We were already fucking. Her eyes were closed, and she was gathering the slack of the bedsheets into her hands. As we started going harder, she reached for the rail of the headboard. "Hit me," she said.
The frame was already barking. The bed was starting to shuffle away from the wall. I did what I thought she wanted and slapped her lightly across the face.
She turned her head into the mattress and spoke louder, not unhappily.
"Hit me. Harder. Hard."
I pulled back my hips and pulled back my hand. I slapped her as hard as I could. She made a noise, like crying but also like a hot intake of breath. She nodded. I did it again, a little less hard. I could see her face darkening and didn't want to leave a mark. My hand stung. I assumed her face hurt more. Watching her breathe harder and flex her legs to raise up her ass made my cock harder, quickly. We kept alternating—slap, inhale, fuck, slap, inhale, fuck—without talking. As we fucked increasingly hard, she made noises I didn't know. I took them as cues, so I would slap her as hard as I could, as hard as she seemed to want. There was no story running in my head. I was only reacting.
At one point, I swung too hard.
"Ouch," she said. She laughed. Her smile was the first acknowledgment that we were performing a ritual, finding a new way to perform for each other. "A little less," she said. "Do it." I hit her again three times, right at the border we'd found. I hadn't noticed it, but her hand was already on her clit. It had probably been there for several minutes. She scissored up suddenly, stopping our movement while she came.
Her torso flexed, and she couldn't really talk. "On me, on me" she said. It was familiar shorthand. I pulled out and came on her face, though most of the cum landed behind on the headboard. The experience had torqued me up, leaving my mouth dry. I had gone much further than I expected. She laughed, roomily, full of new air and old affection. She fell back onto the pillows and smiled.
She had pale skin, full of light and easily reddened. Her smile was always wide, even when she covered her teeth with her lips. Her hair was black and her eyes were a flinty, bright green. The colors alone could make me hard. She kissed with the rhythm of a practiced dance partner, never opening too wide or thrusting her tongue back too quickly. She was lying beneath me, cum flecking her left shoulder and her hair. Her stare was even and calm. We loved having sex and had a dozen modes. We went down on each other in the hubristically big bathroom of an expensive hotel, so forcefully that we were both raw and laughing before we could finish. She sucked me off in the bathroom of a bad Mexican restaurant. We fucked in my office. I felt her panties bloom into wetness as she drove a rental car through Houston and talked to her mother on the phone. But I had never hit her.
"You didn't want to do that," she said, stretching her arms as the beginning of a deep, sweet yawn.
"I didn't know how to," I said.
"You figured it out."
From then on, hitting became a part of our practice, though it was never a default move. Sometimes she wanted to be held down. Sometimes she wanted me to tie her to the bed. Our moves were unplanned, aside from having to buy restraints. Once we had the fur handcuffs and straps, we came face-to-face with the comedy. ("What is this fur? It's just a piece of carpet.") A t-shirt wrapped around the bedposts became our restraint of choice. Eventually, though, the bits and bobs fell by the wayside. If we brought out the gear, we'd end up laughing at our inability to make knots. Worse, it slowed us down and killed the serendipity of it all. The restraint, the violence, the impact—it had to happen instantly and helplessly during the act. The new fucking had to be brought on by old fucking.
Hitting someone during sex had no inherent value for me. This was not my fantasy. Hitting came up because she wanted it. Then it became freighted with pleasure and anticipation because it worked well, and acutely: for her. The hitting shaded into punishment when she would ask me to abuse her with words as well, to call her a "bad girl" or "a dirty whore." She was in charge of that captioning, and made the choice according to a story I couldn't hear. Despite the intimate nature of hitting a woman while fucking her, you don't necessarily know why that sensation ignites all the other feelings. We never discussed the hitting beyond casual, postsex locker-room talk: "Was that too hard?" "Am I red?" "Can you bruise if I don't use my knuckles?"
Over time, I stopped thinking about the politics of the act, the satellites of power, subjugation and humiliation. She had chosen an act and told me how she wanted it to happen. As any lover might, she had asked for something. The act was valuable only because it turned her on. If wearing a hat during sex had produced the same rush, I would have done it. Realizing this, I started down a logical chain. What other things could a lover ask for? What would unlock them? Anything could become the cathexis and all rituals could become instrumental to the pleasure. The first buzz was finding a move that unlocked acute, uncontrolled sexual energy. The second, more durable thrill was the prospect of knowing that your partner had a trigger somewhere, a point that would send her down a slide so steep that braking or changing course was not possible. But that lack of control is always twinned with its controlled beginning: only your partner can start the process. Only she can show you where and what to hit. In this setting, your sexual vocabulary expands because of your partner's needs, not your own. You don't need to know the story or unpack the pleasure. Just do as you're told.
This essay is adapted from Coming And Crying, an anthology of true stories about sex, edited by Melissa Gira Grant and Meaghan O'Connell, and originally appeared in FilthyGorgeousThings. Republished by permission. Order the book here.