Sex and the Single Gimp
For the sake of good taste let’s call the female person Sarah. I’m not a man totally without decorum, and this story has your back street romance, illicit sex, and of course, cheating, lots of cheating. As a writer I know that I need to hold your attention.
Let’s start with Sarah trying to work something out with her husband Alvin, (you give ‘em a name, and the game changes, doesn’t it?) who is in Illinois or Ohio right now. He had been going with her since before, as they say, and stuck with her through the rough stuff, which is rare, let me tell you. More people than you’d think will split on their main squeeze in the face of disability. Really.
That Alvin stayed with her through becoming quadriplegic says a lot for that boy in my book. I don’t know what else goes on between them, but his sojourn among the gimps is rare and righteous.
The reality is, disability carries lots of getting left at the station and loneliness. Abandonment and isolation’s not in the inspirational story of overcoming, but it’s there for most of us, under things, around things, on the edge of things. A lot of the time. And what this boy did was help her skate around some of the more disagreeable parts of being a gimp, maybe without her even knowing what she missed.
I’d seen her scooting around in her wheelchair for a couple of years, and it’s the first time I be seeing a quad could use a manual chair. She’s what they call an incomplete quad. Don’t you just love the language?
She’s this sort of classy looking brunet, with medium length hair that falls straight and curls just above her shoulders. Too thin lips wearing red lipstick, dark enough to make a firetruck look pale. I’d run into her over a couple of years, but we’d never talked. You could say we’re at the smiling and nodding stage. Distant smiling and nodding.
If you’re a man, this is not a girl you could ignore unless you’re a Zen monk who’s already crossed into the void. First of all she’s knockout beautiful. Alabaster skin, she’s got the Alabaster skin. Finely chiseled features, she’s got your finely chiseled features. The elegant, long Nefertiti neck, the whole bit. We’re talking slick, national book stuff, here. Anybody in the Western world except an ideologue could recognize her as ravishing.
Flirting wouldn’t be the exact way to describe her come-on. But, there’s this way that some really beautiful women use their looks, “It’s not my fault I drive men to their knees. I’m not doing anything.” It was a look like that that probably got Sampson a haircut.
Me and Boychick, my partner, are making “A Fool Uttereth All His Mind,” a television documentary about my getting hemiplegic and brain damaged, and since she’s so heart-stoppingly beautiful, I want her for the show since she blows the sexless stereotype. Machiavellian maybe, but she’s just an ingredient in the cake, as far as I can see.. It’s taken me almost ten years to get this documentary to happen, so you don’t want to drop the ball now.
Even though she’s attractive, I don’t really think about her that way partly because the chair makes me not even see her, and because after so many years of being disabled, you quit thinking about it as an option.
People are always talking about how beautiful she is, but her looks never got to me. Awesome was just something everybody always says about Sarah. I guess she’s real attractive, so what?
I don’t have any experience with quads, except I know everything probably stops someplace between her neck and the middle of her chest. I know polio folks can feel, but spinal cord injury cuts the telephone line. And, if she can’t feel, what’dya do? I’m not looking for conversation lessons.
Everybody knows that the punch line is when Old Faithful goes off. That’s the point of chasing them in the first place, isn’t it?
If they can’t feel then what’dya do? Sit around and play old maid, and not think about it?
Look, everybody’s been taught that sex is about, put tab A in slot B. You were taught that, I was taught that, songs and movies are about that, that’s how people think. Tab A in slot B. So, what do you do when you can’t feel slot B? Forget it? If it’s not acrobatic and aerobic, then it’s not real sex.. How big and how many times is what counts to most people. Then you don’t even have to feel much, just keep counting and measuring.
It happened that I started to see these other qualities. Like I say, she’s smart, and doesn’t like the way disabled folks are treated even if some of it comes out like party line, and she’s got guts, and, and, and. It was the mountain of conjunctions that let me know I was in trouble. I felt like I was being pulled into something, but I didn’t have any control. You can’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind to jump when you looked down from a tall building or bridge. Doesn’t mean you’re going to jump, just those destructive images are in there.
Lookit, nothing’s happened except I’m looking at her different. I’m looking at the slope of her neck, and these tiny earlobes—I’ve never stared at a woman’s earlobes before—and of course her lips. You couldn’t possibly give a soft, sensual kiss with those too thin lips. Sure they look good with that dramatic dark vamp lipstick, but let’s be thinking function here.
It’s starting to segue into a blues, and I’m kicking and screaming trying to get out.
Words would fail me if I tried to describe her,
Though I know she’s not all she should have been,
She was the devil with the face of an angel,
She was sweet and cruel, cruel and sweet, as homemade sin.
She hasn’t changed, but the way I’m looking at her changed, big time. I didn’t even see it happening.
Obviously it’s not love. I’ve never spent five minutes alone with her, and a quadriplegic is hardly my idea of a sex object.
What I’m really doing here is torturing myself about how to have a relationship coming from the depths of my being with a woman that’s hardly even smiled at me. Where’s all this coming from?
If I had a nickel for everyone I’ve schtupped in my brain damaged mind, I’d be vacationing on the Riviera. If it was the ones I’d only wanted or worried about, I’d own a summer villa there. I’m thinking a lot about something that’s not even happening. Like Edward said to Mary-Jo when she told him she might be pregnant, “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”
I’ve got a good fantasy going here, and I keep telling myself the same old joke about, “I’m an old Jewish man who’s had in my life, many problems—90% of which never happened.” But, I’ve never learned the point of that particular story.
The more interested I get, the more I keep telling myself that it’s a foolish idea.
Fantasy or no, she ain’t never going to wrap her legs around you. NEVER! Suck on that for a minute. And, you ain’t never going to see her in a tight skirt, sheer black stockings, and five inch stiletto heels doing the Cadillac walk.
Everybody knows the preliminaries, so let’s just skip ‘em. Over a couple of weeks and events Sarah and I ended up at dinner together, and she tells me that she “might” be breaking up with her husband, and I tell her that I’ve been looking at her that way, and I’m attracted to her. When they tell you that they “might” be breaking up, you don’t have to keep it to yourself anymore.
At the back end of dinner over the coffee, Sarah tells me how she’d been having some affair with a guy behind Alvin’s back. But, she explains to me how it’s really Alvin’s fault. He drove her to it, or he wasn’t paying any attention to her or something. It’s important to keep track of whose fault it is.
Does it strike you as odd that she’s talking about this affair to some guy she hardly knows? Maybe she’s just trying to unload, but I always think that whenever a woman talks to me about sex or her adventures, she’s pulling my chain and she knows exactly what she’s doing.
She tells me she’s been playing a couple choruses of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” and she plays this tune with some guy named Dave for a couple of years, hits the coda, and does a little more awakening with a third guy. Meanwhile, the old man splits the state because he can’t stand the pain of Sarah touching another man with lust in her heart.
She’s helping this guy, Dave, get his ashes hauled, and he’s helping her awaken her sexuality. Since cripples ain’t supposed to have no sexuality, that can’t be all bad.
I’d been getting all these non-verbals from her, but you don’t need a graduate degree to know when somebody’s coming on. Only it occurs to me later, maybe that’s just the way she knows how to talk to men. Heavily seductive; heavy manipulation.
A couple of days later she asked,
—What does it mean that you’re attracted to me?”
—I want to take your clothes off.”
She did this fast, LOUD breathing, and said,
—I can feel That. I can feel that.”
She said that it would take her a little while to get used to. Then we talked for about another hour, that seemed like a little while to me.
While we’re talking I ask her if she can feel her vagina, and she says no. “Pressure” is what it feels like.
—Well, can you feel your breasts?
—Pretty much,” she says with a smile like she’s got a secret. She’s tilting her head sideways and the tips of her hair are just touching her right shoulder. The smile is an ember in the warmth of her face, and I’m sitting there looking at her, trying to understand what it means.
—If you can’t feel anything, why were you involved with anybody?” I ask her. “I mean, why weren’t you buddies or pen pals or something?”
—The biggest sex organ is between your ears. Don’t you know that?” she asks me. “Besides. sex isn’t all there is to being married. There’s compromise, and going shopping, and paying bills.”
Everything she says seems profound and funny, so I know what's happening to me. I been around the block.
If she’s having these affairs, something’s going on.
Next day, I’m on the horn with Boychick and tell him it isn’t just a case of simple lust I’m experiencing, it’s complex lust. I’m gone.
He’s trying to give me some support and says,
—She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in a wheelchair.”
It takes me about four hours to understand the fish hooks in that supposed compliment.
Ed Roberts is the head of the World Institute on Disability, and one of your more famous quadriplegics. He and Mike Boyd are transferring planes at the airport on their way to do a workshop, conference, whatever somewhere in South Dakota, which is in the central standard time zone—FOREVER.
I asked Ed what do you do if she can’t feel her, what ‘dya call it—vagina, (because she’s a quad). He says,
— the back of the neck, shoulders, the inside of the ears are very sensitive.” My guts tightened up.
How or why would I want to sniff after this female person that I’m deeply, profoundly, excruciatingly lusting after if she can’t feel anything?
But, we’re putting the cart before the girl. I get up in the middle of the night and started writing her this real Rilke letter about how if we couldn’t have sex, we had to make sure that we were honest with each other about our feelings and not hide from each other. I’m jumping the gun, and at the same time trying to figure out how you have a bottom of your soul, like Rilke says, relationship with a quadriplegic.
Even honesty and communication have limitations. I mean it sounds so inspirational, but it’s such bullshit. Remember the scene in “Last Tango in Paris” where Brando says they should try to come mentally?
—Did you come yet?” he wants to know.
Maria Schnider says, —No.”
—Neither did I” says Brando.
I called the university bookstore for On Love and Other Difficulties by Rilke.
—What kind of book is it? Psychology?”
—No, It’s literature, I don’t know what to say.”
Needless to say they didn’t have it, but could order it. I call three more bookstores.
—Who is the author?”
—Her name is listed a couple different ways”
Called another chain of bookstores. No soap. It wasn’t even in their computer (which is close to Buddhist non-being).
The harder this gets, the more I want to see it again, and the more positive I am that young Sarah’s education will be incomplete without a copy.
Called Orr Books and no more than said the title, when the woman on the other end of the phone said, —Rilke.”
—How’d you know?”
—We carry a lot of his stuff. There’s a new edition of that out this February.”
I scored her a copy (and ordered another for myself) and wrote the inscription about being guardians of each other’s solitude (from his text). But, don’t you believe it. Jules Feiffer wrote (did a cartoon?) about how we all want to own our playmates.
Then I left the book on that girl’s porch, and got something to eat.
Course she liked the book, then young Sarah and I talked on the phone until 3:30 AM. She’s having her second affair. In response to my attraction she said,
—I don’t know what to do. How would you feel about being friends?”
—I’m not sure if that’s in my repertoire, but if you hum a few bars, I probably still won’t be able to play that tune.”
In the morning I wrote her the note (which I’m NOT going to reproduce except to say that it was tres schmaltzy and you could have spread it on with a trowel) and put three—count ‘em three—dozen long stemmed red roses with the schmaltzy note inside her screen door by 10:30 AM (I KNOW where she’s been until 3:30 AM).
Is this the behavior of an adult who’s pushing 50?
We’re both going to the airport to spend a few hours with Ed and Mike on their return flight this morning before the Anti Jerry Lewis/MDA telethon. Disabled activists across the country have been protesting the image Lewis draws of us as these pathetic half a persons. The pity approach hurts more than it helps (except for the chief exec of the MDA who makes $288, 000 a year—while cutting back services). Disability organizations say, Jerry’s got to go, but the temporarily able-bodied believe they’re ending disease of every kind. The disorderly orderly says it’s only a few vocal activists— they wish.
She’s going to pick me up at 12:45 PM . But, by 1:10 she’s not at my crib. All the blood and color drain out of my face from anger. My left arm is spastic and won’t respond and my stomach is tight. We’re supposed to meet this airplane and she’s not here. FUCK THIS!
I leave a note on a clip board with flight number, and arrival, and departure times written real large. Then I hang it from a hook on my house by my driveway so she can see it from her van without getting out, and I go to the airport.
Ed’s still on the plane which has already arrived when I get there. It takes him a millennium to de-plane, as they say, so I’m working within a safety zone. The chair is outside the cabin door and they’re getting the sling ready to move him. He’s schmoozing with the crew, like he always does, and they’re
gathered around like a roomful of kids listening to Uncle Remus telling about Brer rabbit. Everybody is looking at him real quiet and respectful. He’s telling about going to the four story McDonald’s in Moscow, telling the ubiquitous, incessant stories about his son Lee.
(—Dad, Can I have a Honda convertible?”
—Isn’t that cute?”)
We get the ventilator, extra parts, tubes, hoses, cords filling a second wheelchair and start moving up the walkway away from the plane.
When we roll up into the lobby by the gates, there’s Sarah screeching around the corner as fast as a stainless steel ball coming off the bumpers in a pinball machine. Bop pop ding ding ding smack.
She catches herself on a pole to keep from tipping over.
She looks at me over this enigmatic smile, straight into my eyes, but I keep my balance.
—I couldn’t believe all those flowers. I didn’t know what to do with them, so I put some of them in the sink. That’s why I’m late.
I thought she and Ed were going to have an affair right there on the spot. She’s holding onto his power wheelchair like a trailer,and they’re shooting through the airport halls so fast I’m betting they’re going to get a ticket. We pull into Northwest’s lounge for VIP customers, and grab a table by the window. She’s sitting wheelchair to wheelchair, feeding Ed cookies because he has no use of his arms. They’re talking about where they grew up, it’s part cliché, part each of them telling the other intimate things. She tells him about an abortion; he talks about his divorce. They say things they never thought they’d say.
I’m watching her talk to, and feed Ed. I mean, she’s pretty and all, but just think about the aggravation with her and all her politically correct ideas. Still, I can’t stop looking at her, she’s so beautiful. Don’t I know any better than that?
Baby, you’re so beautiful, you know you got to die someday.
Baby, you’re so beautiful, you know you got to die someday.
Why don’t you give me a little lovin’ before you pass away.
Jimmy Rushing with the Count
Ed told me that I was staring at her absolutely pie faced all the time we were at the airport.
It’s 4:30 PM and time for the plane to go. We wait around the gate for a “thirty minute delay” while they fix some air conditioning on the plane. Then there’s another “40 minute delay” before they get on the plane. Sarah says she’s hungry.
I offer to take her someplace nice, but she says we should get something at the airport to save time.
She is one of those strange people who doesn’t eat the flesh of dead animals. In a flash of recognition we knew that there wasn’t going to be a rolled in granola and brown rice, fast food joint among the Burger King, airport Cheers bar, and Pizza Hut. The only thing to do was to choose from the bounty that God had provided.
A cheese pizza (with meat sauce) is probably as close to food as she’s going to get. I had the special: armadillo, grease, and salted Spam slices with a pretend beer. Airport Gourmet Magazine had done a two page fold out showing a candelabra, the box with grease spots, two slices of the stuff, and a Coke. Elegant airport dining.
We ate, then went to the anti- Jerry Lewis demonstration at the Burnsville Center. I got stuff for a story (Security guards said, —you can’t use the tape recorder.” I used it. —You’re not allowed to take pictures.” I shot 30 35mm B&Ws, sometimes zone focusing from the hip)
A young cowboy with bad breath and a belt full of radios, flashlights, mace says to me,
—Put that camera away. How’d you like to spend the night in jail?”
—Tell you what, either arrest me or sue me, but your instructions are without weight around here.”
He walks away to talk to his supervisor. Sarah and a couple of ladies nearby say,
—come, and stand by us (to avoid trouble).”
I better hit the freeway. I’ve got my story. And pictures. I don’t think my body can handle jail food, and being deprived of hand cream for my psoriasis and deprived of esophagus pills. Besides, my bed is on a slant because of reflux. They’re not known for making you comfortable in jail. I tell Sarah to meet me at The Sour Pickle Bar and I split.
At the bar, I listen to Judy and Bill do Marty Robbins, The Ballad of Jed Clampet ala Bob Marley, an Irish Fiddle tune, Jimi Hendrix on an amp the size of a pack of cigarettes. Obscure and funny tunes,
Life is hard but life is harder if you’re dumb
No joie de vivre
Just endless hours of tedium
For a couple of hours, no Sarah.
I drive the two blocks past her house (that’s how men in their late forties behave), and drive twelve more to my house to get her phone number from my Rolodex..While I’m writing it into my pocket calendar, the phone rings. She’s at The Sour Pickle.
—I’ll be there in five minutes”
I make it in four and a half.
She tells me some tall guy with short hair asks if she’s waiting for Billy, and talks to her for a few minutes while keeping the bikers and drunks off her. She tells me he was shooting pool.
—That’s Spider John Koerner.
—I don’t know who that is.”
—Famous in beatnik and hippie music circles. Koerner, Ray, and Glover were real important in the folk revival of the sixties. John Lennon waved their “Blues, Rags, and Hollers” album around during one interview in Melody Maker. And, you could have got his autograph. “
The Sour Pickle is narrow with a dark wood bar the length of the room. A single pool table sits right in front of the johns.
Sometimes somebody’ll open one of the doors too fast and ruin a shot. They pour a lot of beer and peppermint schnapps in here. There are big jars of hard boiled eggs, beef jerky, the usual cards with packages of assorted potato chips. Drunks howl inane things during the songs, thinking they’re the soul of wit, like drunks everywhere.
Sarah and I listened to some music and schmoozed a bissel.
I keep looking at this face, I can’t take my eyes off this face.
—You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in a wheelchair.”
The bar is closing. Will I walk her to her van? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Is the bear Catholic?
She spins the chair, and heads for the door.
Outside I’m trying to walk alongside her, limping as fast as I can.
—am I going too fast for you?” she asks.
Not if you slow down, I’m not a sprint limper.
She’s parked right behind me a block down. I unlock my car and put my bag in. You can see she’s got something on her mind.
—What’s up? I can see you’ve got something to say”
In medias res She says,
—It’s bad timing. You want something with commitment and I need to explore my sexuality.
I wasn’t expecting this. I thought we were going to ride off into the sunset. You don’t want to be even a close second in a situation like this, let alone a straggling third.
—Explore away, Gazoontarate [Yiddish for do it in good health]
You’re right, it’s just bad timing. In another time, at another place, we could have been Ma and Pa Kettle, Mickey and Minnie.”
—Alvin doesn’t want to talk about my sex with the other guy, but he wants me back.”
I look at her and I can hear Spalding Gray’s voice in “Swimming to Cambodia”when he said,
—I wanted to be involved in this project more than any other project I’d almost been involved in.
The cliché is about having your heart ripped out. I can feel the muscle tearing, bleeding, bruising. My chest cage is tight and I’m having trouble breathing. My stomach is rolling like a longboat on the high seas. The nausea keeps hitting me, and I can’t catch my breath. I can’t get any oxygen while my lungs and guts are getting spread all over the road. Meanwhile, I’m expected to backchat like Fred Astaire, but I feel just like Fatty Arbuckle.
Maybe I should run around the block; take off a couple of pounds.
—I feel like a fat, middle aged, crippled guy.” I deliver the line with dignity. No pathos, no feeling sorry for myself. I’m just telling her where I’m at.
—No. I’m attracted to you.”
I go back to having trouble breathing. Should I should start carrying oxygen?
She drops her lids and looks at her lap. Why do they always look at their fucking laps?
—Would you kiss me?” she asks, giving the illusion that it’s a question.
I’m standing with one leg in the street and my left leg must have been on the other side of her on the driver’s seat, you forget about these details.
I start to give her a peck, but she pulls me toward her. This is the longest, slowest kiss in recorded history. It goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on. My right arm is around her and I’m making feather circles around each of her vertebrae with a fingerprint. The cops drive by and flash a strobe light on us and hit the siren for a quick second. But it goes on, and on, and on.
I’ve given her a complete dental exam with my tongue. We’ll dispense with the X-rays, this time. I know that she’s safe from breast cancer because I’ve practiced the breast exam until I’m ready to take my boards. I’m ready to open a practice for just this one patient. The underslope of her breast is soft beyond soft. I’ve touched a breast before but it was never like this. In fact I know they’re going to send me to some locked ward treatment center, because I can’t stop.
I can’t stop kissing her. Upper right neck. A millimeter to the right. Above and below, left and right of that. Each of her eyes. I kiss the base of each eyelash, and where the lower lip joins the chin, and neck and shoulders.
No big deal, we’re just saying good-bye.
How long have I been standing here? An hour and a half? Two? Two and a half? When did we eat last? Should we take a break for sandwiches? If I stop kissing her she might drop the final curtain.
Never in my life have I kissed lips whose only purpose is exploration. Touching my lower lip, my tongue, my nose—my God, my nose— with the sensitive flaccid membrane behind those thin lips. Where did this little girl learn this? I’m supposed to be older and experienced. Is this how a bronco feels at that moment when he understands that no way can he throw that rider off him? Am I being tamed? I’ve never been touched so tentatively, so sensually, so softly, with absolute confidence.
I put my hand behind her neck and kissing her, pull her toward me. I try to stick my head in her mouth, tongue first. My hand as slow as the ice age is moving back and forth on the inside of her thigh.. Her jeans are fashionably torn and I stick my ring finger inside the threads of the tear. I’m touching her knee as softly as I can. I pull my hand loose and start to stroke the inside of her leg. Her legs are small and beautiful and soft. The jeans are frayed and torn, made smooth through wear and washing.
Her smell is as lovely as her touch.
I’m touching the back of her neck. The Japanese think the back of the neck is the spot. I watch her bending her head forward to receive. Maybe I am tamed because I only want to give her pleasure.
I’m touching her lips, her cheek, her eyes with my lips that I’m trying to make as gentle as butterfly wings when I realize that she can’t feel my hands. Why are we doing this if she can’t feel it? She kisses my neck, the inside of my right ear, behind my ear, my neck again, then she takes my hand off the inside of her leg.
—Sarah. What the hell’s the difference if you can’t feel it anyway?” I take my hand away and kiss her on the bridge of her nose. She kisses me back.
Maybe we should go the two blocks to her house, it would be good for my education. I’ve never seen a quad with her clothes off.
We have a rabbinical debate and take turns, each taking either side of the question. We should. We shouldn’t. We should. We shouldn’t.
Sarah, what are you talking about? I thought you wanted to explore your sexuality.
—No, I won’t know when to stop.”
I won’t dance , why should I;
I won’t dance, how could I;
I won’t dance, Merci beaucoup
I know that music leads the way to romance
So, if I hold you in my arms, I won’t dance.
“I Won’t Dance”
Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach
Oscar Hammerstein II,
—I’ve always respected whatever you wanted.”
Boychick and I are starting to cut the television documentary that’s really about my disability and ten years of my life. Artistically it’s what we’ve both been working for, for a long time. Bringing it to completion takes surgical concentration and the price of even a moment’s distraction could be high. The sea is rough, waves are pounding the hull, I hear the singing, and know in my heart that getting bound to the mast just isn’t going to be enough.
—No. I can’t. I know myself.
—OK. Whatever you say. Good-night
I get in my car like I was taking off in the Indianapolis 500, pull a
U-y, while she’s still sitting in her’s with the lights and motor off.
I stop my car in the middle of the street across from her. She rolls down her window and sticks her head out.
— Are you going to sit there all night,” I ask.
—I’m trying to get myself together.”
—How am I going to get myself together?,” I say, ever the sucker for a corny line.
Driving along the Mississippi River to the bridge, the moon flickers on the black water.
Odysseus sailed by the sirens who sat and sang in a meadow heaped with the bones of sailors their beautiful voices had enchanted and drawn to their deaths. Circe told Odysseus the only way he could sail by and hear their songs unharmed was to have his crew bind him to the mast. Then to plug their own ears with beeswax.