“The Safe Place”

By Stephanie Parent

You know the story:

First, a woman loves a man. He makes her fall in love with him. And then slowly, stealthily, he teaches her how to show that love through humility, then humiliation. Degradation. Most of all, pain. This is the story the movies and books tell you—you know the movies, the ones your mother doesn’t want you to see. The ones you stay up late for, sneak downstairs and watch on cable, while the rest of the world sleeps. The VHS tapes you hide under your mattress, covers you trace with curious fingers: A strand of pearls wrapped around a red stiletto. A pair of silhouettes behind window slats. You know the books, too, the ones you read under bedcovers and in college libraries, concealed between textbooks. The ones with bare, austere covers—a round “O” against a black background. A printed title with no picture, belying the wild words within.

You know the story, and perhaps for some women, this story is true. For me, it’s the opposite: I’m in love with pain, and I’ve spent my adult life searching for the right man to deliver it. Since I realized the stories I read and watched and consumed, the tales I told myself, would never be enough, I’ve been looking—even when I wonder if this might be the thing that destroys me.

Yet the first time a man took me to the Safe Place—a real man, not some phantom conjured by my imagination—I wasn’t looking for it, at least not right at that moment. In fact, it was almost an accident.

Josh had nearly a foot on me, and since he, like me, was a college sophomore, he was still growing into his long and potentially powerful limbs. That’s one of the few things I remember about him, from our two or three dates: the way he was always ducking his head in doorways, knocking into tables and people, apologizing and tucking his arms and legs into himself until he’d invariably forget and release them again, and nearly cause another catastrophe.

He apologized with me, too, which is probably one of the reasons we didn’t work out.

Josh’s feet dangled over the edge of his flimsy dorm-room bed, making it difficult for him to balance overtop of me where I lay, bare skin against the stiff sheets, looking at his chest rather than his eyes. He’d assured me his roommate was gone for the evening, and because it was a weeknight the halls were mostly empty, no drunken echoes penetrating through the thin walls. Still, everything felt awkward and a little comical and certainly not romantic, and though I told myself to relax and enjoy Josh’s fingers tangling in my hair, his breath against my neck, this wasn’t really where I wanted to be.

He was about to enter me when I decided I didn’t want to gaze up at his pale chest, his sloping shoulders, so I flipped onto my stomach. Josh began thrusting into me, lifting my ass up and driving my face further into the pillow, turning my breaths short and shallow. He lowered his weight fully onto me, and I grabbed the bedposts, trying to focus on the warmth of him against my skin, but all I could feel was the prickle of those starchy sheets.

Then, a knock at the door.

We both froze, and for the first time, our movements came in sync.

“Josh?” the male voice said. “I forgot my key.”

I made a move to rise, thinking I’d have to find my clothes in a hurry, but Josh pressed his chest more firmly into my back.

“Josh? Come on, man, I know you’re in there.”

Another second passed, and he started moving inside me again. I tried to lift myself, to throw him off, but he only jerked into me harder. “Josh,” I hissed. He forced my head into the pillow, muffling my words as the banging at the door grew in intensity.

“Goddammit, Josh!” came from the other side.

Josh kept thrusting and pushing me down and something inside me softened, and I gave up on the idea of fleeing, though my heart raced at the possibility of being discovered. The pounding outside grew louder as Josh’s weight fell heavier till I couldn’t lift my head, couldn’t breathe, and all the blood in my body rushed down, past my wildly beating heart, to my core. I was dimly aware of the moments passing, the noise outside receding, and then there was only my lungs, too empty, and my womb, too full, till I thought I’d be trapped like this forever, waiting for relief, and then, finally, Josh collapsed completely and rolled to his side, and I could breathe again.

And everything was just…

Quiet.

The sheets no longer chafed against my skin; I no longer wondered where to rest my gaze, or whether I should force my eyes to stay open, vigilant, or let them close. It didn’t matter because either way, a buttery, soft yellow haze bathed the room, like morning sunlight through slatted blinds.

It didn’t last long, that first trip to the Safe Place. A moment of respite that passed as soon as Josh began apologizing the way he always did, saying he didn’t know what got into him. I couldn’t tell if he was more worried he’d been too rough with me, or that he’d left his roommate stranded; the urge to retreat to my own dorm and wash off my ruined makeup grew by the second. By the time I was gathering my clothes, avoiding the sight of my wild hair in Josh’s mirror, my heart was thumping again and the Safe Place felt like a distant memory.

I can’t remember if Josh and I went on another date after that, but for me, that strange afternoon was the beginning of a lifelong relationship. Just not with him.

I knew the Safe Place was real now, not merely a vision in my mind. And I wanted to go back.

 

Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

@SCLanggle

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