Author: Stephen Hoppa
Title: Everything Between Us
Genre: Erotica, gay fiction, bisexual romance
Page count: 279
Ethan is confused about more than just his sexuality the night he wanders into a white-trash bar after breaking up with his fiance. When he’s dragged outside the bar and beaten by leather-clad thugs, he’s rescued by the last man he needs in his life.
Raw, dominating, and dangerously unpredictable, this dark stranger won’t even tell Ethan his name. The enigma only draws Ethan in more as he finds himself unable to resist this man or the power he holds over him. Secrets are slowly uncovered. The bond between the two men deepens as scars of the past reveal themselves. But Ethan finds he’s learning more about himself than he ever imagined as a new word finds its way onto his lips: submission.
Let’s skip the set-up, the confusion about sexuality, the meet ‘n greet, the too cool for school bad boy with daddy issues and post-Millennial entitlement, and the stutter starts to questionable choices leading to even worse ones. Go past the buy-in problems, the first impressions and the assumptions about backstory, current story, future story.
Hurtle through time and space, but don’t, please please don’t allow the epilogue to define what you’ve read, what you believe, what you’ve learned, because you will do a disservice to Story and what Everything Between Us might and could have been.
Let’s talk technique.
Erotica is too often a tidy science of well-placed imagery, where every word counts and has purpose, where need and desire come into sharp focus, where titillation and bendy rules do a stately dance within a box of constraints—silk and satin, metal and leather, mores and norms.
Erotica purports to color outside the lines, at times deliberately, other times in random patterns that can annoy or startle or shock. It’s the randomness that draws my eye, the mistakes we make. Those mistakes have consequences, ripples in ponds large and small, impacts that seem predictable but for the irregular shoreline and the asymmetries of emotion, of fear, of libido.
It is not the colors outside the line that interest me, but rather how color bleeds into the lifestream of consciousness, altering reality in ways that invite judgment, instability, and dysfunction.
But back to tidy… and choices—deliberate or otherwise.
The characters’ names are Ethan and Nathan, both of Hebrew origin—Nathan, the giver; Ethan, solid or enduring. Their meanings are oddly prophetic—and one wonders if the author was aware of this, was it an accidental or a deliberate choice? Does it matter?
Well, yes and no.
Neither name is revealed straightaway, probably due to POV choices and how the initial scene plays out, a scene of violence that skips over physical consequences in favor of shortcutting to tethering these two characters together. That tether is painfully, agonizingly developed via confusion, misdirection, and a subtext of menace… as if you’ve invited Freddy Kreuger for an overnight and he’s decided to stay because he has nothing better to do.
The man-boy we come to know as Nathan, then Nate, is a loose cannon in a world of privilege, indulgence, and fear. Pathologies bore him, until they don’t, and setting him adrift within his own dysfunctions leads to destructive behaviors—physical objects disintegrate randomly as he leaves a trail of demolition and none call him on it. Ever.
And why should they, what with his family connections, and the enabling face of wealth and paternal expectations—none of which manifest immediately but are rather implied from the confluence of ennui and hyperactivity in his actions and reactions. He is interesting in a run like hell in the other direction way, or worse… he harbors the existential messianic appeal of the undisciplined dominant, the one who commands obedience when reason or order fail.
We see, feel, hear, and experience the force of nature that is larger-than-life Nathan through the filter of confusion and hesitation of Ethan, a man about to be drawn and quartered emotionally by the sheer physicality of the squatter who’s invaded his existence and what passes for normal, skewing it in favor of sublime threats and empty promises.
Ethan is a submissive, by inclination and design. That a man like Nathan could overturn everything he thinks and knows about himself is a given, but what makes this interesting, and unflinchingly erotic and even transgressive, is how we are driven inside Ethan’s psyche— relentlessly, violently, frighteningly intense, and so charged with lust it coats the roof of your mouth and drips with cool disdain in discordant notes, soaking the sheets with the ecstatic fallout of denial.
Nathan will give Ethan only that which he controls, and what he controls is desire so powerful it invites comparisons to religious rapture. To get inside the mind of a true submissive is difficult. How do you describe the experiential disconnect when mind and body segregate? How do you translate lust eating you from the inside out into patterns the voyeuristic reader can understand without the artifice of colors and unicorns and glitter in artful swirls and unfamiliar patterns?
How do you reach inside the submissive and fondle the release of control, share in its fluidity and lack of shape, its failure of texture and retreating boundaries? In a word, you don’t. You can’t.
What you need is the giver, what you need is Nathan. Nathan… who says Ethan’s name, over and over on endless repeat, the sound a subtext of violence, hurtful and needful and so annoying you want nothing more than to slam the book closed, but you can’t, and you read Ethan Ethan Ethan until you lose sense of time and place, you lose contact with who you are. You, the passive voyeur, ride the conduit of control until you become Ethan, and in that becoming you earn the lesson of submission and reap the reward of denial and the sharp discord of knowing what you want can’t be you, has never been you… But now it is. You are the creature he has created.
Welcome to purgatory. Welcome to the gateway to subspace.
There are lessons both men will learn on this journey, small secrets revealed in artful ways, insights gleaned via the construct of social intercourse and random patterns of contact, skirmishes consisting of parry and retreat, and beneath it all resides the shifting sands of attachment and the fragility of immature egos for whom insecurity is the commerce by which to judge and predict.
When dysfunction lays down the rules of engagement, is it any wonder that the combatants fall prey to its strong allure, that fear of the inevitable becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy driving wedges of pain into the cracks lining a foundation built on lust and dominance?
Fear requires escalation and the patina of teasing dips deep into the underlying core of aggression and violence driving them both. Ethan taunts and questions until the brittle divide snaps, the first slap a sting, and a surprise, and Nathan keeps asking… you like that, don’t you?… the same way he’d repeated Ethan’s name, but this time it’s different because there’s pain that burns, and Ethan’s pulse beats out a rhythm of yes master inside his skull.
Once more we drop boneless into a well of sensation that exists outside pain. Ethan no longer feels, he experiences, and that thing he describes is intensity, a sensation bound only by the metric of more or less, of don’t stop, of total capitulation of the self to the other.
Forget soulmates, forget the idyllic flowery, romantic constructs of minds and bodies uniting in shared bliss… This type of erotica forges a new singularity… or, as Ethan says, “It felt like all the sex I’d have from that moment on would just be an attempt to recapture what we’d just shared.”
This kind of sex is the foreplay of obsession. This kind of sex exists only where the veil between non-con and desire thins to transparency, to where pleasure redacts pain, and violence arouses on its own merits.
When Ethan is finally graced with penetration and the redemption of self-acceptance, he is also cursed with the surety than the enigmatic Nathan will withdraw favor and move on. Nathan, after all, defines his own existence at the fringes of interesting, refusing to invest lest it lose the shiny. Ethan’s virginity is/was the shiny. He has every reason to assume once it’s gone, the master of his new reality will fade like smoke in a strong breeze.
Ever driven by impulse, Nathan struggles as his nearly overwhelming narcissism finds its ultimate expression in jealousy. Nathan has opened the door for Ethan’s submission, but he’s failed to give his conquest a template by which to judge either of their roles in a dynamic without rules or boundaries.
Nathan is a sadist and a dominant, a dangerous one, for he does not have a clue about limits, for himself or anyone else. It’s not until he contemplates the very real possibility of Ethan stepping outside his orbit, that he confronts the limits of ownership and his own complicity in their shared loss of trust. And it’s exactly at this point where we are inside Nathan’s head for the first time.
It was a disconnect and a necessity because, as the final scenes played out into the epilogue, that which had held me in thrall dissolved into hearts and canine rescues and the feels when the damaged find absolution in good works and when happily ever after wins the day.
I hated it. Hated. It.
It felt awkward, inauthentic. It violated and trivialized a journey of intense sensuality, a journey that redefined, for me, what it feels like… to feel. It guided me to a level of perception that took me outside the safety net of tidy, staid and acceptable erotica and into a world where denial and control were more physical than touch, more abusive than a promise, and more arousing than indulgence.
The author, to his credit, added an essay at the end, exploring the pros and cons of choices he made for the denouement. He added deleted scenes to fill out the narrative and to satisfy those, like myself, who wished to pursue Ethan and Nathan’s dynamic in greater depth.
There is much to like here: the use of repetition to create a tempo and a template that enhanced and drove home the nature of Ethan’s emerging submissive personality, and reinforced the brutality and violence lurking beneath Nathan’s narcissism; the subtext of non-consent permeating nearly every aspect of their relationship; and the deconstruction of dysfunctional adaptations to one’s past as acted out on that most intimate of stages.
The conclusion cried out for a different treatment, one not so pat, so obviously pandering to romantic sensibilities. But that’s not my call and I won’t fault the author on that choice, though it irks me when an author squanders an opportunity to create something truly unique and even ground-breaking in the erotica genre.
What did bother me was the lack of editing—missing words, punctuation and grammar missteps—the usual problems I see all the time with self-published works. The repetition I found so effective in driving the narrative at times backfired and would have benefited with a less-is-more treatment. There were continuity issues with Ethan’s backstory and the man he’d finally become, and issues with the outcome of Ethan’s violent encounter behind the bar—nothing terribly major, but still a distraction you don’t need.
For those of you who are aficionados of erotica, Everything Between Us should be on your must-read list. If you want to get inside a character’s head, really get in there, then this will open you to new possibilities. If you like to explore the boundaries between erotic intent and vicious baiting, then this is the read for you. If you want to understand how dysfunction destabilizes, how sublime the descent into indulgence can be, how the consequences of even the most minor act reverberate and alter your perceptions, then you’ve come to the right place.
If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.