This is Called Submission

Fiction by Rossana Campo
Mirror Bed, 2018, Oil and oil stick on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, by Jennifer Sullivan. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

Translated from the Italian by Adria Frizzi

I’m forty-three years old, my name is Emma and I’ve been married for fifteen, this is what I keep telling myself as I hurry toward the Sanremo Hotel. A three star hotel, it doesn’t look like a dump, but not a posh place either. An ordinary hotel, alright, with a 1960s façade and curved balcony railings, but decent. I’m forty-three years old, my name is Emma, and I’ve never cheated on my husband. Except for messing around with a guy I work with at the agency a couple of times. But that doesn’t count, an innocent little crush, it lasted ten days and that was that. This is strong stuff, though. I‘ve been talking with Leone via chat for a month. And I completely lost my head, I went nuts. Plus if you consider that I’ve always been down to earth as far as sex and everything else goes… I’ve always told myself: what’s the point? Taking risks, sitting around like an idiot waiting for a phone call, a text, your heart pounding, afraid you’ll get caught, no, that’s not my thing. And yet today I did just that, I left work at one, taking advantage of my lunch break to finally meet this Leone guy.

I walk into the Sanremo Hotel, go up to the reception and ask for the key to room 108, as he instructed me. It’s all paid for, he told me, it’s like a game, he wrote in the message, you have to do what I tell you, you must follow istrucsions, and you’re not allowed to do as you please. This, is called submision, he added.

OK, I answered, pretending not to notice the istrucsions and the submision.

The concierge doesn’t smile at me or anything, he asks for an ID, hands me the key and says second floor, there’s no elevator.

Thanks, I say, and I head for the stairs with a sort of subversive feeling in my gut. I’m doing something forbidden! But something kind of dumb too, I have a sneaking suspicion.

I slip the key into the lock of room 108, open the door and call out: Leone? just to say something--he said I was supposed to arrive first, at 1:05, get ready according to his directions and he’d be there after a while.

The room is dim, the curtains half open, it smells like cheap soap and floor disinfectant. The huge bed takes up almost the entire space, plus two small night stands, a tiny armoire and the mirror in front of the bed. Not bad as far as fantasy goes, this Sanremo Hotel. I stand there wondering whether to turn on the TV. Then I tell myself, hell no, not the fucking TV here too, no way. I adjust the push-up bra I bought for the occasion, it feels a little tight, I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about signing up at a gym like my friend Franci.

I sit on the bed, feeling discouraged. I ask myself if I wouldn’t be happier sitting at the café near the travel agency with my co-worker Annalisa right now, eating my bufalino (whole wheat bread, buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula).

I lie down on the bed, I turn toward the window and see a box on the night stand I hadn’t noticed before. A cardboard box, square, pink. With a note on it that says: for Emma, from Leone.

Wow, a present!

I open it, my heart racing, and I find another note inside. I read it. Emma, honey, I would like you to do what I say without taking any other inisiative of your own.

1: Take the clothes out of the box.

2: Put them on.

3: Get into the little number you will find.

4: Blindfold yourself.

5: Whait for me on the bed doggie-style with your ass facing the door.

P.S. If when I get there you haven’t followed the istrucsions to the letter, then it means you don’t deserve me and I’ll leave.

I reread the letter a couple of times, and, yes, he wrote istrucsions again, and he also wrote inisiative, and whait. I would have never imagined finding myself alone in a room at the Sanremo Hotel that smells like floor disinfectant following the istrucsions of someone I don’t even know. I take the clothes out of the box. There’s a black latex bodysuit with two large round holes where the boobs go. There are also latex garters. And a couple of steel marbles. Wonder if these are the infamous geisha balls?

I get up and go to the bathroom a little unsteady on my feet and feeling dizzy from hunger. I take off my jeans, panties, and the push-up bra (wasted money). The latex creaks, it sticks to my skin, it’s a bitch to put on. I see it has a four inch slit between the thighs. At this point I’m seriously thinking about getting the hell out of here. I think about my girlfriends, they know nothing about this, I was too embarrassed to tell them. I also think about my entire life. From junior high on. But I accomplish the mission, and stand there looking at myself in the mirror: the bodysuit is too tight, even though it’s my size, Leone asked for it. The holes are squeezing my boobs, which stick out all scrunched up, poor things, and the garters are too tight around my thighs, creating a salami effect. I keep looking at myself but it’s giving me a bad trip, because I can’t identify this slightly overweight S&M flick heroine with myself, Emma.

I burst out laughing, but I’m on edge, how the hell did I end up here? I remember that there were more instructions in the note, I go back to the bed, I also find a black spandex blindfold. I pick up the steel balls, but damn, I’m supposed to stick these things in there? They are freezing cold and HUGE!

I lie down on the bed and give the geisha balls a try, the bodysuit is feeling tighter and tighter, it’s rubbing my skin raw. I have delicate skin. In the meantime I’m thinking that if Leone walks in now and sees me like this he won’t find me very sexy, that’s for sure. I fiddle around trying to get the damn balls inside, but, seriously, there are women who like this stuff? Oh, if only I could have my two best friends here, Cinzia and Franci, if I could talk to them, get their thoughts! Discuss with Cinzia, who’s pretty together as far as this subject goes, like, why we girls are only too happy to be treated like shit at times, this kind of madness that takes hold of us where we allow ourselves to be regarded as slaves or servants or idiots.

Ok, in the meantime one ball is in, it’s uncomfortable. No way I’m even thinking about putting in the others. And now what am I supposed to do? Kneel with my ass facing the door, so as soon as he opens it he takes in the whole scene? Give me a break!

Shit, I almost forgot the blindfold. What time is it anyway? Why isn’t he here, it’s been half an hour already, I don’t have much time left. I can’t even call him, he didn’t give me permission. I stay like this a few more minutes, in this stupid dog position in the S&M bodysuit. I peek at the watch again. This is crazy. I pull off the blindfold, try to get the damn geisha ball out, take off the idiotic bodysuit with the boob holes and throw it against the wall, get dressed and leave. I only stop to get my ID back. I check my photo, my name and everything else, I got this weird idea in my head that they may have changed something.

Out on the street I hurry toward my bufalino, I have a feeling I messed everything up with Leone. Flashing before my eyes, like some sort of extrasensory experience, like those situations people in mortal danger relive, I see a kind of history of the world from the vantage point of women. All the smiles we stamped on our faces at the right time, all the words we spoke to console, soothe, help, reassure men, boys, bosses, make them feel important…All the gestures, the small gifts, the acts filled with attention, love, courtesy, kindness, all that we give the people we encounter, the people close to us, in order to be loved, to make amends for who we are. The way we throw ourselves into a new love, all the strategies of dissimulation, concealment, control. The ability to be and not to be, or to be without being too much we learned over the years, the centuries, the millennia. All the mirrors we polished to reflect our images, to make them adequate, attractive, in order to be chosen, loved, desired. And all the barriers we learned to erect between us and our real lives, between us and our desire for freedom.

I think about this Leone guy again, and how he decided all this during our sexy chats. I screwed up his plan. And yes, I messed everything up. OK, I want to keep doing this, it feels good.

Rossana Campo

Rossana Campo was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1963 and divides her time between Rome and Paris. She is the author of some twenty novels that have established her as one of the most original voices in contemporary Italian literature. Her work, which includes forays into children's and young adult fiction, has been adapted into film and has earned her prestigious literary awards such as the Premio Strega Giovani and the Premio Elsa Morante. The English translation of her novel Never Felt So Good was published in 2020 by Dalkey Archive Press.

Adria Frizzi

Adria Frizzi writes about and translates modern and contemporary fiction from Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. Her translations include works by Osman Lins, Caio Fernando Abreu, Marina Colasanti, Regina Rheda, Rossana Campo, Dacia Maraini, and Elena Ferrante. Her translation of Campo's novel Never Felt So Good was published in 2020 by Dalkey Archive Press.

Jennifer Sullivan

Jennifer Sullivan is a painter who lives and works in Ridgewood, Queens, whose studio-based painting practice evolved from earlier autobiographical performance and video-centered work. She has often described her paintings as a diary and a form of psychoanalysis. Jennifer Sullivan received her BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and her MFA in Fine Art from Parsons School of Design, New York, NY. Recent solo exhibitions include Original Face at Deli Grocery Gallery, Ridgewood, NY (2022), Sleeper at Turn Gallery, New York, NY (2021), Devotional Paintings at Julius Caesar, Chicago, IL (2020), Exiled Parts at No Place Gallery, Columbus, OH (2019), and the soft animal of your body at Emma Gray HQ, Los Angeles, CA (2018). Sullivan has exhibited widely, including exhibitions at NADA Miami, Peter Blum Gallery, Marinaro, Brennan and Griffin, Rod Barton, Marvin Gardens, Safe Gallery, Klaus Von Nichtsaggend, and the deCordova Museum. Awards include fellowships with Paint School at Shandaken Projects (2020) and the Fine Arts Work Center (2012-13), and residencies at the Lighthouse Works, the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, the Ox-Bow School of Art, and Yaddo. Her work has been reviewed in the NY Times, the Brooklyn Rail, and Art Papers.