-----------TW--------- Contains themes of self-harm, sex, and violence ---------
Yellowish, purplish bruises covered my best friend's legs. The welts were like a watercolor patchwork overlain on the crisscross-y scars she had made years prior, from that darker and sadder place. The raised lines on her upper thighs were layered over themselves from many different sessions of slashing away at her own pale body. And perhaps what shocked me more than seeing the bruises now, was the fact that she chose to wear super short, black denim daisy dukes. Fine, it was summer, but I didn’t understand how she could showcase all her black and blue to the world unselfconsciously.
We sat by the pool, a pretty unimpressive rectangle of water, edged by boring gray concrete. Cemented cinder blocks created a wall around the pool, for privacy, I guess, but the whole thing felt a little claustrophobic. The San Fernando Valley likes to rest at temperatures 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the LA basin, so in summer, the air can feel particularly oppressive. In the moment, I found I didn’t actually mind too much, because back home, no one had pools. What was the point when there was the potential for snow nine months out of the year? But I lived in LA now and having a pool gave me major props when persuading family and friends to come visit.
My best friend and I brought our towels to the pool’s edge to create a small comfort on the concrete, and dipped our toes into the water. The apartment complex didn’t heat the pool and even in summer it could still be chilly. The entire year I lived there, I never saw another resident come through the metal gate that separated the courtyard from the pool.
Stories about people we knew and what we were up to flowed effortlessly between us. My best friend still lived in our hometown and she told me about awkward run-ins with our fellow high school alumni. When we were in high school, she barely spoke to anyone. I was one of the chosen few. We would coordinate days to wear matching shoes and tights with skirts and cardigans. We hung out in the art room at lunch because we hated everyone else. And after school, we would buy bags of puffy Cheetos and sour gummy worms and go back to her place to watch TV.
In high school, I had a boyfriend who had already graduated. He would pick me up at lunch in his car and we’d go back to his house and have sex. I usually had a free period after lunch, so even though he lived across town, there wasn’t much of a rush to get back. I felt like I couldn’t really talk to my best friend about this because she never had a boyfriend. In fact, she rarely even had crushes on anyone, and when she did, she would pick someone safely unattainable, like a celebrity or one of our teachers. To talk to her about my boyfriend or my sex life felt off. We had our world as friends, and I had a separate world with my boyfriend. We’d all hang out from time to time, but if he and I ever had a fight, I wouldn’t turn to her for advice. Once, in middle school, my eighth grade boyfriend had broken up with me. I was crushed and opened up to her about it. In her glorious, middle school wisdom she said to me, “You seem like you’re always a lot happier when you have a boyfriend. Maybe you should try to get another boyfriend.” The girl was not wrong, and looking back, her observation was actually quite astute in its simplicity. For some reason, back then, I already knew that her well-meaning advice was well off the mark for how to lead a happy and fulfilled life.
Now, at the edge of the pool, she filled me in on the new version of herself she’d been exploring. The bruises, she explained, were from impact play, a type of BDSM where she consented to be beaten with any number of implements designed for the job. She liked it. She liked it a lot. She told me the experience of consensual pain felt like a healthy release, like what she’d been searching for when she used to cut. Now, there was an element of collaboration. She could be seen by her partners, her desires expressed without judgment.
I considered myself sex-positive and highly supportive, and even this was tricky to wrap my head around. It was far out from my own experiences at 23, but I held space and wanted to know more. I knew my judgments and trepidations were my own. What right did I have to inject negativity into the situation when my friend was clearly on a path of self-exploration that she’d never dreamed of? In high school, she would make jokes about being a dominatrix or wearing a full-leather bodysuit, things like that. Each time she’d say something to that effect, my ears would perk up. It seemed so out of character for her at the time - the sweet, soft-spoken, virginal girl that she was. So honestly, it came as no surprise these years later that she was finally allowing herself to see what that darker side of her beckoned her to see.
I could understand that the bruises she wore proudly, while seemingly off-putting, were really just a badge of honor for her. She had gone into an unexplored cave in her mind, lantern light trembling in her hand as she went deeper. But with each turn deeper into the cave, she grew a little braver. She experienced herself in this vast unknown place and she made a choice to keep going. And once she got to the center of the cave, she laughed, giddy from who she had become along the way. She looked down and there were bruises, because a lot of adventures result in bruises, and it didn’t scare her. She liked it. She liked it a lot.