I splash cold water on my face.
This is what men in movies do when they’re about to fly off the handle, when shit is getting out of control. I do this sometimes. I react to things based on what characters in movies would do. That’s kind of ironic, considering I’ve always thought of myself as a book person.
At least I think that’s ironic. That word gets misused a lot.
The water isn’t refreshing like it’s supposed to be. It’s ice-cold and I gasp. As it swirls into a little cyclone on its way down the drain, I look in the mirror, ashamed and angry at myself.
There’s something wrong. With my penis.
It’s been an unpredictable thing for a while now, my shlong, all flighty and unreliable like some stoner uncle who shows up hammered at Thanksgiving and forgets your name.
The guy I see in the mirror, Tom Violet, the same lanky, moody bastard I’ve been looking at for almost thirty-six years now, looks . . . old. The fact that I’m naked certainly isn’t helping. Like most men who are not Brad Pitt, I could do without the sight of my own nudity. Back in the day I was a long-distance runner, all streamlined and put together. Now I’m flabby-thin, the way a fat guy might look after a year in an internment camp. Worse, the hair on my chest is overgrown and dark against my pale skin and I wonder if I should be one of those guys who shaves his chest. Maybe that would help.
Of course it wouldn’t help. That’s not the problem. The problem, still, is my broken wang.
I look at it in the mirror, really look at it, and it, too, appears ashamed. It’s shriveled up into itself, like an infant’s thingy. I close my eyes and touch it, and then I squeeze it, just to try to get something going. I think of my wife. She’s lying in bed, not twenty feet away, in a red thing from Victoria’s Secret—just “a fun little thing” she picked up. I actually think that’s the problem. Lingerie screams of effort. It screams of forced intimacy and the fact that we both know she’s probably ovulating. We did the math this week. What I need to do is to sneak up on sex. For some strange reason, thinking about getting an erection makes it fucking impossible to get an erection. I tried to explain this to Anna a few weeks ago, but she didn’t get it. I don’t blame her. It’s a very abstract concept.
Maybe it’s the economy. Personal and global financial ruin could cause boner problems, right?
Sadly, no. This all started happening before the world ended. I’ll have to come up with another excuse.
And so I stroke on, like a fool, like a caged monkey masturbating in front of a horrified troop of Cub Scouts at the zoo. There’s a sensation, like a phantom tingling somewhere in my stomach, but then there’s nothing again, and I begin to think about the cruelties of aging. In my carefree youth, sitting in Catholic school, I couldn’t go more than twenty minutes without popping a painful, trouser-lifting boner. Now, with the prospect of actual sex in the other room, I’ve got nothing. Zilch.
How many perfectly good hard-ons have I wasted in my short, stupid life? Hundreds? Probably thousands if you count college. It’s just not fair.
Finally, I turn off the faucet and give up. In the silent bathroom, I give my lifeless manhood one last pleading look and then open the door.
Anna is still in her Victoria’s Secret thing, but she’s de-sexed it a little by putting on her reading glasses. She’s stretched out on our bed reading a New Yorker by the light of one of the candles she’s set up. I’ve been trying to jerk myself back to life. She’s been reading “Talk of the Town.”
The stereo is still on, too. It’s playing some CD of classical music fused with nature sounds. It’s supposed to be relaxing or soothing or God knows what. But, of course, it’s just more effort, more unnatural things added to what’s supposed to be the most natural thing in the world.
Our dog, Hank, is skilled at sensing anxiety in a room. He’s sitting on the floor on one of his dog mats. He’s one of those dogs that always seems to be bracing himself for the worst.
Anna smiles and sits up. “Hi,” she says. Her legs on our powder blue sheets are long and toned and treadmill-ready. She’s beautiful, my wife, I recognize this, but my body is somehow rejecting this fact along with all of its sexual implications. If the nineteen-year-old version of Tom Violet were here in this room, he’d slap the thirty-five-year-old version of Tom Violet across the face in utter disgust.
Three nights ago, after our last failed attempt at this, I woke up in the middle of the night to Anna moaning quietly next to me. At first I didn’t know what was going on, and then I realized that she was having a sex dream. In eight years of sleeping beside her nightly, I’d never heard anything like that. As I listened to her whisper her way toward a soft, muted little orgasm, I realized that we had a real problem.
I put on a pair of boxers and slide into bed next to her. She rolls over onto her side and looks at me. Her small breasts are vivid against all that silk or satin or whatever those things from Victoria’s Secret are made out of. “You OK?” she asks. Her voice has taken on this funerallike tone, which feels absurd and completely accurate.
I sigh and listen to the music and the sound of some whale or dolphin in the ocean. “No,” I say. “I’m obviously not.”
“It’s not a big deal, you know. It . . . happens.”
This is what women say in these scenes to the men they love. Her eyes and her face are sweet and concerned for me, but there’s enough tension in her voice to know that she’s just reading from the script. It might not have been a big deal the first time, or even the sixth time, but it’s a big deal now, and I wonder what the man in her head looked like who inspired those little noises the other night. Like me with a shaved chest, perhaps—or, at the very least, like me with a fully functioning penis?
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
She takes off her glasses and sets them on the nightstand. Over the sheets, she rubs my knee, and then she inches a little closer. “Maybe you’re just—” but she leaves this hanging. Like me, she doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is that I am. I look down at her feet, and her toenails are painted red. This is something new for her. Her feet are typically very functional things, but lately they’re lotioned and cared for. This simple act of pure femininity would probably be enough to turn the nineteen-year-old version of Tom Violet into a sex-crazed idiot. But here I am, dejected and lustless.