The night is unseasonably warm. Outside our window, the lilac buds are getting ready to open. I strip to my salmon-colored T-shirt and get into bed beside Sam. Tentatively, I kiss his lips. Tentatively, he reaches for my breast. The sheets remain cool. We lie on our sides, breast to chest, pelvis to pelvis. He strokes my back with long caresses. I run my hand through his hair. We snake together our wet tongues. Still no heat. Several times my hand wanders down his neck, his firm chest, his tender stomach ... I am afraid to reach lower. Finally, Sam takes my hand in his. He guides it between his legs. And then I know, too.
"It hasn't been long," I say quietly. "The doctors said it might take months and months to get it back."
My husband's prostate surgery was in January. His recovery was long and slow. Now it is April, and we are just getting around to sex again.
"Want me to try?" I ask.
"Don't bother," he grunts. "It's useless."
Over the next several weeks, we reenact this scene again and again. We try bourbon, incense and slow massage. I use my hand and my mouth. But no matter our mood or our technique, nothing happens. "I feel like an amputee with a phantom limb," complains Sam. "I can still sense what it's supposed to do."
After these failed sessions, Sam falls immediately into a deep sleep, as if exhausted by his labors. But it is a troubled sleep, punctuated with turnings and rumblings. I lie awake and stare at the white ceiling. I, too, am troubled. I am in shock to lose the power I first discovered at age 13 when I slow-danced with Neal Yanofsky at his bar mitzvah party, surprised to find a stick pressing against my leg. Now that my husband can no longer get it up, I too have lost my prowess, at least around him -- the ability to dramatically alter male physics by my mere proximity.
We soon discover there is a whole industry devoted to penile hydraulics. First on our list, of course, is Viagra. Sam swallows the pill and we wait out the requisite 30 minutes for the medicine to take effect. Viagra works by relaxing the nerves, thereby indirectly increasing the arterial blood flow in the penis, a necessity for erections. Do our before-foreplay activities jinx things? I take a hot shower; he watches a shoot'em-up episode on TV. In any case, once we get in the sack and try to get things rolling, Sam suffers a massive sinus attack, which is related to one of Viagra's side effects. The medicine dilates the vessels in his nose, that secondary sexual organ, bringing up mucus, and making him sneeze a yellow, viscous fluid onto the sheets. It pools on the sheet like some cruel jokester's idea of fake come.
A call to a toll-free number and a prescription from Sam's HMO buy us a vacuum erection pump, called ErectAide. This arrives in its own green travel case, accompanied by an instructional video: "ErectAide allowed us to reclaim our sex lives," proclaims a trim, silver-templed gentleman. Beside him sits a smiling woman dressed in a sweater twin set.
Assembling the plastic cylinders and rubber suction rings intrigues Sam, an engineer by inclination if not by training. He fits one to the other and voilè! -- the cylindrical tube fits neatly around his genitalia. Standing with legs apart and knees slightly bent, he gingerly pumps the lever. I sit on the bed and scrutinize the procedure. After about 10 minutes, his penis stiffens and rises, an injured bird taking flight.
We hold our breath while he slowly removes the tube and attempts to adjust the rubber cock ring. I am fully dressed, more in the mood for jumping jacks than for sex, but if my partner has taken such pains to prepare himself, I had damn well better be ready. Alas, this is to be a short-lived fantasy. "Damn," says Sam. "Damn, damn, damn."
Once again he is limp.
Next on our list is a penile suppository that goes by the unlikely name of Muse. If I am to no longer inspire my lover's poetry, he can insert a chemical potion -- prostaglandin -- into his penis head. We have a 20-minute wait. This time, we read aloud from a worn paperback copy of "The Perfumed Garden" and from "The Housewife's Handbook on Selective Promiscuity," an odd, obscure volume, written by one Rey Anthony. Sam is supposed to remain standing, preferably walking, so he paces while I read aloud.
Twenty minutes go by, twenty-five. "It should work by now," says Sam.
We kiss and fondle and grope, and still Sam has nothing but the softest of hard-ons. In cutting out his cancerous prostate, a walnut-sized gland wedged precariously between a man's urethra and testicles, and along which the nerve bundles that control erections run, the surgeon was forced to sever many of those vital nerves. As a result, the organ's erectile tissue remains shut, contracted and unable to lift.
Sam schedules an appointment with Dr. Irwin Goldstein, the esteemed urologist in sexual dysfunction. In Goldstein's Boston office, Sam is measured and evaulated. Each Friday morning, Sam visits the clinic. Each week, a male nurse named Terry Payton, also a sexual dysfunction activist, measures a different potency cocktail into the syringe of a diabetic-type needle. He shoots the erection drug into the side of Sam's penis. This is supposed to relax the smooth muscle tissue of the penis. Relaxing smooth muscle tissue is yet another prerequisite for an erection, a complicated mechanism indeed. For enhancement, Sam watches porn videos. He masturbates. He does achieve the hardest of erections, but this causes him extreme pain. The dose is lowered, changed, raised again. Finally, even Dr. Goldstein has to admit defeat.
All this takes months and months, by which time Sam and I become accustomed to our changed circumstances. Being resourceful people, we make accommodations. My husband is no stranger to cunnilingus. He is especially good with his hands.
He wields a mean dildo.
What this means is that sex becomes all about me. At first, I revel in this change. No longer must I worry that he wants to go faster or further or more frequently. No longer must I ask, "Was it good for you, too?" Sam's standard comment on our lovemaking is now: "Your pleasure is my pleasure." In short, my husband becomes my sex slave.
Whereas before, orgasms were negotiated and paced, now they are all mine. Whereas before, one good vaginal explosion made it a night, now I discover peak after clitoral peak, six or seven in a session. His hands become expert explorers, finding inside me a soft padded place that he presses and presses to make me gasp with pleasure.
"Don't stop," I whisper.
"What else would you like?" he asks.
From Grand Openings, a Women's sex shop in Brookline, Mass., I purchase a $19.95 6-inch dildo made from pitch-black silicone that the salesgirl suggests I cover with a cherry red condom.
"Oh my," says Sam when he removes it from the plastic bag. "Let's take it for a test drive."
The problem is that now Sam has two penises: A real one that never goes up and a phony one that never goes down. It seems redundant to strap the dildo into a harness to position it on his crotch, but where else was a penis supposed to go? Besides, I am either too cheap or too timid or both to buy a leather harness.
In the end, we settle for two positions. Sam lies on top of me awkwardly holding the dildo above his penis and inserting the long-tipped thing as if it were his own. I close my eyes and pretend the lovely rippling sensations are real, but as I come, hot tears run down my cheeks. For the dildo serves as a constant reminder of what I have lost: Sam's burrowing flesh. The second position is for me to lie on my back and Sam to lie on his front, head near my crotch, and use the dildo as an extension of his hand. This is less emotionally wrenching, and the dildo's nonstop hard-on makes possible my multiple orgasms. But Sam doesn't like that it makes him go on automatic pilot -- just thrusting and thrusting a piece of rubber.
After half a dozen runs, we relegate the dildo to my top dresser drawer, nestled among my crystal bead necklace and onyx earrings.
Because my husband is a political scientist and a sociologist by training, he begins to claim that we are now living in a non-phallocentric household. "Think of the possibilities," he crows. "No more legitimized rape. No more linear thinking."
"But you still think like a guy," I say. "You still love tools, cars. You can't just undo a lifetime of entitlement."
We do make a sexual discovery to further my husband's education as a male. One night, in the midst of my sensual feasting, I feel Sam heat up and his breath quicken to a rhythmic pant that I remember from days of old. He is rubbing his pelvis along my stomach. I feel his torso tense, and although there is no jism and no erection, there is a definite short spastic release in his penis.
"Whew," he says. "That was, that was ... weird. I guess I came."
Sam coming turns out to be an erratic occurrence, and one that he reports is more strange than erotic: definitely not enough of a thrill to make him feel like a participant in our lovemaking. That is the problem with having a sex slave for a partner. There is no reciprocity; no give-and-take; and little sense that we are two pleasure-giving as well as pleasure-seeking beings.
Sam reports that he often feels like an observer. I may as well be satisfying myself.
I buy a dress to wear to a friend's summer wedding, an afternoon party to be held in a formal garden. The dress is pale yellow, flimsy, a French country cut. When I come home from shopping, I try it on. In my full-length mirror I see how beautifully translucent is the fabric, a rayon blend, and how well it drapes, smoothing and thinning.
I want to feel 13 again, standing in my old living room to model a party dress for my father the night before I lose my innocence slow-dancing with a boy. I want to feel all grown-up, beautiful and seductive. I want to feel the ardor of Sam and me at the beginning, when it was dangerous for us to be together behind a closed door.
I walk downstairs, into my own living room, wearing nothing but the dress. I stand in a beam of sunlight so that Sam can see my legs all the way up, my full breasts.
"Oh," he says. "Don't you look -- " He gets up from the chair where he sits, reading the newspaper. He walks toward me, as if in slow motion, and I know from his half-smile that just now my shape as a woman pleases him entirely.
I still have my reflexes from the old days. I still expect him to walk straight up to me, pupil-dilating eyeball to eyeball.
Halfway across the room, he grimaces in pain.
When he reaches me he raises his hand in a gesture that says, What's the use. "Just the littlest bit, and then I lost it," he says.
The moment, too, is lost. He shuffles by me and upstairs to the bathroom. I hang the dress in my closet, to be worn with the appropriate full slip to our friends' wedding.
The saddest part of my husband's impotence is not that we can't have sex; for unless you stick to a strict Lewinsky definition of sex as actual intercourse we are, in fact, physically intimate. No, the saddest part of my husband's impotence is his handicapped desire. Why kindle lust if one party is forever muted? It's not that either one of us has lost our libido. It's that there is no place for the libido to go.
Next month, my husband has another appointment with Dr. Goldstein, this time to talk about whether he is a suitable for a penile implant. If so, we may reclaim our sex lives yet. But what that reclaiming will consist of and what that sex will be like is still to be determined.