As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page is an essay previously published in The Sun.
When I arrived for my first therapy session with Mark O’Brien in 1986, his attendant had already removed him from his iron lung and placed him in a bed, near his portable oxygen machine. Mark had needed these mechanical respirators since he’d been stricken with polio at the age of six. His atrophied, sixty-pound body was unable to move from the neck down. His head lay frozen to the right. He had beautiful blue eyes and soft, reddish-blond hair. I was nervous, as Mark was the most profoundly disabled client I’d ever had. He was ready and determined, however, to explore his sexuality.
Mark was in his mid-thirties; I was forty-one and had been a surrogate-partner therapist for thirteen years. Both having been brought up Catholic in metropolitan Boston, we quickly established a rapport, discussing his personal history and what he hoped to achieve. Mark explained he’d felt alone and alienated for as long as he could remember. He said, “Sometimes I let myself believe there’s someone out there for me, but really I think it’s hopeless.” He felt as if he were on the outside of a fine restaurant, he said, looking through the window at a table full of people eating a feast he would never taste. I told him, “We’re going to get you a seat at that table.”
Although his body was paralyzed, his tactile sensation remained unimpaired, and over the course of six sessions I was able to initiate him into sexual intimacy. Our time together was intense, with much talking and sharing. He was bright, friendly, and eager, with a dry sense of humor. At one point Mark said he loved me. I responded, “I love you, too — in this moment.” I tried my best to be supportive and encouraging, to help him to see possibility and potential, even in the tough situation that was his reality. Once, when I told him I thought he was brave, he responded, “Brave? I’m not brave. What am I supposed to do in my situation?”
After our sessions had ended, I wondered if someone as profoundly impaired as Mark could realistically expect to find a partner. Then came Susan. In 1995, nine years after our last session, Mark called to let me know he’d met someone. I was delighted. Susan had first become aware of Mark by reading his poetry online. She was so moved by his words that she emailed him. An online relationship soon blossomed into a real-life one. Mark’s fears of never finding someone were proven wrong. He was thrilled to have entered the relationship with some experience behind him, describing himself as a “made man.” “Thanks to you,” he told me, “I didn’t have to say I was a virgin.” Mark and Susan remained together until he passed away in 1999 at the age of forty-nine.
It was a privilege to have known such an honest and sincere individual. I was made more appreciative of my own circumstances just by knowing Mark.
For readers who wish to learn more about him, I recommend The Sessions, the 2012 film based on the essay that follows. It was written and directed by Australian American Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor. I also recommend the 1996 Academy Award–winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, written and directed by Jessica Yu. Finally I suggest readers find Mark’s autobiography, cowritten with Gillian Kendall, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence, and of course his three collections of poetry: The Man in the Iron Lung, Breathing, and Love & Baseball.
— Cheryl Cohen Greene
In 1983, I wrote an article about sex and disabled people. In interviewing sexually active men and women, I felt removed, as though I were an anthropologist interviewing headhunters while endeavoring to maintain the value-neutral stance of a social scientist. Being disabled myself, but also being a virgin, I envied these people ferociously. It took me years to discover that what separated me from them was fear — fear of others, fear of making decisions, fear of my own sexuality, and a surpassing dread of my parents. Even though I no longer lived with them, I continued to live with a sense of their unrelenting presence, and their disapproval of sexuality in general, mine in particular. In my imagination, they seemed to have an uncanny ability to know what I was thinking, and were eager to punish me for any malfeasance.
Whenever I had sexual feelings or thoughts, I felt accused and guilty. No one in my family had ever discussed sex around me. The attitude I absorbed was not so much that polite people never thought about sex, but that no one did. I didn’t know anyone outside my family, so this code affected me strongly, convincing me that people should emulate the wholesome asexuality of Barbie and Ken, that we should behave as though we had no “down there’s” down there.
As a man in my thirties, I still felt embarrassed by my sexuality. It seemed to be utterly without purpose in my life, except to mortify me when I became aroused during bed baths. I would not talk to my attendants about the orgasms I had then, or the profound shame I felt. I imagined they, too, hated me for becoming so excited.
I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be held, caressed, and valued. But my self-hatred and fear were too intense. I doubted I deserved to be loved. My frustrated sexual feelings seemed to be just another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God.
I had fallen in love with several people, female and male, and waited for them to ask me out or seduce me. Most of the disabled people I knew in Berkeley were sexually active, including disabled people as deformed as I. But nothing ever happened. Nothing was working for me in the passive way that I wanted it to, the way it works in the movies.
In 1985, I began talking with Sondra, my therapist, about the possibility of seeing a sex surrogate. When Sondra had originally mentioned the idea — explaining that a sexual therapist worked with a client’s emotional problems concerning sex, while a surrogate worked with a client’s body — I had been too afraid to discuss it. I rationalized that someone who was not an attendant, nurse, or doctor would be horrified at seeing my pale, thin body with its bent spine, bent neck, washboard rib cage, and hip bones protruding like outriggers. I also dismissed the idea of a surrogate because of the expense. A few years earlier, I had phoned a sex surrogate at the suggestion of another therapist. The surrogate told me that she charged according to a sliding scale that began at seventy dollars an hour.
But now my situation had changed. I was earning extra money writing articles and book reviews. My rationalizations began to strike me as flimsy.
Still, it was not an easy decision. What would my parents think? What would God think? I suspected that my father and mother would know even before God did if I saw a surrogate. The prospect of offending three such omniscient beings made me nervous.
Sondra never pushed me one way or another; she told me the choice was mine. She gave me the phone number for the Center on Sexuality and Disability at the University of California in San Francisco. I fretted over whether I would call; whether I would call and immediately hang up; whether I would ever do anything important on my own. Very reluctantly, when no one was around, I called the number, after assuring myself that nothing terrible would happen. I never felt convinced nothing terrible would happen, but I was able to take it on faith — a frail, stumbling, wimpy faith. With my eyes closed, I recited the number to the operator; I was afraid she’d recognize it. She didn’t.
“UCSF,” a voice answered crisply.
Trying to control the shakiness of my voice, I asked for the Center on Sexuality and Disability. I was told the Center had closed — and, momentarily, I felt immeasurably relieved. But I could be given a number to get in touch with the therapists who had once worked there. Would I like that? Uh-oh, another decision. I said OK. But at that number I was told to call another number. There, I was referred to yet another number, then another, then another. I quickly made these calls, not allowing myself time to change my mind. I finally reached someone who promised to mail me a list of the Center’s former therapists who were in private practice.
About this time, a TV talk show featured two surrogates. I watched with suspicion: Were surrogates the same as prostitutes? Although they might gussy it up with some psychology, weren’t they doing similar work?
The surrogates did not look like my stereotypes of hookers: no heavy makeup, no spray-on jeans. The female surrogate was a registered nurse with a master’s in social work. The male surrogate, looking comfortable in his business suit, worked with gay and bisexual men. The surrogates emphasized that they deal mostly with a client’s poor self-image and lack of self-esteem, not just the act of sex itself. Surrogates are trained in the psychology and physiology of sex so they can help people resolve serious sexual difficulties. They aren’t hired directly, but through a client’s therapist. Well aware of the likelihood that a client could fall in love with them, they set a limit of six to eight sessions. They maintain a professional relationship by addressing a specific sexual dysfunction; they aren’t interested in just providing pleasure, but in bringing about needed changes. As I learned more about surrogates, I began to think that perhaps a surrogate could help even someone as screwed-up and disabled as me.
When Sondra went on vacation, I phoned Susan, one of the sex therapists on the list I got from UCSF, and made an appointment to see her in San Francisco. I felt delighted that I could do something about my sexuality without consulting Sondra; perhaps that’s why I did it. I was not sure whether calling the therapist was the right thing to do in Sondra’s absence, or whether it was even necessary, but it felt good to me.
The biggest obstacle to seeing Susan turned out to be the elevator at the Powell Street subway stop, which went from the subterranean station to the street. Because of my curved spine, I cannot sit up straight in a standard wheelchair, so I use a reclining wheelchair which is about five and a half feet long. The elevator in the BART station was about five feet across, diagonally. Dixie, my attendant, raised the back of my wheelchair as high as she could and just barely managed to wrestle me and herself into the elevator. But when we reached street level, she could not get me out. This was ridiculous: if I could get in, the laws of physics should permit me to get out. But the laws of physics were in a foul mood that day. Dixie and I went down to the station level and discovered that I could get out down there. We complained to the station agent, who seemed unable to understand. We tried the elevator again. The door opened on a view of Powell Street. Dixie tried lifting and pushing the wheelchair out of that cigar-box elevator in every possible way.
“Well, do you want to go back to Berkeley?” she asked in frustration.
I thought what a waste it would be to go back now. I told her to raise the back of my wheelchair even higher. It put a tremendous strain on my thigh muscles, but now Dixie was able to wheel me out of the elevator with ease. Liberated, we strolled Powell Street, utterly lost.
Eventually, we found Susan’s office. Right away, I realized I could trust her. She knew what to ask and how to ask it in a way that didn’t frighten me. I described to her my feelings about sex, my fantasies, my self-hate, and my interest in seeing a surrogate. She told me the truth: it would never be easy for me to find a lover because of my disability. She told me that her cerebral palsy, the only evidence of which was her limp, had repelled many people. I found this hard to believe. She was so bright, so caring, so pretty in her dark and angular way. (I was already developing a crush on her.)
Susan said that she knew of a very good surrogate who lived in the East Bay, and that she would give the surrogate’s name and phone number to Sondra when she returned from her vacation. If I decided to go ahead with it, Sondra would call the surrogate and tell her to phone me.
Doing that now seemed less scary. Because of our talk, I had started to believe that my sexual desires were legitimate, that I could take charge of my sexuality and cease thinking of it as something alien.
When Sondra returned from vacation, she told me that she had a message from Susan on her answering machine. She asked why I had seen another therapist without informing her. Sondra seemed curious, not angry as I feared she might be — actually, as I feared my parents would have been. I said that I wasn’t sure why I went to see Susan, but that I had felt odd discussing surrogates with Sondra, because she seemed to me to be so much like my idealized mother figure.
Meanwhile, I searched for advice from nearly everyone I knew. One friend told me in a letter to go ahead and “get laid.” Father Mike — a young, bearded priest from the neighborhood Catholic church — told me Jesus was never big on rules, that he often broke the rules out of compassion. No one advised me against seeing a surrogate, but everyone told me I would have to make my own decision.
Frustrated by my inability to get The Answer, a blinding flash that would resolve all my doubts and melt my indecision, I brooded. Why do rehabilitation hospitals teach disabled people how to sew wallets and cook from a wheelchair but not deal with a person’s damaged self-image? Why don’t these hospitals teach disabled people how to love and be loved through sex, or how to love our unusual bodies? I fantasized running a hospital that allowed patients the chance to see a surrogate, and that offered hope for a future richer than daytime TV, chess, and wheelchair basketball. But that was my dream of what I would do for others. What would I do for me?
What if I ever did meet someone who wanted to make love with me? Wouldn’t I feel more secure if I had already had some sexual experience? I knew I could change my perception of myself as a bumbling, indecisive clod, not just by having sex with someone, but by taking charge of my life and trusting myself enough to make decisions. One day, I finally said to Sondra I was ready to see a surrogate.
About a week later, my phone rang during my morning bed bath. It was the voice of a woman I had never heard before.
“Hello, Mark? This is Cheryl.”
I knew that it was the surrogate. She didn’t have to tell me.
“I could see you March 17 at eleven o’clock,” she said. “Would that be good for you?”
“Yeah, it would be. But I’m busy right now. Could you call me back this afternoon when I’ll be by myself?”
Now that I had decided to actually see a surrogate, I had another problem: Where would I meet her? I didn’t have a bed, just an iron lung with a mattress barely wide enough for me. When Cheryl called back, she asked if I could come to her office, which is up a flight of stairs. I told her that would be difficult. Finally, we agreed to meet at the home of one of my friends.
I was terribly nervous when I asked Marie whether I could use her place. I had visited her often in her spacious living room, which contains a double bed. Marie, who uses a wheelchair, had made the cottage she and her lover share completely accessible. It was also within walking distance (or wheelchair-pushing distance). When I told her about Cheryl, she readily agreed.
As the day approached, I became increasingly apprehensive. What if Cheryl took one look at me — disabled, skinny, and deformed — and changed her mind? I imagined her sadly shaking her head and saying, “Oh no, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. . . .” She would be polite, but she would flee from me.
On the phone, Cheryl had explained that she would interview me for the first hour of the session; then, if I agreed, we would do “body-awareness exercises.” I was too scared to ask what this meant, but said I would give it a go.
When March 17 arrived, I felt unbearably nervous. I had to remind myself repeatedly that we were just going to talk about sex; in the second hour, we would do those “body-awareness exercises,” whatever they were, but only if I wanted to do them.
Vera, one of my morning attendants, dressed me, put me in my wheelchair, and pushed me to Marie’s cottage. Vera tried to reassure me, but it didn’t help. I felt as though I were going to my own execution.
We arrived at Marie’s place at 10:45. The door was locked and no one was home. Vera sat on a bench in the yard, lit a cigarette, and chatted amiably as I sweated out the minutes. An eternity passed: seven or eight minutes. Then I heard the buzzing sound of Marie’s electric wheelchair.
Once inside, Vera put a sheet I had brought with me on the double bed. Then she lowered me onto it. The bed was close to the floor, unlike my iron lung. Since it’s difficult for me to turn my head to the left, Vera pushed me over to the left side of the bed, so that Cheryl could lie next to me and I could still see her. Then Vera put the hose of my portable respirator near my mouth, in case I needed air. I thought it likely because I’d never been outside the iron lung for an hour without using the portable respirator. I was all set. I glanced at the noncommittal green numerals flashing on the nearby digital clock: 11:04:30. Cheryl was late.
Marie talked with Vera as I waited. 11:07:43. 11:11:09. Oh God, would she ever come? Perhaps she had found out what an ugly, deformed creep I am and was breaking the appointment. 11:14:55. Oh God.
A knock on the door. Cheryl had arrived.
I turned my head as far to my left as I could. She greeted me, smiling, and walked to where I could see her better. She doesn’t hate me yet, I thought. She pulled a chair up to the bedside, apologized for being late, and talked about how everything had gone wrong for her that morning. Marie went out the door with Vera, saying that she would return at one o’clock. Cheryl and I were alone.
“Your fee’s on top of the dresser,” I said, unable to think of anything else to say. She put the cash into her wallet, and thanked me.
She wore a black pantsuit, and her dark-brown hair was tied behind her head. She had clear skin and large brown eyes and she seemed tall and strong, but then I’m four foot seven and weigh sixty pounds. As we talked, I decided that she was definitely attractive. Was she checking out my looks? I was too scared to want to know.
Talking helped me to relax. She told me that she was forty-one, married to a psychiatrist, and had two teenaged children. She was descended from French Canadians who had settled in Boston. “Boston?” I said. “That’s where I was born.” After talking about Boston for a while, I asked whether she was Catholic, like me. She told me she had left the Catholic Church during her adolescence, when her priest condemned her sexual behavior.
I began to tell her about my life, my family, my fear of sexuality. I could see that she was accepting me and treating me with respect. I liked her, so when she asked me if I would feel comfortable letting her undress me, I said, “Sure.” I was bluffing, attempting to hide my fear.
My heart pounded — not with lust, but with pure terror — as she kneeled on the bed and started to unbutton my red shirt. She had trouble undressing me; I felt awkward and wondered if she would change her mind and leave once she saw me naked. She didn’t. After she took my clothes off, she got out of bed and undressed quickly. I looked at her full, pale breasts but was too shy to gaze between her legs.
Whenever I had been naked before — always in front of nurses, doctors, and attendants — I’d pretend I wasn’t naked. Now that I was in bed with another naked person, I didn’t need to pretend: I was undressed, she was undressed, and it seemed normal. How startling! I had half expected God — or my parents — to keep this moment from happening.
She stroked my hair and told me how good it felt. This surprised me; I had never thought of my hair, or any other part of me, as feeling or looking good. Having at least one attractive feature helped me to feel more confident. She explained about the body-awareness exercises: first, she would run her hand over me, and I could kiss her wherever I wished. I told her I wished that I could caress her, too, but she assured me I could excite her with my mouth and tongue. She rubbed scented oil on her hands, then slowly moved her palms in circles over my chest and arms. She was complimenting me in a soft, steady voice, while I chattered nervously about everything that came to mind. I asked her if I could kiss one of her breasts. She sidled up to me so that I could kiss her left breast. So soft.
“Now if you kiss one, you have to kiss the other,” she said. “That’s the rule.”
Amused by her mock seriousness, I moved to her right breast. She told me to lick around the edge of the nipple. She said she liked that. I knew she was helping me to feel more relaxed, but that didn’t make her encouragements seem less true.
I was getting aroused. Her hand moved in its slow circles lower and lower as she continued to talk in her reassuring way and I continued my chattering. She lightly touched my cock — as though she liked it, as though it was fine that I was aroused. No one had ever touched me that way, or praised me for my sexuality. Too soon, I came.
After that, we talked awhile. I told her about a woven Guatemalan bracelet a friend had given me for this occasion. She asked me whether I had any cologne; I said I did, but that I never wore it. That we could be talking about such mundane matters right after an intense sexual experience seemed strange at first. Another lesson learned: sex is a part of ordinary living, not an activity reserved for gods, goddesses, and rock stars. I realized that it could become a part of my life if I fought against my self-hatred and pessimism.
I asked Cheryl whether she thought I deserved to be loved sexually. She said she was sure of it. I nearly cried. She didn’t hate me. She didn’t consider me repulsive.
She got out of bed, went into the bathroom, and dressed. By then it was nearly one. Taking an appointment book out of her purse, she told me that next time she wanted us to work on having intercourse. She asked me whether I had been afraid to see her that day; I admitted that I’d felt spasms of deep terror. She said it had been brave of me to go through with the session despite my fear.
The door opened. It was Marie and Dixie. They asked me about the experience. I told them it had changed my life. I felt victorious, cleansed, and relieved.
Dixie pushed me back to my apartment, through the quiet neighborhood of small, old houses and big, old trees. It was a warm day, which I hadn’t noticed on the way over. I asked Dixie about her first sexual experience. When she described it, I felt admitted to something from which I had always felt excluded: the world of adults.
Back home, Dixie put me into the iron lung and set up my computer so that I could write. Pounding the keys with my mouth stick, I wrote in my journal as quickly as I could about my experience, then switched off the computer and tried to nap. But I couldn’t. I was too happy. For the first time, I felt glad to be a man.
When I saw Cheryl the second time, two weeks later, I felt more relaxed and confident. We chatted briefly, but there was no formal interview. After pulling down the window shades, she undressed me with more ease than before. I felt less afraid and embarrassed. As I watched her undress, I anticipated the sight of her breasts. There they were, full and rounded. Before she could even get into the bed, I had climaxed. I felt angry at myself for being unable to control the timing of my orgasms but Cheryl said she would try to stimulate me to another orgasm. I didn’t believe that she could arouse me again, but I trusted her more now and let her try.
She lightly scratched my arms, which, to my surprise, I liked. I spent a lot of time kissing and licking her breasts. I asked her to rub the eternally itchy place behind my balls, which she said was called the perineum. The use of such a dignified Latin word to name a place that didn’t even have a name, as far as I had known, struck me as funny. I screamed with delight as she rubbed me, surprised that my body could feel so much pleasure. Then, I felt a warmth around my cock. I realized that Cheryl wasn’t beside me anymore.
“Know what I was doing?” she asked a few seconds later.
“I was sucking you.”
It wasn’t long before I had another erection. Aroused and more confident, I said I wanted to try to have intercourse with her, so she quickly scrambled into place over me, her knees by my sides. I breathed more rapidly, filled with anticipation, a feeling of this is it. She nearly stepped on my feet, which rattled me a little. Reassuring me, she held my cock and rubbed it against her, but when she tried to place it inside her, I panicked. For reasons I still don’t understand, I felt that I couldn’t fit. Perhaps I feared success. Perhaps intercourse would prove I was an adult, something I had never been willing to acknowledge. Perhaps it would suggest that I could have had intercourse long before, if I hadn’t contracted polio, if I hadn’t been so fearful, if. . . . I did not want to contemplate this long chain of ifs.
I insisted to Cheryl that I couldn’t fit into her vagina. She said that couldn’t be. Then suddenly I came again — outside of her.
I felt humiliated. Cheryl asked me if I had enjoyed myself. I said, “Oh yes, up to the anticlimax.” She assured me that she had enjoyed it, which cheered me somewhat. And it was still pleasant for me, lying beside her, the two of us naked. I told her I wanted to recite a poem I’d memorized for this occasion, Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date . . .
I stumbled through it, forgetting phrases, stopping, starting again, but I made it to the end:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Cheryl said that she was touched, that it was sweet of me to recite the poem. I felt glad that I was now a giver of pleasure, not merely a passive recipient.
An attendant came and took me home. I ate supper, exhausted and contented. But the next day I worried: Why had I panicked? Would I ever be able to have intercourse with Cheryl? With any woman?
Marie told me that she couldn’t let me use her house for the next appointment because she and her lover were going out of town. So I called Neil, a disabled playwright who lives in a large apartment building in my neighborhood. Although I hadn’t known him long, he readily agreed. But he told me that his mattress was on the floor of his bedroom. That worried me because this would make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for an attendant to lift me back into my wheelchair.
On the day of the appointment, Dixie took me to Neil’s building. Neil has a rare disabling condition which impairs his speech, but allows him to stand and hop about on one foot. There he was, standing on one foot beside his wheelchair, which he had parked outside the building’s entrance. Upon seeing us, he plunked himself into his wheelchair and led us to the elevators. Once inside the apartment, Dixie pushed me into the bedroom and eyed the mattress with skepticism, saying that she could easily put me on it but feared that she would hurt her back lifting me later. After a minute of mutual indecision, she picked me up from the wheelchair and set me down on the mattress. After she made sure that I was comfortable, she and Neil left.
I lay there looking at Neil’s clock and wondering whether Cheryl would ever arrive. Neil had told me he would wait for Cheryl outside the building to give her the keys. What if Neil had become bored waiting and left? Was Cheryl coming at all?
After waiting for forty minutes, I heard some noise in the outer room. It was Cheryl, who apologized for being late.
As Cheryl undressed me and herself, I noticed that I wasn’t becoming aroused. I felt proud of my self-control and began to think of myself as a mature, sophisticated man, accustomed to being in a bedroom with a naked woman.
She got into the bed with me and began to stroke my thighs and cock. I climaxed instantly. I loathed myself for coming so soon, in the afterglow of my man-of-the-world fantasies. Undismayed, Cheryl began to stroke me, scratch me, and kiss me slowly. Reminding me of our previous session, she assured me that I could have a second orgasm. She said that she would rub the tip of my cock around her vagina. Then she would put it into her. I couldn’t see what was going on down there and I was too excited to sort out the tactile sensations. Suddenly, I had another orgasm.
“Was I inside of you?” I asked.
“Just for a second,” she said.
“Did you come, too?”
She raised herself and lay beside me.
“No, Mark, I didn’t. But we can try some other time if you want.”
“Yes, I want.”
After she got off the mattress, she took a large mirror out of her tote bag. It was about two feet long and framed in wood. Holding it so that I could see myself, Cheryl asked what I thought of the man in the mirror. I said that I was surprised I looked so normal, that I wasn’t the horribly twisted and cadaverous figure I had always imagined myself to be. I hadn’t seen my genitals since I was six years old. That was when polio had struck me, shriveling me below my diaphragm in such a way that my view of my lower body had been blocked by my chest. Since then, that part of me had seemed unreal. But seeing my genitals made it easier to accept the reality of my manhood.
Cheryl was still dressing when Dixie came into the apartment. Dixie dressed me and, lifting me with surprising ease, got me back into the wheelchair. Cheryl told me she would be out of town for a couple of weeks. She looked at her schedule book. “How would the twenty-ninth be for you?”
“It’s OK with me,” I said. “I’ll just have to check with Neil or Marie to see if I can get a place.”
“Well, just leave a message on my machine.”
Having failed for a second time to have intercourse worried me. I became obsessed with this failure during the three weeks between appointments. What was wrong with me? Was I afraid that having intercourse represented aggression against women? Was it my lack of experience, or was it something deeper than that, something I could never figure out?
Before my next appointment, I was visited by Tracy, a former attendant who had worked for me in the early eighties while she studied at Berkeley. I had tried not to fall in love with her back then, but she was just too appealing. Young, bright, and pretty, she understood me thoroughly and was the wittiest person I’d ever known. Tracy was involved with another man; she maintained a warm friendship with me, but she made it clear that she was not interested in a romantic relationship. I felt awkward: I had told her that I loved her in a state of terrified, embarrassed passion a few years earlier.
I was waiting for Tracy in my wheelchair when she entered my apartment. She leaned over so that I could kiss her cheek. Then she kissed mine.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you,” she replied cheerfully.
We went to a cafe and talked about her boyfriend and my experiences with Cheryl. She said that she felt proud of me for having the courage to see a surrogate. I felt terrific talking with her and tried to prolong the conversation by asking her everything I could think of about her graduate studies, her boyfriend, her parents, her brothers, her past, and her plans for the future. Eventually, though, we both ran out of words. She wanted to see other friends in Berkeley, so she took me back to my apartment.
After Tracy left, I was saddened by the undeniable knowledge that she felt no sexual attraction for me. Who could blame her? I was seldom attracted to disabled women. Many young, healthy, good-looking men had been drawn to Tracy, who was in a position to pick and choose. My only hope seemed to be in trusting that working with Cheryl would help me in the event that I should meet someone else as splendid as Tracy.
The next time I saw Cheryl, she said that this time, she would minimize the foreplay and get on top of me as soon as I told her I was becoming aroused. She had the mirror with her again and held it up to me before she got into the bed. This time, I climaxed at seeing myself erect in the mirror. Cheryl got into the bed and adjusted herself so that I could give her cunnilingus. I had to stop it after a minute or so because I began to feel as though I were suffocating. But I had wanted to do something to give her pleasure, so I asked her whether I could put my tongue in her ear. She said no, she disliked that, but it was good that I asked.
“Some women like it. I just happen to hate it. Different women react differently to the same stimulus. That’s why you should always ask.”
When she started stroking my cock, I told her to get on top. Quick. I was feeling the onset of an erection. She got over me and with one hand she guided me into her.
“Is it in?”
“Yes, it’s in.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was having intercourse and it didn’t feel like the greatest thing in the world. Intercourse was certainly pleasant, but I had enjoyed the foreplay — the kissing, the rubbing, the licking — more. Too soon, I came. She kept holding me inside her. Then a look of pleasure brushed lightly over her face, as though an all-day itch were finally being scratched. Letting me go, she put her hands down on the bed by my shoulders and kissed my chest.
This act of affection moved me deeply. I hadn’t expected it; it seemed like a gift from her heart. My chest is unmuscular, pale, and hairless, the precise opposite of what a sexy man’s chest is supposed to be. It has always felt like a very vulnerable part of me. Now it was being kissed by a caring, understanding woman and I almost wept.
“Did you come?” I asked her.
I was exultant. She got out of the bed and went into the bathroom. Hearing her pee made me feel as though we were longtime lovers, familiar and comfortable with each other’s bodily functions. When she came out of the bathroom and began dressing herself, I asked her if she thought I should buy a futon so that I could have sex in my apartment.
“I don’t know if I should get a futon now or wait . . . till something comes up.”
“You may want to get one now because you never know when something will come up. And if you wait till then, by the time you get the futon, it might be all over.”
I asked her whether she thought we should have another session. She said she would do whatever I thought best.
“Do you think there’s anything to be gained from another time?” she asked.
“No,” I said, relieved that I would not have to spend any more money. I had just enough to buy a futon. And besides, I’d had intercourse. What was there left to do? Later that year, I bought the futon, dark blue with an austere pattern of flowers and rushes.
I began this essay in 1986, then set it aside until last year. In rereading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.
But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.
My personality, it may be said, is a result of my disability, because of which I have spent most of my life apart from people my own age. Whatever the cause, my isolation continues, along with the consequent celibacy. Occasional visitors sit on the futon, but I’ve never lain on it.
I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection? Would I have fallen into the more familiar pattern of flirting, dating, and making out which seems so common among people who have been disabled during or after adolescence?
One thing I did learn was that intercourse is not an expression of male aggression, but a gentle, mutually playful experience. But has that knowledge come too late?
Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved, body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.
As for the personals and dating services, sure, I’d like to meet people, but what sort of ad could I write?
Severely disabled man, 41, living in iron lung he can escape but twice a week seeks . . .
Which brings up the question — what do I seek? I don’t know. Someone who likes me and loves me and who will promise to protect me from all the self-hating parts of myself? An all-purpose lover-mommy-attendant to care for all my physical and emotional needs? What one friend calls a “shapely savior” — a being so perfect that she can rescue me from the horror that has been imposed upon me and the horror I’ve imposed upon myself? Why bother? I ask myself. I don’t. Not anymore.
Which leaves me where I was before I saw Cheryl. I’ve met a few women nearly as wonderful as Tracy, but they haven’t expressed any romantic interest in me. I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.
“On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” by Mark O’Brien, first appeared in the May 1990 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 1990 by Mark O’Brien.