You sit alone and naked on the cold rim of the bathtub with the syringe in your right hand, your dominant hand, the recommended hand. This is the price you now pay for sex in this, your double-nickel year. All pimped out. Ben Houseman, Big Pharma’s little bitch.
You’re also suffering from an earworm. There’s no shot for those nasty buggers. Why does a song you hate (Tonight’s the Night) from a singer you hate even more (Rod the Mod) from the decade you hate the most (your most private 70s teenaged wasteland) keep replaying like a never-ending game of I Know You Are But What Am I? This song particle has been infinitely looping all day through the superconducting super collider that is your mind. Is the worm trying to reassure you with gonna be alright? And just why is that Scottish twat chunneling through your skull? And why are you convinced that if you played the worm backward you would hear “Ha Ha Ben is dead, Ben is dead” and if you played that conspiracy in reverse you would hear “turn me on, dead man”? Is this what it has come to: Eliot’s whimper, hold the bang?
Head bowed in supplication and staring between your legs, you hearten because your dumb stick doesn’t look like it’s aged much. Dicks must be born old, because yours is still the gnarly, wrinkled Shar-Pei it’s always been. Just like in your mind, where you are perpetually 28, your penis lolls youthfully leftward and stupid. No turkey wattle waggling from the base. No mid-shaft Dunlopping. No deep furrows plowing the head. No errant hairs erupting from the tip, but … no laugh lines, either. It makes a beautiful corpse, recoiled in its graying nest, and moated by its spongy mound of mons. Sure, your balls hang a little lower, but not nearly as elongated as those of the old fuckers at the gym, with their ball sacks as elastic, smooth, and stretched as the taffy pull at the state fair. Gravity’s a pernicious son of a bitch.
So, you concentrate on the challenge at hand, in hand. Your thoughts turn to Ellen, your wife of 35 years, waiting naked in bed, and the return of Date Night. It’s been, what, seven, eight, nine years (longer?) – what you have been sarcastically calling your sex life caesura. That’s surely enough time to have your virginity regenerate like your scarred liver, which in the Talmudic parlance is called the seat of anger. But what is virginity anyway? Why do we celebrate the losing of inexperience rather than the acquisition of a seminal achievement? You always celebrated the first steps of each of your three now-grown children, not the loss of their immobility.
The journey to this magic moment came not from desire or a failure of your husbandly duties, but from a go-to-hell arousal prompted by a magazine article you read several months ago about sexless marriages. You can’t stand being a statistic, type, trend, demographic, or, god forbid, a cliché. Your flag proclaims, Don’t Aggregate On Me! This led to the Find a Physician Healthcare Hotline, (Grindr for the urologically challenged), followed by a hookup with Dr. Uro, who gave you the middle-aged edition of The Talk that involved depressing physiological details, some groping, and a short, unattractive description of Your Options of pills, pumps, implants, and pistons, or, as you term them after giving each a go: prayers, poems, and promises, promises. The pump wasn’t for you; too Austin Powers. Implants and their promise of the eternal erection (The Constant Hardener?) (Fuck Everlasting?) sounded exhausting and Frankensteinian.
And the pills didn’t work, either. Oh to have been in the room when the Little Blue Pill mad men chose the grandfatherly Bob Dole positioning over what surely must have been the more glandular options. What was wrong with a “Mr. ED” campaign (Hung Like A Horse, Of Course!)? There is some sort of irony, because those pills were originally a heart medication. You start to grasp that your hard problem may really be a matter of the heart. You wish you could pinpoint when erections pivoted from ineluctable to irremediable, and your dysfunction became de facto chastity. You like to think your current condition is less Sun Also Rises and more Portnoy’s Complaint, but the truth is, you are a recovering alcoholic with sleep apnea, diabetes, and congestive heart failure – an erectile dysfunction trifecta, plus one. Aren’t these all just shorthand for should be dead? Best just to accept you brought this condition on yourself and cue up Requiem for the Swell Season.
You question entitlement to a lifelong recreational sex life. Maybe only some of us are given this ability, like those who can still run a marathon at 85 or those who get to live past 100?
What exactly are the Facts of Life? You only thought you knew. Maybe they’re just the facts of your life. As a father, you were so eager to guide and counsel your children in the ways of love and STDs and morality and just-say-no and condoms and birth control pills, but you never imagined this. And you never turned to your old man and asked, “When did it all go south for you, Dad?” And when would you (if ever) tell your own sons about this kind of family legacy and inheritance, to say nothing of warning your daughter?
Sitting here with your ass still cooling on the bathtub, rises a dirty old joke from your dirty old grandpaw who whispered it to you when you were twelve. What are the three stages of a man’s sex life: Tri-weekly. Try weekly. And try weakly. He laughed and laughed and slapped his knee while you blushed and flushed, not understanding the humor. Thoughts of that codger makes you nostalgic and, your associative mind being what it is, you remember the words of a once-favorite poem – How Annandale Went Out. It comes to you now: “They called it Annandale—and I was there.”
In your youth, you didn’t get poetry. Then, on the chalkboard, the Freshman Lit professor underlined “Now view yourself as I was, on the spot—/With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?” You didn’t see, not until the professor explained the use of engine as a hypodermic needle. He revealed the world of etymology (the history of words!) and you, the business major, couldn’t take notes fast enough. So, you became a numbers guy who loves words. You love numbers because they are immutable; twelve will always be twelve. And you love words just as much because they are mutable and evolutionary; twelve can have context. In the 1300s, an engine was a mechanical device used in war. In Old French, it meant skill and craft and deceitfulness and trickery. The Late Latin definition was a battering ram.
You smile at your naiveté then, and thinking now of this engine, its contents, and the anticipated effects. But who are you kidding? These thoughts are a diversion. And that poem? It’s about euthanasia, a mercy killing.
And now the worm turns: from somewhere in the back of your mind, where your teenaged wasteland lies always in wait (or waits always in lies), comes the Electric Light Orchestra, the E – L – O, and another infinite loop. “…tell you once more before I get off the floor / Don’t bring me down.” That song was your safe place after the taunts, “Ben. Ben. The Has-Been.” What were you, 12? 13? And already pegged a has-been? Fuck. Why do you always default to this? Why can’t you move on, toss it the way you tossed the booze? When will you stop dragging your past behind you like an unwilling, obstinate hound?
Each decade taketh away. First it was your motorcycle, then cigars, then your 128-bottle wine refrigerator, and now this penis thing? How many more enjoyments do you have to banish to the Island of Misfit Toys? Why has your life become more about excision than circumcision? And why are you so goddam ungrateful for all that you have been given, have enjoyed, and have accomplished, regardless of what you have left?
Ellen knocks on the door. “Can I give your Slinky a hand?”
She never could pull off raunchy repartee or faster-faster-pussycat sex talk, but you appreciate her attempt to lighten the mood, even though it’s making you too nervous to make the plunge. If you miss the so-called target area, you might reanimate the wrong thing, bleed out, or send seventy-five bucks’ worth of this fluid aimlessly arcing through the bathroom like a backyard sprinkler. Still, your inner douchebag keeps whispering that you’re being a pussy about this.
You refused to say impotent, but you Googled it even though you were wary of the come-hither targeted ads that would start following you around like a needy puppy (and they did, and you’ve got a bottle of Horny Goat Weed the size of a Big Gulp to prove it). But you desired to put better words to your soft goods. You boycotted impotent because, like barren, it seems so anachronous, so hard, and so flat-out fucking cold. The etymology of impotent, however, turned out to be so much more interesting (read, diversionary) than your actual shrinkage. Impotent has evolved from Latin meaning feeble or lacking self-control to the fifteenth century for completely lacking in sexual power, to the Middle English native term “cunt-beaten” which you suppose has been watered down to pussy-whipped in the modern parlance.
From this multiple choice, you opt for lacking self-control because if your will had its way (and it doesn’t) and if you could transubstantiate a boner (and you can’t), then you wouldn’t have this syringe in your hand (but you do). So now it’s the engine for you…the new Peter Principle. You are being pussy-whipped by your own dick.
And why not? You have already succumbed to the Rise of the Machines. The highlight of your morning ablutions is spectating while the blood pressure cuff inflates and races to complete its reading before the Health Tracker program launches on your laptop. And now you are defined not by your SAT and MBA, but by a mélange of acronyms: AFIB. IBS. AA. BP, CPAP. Adult ADD. ED. CHF. A1-C. LDL. HCL. E-t-c.
You remember another of your dirty old grandpaw’s dirty old jokes, the one about a wife trying to stop her husband from sleeping during church service. She pokes him with her hat pin every time he nods off.
“And who created the Universe?” the preacher asks.
“My God!” yells the poked man.
The second time he falls asleep, the preacher is asking, “And who died on the cross for you?”
“Jesus Christ!” yells the poked man.
The third time, the preacher asks, “And what did Eve say to Adam after she bore him his 99th son?” The wife pokes her husband and he jumps up and yells, “By God, if you poke me with that thing one more time, I am going to break it OFF!”
More granddaddy knee slapping. More you blushing.
At this moment, you realize two things. First, this is where you got your sense of humor (hello mutant Y chromosome) and second, you are now about the same age he was when he told you these jokes. Thanks to the miracle of patrilineal DNA, the two of you are just the same old man. Like John Hiatt sang, “Truth is I never was young / Shot like a bullet from a rusty old gun.”
This is not, nor will it ever be, an earworm.
You pull out of this reverie to assure Ellen, still outside the door, with an overly optimistic “Working on it!”
Ellen’s a good woman, but you would never say “good woman” within earshot because it sounds too country. Ellen hates anything that smacks of country and by extension country music, which she calls Cunt Tree music, because it reminds her of her knuckle dragger relations back in Dunklin County. So, you wouldn’t say “good woman” in the same way you would never let her hear you whistle “Having My Baby,” which you did through all three her of incubations, which defied Dr. Gyno who said she had kinky plumbing and couldn’t (wouldn’t) produce children, but she (you) conceived on the first try, each time. No false positives. No false negatives. No Houston. No problems. All count down, ignition, and lift off. But the experience for you was always tempered by Blake’s “Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.”
Any fears that you had gay tendencies were allayed in Dr. Uro’s office. He played with your package like a friendly, efficient butcher while you stood there uninflated and wondering how and when and why he had to become a dick doctor. There was nothing remotely stimulating as Dr. Uro had you drop trou and gave your prostate a massage without a happy ending. Then you sat on the papered table, stretched your penis along your leg and the two of you located the target area and the consequences for missing it, while the syringe quivered in your hand. Like a more experienced, patient lover, he guided you through your first time, your test shot of love. Here, not there. Pull. Relax. Breathe. Not too tight. Squeeze. You are sure that when the needle entered your penis that first time, it sputtered like a zit-pop. It was only one-tenth of a dose, but it worked 100 percent (less metric, more language).
Ex machina cum deus sex machina. Erections became an existential matter. They begged the question, Why? Or more accurately, Why Now? Or even, Why any longer? Your DNA has been expressed into the next generation; your biological mission accomplished. You may want a hard on, but what you want ain’t what you need, and no one else but Ellen seems to care. Look no further than your health insurance provider. Those bastards won’t cover this need, this desire, this injection. Useless Third Leg Syndrome is not a recognized condition. It is elective, not essential, in the same category as Botox and breast implants. Thanks to your MBA and the salary it provides, you can afford this act of affordable care.
You left Dr. Uro with a fistful of pamphlets he called “literature” and his admonition to temper your expectations. The so-called dry orgasm was about as appealing and arousing as it sounded, but that’s all that’s left to you. You imagined the sensation of ejaculating sand and slowly creating a desert. Afterward, after time to process, you concluded that if sex itself was nothing more than skin and nerves and friction, then it should be less body and more mind. This led you to worry less about erectile and more about emotional dysfunction and want to ask Ellen, “Do you still want to touch me, be with me?”
But you won’t ask, you’ll do. Do this.
You realize now that you are, and should always have been, a romantic. Not an old school romantic, the kind that means having an ideal love affair, whatever ideal means. No. You are a new romantic. A mature romantic. The kind of romantic who learned to stop loving his dick and start celebrating a relationship as-is. You and Ellen are still together, after all, and left with what remains. Is it enough? It has to be.
Your ass sticks to the rim of the bathtub as you rise. For courage, you think of sneakers, your Nikes, and that slogan.
Tonight’s the night.
Photo by Jeffrey Sass
CB Adams is a writer and fine art photographer. His fiction has appeared in Zoetrope All-Story Extra, River Styx (twice), Missouri Writers’ Biennial, The Distillery Artistic Spirits of the South, Blue Penny Quarterly, and elsewhere. He received first place in the Missouri Arts Council’s Writers’ Biennial Competition before the program funding was eliminated by the state legislature, mostly because of his short story “Private Parts.” Adams was profiled as “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” by poet/writer/editor/musician Richard Newman in St. Louis Riverfront Times. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. More from Adams is located on his website: www.qwerkyphotography.com. He welcomes new Twitter followers @onsnobhill and @hansduker.
5 Questions with CB Adams:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
CBA: The impetus for this story came from an article in the New York Times about sex after a certain age. A guy asked his date whether she thought that the evening would include sex. He needed to know because his expensive impotence medication was in the refrigerator and needed to be warmed up before he could inject it. And I thought, “Whaaa?”
The other important part or back story is that I quit short story writing fifteen years ago. When I started again last year, I had ideas for a few stories. Nothing jelled until I heard a Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. He and a guest were discussing writing from the perspective of a love of language compared to writing from anger. My mind immediately recognized anger as the missing element from my conception of “Cock’d.” Then it was off to the races.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
CBA: Back in the 90s, during an interview at the NPR station in Kansas City, I said something callow like, “I’m influenced by everything from the backs of cereal boxes to Tolstoy.” I still believe that. My greatest influence is the aggregate of everything that I have read, from high culture to low. It all informs my work in ways both conscious and unconscious, overt and subtle. My reading history provides my voice and vocabulary, but my tongue shapes and enunciates that voice in a way that is distinct—my creative glottal catch, so to speak.
I’m like Matisse: I have phases. I have deep-dive, sustained super-phases that include Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. And I also have had shorter and more intense phases that ranged from Anne Beattie to Lewis Nordan, Marcel Proust, Jane Ann Phillips, Mavis Gallant, and William Faulkner. I’m currently in a Brit Lit phase with the dude trifecta of Kevin Barry, David Constantine, and Paul Lynch.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
CBA: I wish I could write productively in a café or bar, but I’m too much of a people watcher. If something inspiring hits me, of course I will capture it regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. (I’ve been known to write on my arm with a Sharpie, and I keep a nifty lighted pen at my bedside.) But when I get in the groove, in my zone, it is almost always in my office at home, alone, in front of my computer. I require that undisturbed space for sustained creative work. As a fine art photographer, my darkroom provides the same type of creative space with the benefit of even fewer visual distractions.
TD: Favorite word?
CBA: What is this, Bouillon de Culture with Bernard Pivot? That’s a trick question. I may say that my favorite word is “eleemosynary,” but if you analyzed my writing, you may find that “pea gravel” occurs quite often. Is one more favorite than the other? As Kevin says in Home Alone, “I don’t think so.”
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
CBA: Nothing (and I do mean nothing) beats opening a newly purchased hardback book with nothing else to do but read, alone, in an ambient temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit, while drinking Sessa Estate Assam tea from a double-walled mug made from borosilicate glass, wearing my favorite pair of bunny slippers.
Oh wait, you said ritual. I thought you said fetish…