I could tell James was nervous when we met at the White Horse to pre-game. We were on our way to a sex club—the first time for both of us—and we knew it was going to be weird. It was Halloween, and James had brought along some cheap drugstore masks for us to wear. “For your protection,” he said, handing mine over. “You don’t want these people to be able to see your face.” When he’d forwarded me our reservation the night before, I’d been alarmed by the house rules, which included things like, “Personal hygiene is of the utmost importance” and “No ALWAYS means no.” I wondered what kind of freaks would go to such a place, besides us.
Aside from the sketchiness of the place itself, part of what was weird about this outing was that James and I are not a couple. We’re friends from work. We’ve gotten closer in the three years we’ve known each other, and there’s always been something faintly illicit about our relationship, partly because he’s a straight, married man and I’m a straight, single lady, and partly because our rapport was never wholly innocent: yes, we have similar politics and senses of humor, but we’re also attracted to each other. We banter and flirt. People who don’t know us usually assume we’re sleeping together. But the truth is, I’m no home-wrecker and James loves his wife. As much as we’ve danced around the edges of propriety, there’s a line neither of us would cross.
In fact, when James asked me to join him at an underground sex club, my first question, posed via text message, was, “What are you going to tell your wife?” “Did I not mention Emily’s in France this week?” he texted back. Here’s the part of the story where I could—and, according to several of my friends, should—have told James he was on his own. Like I said, I’m no home-wrecker. I’m a feminist who cares about other women, and I happen to like James’ wife. Instead I said, “Let me sleep on it.” When I woke up the next morning, I told him I was in: I was curious, I wanted to hang out with James, and I thought it would make for a good story.
To gain admission to a secret sex club (at least the one we went to) you need to be invited by people who are already “in the scene.” Our guides for the evening were James’ strange but sweet fifty-something friends, Mike and Sheila (James and I are 31). Sheila’s been swinging for a while, and she’s since brought Mike, her widowed fiancé, into “the lifestyle” as well. The club operates in the manner of a speakeasy—it’s tucked away on the second floor of what appears from the outside to be a lighting store, and there are four levels: a coat-check and registration area, where James forked over $80 for the two of us (it would have been $120 had he shown up alone; he got a discount for bringing me and there’s no charge for single ladies); a bar/lounge area, where “bartenders” pour mixers and open people’s wine bottles (the club doesn’t have a liquor license); an area with couches and chairs for getting to know other club-goers, and, on the top level, an area with beds and curtains, for really getting to know them. People go there to indulge any number of fantasies: to swap partners, fuck strangers, watch other people having sex, or have sex while other people watch.
When we arrived at the club, it was clear that Sheila was in her element and Mike wasn’t that into it. He’s a nice man, but neurotic and a little insecure. At some point, he sidled up to me and confided in a low voice, “That woman Sheila’s been talking to, she’s all right, she’s a cute girl. But when I hugged her earlier, I wasn’t feeling it. No erection. I’m not sure I’ll be able to perform if we go into a private room with her and her husband.” I felt sorry for Mike, and a little disgusted that he had to pretend to like this sort of place. Picturing the married couples I know whose relationships are some degree of open, I couldn’t help wondering if there’s always one partner who’d rather be curled up in front of the TV than out trolling for strange, yet does the latter anyway, to please and hold onto their partner. Depressed by Mike and Sheila’s too-familiar dynamic, I urged James to leave them to their own devices and explore the rest of the club with me.
“Stay close,” I whispered urgently. It wasn’t a big place, and it wasn’t very crowded, but I was the youngest woman there by 20 years and I felt like I was being stared at. “That couple is totally checking you out,” said James, confirming that the sensation I had of being watched wasn’t just in my head. It was half creepy and half thrilling; I’m attractive enough, but I’ve never been the girl at the bar that everyone’s looking at. Of course the people I was being watched by were desperate, hungry-looking middle-aged men and a handful of sad-eyed, hair-dyed ladies with too much metallic eyeliner, but hey: I’ll take it.
Suddenly a slightly built 50-ish man with glasses, a paunch, and an uncanny resemblance to my parents’ accountant came over and offered me a foot massage. “No thanks,” I said, smiling politely. He backed off immediately, with a shrug and a wistful grin. I appreciated how seriously the men seemed to take the “No means no” policy. In fact, the only person who touched me without asking was, later in the night, a somewhat pathetic Mike, whose half-hearted, unsolicited back rub while seated next to me on a couch was so transparently designed to wrest Sheila’s gaze from the guy she was pursuing that I couldn’t hold it against him.
Before James and I met up with Mike and Sheila again, we sat and chatted by ourselves just outside of a curtained-off area on the top floor beyond which various couples were, in theory, getting to know each other physically. We couldn’t hear any sex noises, and, without my glasses and in a darkened room, I could barely see anything. The entire area was infused with a latex-and-semen-scented fug, which James claimed to like and I found mildly repulsive. We sat close together on the couch, our thighs touching. So far, we hadn’t seen much action—just some PG-rated nuzzling and kissing between couples who’d arrived together.
“I’ve seen hotter stuff in Lifetime movies,” James groused. I stared at him in the dark, wondering what, exactly, he wanted. Had he been hoping something would happen between us? Is that why he’d invited me here? My own motives were equally murky: I’d told myself and my friends that I was going for the sheer novelty of the experience, and that was definitely part of it, but I’d also been hoping for something a little more…climactic. I shifted closer to James on the couch. “Maybe you need to be the one to make something interesting happen,” I said. There was a pregnant pause as we gazed at each other, suddenly shy. James looked away first.
Beyond the curtains, something was finally happening. Two transgendered men, both black and both outfitted in skirts and flowing, brightly colored wigs, were sitting down on the bed in the middle of the room. After making out for a bit, one guy got down on his knees and began blowing the other. The guy receiving the blow job closed his eyes and leaned back, emitting little yelps of pleasure. A crowd of paunchy, middle-aged white dudes formed a tight circle around the bed, obscuring our view. They watched intently, glassy-eyed with arousal, as the blow job progressed. Watching didn’t turn me on, I think because the blow job itself seemed so perfunctory; the guys engaged in it were only minimally aroused, and it was devoid of any real passion or heat. Nor was it particularly exciting that it was happening in person; that thrill has been blunted by years of exposure to sexually explicit movies.
“Not what I had in mind,” said James. “We should have gone to a strip club instead.” I asked him what he’d been expecting. “I thought it would be, like, a total free-for-all, with everyone fucking each other silly on every available surface. This is just kind of…lame.” I agreed, while gently mocking his would-be libertinism: as much as he wanted to walk into the middle of some lust-fueled marathon fuck-fest, he wasn’t going to be the one to get the party started. Even in the context of a secret sex club, James and I were too inhibited to act on our desires; it struck me as unfair to be disappointed in everyone else for failing to exhibit the kind of wanton abandon we so conspicuously lacked.
I’m relieved and disappointed that nothing happened between James and me. Relieved because I don’t want to fuck up anyone’s marriage, and, on a more selfish level, because I’m not sure our friendship would have survived a bizarre sex club hookup. Disappointed because if anything were going to happen between us, that probably would have been the exact right moment to do it, in spite or maybe even because of the weirdness of the setting—surely we’d have laughed it off and agreed that “what happens in the sex club, stays in the sex club.” I imagine sex clubs are more fun when you visit them with the express intention of getting laid, rather than having a titillating-but-not-outright-adulterous experience with a conflicted married coworker. If I ever go again, it’ll be with someone who’s at liberty to fuck me, and eager to show the other club-goers how it’s done.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories section.