A Gentleman and a Sadist

The false dichotomy of good guys and bad guys

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

He liked it rough, he said, and he liked to be the aggressor.

This surprised me, because he seemed so gentle, so soft-spoken. And it scared me, because I was less than six months out of an abusive marriage and still afraid of men in general. He may as well have told me he liked to screw goats or had a rap sheet featuring pedophilia. Rough sex was a nonstarter with me.

It was okay, though, because it took the pressure off. If there were no possibility of a romantic future, then we would just be friends, and I needed a friend far more than I needed a lover.

He lived in a house across the street from my apartment building. We began talking because I was always out walking my dog and he was always out working around his house. He was good-looking and physically impressive in a quiet way — tall, broad-shouldered, and lean from a life of near-constant physical labor. He’d not developed the love handles or other dad-bod features that most 40-ish men in our Iowa town had. He moved easily and gracefully, always dressed in faded jeans, threadbare T-shirts, and a baseball cap over his just-slightly-shaggy hair. He struck me as unaware of himself, of his presence.

I found something about him oddly comforting in a way that completely confused me.

He drank — a lot — nearly a 12-pack a day between when he finished his workday as a carpenter and when he went to bed. During these in-between hours, he mostly did yard work and house repairs, which were as much for his elderly neighbors as they were for himself. He seemed wholly unable to stop moving, as though to stop would allow something to catch up with him.

Once we started talking we kept talking, so I often ended up just hanging around while he worked. He seemed to appreciate my company. And I found something about him oddly comforting in a way that completely confused me.

My husband had been a drinker, too, and when he drank he would turn on me; I figured it was only a matter of time before B. showed his ugly side, especially given what I knew of his sexual tastes. But for reasons I still can’t explain, I grew steadily if cautiously attached to him, albeit in a completely platonic way.

When the sun went down in the evenings and the alcohol had settled him a little, he would turn on his porch lights and offer me a blanket and his rocking chair. He always sat in a rickety lawn chair himself. I would keep one eye on my girls as they played with friends in the park across the street, and he’d double down on the beer as we talked in the chilly evening air. I drank hot tea that I brought from home and observed him with a sort of detached yet intense fascination, this strange and beautiful man.

I was a skittish cat during these evening chats — curious yet hyper vigilant, on high alert for the slightest shift in diction, for the faintest shadow of darkness to pass over his eyes. I would silently count the beers, always ready to bolt, always ready for the first sneer, the first cutting remark.

It never happened. This amazed me. I’d blamed my husband’s abusiveness on the drink for years, yet here was this man who consumed beer after beer and yet never turned mean. The sheer amount of alcohol had to be harming B. in some way, medically speaking, but it wasn’t making him harm me. He got a little chattier, a little less guarded, but his demeanor toward me remained gentle. It was during one of these alcohol-laced conversations that he revealed his sexual preferences.

I kept a perfectly neutral face, because I am extraordinarily practiced at keeping a neutral face. Life with my husband had taught me that a reaction, any reaction, could start a fire. I had become stoic, so stoic that even now I sometimes still struggle to access the appropriate emotion.

B. watched me closely during this revelation, and, speaking to my unasked question, he said, “I mean, I don’t have to have it that way. I would never do anything against anyone’s will.”

“But it’s what you want,” I said.

“Yes,” he answered quietly. He admitted he had a pretty serious porn addiction as well, and I shuddered to imagine the content. As an afterthought, and somewhat sheepishly, he admitted that he wanted to build a sex room in his attic. “I just, I just want to explore everything,” he said. “I want to push the boundaries.”

He was not promiscuous; he wanted to act out his desires within a committed relationship. As far as I know, he was never even with a woman for the duration of our time together, though he seemed to be preparing for her, wishing her into being.

The irreconcilable differences stacked up — not between him and me, but between what I witnessed of his behavior and what I knew of his desires. I saw a gentle soul who looked after his elderly neighbors and who’d recently released a baby robin that he’d hand-raised when it fell out of its nest. I tried to reconcile the image of his hands cradling the bird with one of those same hands choking a woman in the midst of passion, of using them to inflict just enough pain to give him what he needed without causing serious injury. I couldn’t do it; the equation wouldn’t balance.

And I was so confused. My husband had been gentle in bed but often a monster outside of it. Was B. the opposite? Which was better? Which was worse?

B. had a little kitten, and she followed him everywhere, trusted him completely. She would climb up the leg of his jeans into his hand and from there up his chest to his shoulder where she would nestle into the crook of his neck and sit for hours. Some nights I wanted to be that kitten. Other nights I reminded myself that there would be a price to pay for that level of intimacy with him and that it was one I could not afford.

It wasn’t moral judgment that kept me at arm’s length from him. I’ve messed up my own life enough to have forfeited the right to judge. It was fear. I still wasn’t sure I could ever be with another man at all, let alone one who might hurt me. I still felt stitched together, raw and throbbing; I knew it would take very little for me to come completely apart. I knew that if I did there would be no putting me back together again.

A few weeks after he opened up to me about his sexual appetites, he told me he was moving. I already knew by then that it was a possibility. His sister’s husband had died, overdosed, and she and the kids were unraveling. B. was the only family they had, and he and his sister were very close. Because he could work anywhere and there was only one of him, it would be easier for him to relocate than to uproot Amy and the kids. They lived six hours away. They would grow up without their father now, and he wanted to help fill that void.

His decision was consistent with what seemed a deep and abiding need to care for others, even to self-sacrifice: the bird-raising, the neighbor-care-taking, the way he’d begun checking in with me each night before he fell asleep to make sure the girls and I were in safely. Before Amy’s husband died — when her husband was still spiraling into addiction — B. had once complained to me about Amy calling him in tears in the middle of the night, sometimes several times a night, and I asked him why he didn’t just silence his phone. “I always answer,” he said. “I want to be the one who always answers.”

“How can you be simultaneously nurturing and sadistic?” I wanted to ask. But I didn’t. It didn’t really matter.

The moving truck came and took all his stuff away. He wasn’t leaving to make the drive until the next morning and my girls were at a sleepover anyway, so I told him he could stay the night with me.

When he flopped down on my sofa, I curled up next to him and he slipped his arm around my shoulder. We did this as though it were something we did every night, as though there weren’t unbridgeable canyons between us, as though some form of physical communion were a foregone conclusion despite it having never been a part of our relationship.

I gave myself over to him the way I might to any other natural force — it was like swimming with a current or leaning into the wind.

We slept together that night, just that once, and it was not frightening or violent or particularly passionate. We didn’t talk about it beforehand, and I didn’t ask him to refrain from anything because I knew I didn’t need to, knew that he would forego his own desires to keep me safe. I gave myself over to him the way I might to any other natural force — it was like swimming with a current or leaning into the wind. Afterward I folded into him again and he held me for the rest of the night in a way that’s difficult to explain — easily but carefully, I guess. I sank into his body as though it were the final destination of a harrowing journey, as though I were a refugee on the cusp of disintegration.

It only happened because there was no future in it; we both understood this. Beyond that, I am at a loss. I would like to say that it nudged me over some threshold, initiated me back into the land of the living in terms of romantic possibility, but I don’t think that’s true.

And it wasn’t friends-with-benefits sex; it wasn’t what I’d call “fun,” and given its vanilla nature, I imagine even less fun for B. I guess, if I must analyze it, and apparently I must, it broke down some structures that I now understand were far too simplistic to be applicable.

People are complicated, of course — we know this; the good guy/bad guy dichotomy has always been false. My husband spoke eloquently and made love gently, but was capable of violence; B. spoke sparingly and needed to at least act out violence, but lived his life rather like a Zen Buddhist monk.

We let each other go the next morning, completely. There was no decision to be made there, either. I believe it was a tacit condition of our coming together the night before.

As he drove away I felt lost, and alone, and grateful, and relieved, and still — confused.

And maybe I should jettison the compulsion to explain it, to find some deeper meaning in it. Maybe it was just sex. Maybe.

Coder, Decoder, Code-switcher, Truth-teller.

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