After packing a wet towel and a bottle of water in a small sack, Kurt drove to the arboretum in my car. I had driven to his apartment after my last class in the morning. It was a mid-week, early afternoon at the end of September. I remember asking what the wet towel was for, but he didn’t answer, so I assumed he’d use it for personal purposes. No one was about except the clerk in the gatehouse. I paid the entrance fee and Kurt parked in the empty lot closest to the beginning of the three-kilometre trail. That day in the forest, Kurt wore his army fatigues and Gortex boots, the fatigues bunched up around the ankle in the style of soldiers. He also wore a green bomber jacket because the day was cool. His boots were clean, having recently been polished. I hadn’t yet begun to clean his boots at the time. This is important.

One section of the trail dipped and was still muddy. Tree roots snaked just above the sodden soil, and a shagbark hickory leaned so far over the path that I thought it would soon uproot itself and collapse. Instead of going around the mud hole, Kurt stepped right into it. I was surprised by the action. Kurt paused for a few moments and then stepped out, his boots covered with mud. He had a severe look on his face as he stared at me, as if he was preoccupied, thinking of something predetermined and inevitable that he needed to do. I suddenly grew nervous, but avoided the mud.

He fixed me in his gaze, as if to force me to look away. And I did. I looked up to the sky filtering through the canopy of leaves changing into their autumn colours. The sky wasn’t clear and blue, but heavy and grey with the threat of rain. It had rained on and off all week. Not only worried that we’d be caught in a downpour, I was also profoundly apprehensive. Kurt had a plan of which I was unaware, although by now I should have been expecting something, given his habit of slapping me now and then. He pointed to his Gortex boots, black and covered with mud the consistency of clay. I looked down. How much time had he spent polishing them? As I said, this event in the forest occurred before I began the task of regularly polishing his boots. I listened, waiting for him to speak. The atmosphere was charged with an approaching storm, unspoken words and intimations. Except for the leaves rustling in the breeze, or a small animal scuttling along the forest floor, or the thud of a nut falling from a nearby tree, there was silence. I looked behind me. We had been walking for about 20 minutes and had turned into a curve. I saw no one else, nor did I expect to see anyone.

Every several hundred metres or so, a bench had been installed along the path, most of them placed in memory of those who had cherished the arboretum. One appeared just around a bend in the path. Kurt sat down. Again, he pointed at his boots. He wasn’t inviting me to sit beside him. My boots are dirty, he said. In an attempt to inject some humor into what was becoming more and more intense, I responded, “Not surprising, since you chose to step in the mud. Nice going, fella.” He didn’t chuckle. The look on his face remained tight, severe, his eyes so piercing that I averted mine and looked up again up to the branches of the trees or scanned the forest, which was getting eerily sombre as the sky darkened. I thought to myself: I could be murdered here. Kurt was capable of great violence, I knew, given his stories about his military service and his occasional threats directed at me, and my legs became unsteady.

Soldiers were trained to kill, kill, kill, and he told me about the powerful rush of energy and brutal joy in the action of combat, defensive and offensive. Off the battlefield in whatever form it takes, where does that training go, that energy, that masculine joy in violent physical action? It must always reside within the soldier, and its control must have something to do context and perspective, as well as personal morality. Kurt easily entered a state of frustration and rage. He did not hesitate to fight. He did not give a shit about his civilian life, and maybe he even wanted it to end somehow. Yes, I thought, he could kill me in the forest. Sometimes he carried a Swiss army knife on his person. Would he stab me over and over? Would I fall screaming on my knees to the mud, blood spurting out of my neck? Or would he strangle me?

He was a strong man, and I’d go black and blue, gasping beneath the power of his grip until I passed out. Or, given his penchant for hitting me, and my acceptance of it, maybe the soldier, younger and stronger than I, would beat me to death on the forest path. I was often depressed and rife with feelings of futility and weakness and loss. Maybe Kurt would murder me then kill himself. We had, in the past, discussed in theory the notion of murder-suicide between beloved friends. We had discussed the possibility of his going away and taking me with him. The Bible at one point says that “we know not the hour” of our death. Well, maybe my hour had come. I thought only a moment about fleeing. What was the point? I was paralyzed on the spot like a rabbit before a cobra, and despite the adrenaline surging through my heart, I could not flee.

After what seemed like an endless silence, although in reality it couldn’t have been more than five minutes, he spoke sharply. “Touch my boots, bitch.” Startled by the command, I nervously laughed. “What do you mean touch your boots? Why would I touch your muddy boots and get mud all over my hands?” He did not repeat the order but remained on the bench, his legs stretched out so his boots almost touched my own shoes, the fatigues still bunched around the ankle. The air became charged, either through electricity of an approaching thunderstorm, or the bristling along my own nerves, or the weakening of my sense of self in that strange forest, facing a man whose penetrating stare seemed to strip me of defenses, as if he could see right to the very heart of my secret self. “This is what I want you to do, bitch. No, correction, this is what you want to do. Kneel and take a boot in your hand and show me how much you need and respect. Then take the other boot and cherish it. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it, motherfucker?”

Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I often found myself staring at his boots and was aware of a strange kind of yearning in me that I didn’t understand, focused on the idea of the military and other boots. I grew more and more conscious of them the longer I spent with Kurt. The boots became associated with my feelings for him: entangled, blended, inextricable from them, as if the boot somehow contained the man. More than once I had remarked upon his collection of military boots (several pairs). Something began turning in my mind, a kind of wheel rotated not by rationality or morality, but by an incoherent and paradoxical feeling of disgust, humiliation, and love. My cheeks flushed because I understood in my blood and bones what he meant when he said that I wanted to kneel and take his boots in my hands and show a form of devotion to them. No, correction: more accurately, devotion to Kurt, to his profound nature as a soldier and, to be brutally honest, the need to submit to dominance, a full-blooded recognition that I was in his hands, possibly imperilled, because he could kill me.

I don’t know how else to express it. My sense of personal weakness flared up and slapped me in the face as hard as Kurt’s hands did in the past, and I was knocked off my pedestal of self-importance and academic arrogance. I heard a regular tap-tap-tapping in the woods: a pileated woodpecker, I thought. I used to see them knocking their bills against rotting tree trunks across the road from my home. I knew they inhabited the arboretum.

Of course, faux outrage moved me to speak, an attempt to avoid the inevitable, to escape self-recognition and yes, shame and embarrassment before my soldier friend. If I did as he said, despite my ever-increasing desire to obey his perverse command, would he only have contempt for me? Laugh at me? Call me any number of names? Well, he had already done the latter, and I revelled in the verbal abuse because his language showed he wasn’t afraid of breaking boundaries, wasn’t afraid of me, and wasn’t intimidated by my professional stature. He was treating me like a trusted friend, an inferior recruit awkward in his presence, intimated, half-terrified, but eager to learn, to do what was needed to obey and please him. He also understood the role of such language in the indoctrination and training process. Recruits were verbally abused as a matter of course. Why would I be exempt?

I say faux outrage because I was scrabbling after a fleeting sense of dignity and self-worth and because I was fighting against my own recognition that he was right. “Are you crazy?” I blurted out. “Kneel and get mud over my clothes?” He didn’t budge off the stump nor move his legs. “Soldiers get dirty all the time, you pathetic cunt; mud on our uniforms happens. What’s more important, fuckhole? Your clothes or my boots? You need to choose.” He didn’t raise his voice, just spoke as if stating the obvious, his entire demeanour evincing an incredible confidence in what he was saying, an unshakeable belief in what he could make of me.

Then it occurred to me: the wet towel and bottles of water. He had brought them to clean his boots, having planned this scenario all along. I noticed the sack resting against the tree stump. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll clean them with the towel.” He replied. “No,” he answered, “I want you to get on your fucking knees, cunt, and respect the boots!” His voice rose higher this time and I could see anger coloring his cheeks. Would he now commit violence against my person? Again, I imagined my death at his hands: grabbed by the collar, my face pummelled by his fist, knocked down in the mud and kicked over and over as I rolled and screamed and begged for mercy. No, despite my paralyzing fascination, I knew he wasn’t about the beat the shit out of me, at least not then and there. He clenched his fists, though, and I understood that he meant business. “Down on your fucking knees, cocksucker.” His voice spoke daggers. I had to choose.

What was more important after all in the larger sense of things: my clothes or his boots? The former was connected with my public self, my pretence and protection, if you will. The latter were connected with the power and violence of the soldier, with my admiration and envy, with my fascination with Kurt and what he represented, with my own inherent submissive nature. What was truer? My clothes or Kurt’s boots? Was he asking me to choose between what I was publicly and what I wanted to be privately? Was he asking me to give myself over to adoration and self-abasement?

Self-abasement is a necessary procedure in hierarchical organizations, is it not: church, army, even academia. Denial of the ego and retraining of focus and purpose also occur there. I always have in mind an image of ultimate self-abasement: the novice monk lying on his stomach, arms spread out, before the altar in complete submission to a higher authority which gives his life meaning and purpose and fulfills his true nature and ultimate destiny.

I decided, I chose, I knelt. Without further speech, I put two hands under one muddy boot and lifted it. Kurt pressed the boot down into my palm. Then I ran my hands over the boot in gentle caresses, my fingers pushing through gobs of black mud. I knew but didn’t care that my pants were getting badly soiled. I was conscious of, but indifferent to, the spectacle I made should anyone happen upon us: the professor kneeling in the mud and caressing his soldier’s muddy boot. Then I did the same with the other boot. Instantly, I was swallowed up then and there. I disappeared in a sense; that is, my identity as professor and citizen vanished. I was bereft of my former self, and even felt that I should remove my clothes in this new dimension of existence and start naked like a newborn as Kurt’s personal and exclusive recruit.

My mind seemed to empty itself as I caressed his boots and the wind picked up among the trees, the rustling getting louder. I focused intently on the boots in my hands, caressing as he pressed them harder, almost forcing my hand down into the mud with the boots crushing my fingers. Kneeling, trembling, shivering, mouth partially open, speechless, I slipped into a paradoxical waking-dream of awe and terror in the face of the unknown future. Having done this, what more would I do, what more would be required? Where was my resistance? What great abasement would I enact to prove my love and loyalty and weakness before my soldier who wanted to recreate me into what he and I both needed? I wanted to die and I wanted to live at the same time.

Self-abasement and humility, the knowledge that Kurt was my superior in many respects, kept me caressing and fondling the boots in the mud. They represented not only his courage and power as the soldier, which I envied, but also the violence within him and the obsessions within me. Bizarre as it might seem to those who do not share these weird and contradictory feelings, I recognized my deepest self by kneeling before him and taking the muddy boots in my hands. This was a ceremony of submission. I trembled and was sore afraid and exhilarated at the same time. As if compelled by a powerful force, not from outside, but from deep within my mind and body, I knelt over, bringing my head close to the boots.

I kissed his boots! I licked his boots! I tasted mud on my tongue. I pressed my lips against the muddy boots and lost any sense of where I was and who I was, except I was doing honour to a soldier and I was submitting to the meaning and power of the boot. I was enslaved by the ecstasy of the moment. I really don’t remember how long that episode with the boots lasted, except it was the first. There would be more intense boot sessions later, more humiliation of me, but I do remember my mind whirling with strange sensations of floating and peace, a kind of suspension in an imaginary sphere where burdens of life and moral categories fell away. In mire and muck and muddy boots in my hands, I was no longer responsible for myself, aware only of Kurt and his boots.

His voice broke into my state of bliss, for what else could it have been? “That’s enough, cunt. You’ll get another chance to fondle the boots; don’t think you won’t. Get up and clean yourself with the towel. Use the water if you need to. Let’s go back to the car, bitch, and go to my place.” And I unsteadily rose off my knees, helped up by Kurt’s strong arms, and took the towel he offered me to clean the mud off my hands. He took a swig of water from the bottle and offered it to me. I used some of it to wet the towel even more and cleaned my hands as best I could. As for the pants, I didn’t see how they’d come clean with a wet towel. Perhaps I could wash them at Kurt’s place.

Retracing our steps through the forest back to the car, my pants sagging with wet mud on the knees, I kept my head low, as if I didn’t want to spoil what was happening inside of me. Kurt whistled and sometimes playfully pushed against me. He seemed happy, happy with the decision I had made. Once we returned to his place, I was ordered to strip, sit naked on a cushion on the floor, his dirty boots on newsprint. Fully obedient, my mind devoid of any thought or purpose except the task at hand, I began the process of cleaning off the mud and re-polishing the boots for about an hour. Kurt sat on the sofa, his strong legs firmly positioned on either side of me, drank beer, and watched the History Channel.