going to keep an eye out for librarian jobs here. Hopefully, we’ll be back soon. But right now, I think moving is best for us. I’ve got a couple of interviews lined up, one at a school that looks like a really good fit. We just decided for sure yesterday, and we were going to tell you tonight, you know, with food. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this.”

My eyes welled with tears. “But there’s snow in Boston!”

“I know.” He put his free hand on my arm.

“Your family, your community, it’s all here. How can you leave that?”

“I want to try something new, Phoenix. I’m excited. I’m nervous, but I’m excited.”

“But what about me?” I said softly, and selfishly.

“We’re sorry,” Ollie said sadly. “We’ll miss you like crazy.”

That did it. I burst into tears. “I’m going to miss you both so much. I’m proud of you, Ollie, and I’m happy for you guys, but I’m going to missyou.”

“I’m going to miss you too,” John said. He blinked away tears of his own. “You’re going to be okay. We aren’t leaving until the end of September. We can cover our share of the rent while you find another roommate.”

I shook my head. They couldn’t really afford it, especially with the rent increase, but of course they would offer. “What am I going to do without you?”

They wrapped me up in a hug, but none of us had an answer to my question. My aerial dreams, my plans, vanished.

 

Chapter Two

“I’m going to be homeless,” I whined to my dear, patient friend Meghan the following Saturday.

“Actually?” She sighed.

“No, I’m being hyperbolic. But I am fucked. I just gave notice at work and now my rent’s going up fifteen percent. Fifteen percent! Can they do that?”

“Not if you have rent control, but in Oakland new construction is exempt. Your building isn’t new construction, is it?” Meghan tapped her chipped coffee cup with her nails and raised her eyebrows.

“The building’s old, but it used to be a house. They converted it to apartments like in the eighties.”

“New construction, then.”

I choked back tears when I added, “And John’s moving out.”

“Wasn’t that always the plan? He and Ollie have been talking about moving in together for, what, a year? You knew that was coming.”

“I knew they were moving in together, but I thought Ollie was moving in with us.My share of the rent was supposed to go down. I had it all figured out. But they aren’t just moving out, they’re moving to Boston.” I laid my head on Meghan’s kitchen table.

“Oh, Phoenix, I’m sorry,” she said.

“What am I going to do?”

She patted my back. “Have they hired someone else yet at your job?”

“No.” I braced myself for the advice I knew was coming.

Without my roommate and with the increased rent, I’d need a steady paycheck months earlier than I’d planned. Because of the competitive job market, I’d need to start looking almost as soon as I stopped working.

“If you can’t afford to do this right now, then why don’t you work a little longer? Save a little more?” Meghan was my most sensible friend.

I turned to face her, my cheek still pressed against the table. “Because I already lined up all these teaching jobs and a work exchange at Kirkus Radix. It took me months to get everything arranged. People have signed up for my classes, and if I cancel, it could hurt my teaching reputation. If I stay at my job, I can’t do any of the things I arranged. A normal job wouldn’t work around my teaching schedule because I’m teaching at all these different times.”

“Waitressing? It can be really flexible.”

I groaned. “Teaching an aerials class and then waiting tables for a whole shift? That sounds awful. And who would even hire me? I haven’t waited tables since college, and I was terrible at it.”

“You do what you have to. You can make it work, Phe,” she said firmly but not unkindly.

“Okay, but first I get to complain about it. I can’t believe this, Meghan. I’ve spent the last year training five days a week and performing every weekend I can and teaching Saturday and Sunday. I can’t keep up this pace. And I’m twenty-seven! If I don’t start soon, I don’t think I’ll ever do this.”

Meghan knitted her eyebrows together. She was, as always, dressed more like a high school student than the respected and fierce lawyer she was. With her bright pink pants, ballet flats, and her second-hand cardigan over her T-shirt, I had trouble believing that she’d actually been working on cases until I came over. She was a do-gooder, an immigration rights lawyer, rather than the better-paid kind who wore dry-clean-only clothes all the time—not just when they had to go to court. But still, with her plastic glasses, makeup free face, girlish freckles, and her long red hair in a perpetually messy ponytail, she was often mistaken for an intern, despite being thirty-two.

“You’ll need another roommate,” she said. “Maybe you can find a couple willing to pay a little more?”

“Who?” I asked. “The only couple I don’t hate besides John and Ollie is you and Bill.”

She patted my hand. No way she and Bill would leave their sunny, rent-controlled Berkeley apartment for my crumbling place with an inept building manager who never fixed anything correctly the first time. “Craigslist?”

“So I can get murdered?”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“The last time I had a Craigslist roommate, he used to throw his dirty socks in the backyard and leave them there until we threatened to kick him out. I had a whole yard filled with rotting socks! And then he got a girlfriend who’d once dated my girlfriend at the time and they hated each other.”

“When was this?”

“College. Sophomore year. I’d just started seeing Carolena.”

“That was a long time ago and now you can be more discerning. Besides, you don’t have a girlfriend, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

I glared at her and grumbled, “Very helpful. “ I lifted my head finally, brushing my hair out of my face. “What was that financial domination site you used to be on?”

In addition to lobbying for the rights of undocumented immigrants while dressing like a teenager, Meghan was the most dedicatedly kinky person I knew. Long before we met, back when she was in college, she worked as a phone sex operator, a verbal dominatrix. This was hilarious to me, since Meghan generally sounded even less commanding than she looked. But she was a domme to her core. She told me when we first met that she’d never had a vanilla relationship and never wanted to. I was still in college at the time, bruising from my breakup with Carolena, and a little naïve. I was kinky too, but I wasn’t basing my relationship decisions on it. I’d asked Meghan what she would do if she met the perfect person and they weren’t kinky at all. “If they weren’t kinky,” she’d said calmly, “they would not be perfect for me.”

When we met, she was in law school at Stanford, dating mostly via internet, using profiles that made her tastes clear from the start. Meghan was bisexual, and she was more concerned with an interest in submission than somebody’s gender. She messaged me on OKCupid because I hinted at BDSM experience and because I spoke some Spanish. She said she was learning the language and wanted a conversation partner, so we went on a date. As it turned out, I didn’t know how to talk about legal issues en español, she was only marginally interested in the kitchen-oriented New Mexican Spanish I grew up with, and we had no sexual chemistry. We did, however, get along well enough to become friends.

Meghan told me that though she preferred kink for play than for pay (“it isn’t about what I want when they’re paying me, and I like it to be about what I want”), she dabbled in pro-domme (professional dominatrix) work. At the time, she did financial domination, something that was very lucrative. Through a website that hosted a variety of fetish-focused independent phone sex operators, Meghan had set up a profile offering her services as a domme, one who’d also use up your wallet as a financial dominatrix. After establishing what a client wanted, she’d answer his calls with a curt, “I don’t have time for you,” and put him on hold for fifteen minutes, charge him two dollars a minute for it, and then taunt him and demand gifts of cash via PayPal. Some of her clients barely interacted with her at all and did nothing more than pay her bills. Others doled out big bucks to have her berate them on the phone or via email. Thanks to this, she finished law school with less in student loans than I owed for my BA.

As soon as Meghan got a job as a lawyer, she quit her paid domme work. Around the same time, she met Bill, a nice, responsible guy who worked at a bike shop. Bill was also happily submissive, with kinks that lined up pretty neatly with Meghan’s. They’d been together ever since, and she’d never looked back at her old job.

I’d always wondered if I could make money like Meghan had, but I’d never told her this before. Her response when I did was laughter that lasted several minutes.

“You are way too submissive to be a findomme.”

“I could fake it!” I objected. “I can act.”

She shook her head. “You’d be better off subbing for money. But the clients would mostly be guys.”

I wrinkled my nose. “A sugar mama?”

“Good luck finding one,” she said and rose to pour us more coffee, then paused with the coffee pot in her hand. Meghan stared at me.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s the funniest thing. A couple of weeks ago, Bill and I went to a play party, and we met somebody who’s looking for a live-in sub. She has, uh, certain requirements.”

“Like what?” I asked cautiously.

“Female, queer, submissive, femme.” I nodded as I fit the categories. “I don’t know all of it, but she mentioned she wants a woman to cook and clean for her.”

“That’s a little strange.”

“She was hot, if that helps. Sort of a dapper butch. About my age, maybe a little older. She works in tech, some hotshot thing. I bet her place is amazing.”

“I could cook and clean. But I’ve never met a tech person I could stand.”

“She seems like a good person. But you probably don’t want to be a live-in sub.” Meghan refilled our cups. “It’s sort of sex work. That’s not your thing.”

“I don’t know,” I said thoughtfully. I’d always been curious, but unlike Meghan, my experience with bondage, domination, discipline, submission, sadism, and masochism had been entirely within the bounds of romantic relationships. I did not go to play parties or munches, did not have a Fetlife profile or any serious training beyond a few rope bondage classes and a knife play workshop I attended with my post-college girlfriend, Ronnie, years earlier. But in my fantasies, I dove into submission, deeper and more completely than I ever considered in real life. I read erotica about countless tops dominating an eager-to-please submissive, and about relinquishing control in ways I’d never discussed with my girlfriends. Sometimes I thought trying my fantasies would be liberating, but I worried that I was too scared for liberation.

Desperation was a pretty powerful motivator, though, and I wondered if submission could keep me afloat financially while I pursued my dreams. “So subbing for a room, huh?” I asked. “That’s unusual. Why does she want that?”

“Ask her yourself.” Meghan dug her phone out of her pocket. “I’m texting you her email.”

I checked my phone. An email address and the word “Kristen” flashed at me.

“Give it a try or don’t.” Meghan shrugged. “It might not be a good fit. But at least you’ll have explored it. And anyway, you aren’t allowed to say that you’re going to be homeless anymore.”

I blinked. I thought of the affirmation I’d been saying for months. “Everything I need comes my way,” I’d intoned that morning while staring at myself in the mirror. I looked at my phone. Everything I need comes my way.

 

Chapter Three

I emailed Kristen while I walked to the BART station. My palms were so sweaty that I thought I might drop my phone. Luckily, I’d spent the previous year dating online pretty exclusively, so I had my virtual charm down pat.

Hi,I typed, in an email with the subject line, This is awkward

My name is Phoenix (and yes, my parents did give me that name, which makes sense if you know my parents). In addition to really liking parentheses, I’m an aerial dancer, a kinky queer femme, and a friend of Meghan’s. Meghan said she met you the other night and that you and I might hit it off. She also said you had a room you were looking to fill with somebody who met ‘certain requirements.’ I’m incredibly curious about what those might be.

Because some folks do better with a visual, here’s my YouTube channel, so you can see me dangling off silks, ropes, a lyra hoop, and some trapezes. Notice that my costumes are basically underwear. If that piques your interest, drop me a line, yeah?

I then spent the entire ride back to West Oakland obsessing about how to sign off. Peace? Sincerely? Best? Some cute little emoji? Should I turn off my automatic email signature on my personal email account: “Phoenix Gomez, aerial dancer,” with a link to my aerial Facebook page? Did I want this random stranger to have access to my full name and my profile? But if I included a link to my performance videos, she’d be able find me easily enough. Should I skip the link to my videos? But as I’d realized pretty quickly through all that online dating, those videos were more alluring than I ever was in real life. While I was cute in person, in those videos I was magnetic. Every girl I’d directed to that channel had gone out with me at least once, if only out of curiosity. I was strong, flexible, sexy, creative, and powerful in those videos. Whatever the situation was, those videos would almost guarantee me a follow-up from Kristen.

In the end, I left my automatic signature on and finished my email with, Thanks for considering my unsolicited interest in possibly maybe being your sub. I hope receiving this sort of bid from a complete stranger wasn’t completely off-putting.

Obediently (maybe),

Phoenix.

Then I freaked the fuck out. This freak-out had to be contained however because as soon as I got home, I changed and headed off to an advanced trapeze class. Forty minutes after I’d sent that terrifyingly flirtatious email, I was upside down, hanging by one knee, while the instructor called out positions and 90s music blasted in the background. Before I knew, all my worries faded away.

I loved low-flying, mostly static aerials. This meant no trapeze swinging back and forth through the air, and usually being able to reach the bottom of the apparatus from the ground. It also meant no safety net so I was careful not to risk a fall. I couldn’t let my attention wander when I twisted myself around the ropes of the trapeze or balancing on the trapeze bar.

I also performed on silks, long pieces of fabric rigged from the ceiling, and on ropes. Though these let me go higher up, there wasn’t a net with these either. Even after years, I still occasionally got jitters if I looked down from the top of these before a trick. The key, I’d learned, was not looking.

My favorite apparatus was lyra hoop. Like a big Hula-Hoop hung vertically from the ceiling by one or two ropes, it was no safer than anything else I performed on, but I always felt more secure on it. Maybe it was because it was so solid, even as it spun, or maybe it was because I’d put in the most hours on it. If I was ever still stressed after an aerials class or training session, I tried to sneak in a little time on the hoop. Twirling up in the air always cleared my head.

Sending that email had made me wonder if I’d need a little hoop time after trapeze class, but by the time I was done with my class, I felt like I’d been wrung out. I was dripping with sweat, pleasantly exhausted, and had gotten out of my head and into my sore body. Aerials always made me put aside my worries and pay attention to my body, to the present moment, to the line between pushing myself and hurting myself so I didn’t go too far. Who needed to meditate when you could go upside down?

Kristen and my little email were a distant memory by the time I got home and jumped in the shower. As I pulled on sweats, I realized my phone was dead and plugged it in without a glance. I joined John in the kitchen just as he finished cooking, because my timing was perfect, and settled in for a night of Netflix and John’s latest experiment from 660 Curries.

When I stumbled to bed, stuffed and sleepy at nearly midnight, I was shocked to see not one but two emails from Kristen. The first was simple if a little formal. She thanked me for reaching out and pointed me to her FetLife account. Then she suggested that if I thought we had “common ground,” I could email her again and we might meet for coffee. She did not mention the room or give me any more information about herself or even her last name. This was not promising.

The next email was sent an hour after that one and was much more encouraging. It read, Whoa. I started watching your videos after I emailed you and I have not stopped. You’re amazing. Let’s meet. Even if we don’t have chemistry, I’d love to see one of your shows.

Sincerely,

Kristen Andersen (but you should call me Kris)

I smiled to myself. I debated emailing her back, but decided it could wait until the morning. She was hooked. I clicked on the link I’d sent her and watched myself unspool from red fabric, dropping dramatically close to the ground. In another, my hair brushed the floor as I hung by my heels from a trapeze. The camera zoomed in on the left side of my face as I winked suggestively. In some videos, I was all lean muscles and olive skin, my curves barely concealed by sparkly bras and hot pants Sasha had made. I was short with a relatively big butt and thick, strong legs, which made finding clothes a pain. Plus, people who didn’t know assumed I was weak because I was a small woman. But in these videos, I was nothing but sexy and powerful.

One of the videos zoomed in on me tightly, the background barely visible. My wavy hair tumbled over my shoulders wildly. It wasn’t the best video because it didn’t catch every trick that well, but it made me look like a silent film star, glamorous and enigmatic.

Half of the videos on my channel were just me, and the rest were me with partners performing duo acts. Almost always, that partner was Sasha. Her short blond hair and fair skin made it easy to tell us apart. Sasha and I moved in synchronized rhythm. We hung off each other’s limbs and folded our bodies around each other in artistic shapes. Of course Kris was hooked. Those videos were hot. The only question was if I could live up to my own image.

 

v

 

The next morning, I realized that that wasn’t really the only question. I also needed to find out about Kris, her place, and whether I really wanted to sub for her. I skipped my usual Sunday yoga class in favor of some vigorous googling. I learned Kris was the CEO of tech start-up that I’d heard of but never thought much about. Tech stuff bored me tremendously, so all I really understood was the company developed apps, had started in 2008, and that it seemed to make a stupid amount of money.

The word “wunderkind” was thrown around a lot when anyone wrote about Kristen. As a teenager in the early days of the internet, she’d taught herself how to code in her native Seattle. She earned a computer science degree from the University of Washington while moonlighting building websites. After college, she moved to California and got a job at the then relatively young Google. There wasn’t a gap in her résumé from then on, with years of freelancing on top of working at major tech companies before she launched her start-up. At thirty-six, she was successful in a way that sort of made me nauseous.

Also? She was cute. In all her pictures, she wore an elegant V-neck sweater or blazer over a tie and button-down shirt, like that was her uniform. She had bright green eyes behind stylish, masculine glasses; glossy, short brown hair that clearly got cut in some expensive barbershop; and pretty lips on a handsome face. Her mouth seemed to rest like she was about to laugh in every picture, but always at a joke that only she knew.

Next, I poked around Kris’s FetLife page, which meant joining FetLife. I gave myself a username that was pretty close to my real name and hoped it wouldn’t be a problem. Though I’d been experimenting with BDSM since college and curious before that, I’d been strictly a private player. I read some books and owned decent restraints, but I’d kept myself separate from anything that could be classified as a “scene.” I couldn’t quite take a lot of the BDSM stuff seriously, mostly because I could not get into the terminology. Looking over profiles and picking out a “role” for my own made me feel like I needed a kinkster dictionary.

Kris’s profile was accessible enough at least. Her screen name was pretty generic, nothing that made me embarrassed like, say, “Mistress Kristen.” She identified as dominant, which was no surprise. Her picture was her outside on a sunny day, wearing sunglasses and a tank top. Her picture revealed that she had nice arms and also that she totally had the same tank top as Ollie. She had another picture, too, one of her in a very sharp three-piece suit.

Her profile said, “I work long hours, so I’m not as active in the scene or on the site as I want. I’m also not as available as many potential partners might want. I like partners who have their own lives and their own interests. I especially love topping alpha femmes who run the show professionally and have their shit together, and bringing them to a place where they can let go and then past that. I’m not good at being a girlfriend, but I give great aftercare. I’m primarily interested in regular play partners. I’m interested in sharing my home eventually, though not in a strict 24/7 D/s relationship, or a traditional vanilla one. I’m still friends with just about everyone I’ve ever played with, and I want to like the people I tie up. I’m interested in women. I’m a cisgender butch lesbian, in case you weren’t sure.”

Her profile also gave me a list of her turn-ons. Giving: face-slapping, biting, bruises, hair pulling, flogging, spanking, bondage, rough sex. Receiving: service, oral sex. Everything to do with: butch-femme, control, aftercare, and femmes. Watching others wear lingerie and red lipstick. Putting bratty bottoms in their place.

Yeah, let’s meet, I emailed her as soon as I read that. When do you want to buy me coffee?

Weekdays are crazy for me, so it will have to be the weekend, she replied right away. Next Sunday, 10 a.m., Philz in the Mission.There wasn’t a question mark in sight.

It seemed to me that the place she was putting this bratty bottom was her spare bedroom, rent-free.

 

Chapter Four

Would I have gone out with Kris if I hadn’t been hoping to sub for a room? I thought about it as I took BART to the 24th Street Mission stop in San Francisco. Historically, I dated people who’d eventually be something big, but who were sort of a mess when I met them. My first girlfriend, Amanda, had gone on to get a PhD in English lit (with an eye toward feminist intersectionality) by thirty and adapt her thesis for an academic press. When we met, though, we were seniors in high school in Albuquerque. She was still using her given name and the male pronouns she’d been raised with. She was tortured about her gender identity, unfocused in her ambitions, and showing only hints of the brilliance she actually had.

My next girlfriend, Carolena, was a fantastically political, furious student activist who never did her homework, and a wannabe rapper under the name La Verde. After college, she went to New York and became a full-time, well-respected activist.

My kinkiest ex, Ronnie, spent most of our two years together working as a dog walker, getting faded in her ample free time, and stopping around the Bay Area to rescue stray dogs. After we broke up, she got into veterinary school and eventually joined a practice with a spotless reputation.

My last ex, Beth, had been a sulky barista who constantly gave me just enough attention to keep me hooked. She took me out for a weekend trip to Napa and dumped me on the drive back to Oakland. Then she started therapy about her commitment issues, got a promotion to manager, met a genuinely nice woman, and was engaged before I’d updated my OKCupid profile.

I thought it was notable that I loved these women before they really bloomed. Though I helped some, and in Amanda’s case, my sympathetic professor parents helped as much as I did, it wasn’t that I improved them. I just loved people unfinished and untidy, but most people don’t stay that way. On less generous days, I thought maybe I just couldn’t stand to be with someone who had it together when I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine myself with someone accomplished and sure of themselves when I was worrying about how long I could go without replacing my three-a-pack underwear from Target. Or when I was still toiling away and unsure if my dreams would ever come to anything.

I couldn’t imagine how Kristen and I would have met in real life. We didn’t exactly move in the same circles. I also couldn’t imagine feeling brave enough to approach her, or any situation in which she’d approach me.

But since we both knew Meghan and we maybe had complementary interests, there we were. Kristen stood outside Philz Coffee, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a hoodie, and sneakers. She was on her phone, frowning, when I approached her. I was already sweating, running slightly late, and worried about my outfit. What did you wear to something that was a date, job interview, possible new roommate meet, and kinky get-together all in one? I’d settled for black flats, fishnets, and a curve-hugging sleeveless red dress, topped off with giant hoop earrings. Seeing Kris, I worried I was overdressed.

As soon as I waved, she gave me a big smile that revealed slightly crooked teeth. I’d never seen those in the pictures, I realized. She put away her phone. “Phoenix?” she asked.

“Hi,” I squeaked and gave her an awkward hug. She was not as tall or imposing as I’d imagined, but she was still half a foot taller than five-foot-one-inch me.

After she bought me coffee, we tried and failed to find an empty table. “Maybe we could walk over to Dolores Park?” she suggested.

I nodded. I was so hopeful it would work out with Kris that I was a gulping, sweaty ball of anxiety. This was not my most attractive look.

It was a beautiful August day, actually hot for a change, and Kris shrugged off her hoodie. She kept the conversation going for our short walk to Dolores, giving me a little background on herself. I was too nervous to do much more than nod along. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to pull my own conversational weight, she told me she’d seen some of my aerial videos and was impressed.

“Which did you watch?” I asked.

“You and another woman were going up and down fabric in sync to Jenny Lewis.” She smiled.

“I liked that performance.” I nodded, thinking of our careful climbs and drops on the silks. “The other woman is my friend Sasha.”

“I saw another where she took your clothes off and put them on herself. You were on a trapeze.”

I blushed. We’d done that low-flying trapeze act for a burlesque show years earlier. Sasha started the performance wearing only lingerie, but by the end I was the one stripped down to little more than pasties and a thong. She lay on the ground and pulled my shirt off while I dangled in a one-knee hang. I had held a crucifix pose as Sasha, kneeling in front of me, took my pants off. One night the zipper had gotten stuck and I stayed in the position so long that the rope had rubbed a patch of skin off my arm. I still had a scar.

“And one of you by yourself,” Kris said as we entered the park. “You were on a hoop in the air, spinning around and flirting with the crowd.”

“That’s my favorite.”

“You were great.”

“Thanks.” I gulped my coffee too fast and burned my tongue. We silently found an empty spot and sat on the grass.

“So what do you want, exactly?” I blurted as soon as we were sitting. With my shot nerves, I couldn’t help myself, despite the stunned look on her face.

She exhaled slowly. “Let’s start with getting to know each other a little.”

“Right, right, of course. I’m sorry. I’m just nervous. Meghan told me you might be looking for a live-in sub, and my roommate’s moving out, and I gave notice at my job, and basically, I’m freaking out. So I’m being weird.”

“It’s a weird situation,” she said diplomatically. “I’ve never had a live-in sub before. I don’t normally meet with complete strangers who might live in my house.”

“I don’t normally even meet up with strangers who I’m just looking to sleep with,” I mumbled. “I mean, I date. But I’m not, I don’t know, in the scene or whatever. I don’t go to sex parties or find people just to do kinky things with. So this is…”

“Are you wondering what you’re doing here?”

“Kind of.”

“You’re having coffee with somebody. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not a big deal, is it?”

I nodded. When I told Sasha that I was losing my roommate, she offered to let me stay with her and find me a place in her co-op. Unfortunately, Sasha lived in a repurposed walk-in closet. It was incredibly cheap, but living with a dozen people and attending weekly co-op meetings with all of them did not appeal to me. Still, I had options.

“I noticed your profile wasn’t filled out,” Kris said. “I thought maybe you were pretty new to this, and I was hesitant about that.”

“Why?”

“I don’t generally play with someone who’s this new.”

“I’m not new to it. I’m just not…public. I’ve done lots of stuff. In private.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of stuff?”

I blushed again but made myself sit taller. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, actually. That’s why we’re having coffee.”

I took another scorching gulp. Way to flirt, Phoenix. “I’ve been tied up.”

“With what?”

“Restraints, fabric ones. Ropes. Not, like, chains or anything.”

“And you liked it?”

I grinned. “Very much.”

Kris reached over to capture a curl that had fallen in front of my shoulder. She tucked it behind my ear. “You saw my whole list. I’d like to know yours.”

“I’ve never exactly made a list. I guess I’ve tried things, and I liked them or I didn’t.”

“What have you tried? What have you liked?” she asked cheerfully. “What didn’t you like?”

My upper lip began to sweat, a sign I was exceptionally nervous. I chugged the last of my coffee and excused myself to throw away the empty cup. I was hoping she’d forget about it by the time I got back, but when I sat back down, she just looked at me expectantly. I shook my head. “I’m new to talking about it with someone I barely know.”

“You don’t know me well enough to talk to me about your kinks, but you know me well enough to consider moving in with me and having kinky sex with me?” Kris arched an eyebrow.

“Touché. But where do I start?”

She sipped her coffee slowly, then asked, “Have you ever made a yes/no/maybe list?”

I shook my head.

“Why don’t you try one, and if you want to meet again, we can compare what we like. They’re kind of cheesy sometimes, but they’re useful. I’ll send you a link.”

“Okay.” I shrugged. “Not to be too forward, but why are you interested in this? I mean, I’m a broke wannabe aerialist. But you’re successful and you must meet tons of women who share your, um, interests. You’re involved in BDSM stuff, and you could pay a professional if you wanted. So, why this?”

She flashed me the smile from her photographs. “I’ve been thinking about this fantasy for a while, and I’d discussed it with a couple of partners in the past, but it never worked out. I do okay with play partners, but it can be hard to meet people because I work so much. My last sub moved to San Diego a few months ago, and I’ve been looking for a new one, asking people in the scene if they know anyone for me. I told Meghan I was looking for a sub. She asked more about it, and I told her my dream is to have a hot, live-in, femme sub who’d clean and cook. She made a joke about me getting a sex housewife in exchange for rent, and I said it didn’t sound half bad and to send anybody who fit the bill my way. Before I knew it, I was watching those videos you sent, and now here you are.”

“Ask and you shall receive.”

“It’s worked out for me. Or at least, we’re having coffee. I’m interested in exploring this. What about you?”

“I’m interested. I mean, I want to see your house.” I nudged her playfully with my shoulder.

“If our interests line up, let’s play, and then we can talk about the house. Any interest in the party at Mission Control next weekend?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I’ve never gone to anything like that before. I’d be much more comfortable if we played in private first.”

“Really?” She looked shocked.

“Look, kink in public is new to me. But kink in private? I know how to do that.”

She looked worried. “It’s been a long, long time since I played with a new person in private. I always play with new partners for the first time in public.”

I chewed a hangnail. “Is that something you can compromise on?”

“I think so. But I’m not used to it.”

“I’m not used to any of it.”

“But you’re interested?” She took my hand and I jumped at the unexpected jolt it gave me.

“Very.” I leaned closer to her. “Though I think we should test if we have chemistry.”

“And how would we do that?” she asked huskily.

I kissed her slowly, lightly. Her lips were soft and yielding. It lasted just for a minute, but I felt a spark, a rush of desire.

“So,” she said after we had pulled apart. “When do you want to come over?”

“Now?”

She pulled out her phone and frowned again. “Actually, I have to get back to work. Tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

“Bring the yes/no/maybe list. I’ll text you.” She gave me a peck on the cheek. She was already calling someone and walking away.