His Latex Goddess

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The Italian finds me on the second day. Most of the men who like my profile don’t stand out in any particular way. Most are not very attractive, either, but the Italian has thick brown hair and arched eyebrows that make him look mischievous and, at times, malevolent. He says that he’s thirty-four years old and tall—a staggering six feet five. He says that he has a Ph.D. in engineering and that he’s a gentle dom. I don’t know what “gentle dom” means, exactly, but it sounds appealing. “Consent is key,” he writes, quoting the app’s terms of service.

The app prompts users to list their desires. The Italian puts, among other things, “friendship,” “foreplay,” “submissive,” and “latex.” This last point, the latex, feels naughty and intriguing. The Italian adds that he’s looking for a “creative and open-minded girl, interested in exploring.” Shortly after we start chatting, I tell the Italian that using the word “girl” in his profile is infantilizing to women—sort of gross, even—especially for someone like me, a woman who is nearly fifty.

It’s been three months since I went on some dates with a South American a few years my junior. Before that, I went through an epic dry spell—more than ten years without sex or even dating. My ex-husband, Paul, and I separated in 2013. After discovering that he had immediately started dating another woman—I found her things in the bathroom I used to claim as my own—I went to a dark place. Paul had cheated on me three years prior, and seeing the woman’s toiletries triggered memories of that time. Between 2014 and 2020, I drank too much and smoked too much. I ate too much and got very fat, probably as a way to assuage my emotional agony, and to keep myself from ever liking, or being liked by, another man who might hurt me that way again.

On March 14, 2020, I move to Los Angeles for a job, and to be closer to my parents. I become friendly with a woman who lives nearby, an Australian screenwriter named Jay. There’s not much to do—everything is closed during COVID—so we go on hikes in Griffith Park, and we cry a lot because we are depressed. About the pandemic. About our careers. Jay feels like a failure because she isn’t getting outside interest in any of her projects; my new job is not what I thought it would be, and it’s making me miserable.

Sometimes I don’t know if I am going to survive this depression; I can’t see a way out of it, and I dread the nighttime, when my mood takes a turn for the worse. I look for signs that I will be O.K. The cross on the hillside next to the 101. (I’m not religious.) A small owl on a dirt path in the gloaming of an autumn evening, its eyes illuminated by my headlamp. One minute it’s there, the next it’s not. My friend Nancy and I go looking for information online as to what the owl may symbolize. I don’t recall what we find, but I remember being disappointed in the answer.

Eventually I get a bit better. Then a bit more. By late 2021, I am feeling pretty much back to normal, and that’s when one of Paul’s ex-girlfriends calls to tell me that he is dead. His heart had failed him. He was found on Christmas Day in his apartment by one of his best friends, a man I’ve never met or even heard of. It has been seven years since we spoke. Seven years since the divorce. I am devastated but also weirdly relieved: it feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders. It’s not that I don’t cry—I do, in big, heaving sobs—but the tears are cleansing, and the sobs are freeing in a way that I am able to describe but not fully explain.

A few weeks into the New Year, Jay suggests that I sign up for a dating app. I tear up. “I’m scared,” I tell her. She presses me on the idea. “What if we create a profile together?” she asks. We find some pictures on my phone—nothing special, and nothing that shows my body—and upload them to profiles on Bumble and Hinge.

Within a day I have a few dozen “likes,” including one from the South American. We go out on a few dates; it doesn’t work out. But being touched by him ignited something deep inside me. It had been so, so long.

I hear about the app, Feeld, from a friend and former colleague. When I sign up, it asks me for my birthday, my sexuality, and a list of my desires and interests. Under “Desires,” I choose “foreplay,” “casual,” “sensual,” and “dates.” Under “Interests,” I put “discovery,” “creativity,” “words,” “actions,” “honesty,” “communication,” “trust,” “men,” and “sex.”

I upload a few photos and arrange them into an order that I hope will draw men in. The first photo is a selfie I take while sitting at my dining table. My hair is pulled back in its usual bun and I’ve got one of my elbows on the table, with my cheek resting on my wrist. There is the slightest smile on my face and my eyes are big and knowing, sexy but (hopefully) not trying too hard. I think about an imaginary name. I choose Noa, which I think is beautiful.

The Italian uses the name Luca on his profile. Later he will insist that it’s his real name, but I am never totally convinced that he’s telling the truth.

His profile pictures are alluring yet chaste. The first photo shows him with his hand on his chin, as if lost in thought, but also making his bottom lip pucker. In another, he’s in shorts and a T-shirt, sleeves rolled up to expose his arms, in what I’m certain is Joshua Tree National Park. The sexiest photo is the last one in the series. The Italian stands in front of a barbell, shirtless, in what I assume is a CrossFit gym, his left arm raised to his forehead, wiping sweat from his brow. His body is lean, muscled, and long. I “heart” him back.

The Italian is the first to send a message. I do not remember what I say in response, but I remember how I feel: sexy, smart, intriguing. We banter—he can’t believe I’m forty-eight, he says. I look at least ten years younger. I thank him and wonder, with no small amount of self-loathing, whether he has a thing for older women, especially chubby ones who haven’t got laid in a decade.

The Italian tells me that he’s an engineer at a Silicon Valley tech company. The combination of his educational achievements, high-profile employment, and looks seems a little too good to be true. I ask him to give me more information about his job, expecting that he’ll say something vague or something that sounds “sexy.” Instead, he tells me exactly what he and his team are focussed on, finding ways to reduce energy consumption. This amount of specificity is surprising to me. Later, we talk about cars, and he seems surprised, too, when I make it clear that I know the difference between an engine and a motor.

Still, I’m skeptical. I explain that I’m concerned he might be catfishing me. The Italian is horrified. What could he do to make me feel more comfortable? Would I want him to send me a video? I say yes, and I ask him to answer a question: What is his favorite Italian food? I tell him to respond in both Italian and English and to address me directly, by name. About a minute later, the video comes through. It’s him. And he has followed my instructions perfectly.

It’s sort of pathetic for a middle-aged woman to be conversing with a millennial on a sex app. At least it feels that way. Though the Italian says that I don’t look a day over thirty-eight, he knows, and I know, that I am almost fifteen years his senior. And, though I also know that I have a facility with words that he does not, I am nowhere near as confident about online dating (and relating) as he is. This may be my undoing.

Within a few days, we’re texting every day for five or six hours. He always initiates the conversation, usually between 8:30 and 9 A.M. My phone emits a telltale ping, and a notification pops up with a preview of the message. Usually it reads, simply, “Good morning!” Sometimes he adds an emoji of a smirking purple devil. (This, and the fire emoji, are favorites of his.)

After exchanging a few pleasantries, the Italian usually tries to come up with something sexually suggestive, to open the door to that day’s back-and-forth. I’m always curious to see how he’ll do it. “I had a dream about you last night,” he’ll sometimes say. “Oh, yes?” I’ll respond. “Tell me more.”

The “more” is a series of fantasies we engage in together. There’s the one where I’m a maid named Sabine —I choose the name myself—who comes to clean his house. After a day or so, Sabine begins to bore me, so we try something else. Another scenario involves me riding on the back of the Italian’s Vespa as we wind our way around the Amalfi Coast. This fantasy seems more intimate and exciting, because it gives me the “role” of myself.

He points out that a dominant/submissive dynamic is emerging quickly. “Ahahah,” he writes. I feel uneasy. I can’t tell whether the Italian is having his way with me or we’re having our way with each other. Early on, he tells me that he’s picky about the women he interacts with. I’m special, he says. I roll my eyes and ask about the other women. There aren’t any, he says. In fact, he hasn’t been on Feeld since the day we met. “Same,” I say. Even though I know I can look at his profile to see if he’s telling the truth—the app provided information as to when a user was last online—I’m hesitant to find out.

The Italian confesses that he’s obsessed. “Really?” I ask, innocently. “If this isn’t obsession, I don’t know what is!” I recall him saying.

The Italian won’t meet me in person. He says that he is up for it—he even mentions a favorite place—but in the days that follow he doesn’t raise the subject and, therefore, neither do I. Have I misjudged our conversations, misread the vibe? I have a fear that, if I press too hard, I’ll come across as desperate, or that the Italian will disappear.

This—the self-doubt, the reluctance to be direct—is my first clue that something is not right. And it’s been only a week.

The Italian loves to test my boundaries. By the end of the first week he wonders whether I’d be willing to fashion a skirt out of a black garbage bag and take a picture for him while wearing it. I tell him no way. He tries a different, less personal tack: Would I tape together a set of black trash bags to create a sort of bottom sheet for a mattress? I know what he’s getting at—some people in the B.D.S.M. or kink life style have vinyl bedsheets. I tell him that I don’t like the words “garbage” or “trash.”

An hour later I’m at a hardware store, buying a box of contractor bags and some duct tape. I text the Italian a photo of the tape roll on my wrist, like a cuff. He is delighted. When I get home, I cut two bags at the seams and tape them together to create a sheet. Set beneath the crisp, white Matteo duvet cover that Jay insisted I buy—she wanted to make my bed “fuckable,” she said—the expanse of black plastic makes for a dramatic sight. I send the Italian a photo. He sends me back a picture that shows him standing in front of a mirror naked, holding a garbage bag placed over his lower torso. It’s a little weird, but who am I to judge? I just made a bedsheet out of trash bags.

I don’t tell anyone, not even my therapist, about the bags. It feels like there’s something demeaning, and perhaps even disgusting, about what I’ve done. I remember what the Italian said about looking for a creative and open-minded girl. I guess I am that girl.

In the mornings, when the Italian first messages me, I set a timer on my phone—for five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes—before I respond. I don’t want him to think that I’m waiting around for his texts, even though I am. At night, while lying in bed in the dark, I reread our exchanges from that day, reliving and revelling in the attention. I put my phone on airplane mode and turn off my Wi-Fi connection so that, if the Italian comes online, my presence won’t register on his end.

It’s as though I’m in the throes of an addiction. I cannot get any work done, cannot think of anything but him. At one point, I say to myself, “I don’t know how sustainable this is.” At many points, actually.

The first time the Italian ghosts me, I’m in New York. One afternoon, after sending me a photo of himself wearing a Speedo on a boat, he stops texting. That night, I get stoned with my friend Mona, and she decides to do a tarot reading. The news is not good: the cards suggest that I am on the verge of a downward spiral. I take this as a reference to the Italian. I get scared and go to bed.

The next day, I wake up feeling agitated and anxious. I call my friend Lizzie. She is sympathetic, and uses a word I’ve never heard before, “limerence,” which I look up on Wikipedia. It is defined as a form of often unreciprocated infatuation.

A few hours later my phone pings. It’s him. The Italian apologizes and explains that if I don’t hear from him, it’s because he’s either inundated with work or out and about on his bike. (He’s a serious cyclist.) My nervous system starts to settle down. A day later, I spend most of the flight back to Los Angeles texting with him. I angle my body away from my seatmate so she cannot see the conversation that the Italian and I are having.

At the end of week two, the Italian sends me a picture of a latex skirt he finds online that hits at mid-thigh and has a hole in the back. I laugh; I can’t tell if he’s joking. I go on Google to find a less obscene item and spot one with a zipper that runs the entire length of the skirt. It’s suggestive but not over-the-top. I like it, and he likes it, too. I tell him that I’m not willing to buy a three-hundred-dollar latex skirt, but I will buy a pair of latex gloves. I send him a listing for a pair; they’re elbow-length.

The Italian seems surprised at first, then tells me a little bit about latex. There is the chlorinated and non-chlorinated kind, he explains. I should opt for the chlorinated. I should also buy some latex lubricant, because the shine on the gloves will quickly wear off.

By this time, I’ve told multiple friends about the Italian. “What’s his last name?” they ask. I say that I don’t know, that he says he won’t tell me until we meet in person. “Does he have a girlfriend or a wife?” they ask. I tell them that he says he does not; in fact, he claims that he has not had sex in nine months, which surprises me. I pull out my phone to show them the latex skirt with the zipper. Nancy, in particular, loves it. “He should buy it for you,” she says while we eat dinner in West Hollywood. I tell her I’ll pass this information on to him.

The second ghosting takes place two weeks after the first—a few days after I tell him that I’m frustrated that he won’t meet with me. I went on Feeld to find an energetic lover, not an energetic texter, I say. When the Italian reappears, he blames work, and says that he went on a cycling trip, to an Airbnb that didn’t have any cell-phone signal or Wi-Fi. (I don’t believe this for a second.) He sends me a few photos of himself and other cyclists posing with their bikes.

I scold him for the ghosting and announce that, for the next few days, there won’t be any sex talk between the two of us, only a get-to-know-you back-and-forth. He agrees.

“I wouldn’t allow just any woman to put me in purgatory,” I recall him saying, as if offering me a compliment. I ask him if he’s Catholic. (He is.)

I ask the Italian all sorts of questions, in fact. Over the next two days, I learn that he grew up in Rome and that he hasn’t done many drugs—just pot and cocaine—but likes a nice Negroni. I learn that he got his Ph.D. in Italy and that he worked as an academic before moving to the United States to work in the private sector. Academia is too cutthroat for his tastes, he explains. I respond that it’s probably also less lucrative.

It feels good to know more about him, but, in the course of the two days in which we take a break from talking about sex, the Italian asks me virtually nothing about myself.

I can’t get over how gorgeous the gloves are. In one picture, I’m pressing my hand up against the bright white paint of my front door. In others, I’m standing in the hallway by my bathroom, bathed in the golden light of a late-summer morning. My forearm is raised horizontally, the better to show off the entirety of the glove.

That afternoon, I park myself at my dining-room table, my phone balanced against a stack of books. I have a little bit of lip gloss on, and my hair is down: big, curly, wild. I pose for a series of pictures in the gloves, my hands touching my face. In one photo, I bite my finger suggestively. In another I cradle my cheek and my chin, my head tilted.

“My muse,” he writes. “My latex goddess.”

“Oh, my God,” my friend Alana says after I text her some of the pictures.

After the purchase of the gloves, the Italian is full of more and more praise. “I LOVE the pictures, the gloves and you in them,” he says. “I’d want you to keep them on all the time. I’d ask you to put them on again now [monkey-covering-eyes emoji].”

Later, he says, “I like your attention to make always quality photographs.” He continues, “And with this I mean: a few less artistic and with everything under control are appreciated. I will be focused on the subject.”

I screen-grab this exchange and others, because they turn me on. I also want to create a record of our strange interactions. After all, there are so many stories. There’s the story of who the Italian thinks I am, and the story of who I think he is. There’s the story of who we think we are together, and the story, the fantasy, we are creating—the one that is evolving every day.

There’s another story, too: the one I’m watching from afar, outside of myself, and taking notes on. Maybe I’ll write about all this someday, I think.

I’m having a harder and harder time concentrating. I wake up waiting for the Italian to text me and end the day anxious for him to start again the next morning.

We usually stop talking around 4:30 P.M., when, he says, he starts getting on calls to China and Korea. This sounds legit—4 P.M. Pacific time is 9 A.M. in Seoul—but it also occurs to me that maybe five o’clock is when his partner comes home.

I rarely hear from him on the weekends. I’ll occasionally get a text, but then he disappears without much warning. “I have to go,” he’ll write, and I imagine that his wife or girlfriend has just arrived at their apartment. I wonder if she’s suspicious.

I inspect his hands in the photos he sends for evidence of a ring. I don’t see one. I ask him again whether he’s in a relationship. He is adamant that he is not. Later, I ask him specifically if he has a wife. He finds the idea especially amusing. “Ahahah,” he says.

My friends try to find information about the Italian online. All of them fail. Jay and Wendy in particular are worried. They know how little time and energy I’m spending on work. Wendy is disturbed by the Italian’s inscrutability. For one thing, she doesn’t believe that he works where he says he does. When she goes on the company’s LinkedIn page to search for employees named Luca, there are a few, but none of them are mine.

Jay does a reverse Google Image search on the Italian and comes up with nothing.

“That’s weird,” she says.

Later: “I wanted you to get on the dating apps to find a boyfriend, not an obsession.”

About six weeks into our relationship, the Italian has begun video-calling me when he’s exercising on his stationary bike. He places his phone up against the screen that provides him a readout of his stats and starts pedalling. Because of the tilt of the phone, plus the vigor with which he’s cycling, it appears that he’s on top of me, all sweaty and intense.

One time, when I’m driving, he video-calls without warning, so I pull my car over to the side of Commonwealth Avenue to watch. Another time, the call cuts out abruptly; in a few minutes, the Italian sends me a voice memo, apologizing. His phone ran out of battery, he explains, in his strangely soft, accented voice.

Eight weeks in, he informs me that his team is being asked to relocate to the company headquarters, hundreds of miles away. It will happen soon.

“I guess this means we’ll never meet in person,” he says.

A few days later, I go to a fetish store in Echo Park and try on a pair of blood-red latex leggings and a purple top. I send him pictures. I feel sexy and powerful, surprising even myself. I also feel somewhat desperate.

Soon after, I decide to break it off. My friends are sick of hearing about the Italian. So is my therapist, I suspect. “I keep trying to suggest that you be careful about how much intimacy you are creating with all the messaging,” she tells me. “On messaging we fill in the blanks as to who the person is and project all this material.”

A co-worker sets up a session for me with a popular astrologer. The astrologer tells me that the relationship with the Italian has to end. His energy gives her a bad feeling, and she worries he might be dangerous because, despite what he may claim, he isn’t invested in consent. He’s invested in power.

The Italian, she adds, “feels consumed by you—he wants to consume you.” Hearing this gives me a rush of adrenaline. It also scares me.

After my appointment with the famous astrologist, I go on a solo hike in Griffith Park. Once I get home, I draft a series of messages I plan to send that night, when I suspect the Italian won’t be online.

“I think I need to put the brakes on this,” I write. “There’s been an obsessive, addictive quality to our erotic relationship and its evolution that I love. It’s been really hot. But I don’t think that ours is an interaction of equals engaging in honesty and transparency. I’m sorry.”

Taking the astrologer’s advice, I compliment him: “I’ve LOVED texting with you. You’re very fun and appealing.” And I add, “Maybe we can find one another again someday. (I have no plans to delete our chat history but understand and respect if you do.)”

After I hit Send I delete the messaging app we’ve used from my phone. My heart is racing.

Will he respond? Will he disappear without comment? Do I even want to know?

Maybe we can find one another again someday.

Why the fuck did I say that?

Not long after the Italian and I stop talking, I decide to go back on the app to work out my frustrations with men who might meet me in real life. (I succeed and go on a months-long casual-sex spree.) One day, I open Feeld and learn that my account has been blocked “by the community.” I can’t think what I could have done wrong, so I appeal the block and am reinstated.

I get blocked again two weeks later. And then again a month after that. By February of 2023, I have been blocked four or five times. I’m convinced that it’s the Italian—who else would it be?

One night in March, I open Feeld and scream: the Italian has returned and “liked” my profile. He has changed his name to the letter “G.” He now claims that he’s six-three. He also explains in his bio that he’s “here to help submissives explore and let go.”

This second time around is shorter. The Italian can sense that I’m less obsessed with him, and that I’m more suspicious. I want answers. What was going on the previous year between the two of us? Was he lying?

I’m afraid he’ll vanish if I pose the questions myself, so, with Nancy’s consent, I claim that she is asking them. Nancy wants to know why he came back, I tell him. “I decided now to come clean and be upfront,” he says, “about the meeting in person.” Nancy asks what he wants this time around. “I want to enjoy your company,” he says, “without drama and this time setting expectations right.”

I hate the implication that I was creating drama. It’s like when men use the word “crazy” to describe an ex. The translation is: “She expected emotional maturity from me.”

Two months into our next go-around, the Italian starts becoming more unavailable. “I’m not ignoring you,” he’ll write, but when I’m not immediately responsive to him he’s quick to accuse me of giving him the silent treatment.

I feel shitty again. But I continue to lap up the attention he gives me, despite the fact that I’ve now added other men to my Feeld repertoire. To me, though, these men seem crude or unintelligent, entitled and immature. Often the ones who like my profile live far away, even though my profile now says that I’m not interested in a text-based relationship.

Sometimes, I feel like the Italian has ruined me for everyone else, and that my interest in other guys is just a way for me to prove to myself—and him—that I’m desirable enough to be worth meeting in person. What I want, even after all this agony and frustration, and against my better judgment, is him. I also feel strangely protective; later, when I decide to write this essay, I’m careful to change details that were probably not true in the first place.

In late May, I travel to Europe with some friends for my fiftieth birthday—Sicily, Rome, Paris. While I’m in Sicily, the Italian says that he has to tell me something. He’s started dating someone, and it doesn’t feel right to be texting with me. I tell him that I understand; we shouldn’t be communicating if he’s embarking on a relationship. I’m curious, though: Did he meet the new woman on Feeld? “This is making me very uncomfortable,” he replies.

Later that night I disconnect from our chat, but not before taking screen grabs of recent pictures he’s sent, including ones where he’s standing mostly naked in front of a bathroom mirror. In one photo, he rests his knuckles on the bathroom counter, next to his penis. I zoom in to take a closer look, and then I see it.

He’s wearing a ring.

It explains a lot. It explains everything—about him, at least. And, maybe, I think ruefully, me. I’ve suspected for months that our relationship is online-only because the Italian is partnered. Though I feel used and betrayed and sometimes small and unwanted—and though his unwillingness to fulfill my desires is an ongoing source of pain and frustration—his remove has also protected me from a more profound injury. After all, if he never even met me, he couldn’t really reject me, could he?

Sex, of course, is part of it. An enormous part of it. The Italian has brought me into a sustained state of heightened and occasionally out-of-control lust. His absorption with me is immensely gratifying as well, a remedy to the rejections of the past and a source of sexual empowerment. Though I am ashamed to discover that I’ve tethered so much of my worth to my sex appeal, I’ve come to an erotic appreciation of myself that I haven’t experienced in decades—if ever. I wonder, too, if the relationship was in some ways a response to COVID. The Italian offered a slow reëntry into the world, and to my body, after years of feeling isolated.

A few months after the Italian and I stop talking, my friend Ami sends me a tweet that reads: “Narcissists don’t break your heart, they break your spirit. That’s why it takes so long to heal.”

I tell Ami that the Italian didn’t break my spirit but confess that I still think about him every day. Every day!

“Of course you still think about him,” she says. “It was a mind trick. You never knew him.”

I remember how the astrologer put it, when I complained to her that the Italian was impossible to figure out, was hiding himself from me.

What he thinks and feels is not my business, she said. It was never the agreement. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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