In Michelle Hart’s We Do What We Do in the Dark, a college freshman named Mallory has a tumultuous, clandestine, semester-long relationship with a professor. The novel explores infatuation, transgression, and pleasure.

During their relationship, Mallory occasionally arrives at the professor’s office to talk. More often, Mallory arrives at the professor’s house to have sex.

The professor tells Mallory that,

There is no better sex than the kind no one knows you’re having.

For the professor, perhaps this is true. Each of our unique minds draws pleasure from different sources, which we must acknowledge to fully understand each other.

For instance, in Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions:

Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?

I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.

And yet it’s possible that Mallory’s professor instead feels such intense pleasure due to the thrill of transgression, and transgressive relationships are more likely to be kept secret. The relationship is hidden because Mallory is a student, because Mallory is fifteen years younger, because Mallory is not the professor’s spouse. And because Mallory is, like the professor, a woman. Perhaps these other aspects of their relationship, which cause Mallory and the professor to believe that they must be secretive, are the actual wellsprings of their pleasure.

Because there’s also the thrill of recognition – pleasure that derives its power because others do know about it. Like the warm rush that young people must feel when driving to a popular make-out spot, (mistakenly) believing that anyone who sees them on the road, or who notices their parked car, will know what they are doing. The thrill of visiting a specifically designed love hotel, or visiting a sex shop to purchase vibrators or other toys. A moment of shared understanding that invites others to smile at your impending pleasure.

But Mallory feels that she cannot allow herself this degree of honesty or openness in her relationship. She holds herself back from every interaction.

For instance, during Mallory’s relationship with the professor, the two of them often cross paths with a wink at the college gym:

Mallory would show up first, and when the woman arrived, she would get onto the treadmill in front of Mallory. Unable to help herself, Mallory would stare at the woman’s ass, punch-drunk from having seen it bare.

Their intimacy was dizzying. Beneath those clothes is a body that Mallory has seen, has touched. The professor is fit and beautiful – alluring at lectures, the gym, in bed. Alluring even while sweaty and breathing heavily in the locker room after her workout, stripping before a shower.

And yet Mallory, never sees the professor’s bare face. Years after their relationship has ended, Mallory reflects:

They had never seen one another without make-up.”

I like wearing make-up – eye-shadow, mascara, lipstick – but there’s always a sense of hiding from the world, of applying protective armor. Beneath this mask, there is an I who will not be seen or touched.

Similarly, Mallory finds herself constantly pretending to be someone slightly different. She shares only those thoughts that she assumes the professor will find most interesting. And in doing so, she’s snatching at some other person’s pleasure – that masked, more interesting version of herself – which will surely be somewhat different from her own.

Mallory is unable to lose herself in a state of being Mallory. Instead, she’s always left at a precipice:

The woman fulfilled so many of Mallory’s wants but left so many wants unfulfilled that the feeling of wanting in and of itself became desirable.

Mallory felt that they each had power within the confines of their relationship. Mallory never enrolled in the professor’s class, but she’s aware of the hierarchy of power in academia. The professor has money, a career. The professor has connections with people in the publishing industry, the ability to make Mallory’s artistic aspirations so much more attainable.

But Mallory has her youth and freedom. The professor teaches Mallory that these are also forms of power. The professor is unhappily married and envies Mallory’s opportunity to spend time as she wishes.

Years later, when the professor is in her forties and Mallory is in her mid-twenties, they cross paths again. The professor is recently divorced, and lonely.

It’s hard out there,” said the woman. “Men my age want girls like you.”

The professor would like to feel desired by Mallory again. But Mallory has moved on.

Still, though, Mallory withholds herself from all of her relationships. Our early encounters with love and sexuality can shape us for years to come, and Mallory’s time with the professor left her with the idea that she must hide her deepest feelings.

Mallory has turned twenty-eight before anyone she’s dated takes a photograph of her.

As a reader, this saddened me. Mallory and the professor each felt desire, and, consensually, they acted upon it. But I’d prefer a world in which an older partner would seek to improve a beloved’s life. I wish the professor helped teach Mallory how to bring her joy into the light.

Perhaps she didn’t know herself.