The S&M love relationship is doomed by its very nature. Over a period of time, as the affection of the S becomes deeper and more mature, he is unable to provide the detached humiliation demanded by his partner's craving.
—Larry Townsend: The Leatherman's Handbook (1972).
Loren knew, even before he stepped through the doorway of the stairwell, what he would see in the bar. It was what he saw every night at this time. The same crowd, the same predictable crowd.
On weekday evenings, most of the customers here at this time of night would be Mayhill's leather-clad motorcyclists, who grudgingly admitted that, since Mayhill didn't have a proper bar for their sort, this one would have to do. All of those men gave the appearance of being heterosexual; occasionally they brought their wives or girlfriends to the bar. If any gay leathermen showed up at the bar during the weekday leather hours, they kept their presence discreet.
The weekend was another matter.
On weekends, when the motorcyclists were off on excursions and runs, the bar transformed. About two dozen regulars attended the weekend leather hours, plus another dozen or so who turned up at odd times, and almost invariably a visitor or two passing through Mayhill came to Loren's Lashes because it was the only gay bar in town. On a lucky night, the visitors would be from the gay leather community outside Mayhill. On unlucky nights, Loren would be left with the tedious chore of finding an excuse to turn away the unenlightened customers, so that they wouldn't panic when they overheard the conversations inside the bar.
Loren looked at every face, recognized them, looked them over again to be sure that he had not seen them before. He sighed.
"I ought to move to the big city," he murmured. It was a statement he had often made to himself. He knew that he would never obey his own advice. If there had ever been a time to move away from his hometown, it would have been twenty years before, when a leather-clad motorcyclist passing through town cruised a run-down Mayhill park and found there a seventeen-year-old, eager to learn new games.
He never learned more than his master's first name, and he suspected afterwards that the name had been a lie. He didn't need a name. From the start, he addressed the man as "sir," understanding, with some inborn instinct, what the man's leather jacket meant.
The leatherman, being tender toward the teenager, had intended only to take Loren through some basic bondage; he was amused and pleased when he realized how eager a pupil he had on his hands. The one-week visit extended to two, then three. In the end he stayed for four months, meeting each evening with Loren, who hardly bothered to cover up the fact to his parents that he was spending his evenings in bad company. His parents had realized a couple of years before that Loren's rebel-without-a-cause stage was not going to disappear, and they had washed their hands of him.
The leatherman taught Loren everything he knew, or so he told Loren. The secrets were revealed through quiet instruction, or though silent demonstration. Loren learned to speak only when it was required of him. He learned the mysteries, passed down from master to apprentice, known to no outsiders. He learned where his heart burned.
For the final month of the visit, he wore his master's collar. It was the proudest moment of his life when his master removed the collar and declared Loren ready to be part of the brotherhood.
Then the leatherman announced he was leaving.
"But what will I do?" Loren cried.
"Come with me," the leatherman suggested, handing Loren his collar.
Loren thought about this, then shook his head. The nearest big city, where his master had most recently lived, was four hundred miles away; Mayhill's slow busses took a full day to get there. Loren had never been outside his hometown. Moving to Antarctica would be easier.
The leatherman nodded as though he had received an expected answer. "Then search for ems," he said. "And find an apprentice of your own. Teach him what I taught you. But make sure he's worthy of your instruction."
Loren felt the blood rush warm through him at the implied compliment. "Where should I look for him?" he asked. "There isn't anyone like that here, I think."
The leatherman mused on this matter as he pulled off his jacket. It was a deep brown except for his club patch, which was multi-colored. "Not where I've been staying most recently," he said finally. "None of the brotherhood live there – I've looked. There aren't many of us, you know. Maybe a few dozen."
"In the entire state?" Loren said, aghast.
The leatherman gave him a quick, grim smile. "In the entire country. We're an elite breed, apprentice. Not many can survive the training. . . . L.A. or Frisco are your best bets. I've heard rumors that the brotherhood can be found in New York City, but I haven't travelled to the East yet."
The coastal cities were half a continent away; they held no more appeal to Loren than the big city nearby. As he was trying to figure out a way to explain this, the leatherman tossed him his jacket. "Keep this," he said. "Some day you'll find someone to hand your leather down to. Keep searching till you find him."
Loren took his advice. He returned each evening to the cruising grounds – the only place in Mayhill where one could openly admit to being homosexual, and then only at the price of possible arrest if the man you were with turned out to hold a hidden badge. Loren liked the risk. He liked danger, he liked playing on the edge. Unfortunately, none of the other men he met seemed to feel the same way. Most of them were married men, seeking a quick release before slinking home to their wives. Loren bided his time.
In the meantime, he sought information on what he was. Soon he was perusing Plato; unexpectedly, this led to an interest in Plato for his own sake, not just for the dirty passages. He startled his parents by applying for entrance to Mayhill's university. Four years later, he entered the university's graduate program. By 1975, ten years after he met his destiny with the leatherman, Loren was a respected member of the university.
He was beginning to drink heavily. The promised apprentice had never materialized, nor had the ems. Occasionally, in the early years, he had met a man who would agree halfheartedly to be spanked or have his nipples twisted or some equally tame game. But most of the men Loren met considered him too young to play master over them.
These days, his problem was the opposite. Although there were more men now at the cruising grounds than there had been in the past, they were losing interest in Loren as he grew older. They had turned their attention to younger men, and none of those young men showed any inclination to want to play the types of games Loren wanted to play. Loren grew restless and began seeking out more dangerous sport: sex in alleyways, sex with men who carried guns.
That all ended on the Bicentennial night that he was viciously beaten and left for dead. Oddly enough, the beating did nothing to diminish his fantasies, but it taught him not to confuse fantasy with reality. He stopped visiting the cruising grounds. It was hardly worth his while to go there any more, since more and more gay men were moving to the big cities, where exciting events were said to be unfolding. Mayhill, still stuck somewhere circa 1965, had become the hometown for wide-eyed country boys and tired old queens. Loren fit neither profile.
Or so he hoped.
He searched for respectable cruising venues and found the town's first, newly formed homophile organization, the university's Rainbow Alliance. That it called itself "homophile" gave some sense of how far back in the past it was stuck. Loren attended some meetings and found that the alliance's members were ten years younger than him and so nervous at admitting to others what they wanted that they jumped three feet high if you whispered the words "anal sex." Proposing anything stronger than that was clearly impossible, and Loren knew that, as a faculty member, he was in a particularly vulnerable position. The gay rights he was beginning to read about in the newspapers hadn't yet made their way to Mayhill.
He grew bored with the alliance meetings and stopped going to them. His drinking began again, worse than before. One night, in a fit of fury, he threw into Firewater River his master's jacket and the leather collar his master had given him, and watched them carried away by the rolling waters. Afterwards he felt empty, adrift. He tried to bury himself in his work, sending off paper after paper to the academic journals on Plato's concept of perfection. But he couldn't seem to concentrate on the meaning of Being when all meaning had been lost to him.
Then two things happened so rapidly, one after the other, that Loren might have thought he was in a Greek play, a puppet for the gods.
The first act of the gods occurred when he met an old cruising partner, one of the few who had been willing to indulge him in a mild way. "I've met a woman I think you'd like," he said.
Loren didn't bother to rise to this tired old jibe. "Who is she?"
"Her name's Melody." The man smiled. "She shares your interests."
Melody, it turned out, was a dominatrix. The word was new to Loren, as was much of what she said. It had not occurred to him before that the heterosexuals of the world might have their own mysteries, though now that he thought of it, nothing seemed more obvious.
Melody didn't seem much interested in keeping her mysteries secret. A friend of hers had told her that sadism and masochism societies were starting in other parts of the country, she said. She wanted to form one in Mayhill. Would Loren help?
And so the Black and Blue Club was formed under the relatively innocuous name of the Mayhill Sexual Education Society. Just as Melody had predicted, members trickled in slowly but steadily. All of them were straight. No gays.
"Give it time," said Melody. "Your kind will turn up eventually. In the meantime, you can make yourself useful."
Thus it was, one day in late 1977, that Loren stood up in the low-rental basement where the club held its meetings and began to give a talk entitled "Fantasy Versus Reality: How to Tell Them Apart and Keep Them Apart." The title was vanilla enough that Loren had been able to advertise the lecture in the university newspaper, but none of the Rainbow Alliance members had shown up. Only the usual, straight crowd.
Then, ten minutes into the lecture, Loren looked up from his notes to see that a young man had slipped into one of the back-row seats. He wore a lambda pin on his tee-shirt. Loren nearly lost his place in the notes but continued speaking, describing how S&M fantasy could be a fuel for good acts in this world, provided that the fantasy was not mistaken for reality. He could feel the young man's eyes upon him.
Afterwards, Loren brusquely set aside attempts to entangle him in conversation with the regular members of the club. Instead, he stepped into the men's room and waited, his heart pounding.
The young man arrived within seconds. He had steady eyes – eyes that were older than his face.
He said without preliminary, "I need you to teach me, sir."
By the end of 1979, Loren was thirty-one, and the Black and Blue Club had six gay male members besides himself. All of them were students from the Rainbow Alliance, persuaded by his lectures into giving S&M a try. He taught them a few obvious acts, things they would have figured out for themselves in any case. The mysteries he reserved for his apprentice.
To Loren's disappointment, he found that his steady-eyed apprentice did not desire all that Loren had to offer. They fought about it, both men equally quiet, both men equally firm. Finally Loren gave way, recognizing that he couldn't make his apprentice into something the apprentice did not want to be. Loren didn't make the apprentice his slave; neither did he teach his apprentice to be a sadist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead, he gave his apprentice the parts of the mystery he would need to know in order to command other men, and to make those men do what they desired most to do but could not achieve alone.
What his apprentice chose to do, he did beautifully. Loren was satisfied in the end.
In all other respects, though, Loren had returned to restlessness. He knew that the outside world was to blame. Every night, it seemed, the evening news held another story about a changing world in which gays could openly speak of their sexuality. Everywhere, men like himself were coming out of the closet and boldly proclaiming to the world what they were.
Except the leathermen. Loren's kind were nowhere to be found in the news or in the few books about homosexuality that were passed around in Mayhill, from hand to hand. Perhaps the leathermen were mentioned in the many other gay books that never made it as far as Mayhill. Mayhill was still a closed world; visitors came and went, restless young gays went and did not return, but no one brought the information Loren desired.
The first time that, with a shock, he encountered another gay man wearing leather, he thought he had found what he was seeking. But it meant nothing; leather, he was told, was fashionable in the gay community these days, that was all.
A couple of the Black and Blue Club's gay members started wearing leather. They looked delicious in it. Until now, Loren had restrained himself, having the vague feeling that faculty members should not take sexual advantage of students, even students who talked loudly of their fondness for being whipped. But he could no longer resist. One night he invited home a gay member of the Black and Blue Club – a former student who had dropped out of the university and who had shown a taste for the heavier games that Loren was fond of. The man seemed startled, but cautiously agreed to play a scene with Loren.
Loren put on his best show that night, borrowing the man's leather jacket and acting toward him as he remembered his master acting toward him. His chest was almost unbearably tight when it came time to whip the man. Then he paused, concerned, as he saw that the man was shaking. With fear? Or anguish? Loren bent closer to see.
Not fear. Not anguish. The man was shaking with suppressed laughter.
Loren sent the man home and spent a long time looking at himself in the mirror. He was wearing what an unkind student had called his John Travolta Lookalike Outfit: bell-bottoms, a wide collar, a partly unbuttoned shirt. Underneath it all was himself: five foot five, scrawny, with hair that persisted in forming girlish curls no matter how much he tried to train it otherwise. He imagined the leather jacket again, with himself underneath.
Then he opened a hidden bottle of whiskey and set out to drink himself unconscious.
His apprentice arrived before he had completed the task. From the look in the apprentice's eyes, Loren could tell that the story of what had happened had spread. His apprentice, though, simply opened a can of lime soda from the refrigerator, sat down cross-legged at Loren's feet, and began talking about the latest man he was serving as master toward. The apprentice spoke of what they had been doing, of how the other man was growing in strength through their work together. The apprentice talked on and on, revealing, with every word, Loren's skill as a mentor, and how his apprentice had put Loren's teachings to good use.
Loren put the unfinished bottle aside finally. "I can't go on like this any more," he said simply.
"No," his apprentice agreed. After a moment he added: "Leather is everywhere. That must mean something."
"It's just a fashion."
"But the fashion must have started somewhere. Maybe someone knows, in the big city."
Loren passed a hand wearily over his face. "None of the brotherhood live there. My master told me."
"Sir, that was fifteen years ago! Don't you think things might have changed since then?"
And in that blinding light of his apprentice's insight, Loren's world altered again.
They began their research, predictably, in an academic fashion. His apprentice, who had reached his senior year of college, started examining the scientific journals on sexuality that he had access to by virtue of his work at the university library. Amongst the many articles that described solemnly the dysfunctional lives of sadists, homosexuals, and other sexual deviants, his apprentice found an article that referred to a homosexual sadomasochistic subculture. No information was given, though, on how to contact this subculture.
Loren, meanwhile, was examining what he regarded as his most prized possession, other than his complete set of the Loeb Classics: a gay porn novel that had been given to him several years before by an out-of-town visitor to the cruising grounds. Loren was the only member of the Black and Blue Club to possess such a treasure, and the novel had been well-thumbed, not only by the homosexual members of the club, but also by the heterosexual members, who had never seen a modern erotica novel other than Melody's equally well-thumbed copy of The Story of O. Loren valued the novel more for its existence than for its subject matter: it was a warm-and-fuzzy coming-of-age tale that put him to sleep more effectively than hot cocoa. But rereading it carefully, he thought he detected signs of a different gay world lurking beyond the lovers' vision: a world where sex was rough and anything might happen.
"Gay magazines," his apprentice suggested. "Someone I met at the cruising grounds told me that there are gay magazines and newspapers now. He said he meets people through the personal ads that are run in them. Maybe somebody like your master is advertising in those magazines. We could see whether any of the ads include the word leather."
"And where would we find such a magazine?" Loren asked grimly. "We can't wait another decade for someone to show up at the cruising grounds who is carrying one."
"The big-city bars," his apprentice responded promptly. "I'll bet that's where they're circulated, sir. People probably hand the issues off to one another, under the tables."
It was a good thought. All of the gay members of the Black and Blue Club had heard, from one out-of-town source or another, that bars for gay men existed in the big cities. Even Loren's master had mentioned that. But Loren shook his head.
"Wherever these places are, they must be underground," he said. "Hidden away off alleys, known only to the men who visit them regularly. No, we need more definite information than that. We need to know where to find our kind."
He returned to the cruising grounds once more, this time with his apprentice. Together they questioned closely every man who came from the outside world. All of the out-of-town cruisers had heard of leather, all of them knew that it was connected in some way with S&M. None of them could say how.
Finally they met a man who claimed to be a regular customer at a so-called leather bar. But even he couldn't tell them much. "Most of us there aren't into sadomasochism," he reported. "We just like to wear leather."
"What about the ones who like sadomasochism?" Loren asked quickly as his apprentice stood nearby – a foot back, deferring to the more experienced Ess, just as he had been taught.
The visitor shrugged. "They talk among themselves. Someone told me they're a closed fraternity, full of their own secrets. They'll only talk to someone who's already been initiated."
Loren turned, and his eyes met his apprentice's.
A week later, in early January 1980, the six gay members of the Black and Blue Club gathered at the town's bus station to bid farewell to Loren on his visit to the big city. Loren could have laughed. Here he was, in the age of satellite television and long-distance phone calls, and he was being sent away like Columbus, to discover the New World.
When he arrived home a week later, at three a.m., only his apprentice was waiting at the bus station. "Well?" said his apprentice as soon as he had taken Loren's bag to carry.
Loren let his face remain expressionless for a minute, long enough to allow the first glimpse of disappointment to appear in his apprentice's face.
Then he smiled. "I found them."