Sport 39: 2011
Her husband had only recently died. He’d been through a long painful illness, and she’d been with him every step of the way, walking with him, hand in hand, down that long dark tunnel with no light at the end. Two years she’d been staring it in the face, watching the man she loved die.
It can get grim towards the end, but she didn’t flinch. Hers was the face he saw, hers the hand he felt. She took unpaid leave, kept him at home as long as she could. She pushed him through the park in a wheelchair, propped him up with pillows in the sun. She read to him. She fed him, spoonful by spoonful, wiped his chin, held the bowl for him when he had to throw up. She helped him to the shower when he couldn’t walk and she washed him when he couldn’t wash himself, and when he couldn’t wipe his own backside she did that for him too.
She was with him right up to the last moment, sitting by his hospital bed and holding his hand, and at that very last moment, as his body gave up the fight to breathe, she saw or felt or felt that she saw something leave his body, and then he was gone. The nurse came with a sponge and a bowl but she took it and she washed his body herself. Then she kissed his cooling forehead and said I love you and goodbye. She buried him. She chose the funeral parlour and she chose the coffin and she chose the flowers and she delivered the eulogy and afterwards she threw a big party for him and invited all his friends and all her friends, and they all came and she drank whisky and couldn’t get drunk.
But when all that was done, she found that she was still right where he’d left her; she was in the dark. She was standing at the end of that long tunnel they’d walked down together, and now she was alone. And she realised that she was desperate for the light. She was desperate to feel something again, to be with the living. She was like a diver striving for the surface, lungs bursting.page 316
And I guess this is where I come in. I was at a party. I didn’t actually know anyone at the party, except for the host. He was a guy I’d met at work, Jeff. I can’t even remember why I went. I think Jeff thought I needed cheering up or something. Which I did. It was a big loud party with lots of drinking and dancing and knots of wildly laughing people spilling across the lawn, so I ended up in the kitchen of course. And there was Shelley. She was washing cutlery. I picked up a tea towel and we got talking, and we clicked. Straight away. Instant. We knew where we were headed pretty much right from the first word.
It was sex. Pure unadulterated sex. Just this wild, intense affair. We couldn’t get enough of each other. It was incredible. She was so hungry, and I was too. We’d meet up whenever we could and we’d just fuck, and fuck and fuck until we could fuck no more. We’d spend entire weekends in bed. I’d never experienced anything like it. Literally, days in bed, fucking. We’d fuck for hours, then we’d order Indian takeaways. I’d pad to the door in a towel, pay, take it straight back to bed. We took regular shower breaks and sometimes we’d maybe go for a short walk, or we’d watch an old movie on TV, but generally it was just the sex.
At the same time, though, she kept a certain distance. She wasn’t in a hurry to introduce me to her friends and she didn’t seem keen to meet mine. I could understand that. Maybe she felt guilty. Maybe she thought her friends would judge her. Maybe she just couldn’t face the thought of introductions and silences and the thundering presence of her dead husband.
We didn’t go out either, to parties, or movies or restaurants. And we never went to her place. Not once. It was pretty much my place, takeaway food, and sex. We got on really well, though. There was nothing cold about it. We talked, we laughed, we tickled. We went the places lovers go, or most of them.
But a lot of the time she was—absent. Somewhere else, somewhere far, far away. And she didn’t like to talk about herself too much. Sometimes I’d ask the wrong question and she’d smile and her eyes would slide away and I’d know I’d irritated her, or not exactly irritated her but blundered in somewhere I wasn’t welcome. Or I’d say her name, when she was looking out the window or brushing her hair, and she’d be so far away in her thoughts she wouldn’t evenpage 317 hear me. So I’d call her name again, more loudly, and she’d start and look at me, and for just that split second I could see in her face that same thing—disappointment, irritation, impatience. Almost dislike. I suppose she was angry at me for not being him. For being alive.
Sometimes I’d look into her eyes, in between bouts, or even when we were right in the middle of it, fucking, and it would be like looking into the eyes of a fish. Blank, cold, glassy. Horrible. But then, at other times, for the briefest moments, just for a second, she would turn, or make a comment, or put out her hand and touch me, and it was so present, so immediate and tender and alive that it was really beautiful and my heart just ached.
Once I had a dream about her and she was underwater, in the dark ocean, drifting through great forests of kelp, her eyes wide and staring and her lips blue and her long black hair blooming around her head like a cloud of ink. I told her about it and she said if it was all the same to me she’d prefer that I didn’t put her in my dreams and I said no problem won’t happen again.
It wasn’t supposed to last. This is the point. That was the thing. And I understood that. It was an affair. A fling. Intense, all-consuming, brief. If it had been up to me—well, it wasn’t up to me. She had her reasons, and I understood that. I really felt for her and I wanted to help if I could. She was in a terrible position. I told myself my part was just to be there. For as long as it lasted. Whatever it was she was looking for, she would find it, or not find it, and then it would be over. There was a level beyond which she could not go and that was only natural and completely understood. I promised myself only this: that when the time came there would be no bitterness, no regret, and whatever happened, no matter what, I wouldn’t try to change her mind.
And that time was approaching. I felt it. Often she was edgy. She was moody, restless. Her absences were getting longer, and more frequent. She was sinking back down into those dark waters.
Saturday evening, we were at my place. I’d taken a Viagra. I had to, to stand the pace. We’d been going about it with determined concentration and resolve. We’d hardly spoken. But I could see she wasn’t getting there. She was getting frustrated. All afternoon she’d been distant, preoccupied. Finally I plucked up courage and I asked her what was wrong. This was exactly the sort of question I wasn’tpage 318 supposed to ask. It was the sort she never answered. But this time she thought for a moment, then looked at me almost timidly. ‘I don’t think I can do this much longer,’ she said.
So the moment had come. Okay. I took a breath. I shrugged. ‘That’s okay,’ I said. ‘I totally understand.’
‘We can still be friends.’
“We can absolutely still be friends, or we can even not be friends, just whatever you think is appropriate to your situation.”
She smiled. She looked relieved. She pushed me back down on the bed.
She was on top. It was dark now, but there was some light coming from a street light outside my window. I remember looking up at her and she seemed magnificent. She was a mermaid. Small beads of sweat were glittering on her chest and her neck like fish scales and her black hair was flying. She’d started slow, but she was building, and now she was coming down hard at every stroke, hovering and striking, and starting to build up speed. She was completely lost in it, in the rhythm, and I was holding still and being a rock for her. She was building and building, getting faster and faster, and it was all coming together for her and for me and then, I don’t know why, for just a split second she lost concentration or I twitched or something happened and as she came to the top of the stroke she went an inch too far and I slipped out.
It all happened so fast. I felt myself pop out and then she came back down again, the whole weight of her body behind her, slamming down. She didn’t notice or even if she did she couldn’t possibly react in time, she couldn’t stop or even slow, and she came down with full force right on the end of my penis which was now lodged hard up against her perineum.
God it hurt. I heard a sharp popping sound, and there was just this sudden incredibly intense pain. I screamed. We switched on the bedside lamp. I sat there and stared. It was like a bad dream. There, in a pool of light, was my penis, bent over in the middle at ninety degrees, like an old drinking straw. Shelley gasped and said oh my God, and that we should go to the hospital, but it seemed to be slowlypage 319 straightening out so I said no, I thought it was going to be okay, and let’s just wait and see what happens. We turned off the light and lay there in the dark, side by side, not touching, and she kept saying over and over how sorry she was and I kept saying it wasn’t her fault and not to worry it would be fine, though it was actually throbbing like hell and I felt panicky. But after a while we drifted off to sleep.
I woke up an hour later, and now I was in agony. I switched on the light again and my penis was the size and colour of an aubergine. It was swollen up into this giant purple thing. It was so painful it felt as if it was about to burst. I couldn’t get dressed. I could hardly move. Shelley wrapped her dressing gown around me, and somehow we got down the steps and out to the street and she drove me straight to casualty. I lay on the back seat staring at her profile with the city lights flashing past and she drove fast and all she could say was I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry and all I could say was not your fault not your fault not your fault.
The nurse at reception took one look and just the look on her face. That’s it, I thought. I’ve lost it for sure. It’s gone. She put us in a little examination room and called the house surgeon who called the consultant. The consultant said I had suffered major penile trauma with a rupture of both the left and right corpora cavernosae. He’d seen this sort of thing before—it happens a lot more than you might think—but he’d never seen a case as bad as this. He explained that when Shelley came crashing down on the end of the penis it bent so far that it ruptured the internal sheath which is normally watertight and holds in the blood during an erection. Normally after an injury like that the erection would be lost, the blood vessels would shut down, and the bleeding would at least be minimised, but because I’d taken a Viagra, the blood supply didn’t shut down—that’s what Viagra does, it keeps the blood flowing. And that’s why it was so severe. Even after the injury I didn’t lose my erection, and the blood flow didn’t stop; it just kept on haemorrhaging away until my penis was one giant haematoma, a swelling balloon of blood.
The consultant asked if he could some take photos for research purposes. I said okay, so he got out his mobile and snapped a few, which didn’t seem very official to me. Then he said he was going to have to operate. I started crying again. I couldn’t help it. It was allpage 320 just so awful, like waking up on the wrong end of a Tarantino movie. They wheeled me off to theatre, prepped me, sedated me, and got stuck right in. He explained later that they peeled the whole penis, like a banana, fixed it, put it all back together.
Of course I didn’t want to see any of that. I was awake but they did it behind a little screen. I actually begged for a general but I’d eaten dinner and he said I could choose between a stomach pump and then a general or just straight to a spinal block. I took the block. Putting in the block hurt like hell, but I didn’t feel anything after that, just a distant pushing and pulling, like they were vigorously rearranging my underwear. Anyway I was so sedated I hardly knew what was going on—and then about the time they were finishing time telescoped completely shut.
Next thing I remember I was in a ward with a lot of other cot cases, strapped up and catheterised. It was throbbing, throbbing, throbbing, but I was heavily drugged. Shelley was nowhere to be seen. A few beds away someone was muttering. Someone else was snoring. I drifted in and out of consciousness for what remained of the night, dreaming strange vivid dreams and waking, time and again, to the same recurrent nightmare of that darkened echoing ward, the smell of disinfectant and my own tacky mouth.
I remember one dream in particular. All the women I had ever slept with gathered round me as I lay on a white bed in a white room with a single high window through which could be heard the sea. They wore white gowns and kept calling me Patrick, though that is not my name. I realised the women were all virgins and they were smiling and I knew that they had forgiven me. Then they turned into sea birds and flew away, singing sweetly. I looked between my legs and saw that I had a vagina. It was the most beautiful vagina I had ever seen. It glowed with inner light. I realised with inexpressible relief that I had actually been a woman all along and everything in my life up to this moment had been a terrible misunderstanding which was now cleared up.
I woke up next morning and there she was. Shelley. She had some flowers and she was smiling down at me. ‘Sorry,’ she said.
‘Not your fault,’ I said.
I was in hospital for another two days. Shelley was there the wholepage 321 time. She had asked me on the first night, before I went into theatre, if there was anyone I wanted her to call. But I realised there wasn’t. My family were all overseas, in different cities, so I didn’t see any point in worrying them. I’d wait until I had some good news, or at least some news. I had friends in town, of course, but I didn’t want to call them either. Not yet. Actually, the truth was I only wanted Shelley. I didn’t say that, but maybe she understood, or maybe she just felt responsible. Whatever the reason, she stuck around and she was wonderful.
On day three they took out the catheter and changed the bandages and sent me home. The consultant came round for a final look. He unwound the bandage himself. I didn’t know what I was going to see and I was nervous as hell. Shelley held my hand. When the gauze came off, it looked awful. It was blotchy and yellow and purple and strangely chalky and flaky, and all flattened out like an inner tube. I thought I was going to be sick and I said so, and instantly she had a kidney dish under my chin. It was like magic.
But it was good news. The operation had gone well. I was going to be on painkillers for a while longer, and I was going to have to take it very, very easy, but he was confident I would make a full recovery, probably in six to ten weeks.
Shelley drove me home. We were both quiet in the car. We were awkward and formal and overly polite with each other. It was as if we’d never met. When she spoke she was chatty, but I could see a muscle in her jaw working, and she kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead. I understood, of course. Now that I was on the mend it was over. Again. This was goodbye and I had no problem with that at all. She owed me nothing, after all. I even had a vague idea that I could somehow take something from all this, make a new start of some kind.
We got back to my place and she helped me upstairs. It was a small flat but it had a view of the sea. I lay on the couch. I closed my eyes. I could hear her moving about the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher. Every rattle of a plate, every tinkle of a glass, seemed to be a sound only she could have made, as personal as her own voice.
I became acutely aware of time. It was passing. The interval between now and forever was dissolving, crumbling away. But somehow there is always a second, a half-second, in which to shelterpage 322 from the inevitable. I lay there, safe in that ever-crumbling moment, thinking about all the things I had lost and all the things I had thrown away. My personal history seemed to me a junkyard, a great pile of unsorted and unusable objects, none of them paid for, none of them mine. I slept.
When I woke it was getting dark. The orange light of the sun glowed strangely on the pea-green walls. The flat was hot and dim and silent. A light was on, the window was shut. Shelley must have closed it before she went. Perhaps she had left a note. Perhaps I would never see her again. Perhaps this was her way of saying goodbye. Perhaps it was the best way. Perhaps she would be back tomorrow. It didn’t matter.
I was terribly thirsty and I had to urinate, but if I moved it would hurt, and if I urinated it would hurt even more, so I lay a while longer.
Suddenly there was a noise across the other side of the quiet room, halfway between a rustle and a tearing sound, and I shouted in surprise and leapt to my feet. Much too quickly; through a flash of pain, I saw her sitting cross-legged on a nest of cushions in the corner, a book in her lap, the page she had been in the act of turning still grasped between forefinger and thumb. Her expression was comical, eyes wide. Then I half fainted and sank back onto the couch and lay down. She came to kneel beside me. Our eyes were on a level. Her breath, smelling lightly of cloves, was warm on my face.
‘Stay,’ I said. ‘Please stay.’