he first thing I notice when walking into the dim, black-lit Meridian (1503 Chartres) is a topless woman on stage. She's strapped to what looks like a ladder. A man stands behind her with two thick fluorescent whips that he uses to dust her body oh-so-lightly, practically tickling her. Despite the whips, it looks downright soothing and, after a few minutes, a tad bit boring too.
I'm here tonight for the Bartender's Fetish Ball, wondering just what in the hell bartenders have to do with this party (I never do get a satisfying answer).
I line up for a drink behind a latex-clad French maid. She's holding a leash that's connected to the neck of a shirtless man in a Zorro mask. Just as I order I hear it --a thwack so loud I half expect it to be spelled in the air like on an old episode of Batman.
I pay my bartender and move back to the stage, where Mr. Soothing has trundled out the big guns -- a thick rubber cablelike whip that he's using (along with every inch of his might) to pound his submissive partner. The slap is deafening. The girl barely winces. When the whaps get into the double digits, her posterior begins to glow under the lights. She's part sex slave, part red-assed baboon.
At the foot of the stage are one-page pamphlets that read "Welcome to HPEP" and depict an outline of Texas being held hostage by a bullwhip. I pick one up and flip through it. There's plenty of reading light emanating off the submissive one's raw ass.
Just as I reach "How to Become a Member," a portly young blond tells me, "Don't worry, we do bite." Her name is Valerie. She is holding a nicer version of the love weapon the man on stage is using. Valerie's whip is adorned in feathers. She tells me it's a "flogger."
"It doesn't look like it would hurt as much as the one he's using up there."
"Well, this flogger is for beginners," she says. "I want to spank someone who's new to the lifestyle, and I don't think they'd appreciate it if I did what he's doing to her."
You got that right.
She then explains that the couple on stage has been "playing" together for years. Only the due course of time can build up a level of trust like theirs. She's had her own play partner for a year and a half -- for them, the feather floggers are long gone.
"Is it like drugs?" I ask. "After you do it a while the soft stuff doesn't work anymore? Do you have to keep bringing more pain into the equation to get off?"
She smiles at my naïveté. "It depends on the person, I guess. But generally, yes, the more advanced people become, the harder the play gets."
Just as she says it, the play on stage moves from underclassman to Ph.D. The man has slipped a black Mexican wrestler's mask on his partner's face, taking special care to tuck her long black hair under it. He dons a pair of goggles.
"Ooooh, watch this. This is the good part," Val coos.
He breaks out a shop tool and a hand-held piece of metal, and the power of friction shoots a boatload of sparks at the girl's backside. "What's he going to do for a finale?" I ask. "Set her on fire?"
"My partner and I do fire play," Val says. She tells me about the dynamic properties of fire wands and rubbing alcohol. You flame the skin for only a brief moment, until the alcohol burns off. "If it's done correctly, it feels like a heated massage. Being whipped and then lit on fire...It's awesome."
We shoot the S&M shit a bit more until a goth drum circle breaks up our party. The members of CoRE (or "The dudes that hang themselves from hooks," as I overhear one reveler describe them) are making their grand entrance into the main room. Valerie tells me we have to go watch. "They're so amazing!"
We follow them in. "Why have one fetish when you can have them all?" Val asks. Fair question, I guess.
The CoRE people do their thing. Hooks are pulled through their backfat. They use levers and pulleys to hoist themselves a few feet into the air. I search for smoke and mirrors, but they're absent. This is the real deal. It's like watching your hick uncle pick up a puppy by the loose skin behind its neck -- all the while constantly reassuring you, "It don't hurt 'em." The only difference is the puppies don't bleed like these guys.
For its show ender CoRE brings out a gentleman who could have been an extra in Mad Max. His back and shoulders carry a metal apparatus that's balanced on his skin with sharp rods. He's bleeding too.
It's an impressive feat, but I'm distracted by Valerie and her new friend Michelle, who are showing each other their nipple piercings. Michelle's have been pierced three times. She worries that a fourth foray will cause permanent scar tissue. Val -- ever the reassuring bondage counselor -- tells her not to worry about it.
Behind us, a young lady is sitting on a stool, entangled in a mess of knots that would've given Houdini fits. The man is wearing a shirt that reads, "Got Rope?"
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Valerie has to leave. She has to get up early and she lives "pretty far from here." Before she goes, I'm introduced to Sir John, one of HPEP's Chairmen, who tells me his organization's acronym stands for Houston People Exchanging Power.
Soon afterward, I'm introduced to Neil, the heavily skewered CoRE headliner. I mention that I noticed he was bleeding on stage. "Yeah, that was strange," he says. "I usually only bleed when I suspend." He couldn't suspend tonight because he's the only one in the troop who can handle the pain of the "kavadi." He spells it in my notepad for me. Very pleasant young fellow, despite the tattoo that reads "Fuck The World" on the side of his shaved head.
Val says her good-byes, and I run to the restroom. As I pee, I can hear slurps, grunts and moans coming from the handicapped stall next to mine. I flush and head to the sink, stopping for a glance at the foot of space beneath the stall door. From the arrangement of feet, it's obvious that a woman's giving a man head in there. Two other guys in the bathroom have come in and are leering at the spectacle.
"Why have one fetish when you can have them all?" I ask as I walk out the door.