My erection had become a problem.
This was a first. With the exception
of the expected school-year embarrassments, the arched eyebrows that
asked “Would you please stand up and recite the poem on page
247, Mr. Fohling" while I sat wondering whether I indeed could
clear the metal belly of my desk without limiting my procreational
options, I had never had a problem controlling my engorgement patterns.
Life below my belt was predictable. It made sense. It, alone among
the vagaries of romance, was under control:
• Undressed by candlelight with
my girlfriend Paloma: erect.
• Lecturing on “La Gioconda"
to a room of hung-over University students at 10:45 a.m.: flaccid.
• The morning after many--too
many--glasses of a ridiculously good ’97 Sangiovese made me too
drunk to relieve myself before collapsing into bed: astir.
• In line at the Piggly Wiggly
with glossy, brimming cleavage drawing my eyes down: dead limp, hung
Our relationship, my member and I,
was a good one.
Which made the sudden manifestation
of my problem that much more disconcerting. Relaxed in the glow of
the in-flight entertainment, midway on a direct flight from La Guardia
to Milan, I stretched my legs only to notice an uncomfortable tightening
near my groin. I leaned forward from my headrest and looked around.
The man next to me slept soundly, curled under a fleece blanket. I
switched from the movie to find the southern tip of Greenland, a fat,
crooked green finger, on the seatback LCD map. Sure that no eyes were
prying, I slid my hand cautiously beneath the blanket. There was my
member, which just hours before had been pleasuring--I hope--my dear
girlfriend Paloma, alert and insistent against my flat front corduroys.
I jerked my hand away lest anyone think I found the Julia Roberts
film so enjoyable that I couldn’t restrain my impulses. Above
all, a man must have taste.
The cabin lights were dim. I slinked
from my seat, grateful I’d chosen the aisle, and walked in my
complimentary padded socks to the bathroom. My first inkling was that
I just needed to relieve myself; Paloma had forced me to drink two
large bottles of Evian before I left so as not to get dehydrated on
the flight. She was always thoughtful in that practical way that made
thoughtfulness feel like so many parts of a plan whose outcome only
she could determine.
I had approached the morning of my
departure from New York with a heightened, almost idealized, sense
of serenity. I lingered over the paper, a last bowl of home-cooked
steel cut oatmeal, making sure I wouldn’t forget the simple
pleasures of home. I made love to Paloma like it proved my worth,
like every slow, aching thrust was an advance on every day we’d
be apart. If she was passive, complacent even, I wasn’t overly
concerned. She never found sex appealing before noon. But despite
her attentive care that morning, in my slow post-coital reassembling
of myself I was too focused on my impending departure, on the assortment
of travel-size toiletries and potions she’d bought for me, to
notice that Paloma was hurrying me on my way. She forced the large
bottles of Evian into the crook of my elbow, tucked the ticket into
my jacket pocket, arranging me all the while like a muddy clump of
dandelions. My garment bag slumped by the door. I had to hurry and
repack my electric toothbrush as she sounded the car horn downstairs.
So, though I didn’t feel the
tingling urge to relieve myself, my discomfort made me willing to
try. In my haste, I nearly rammed into the flight attendant in the
tight galley. She was preparing coffee and I turned the corner quickly,
hoping to slide into the bathroom with no interference. As I reached
for the door she sprung an ingratiating airline smile on me.
“It’s occupied right now,
sir." A feathery wink.
I nodded, and returned her vapid half-grin.
I turned away towards the aisle to mask my problem. She, however,
obviously new to her job and earnestly wanting to go that extra step
towards kindness, couldn’t let me alone.
“Are you enjoying your flight,
sir?" she asked.
“Yes. Yes. Very much. Thank you."
She continued to smile, as if I hadn’t said enough. “It’s
a very nice plane," I added.
“Is there anything I can get
you? While you’re waiting?" She blushed slightly at the
muted reference to the bathroom.
“No, just waiting. Don’t
need to drink anything and add to the problem, right?" I could
feel my face struggle to give off a positive smile, and fall into
a distracted smirk as I eyed the bathroom door.
She giggled softly. With a clank the
door to the bathroom accordioned to reveal a portly woman, well dressed
but with a bird’s nest of grey hair sitting askew on her head.
The smell of a crumbling sachet of potpourri flooded the galley. I
always try to avoid seeing who occupies a lavatory before me. Bad
enough to guess at whose heavy haunches have hovered above the cylinder
than to have to meet them face-to-face and understand too much of
their olfactory make-up. The woman nodded, gravely, like an undertaker
emerging from the embalming room, and squeezed between the stewardess
and me. My back was turned, thankfully, but at the tightest juncture
I was mashed into the galley wall in excruciating torture for the
better, breathless part of a second, the underwire of the old woman’s
brassiere and its heavy cargo pressed into my spine. I slid into the
bathroom off the wall, gasping for breath.
Zipper open I waited. The hollow toilet
sucked greedily, waiting. Nothing happened. Nothing changed.
I was forced to stand, braced against
the medicinal wall, and stare at myself in wonder. Don’t misunderstand.
This wasn’t narcissism. If Paloma’s first reaction was
any indication, I gather things are rather common where size is concerned.
What baffled me was the simple persistence of my turgid state. Nothing
was turning me on. My bladder was content. Even as I extended the
scope of my personal inquiry to the fantastic, I could offer no solution.
There was no recent immersion in tantric therapy that had just now
begun to take effect. We weren’t close enough to the North Pole
to even consider some strange magnetic phenomenon. I was simply host
to a raging, adolescent hard on.
Maybe my focused attention triggered
some remnants of shame from my Catholic school days because after
a minute or two the blood rush subsided and things returned to normal.
I erred on the side of caution and spent a few more minutes in front
of the mirror, in half-mast repose. The wane seemed permanent.
And indeed it was, for the remainder
of the flight anyway. I was relieved and glad to attribute the whole
incident to some vagary of high-altitude circulation that I didn’t
care to understand. Back at my seat, I shut my eyes to Julia Roberts,
and slept the rest of the flight without any problems. I awoke to
a field of rose-tinted clouds above Milan, and the smiling newbie
stewardess handing me a weak, bitter cup of coffee.
* * *
from the Italian Cultural Society promised “a Renaissance week
of fine dining, luxury accommodations, shopping for gold along the
fabled Ponte Vecchio and in-depth tours of the museums, gardens and
architecture of bella Firenze." Once in Tuscany I found
the ladies much preferred to argue over the merits of their last bowl
of ribollita than to show any real interest in Da Vinci’s
revolutions of perspective or Michelangelo’s chiseling techniques.
I was there to put a PhD on the brochure, to help them return home
to their prosaic, suburban lives feeling enlightened.
They loved me for it of course. Aglow
from a breakfast of cream filled pastries and cappuccino they would
stampede into the marble lobby with heavy heeled steps and expressions
of sensual contentment on their faces. I didn’t burden them
with too much information; I was instructed early on that bare bones
worked best. Point out famous names--providing spelling for the few
whose guilt in pleasure was such that they were compelled to take
notes--and cover some general easy-to-grasp symbolic themes to reassure
the group that I was indeed as learned as they expected me to be.
My unpredictable situation persisted
in Florence. I didn’t count the first few days--I was too disconcerted
by the stiff presence to pay minute attention to frequency--but on
the third day I registered fifteen distinct engorgements. I tried
to describe the horrible morning tour for Paloma on our--her--answering
machine: “So I’m standing in front of the Birth of Venus
with my loosest pants, you know those Bill’s Khaki’s you
got me for my last birthday, well I had them shoved dangerously low
on my waist like some zoot-suited gangster and still I could have
used it as a pointer. 'See here how Botticelli uses the
figures of the winds . . .’ It was ridiculous, Pal. Here’s
this nice group of ladies expecting A Room with a View and
all I was prepared to give them was a bad variation on Portnoy’s
Complaint." The machine cut me off. Probably out of memory.
At lunch I returned to my room and
attempted to tape it down. An extreme prescription, yes, but my annoyance
had peaked, matched only by the few occasions I’d submitted
to the birthday parties of other faculty members, where cake-handed
kids always seemed to favor my attention. My experiment only served
to relieve me of a wide swath of hair and chafe my skin. I resolved
to buy a pair of briefs when the stores reopened after the midday
siesta; boxers allow too much room for expansion. During the break
I’m ashamed to admit I also attempted masturbation. Understand,
it was only in the pursuit of atrophy, but a vision of Julia Roberts
forced itself into my head against my wishes, her toothy grin and
auburn hair intruding on afavorite fantasy of mine that involved;well,
no need to revisit that dishonorable event in detail. Suffice it to
say, regardless of what I tried, there was negligible change.
Needless to say the ladies noticed.
I made every effort to downplay my state, turning away to face the
works of art as if they required my careful attention; picking the
lower parts of some statues so I could squat thereby bringing my erection
even with my thigh. I thought through these strategies as I tried
to retain some semblance of professionalism. But I heard the deep
smoker’s giggles; I saw the eyes behind blue-tinted glasses
following my crotch instead of my hands or eyes. This was a group
of long-betrothed women that had witnessed firsthand the fall towards
flaccidity in the sundry members that they called their own. Even
with the advent of Viagra I imagine the sight of a young associate
professor with a raging erection in his pants was, well, at least
interesting to some of them. We were spending our days looking
at marble genitals, and all the women had bought the ridiculous postcards
of David’s package overprinted with a smiling face that said
“Ciao". I was just another spectacle on their stunted
* * *
escorting the women to their luncheon--I left them in the capable,
manicured hands of an unshaven Roman hunk who had them tittering with
excitement in the arched restaurant doorway--I took a walk down the
Via Della Spada. The narrow street was always ensconced in damp shadows,
even on a brilliant spring day like that one. I was pleased to find
my favorite rosticceria still open. The pungent scent of
rosemary and oil settled on the doorstep, a better advertisement than
any menu hawker, and I squeezed up to the crowded counter, mindful
not to offend anyone’s sensibilities with my prodding third
leg. The glass case was filled, as always, with a glistening assortment
of prepared vegetables. I lingered, embarrassed to mark myself as
a tourist, but with only a few opportunities to sample their delicious
food, I wanted to ensure I took the right thing with glistening wood-fired
chicken that spun slowly on the rotisserie at the back of the room.
“The spinach looks delectable
today." A soft English accent floated above the crowd. “And
of course, the potatoes are always a good complement."
The man’s bald pate, pink and
wrinkled like the chicken on the spit, tilted back to reveal a pair
of goggling, Peter Lorre eyes. His collection of chins rippled above
his ascot as he gave a tentative smile.
“Right," I said. “Thanks
for the recommendation."
“I knew you were a Yank,"
he said. “Something in the eyes, I imagine."
His attention distracted me from the
server. She held her notepad in impatient anticipation. I returned
his smile with a curt nod and ordered, deliberately avoiding the spinach,
but settling on the potatoes, roasted golden brown and flecked with
rosemary. The Brit waited outside, an ingratiating look on his face
as he eyed my plastic sack of food. He cradled a bottle of wine in
his left arm.
“Taking lunch alone as well?
I can’t possibly drink this whole bottle and it’s a shame
to waste such a lovely day," he said. “If we can find
a bench free of pigeons in the piazza, would you care to join me?"
My inclination was to refuse. I didn’t
like blind persistence or enforced friendship, especially among travelers.
They were too lonely, too greedy for connection, too awed and frustrated
by the simple fact that life was different elsewhere. After days of
leading my gaggle of women through the streets, hands raised, a transparent
target for the Florentines’ elegant scorn, I longed for a moment
of anonymity. But the man seemed educated and harmless enough. And
it was a superb Chianti. I signaled for him to lead the way.
In the evening, with its Irish pub
bellowing with crowds of foreign students, Santa Maria Novella was
a place to be avoided. But in daylight, the clean contours of the
church and the ruddy elegance of its surrounding piazza seemed a magnificent
pool of sunlight. Groups of Somali refugees gathered at the phone
booths around the news kiosk. Occasionally one would emerge from a
booth and shout something to the group, to be met by propulsive chatter
and nodding heads. Mostly they sat and stared at a passing world that
had no time for them.
We picnicked over conversation about
Giotto and Ghirlandaio, the Spanish Chapel and the sixteenth century
horse races held in the square, the turning posts marked by the tall
marble obelisks held up by bronze turtles. He had no glasses, so we
drank from the bottle. I took care to wipe the rim clean each time.
I was glad I’d overcome my prejudices and agreed to join him.
My mood lightened. I was so enveloped by my spelt soup, half-chicken
and conversation that it wasn’t until I wrapped up the butcher
paper that I noticed my erection was gone.
This is a faulty memory of course,
informed as much by how I’d like to remember the day as how
events truly occurred. Having had time to think it over, it is more
accurate to say that, for the first time on the trip, I had no awareness
of my problem. I can’t say with any certainty, then, that it
had vanished. But I didn’t feel it pressing on me, forcing me
to consider my movements and posture, which, when considered in relation
to the rest of my time in Florence, was just as great a relief. Those
few moments that afternoon are wrapped tightly in a blissful gauze,
a fragile moment of freedom as light as the spring air.
The man’s face grew redder, an
effect of the young, tannic wine and the heavy sun. His lips glistened
with oil and flecks of pepper. He didn’t bother to wipe them.
He leaned over, leering drunk, and tried to pat my leg as he told
a joke. It happened quickly, too quickly, and as he giggled, like
a Japanese schoolgirl I stood back and slapped his hand away. His
face crumpled in on itself, a confused Shar Pei, and I took my trash
with me and hurried away his uncertain expression. The harsh intimacy
of the situation gave me chills that persisted on my brisk walk back
into the city center. My mind raced in dizzy pace with my steps. I
don’t know if he was coming on to me or just being friendly
and drunk. I couldn’t tell if I was more shocked by his attention
or by my innocent acceptance of it. My erection, or at least my awareness
of it, returned and as I walked through the crowded post-lunch streets
I felt the whole city glaring at my state, pointing me out from among
the thousands of tourists with a declamatory index finger. “Ecco
Il Uomo! The man with the rabid crotch. Pinocchio of Pricks."
As I approached the restaurant, the
ladies were posed in a group with the rugged Roman. It took some cajoling
to tear them away and a promise of more delights to come. Soon, to
the impatient piper’s call, they followed behind.
* * *
That afternoon we walked past the Palazzo Vecchio.
We stopped at Rivoire where I stood by the bar in awe as the women
licked and lapped their way through cups of hot chocolate, more rabid
than drunken sailors on a shore side bender. We pondered the Gates
of Heaven. I, for one, relished the majestic, echoing silence of the
Duomo. The tour had run long and I could tell the ladies’ patience
with Brunelleschi’s dome was being tested mightily against their
desire for supper. I was tired too, lethargic from the wine and my
fast retreat. A headache pushed at my temples. But a trip to Florence
was never complete for me without viewing the city from the top of
the Campanile. I felt recovered enough to think the air might do me
At first sight of the stairs, half
my group feigned to swoon from hunger and exhaustion. They chose to
have their portraits drawn by a charming huckster on the south side
of the Duomo who called out to them in broken English, “Please, signorine. Beautiful picture for beautiful ladies."
For the five women who braved the climb, divorcees mostly, I pointed
out the elegance of Giotto’s design, the jeweled index finger
pointing skyward, girded with three different shades of marble, green,
white and the distinctive pinkish-red. But my lecture was rote and
uninspired. I felt the flatness of my voice as I pointed out across
the hills, locating landmarks and historical buildings for my wheezing
audience. I showed the women the general direction of our hotel to
make them feel acclimated. The air was crystalline and provided a
breathless panorama of the city, an unsurpassed view. But I found
myself helpless to engage them in the sense of place I felt so deeply.
The ladies just continued to stare at my crotch, jabbing each other
in the ribs each time I turned to face them. It may have been a delusion,
but I thought I noticed old ascot fluttering behind them, his salmon
face bright among their gray hair.
Whether it was my frustration with
the erection or my embarrassment in the face of their stares, or just
exhaustion, I had had enough. I was sick of being in a city that I
adored with a group of women who felt justified in ignoring the magnificence
of Florentine culture to focus their appetites more squarely on Tuscan fagioli and my prick. Paloma had yet to call me back. And
now I was being tailed by a persistent Anglo-queer as well. They were
all shameless, devoid of culture and I hated each one of them.
But my scorn vanished quickly under
their jarring stares. At first, I thought it was just embarrassment,
a latent twinge of self-consciousness. Unlikely, but not impossible,
considering my predicament. But as I looked harder at their uncaring,
prurient faces, molded into agelessness by plastic surgeons with questionable
aesthetic sensibilities, I felt Paloma peering with them.
It wasn’t until this moment,
staring at the faces of women and men that only cared for me as a
curious spectacle that I came to some comprehension of the hard truth
that Paloma’s face revealed upon my departure. She had suffered
through our morning conjugation because it was the last time she’d
have to do so. Her apparent attention to every detail of my departure
was borne, I suspect, with the understanding that the sooner she was
rid of every trace of me the sooner she could get back to her life. Her life. Without me. My name wasn’t on the outgoing
message any longer. And as I stood at the airport, one arm weighted
by my shoulder-slung bag, the other high in a wave, and watched her
pull away, I didn’t understand any of this. I thought we were
still in love. She had packed me with my suitcase.
I reached for my belt there atop the
Campanile and in seconds had exposed the full of my erect member to
the prurient group. One scattered down the stairs, another fainted
and the remaining three screamed and intensified their stares. I felt
a surge of relief. I made no attempt to pull up my pants, to cover
myself. I continued to undress, throwing my shirt over the battlements
atop the tower. It fluttered upward, held aloft for a moment by an
updraft, before flapping out of sight. Fully nude, I felt the cool
breeze caress my skin, tickle my penis and flutter the millions of
hairs on my body. The sun warmed me, as if it were baking my posture
into a state of marbleized permanence. I stood free on top of Florence
feeling like a lost masterpiece, a creation in real flesh that sculptors
aspired to bring from the rough fruit of Cararra’s quarry. My
head was clean of everything except how present I felt, nude above
a city that exalted the male form more than any other.
The Carabinieri dragged me down the
stairs, still erect, an object of frozen inspiration and awe. The
handcuffs added an unexpected poignancy to my pose. I hope one of
the ladies took a snapshot.