When you’re nine, ten, eleven, and twelve back in Joliet, Illinois, the City of Stone and Steel left largely rusted by deindustrialization and divided by a sanitary canal that flows from Chicago and smells like metal and excrement, most of your pals have access to voluptuous caches of magazine smut, boxed in secret basement corners, tucked in bedroom drawers beneath folded briefs and black socks, hidden in greasy garage tool chests under rusted hammers and twisted nails, handled with trembling hands in the heat of secrecy and panting and gasps. It’s what you look most forward to when a friend calls you over to play.
Playboy already bores you. So do Penthouse and Hustler and Juggs.
But the copies of Climax, Rogue, Intercum, Peacock, Black Patent Lady, Pussyrama, Candy, Dangle, Hot Head, and Creme have you locked in a hypnotic, pulsing fixation the second you see the close-ups of glistening labia and milky ropes of come.
And when you see your first hardcore video, you’re disappointed by the meager volume of the man’s ejaculate, the way it dribbles out. You’d anticipated a blast to blind the woman from whose mouth he’d just withdrawn.
So by the time you fall in love at twenty-eight with a brilliant and beautiful woman who will one year later become your wife, you’re equipped with the romantic proficiency of an infant. You rarely last longer than thirty seconds and in that sad half-minute you turn inward to the empty garage of yourself, where you run in circles until you slip in grease and fall under the rush of shuddering light that is a familiar pleasure but yours alone.
She keeps her disappointment to herself because she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. But she’s confused, doesn’t quite know what to make of your frantic and spastic immediacy.
When finally she touches the subject after yet another one of your thirty-second sprints, you get angry. You sit up in bed because you’re a man who has been with enough women to know that you don’t have a problem. You’re not impotent and you can certainly climax, two measurements that are more than enough to prove your virility, which you claim and accentuate by slamming the bedroom door on the way out.
But in the basement of your anger is a dirty mirror that betrays, behind the outward bravado and suntanned swagger, a clueless and ultimately inexperienced fool who is terrified to the spine of sex.
The other half of your sexual education comes from the inherent brutality of a Catholicism decorated with the graphic iconography of torture, whose nuns and priests profess a different kind of distortion that’s just as warped as hardcore porn: that your body is filthy, and that touching it is a mortal sin, and that your sin is somehow connected to the half-naked Christ nailed to a cross that hangs in every classroom and home that you know. It’s a symbol and a story of both agony and sexual humiliation. Romans never actually covered their crucified with loincloths. The Jesus whose blood you drink and whose flesh you chew might have died for you with the spectacle of an erection and a great eruption of sperm—a different kind of weeping from a different kind of wound.
Many of the priests you serve with as an altar boy are child molesters, yet you somehow escape any advancing hands. You serve Mass sometimes five days a week, sometimes by yourself. The 6:00 a.m. Masses require only one altar boy, and so many dark winter mornings it’s just you and the priest in the back of the sacristy while you pull on your white surplice and red cassock and he straightens his vestments before calling you over to the enormous walk-in vault lined with jeweled chalices, ciboriums, giant golden monstrances, censors, patens, flagons, Eucharistic bells, altar cloths, and cruets, where he hands you the Crucifix staff twice your size that you carry in procession onto the altar. They had so many chances to hurt you. Why they never did remains a mystery.
You enjoy the status and benefits that accompany altar service, which pulls you out of the dreadful boredom of sitting in the pews. Mass passes quickly when you’re occupied with setting and clearing the altar, washing the celebrant’s hands, then blessing him and the congregation with the dramatic and smoldering censor you swing on the end of a chain. And your Uncle Jimmy owns one of Joliet’s most successful funeral homes, and since most funerals are held midweek, he puts in the word so that you and three other pals get taken out of class to serve Mass. You linger too long after the service ends and the priest leaves. You gobble stacks of unblessed hosts out of the sacristy refrigerator and get drunk on unblessed red wine and call 1-900 numbers from the sacristy phone and take turns listening to recordings of whores detailing how hard they’ll suck your cocks, then you finally stagger back to the classes you’re already failing in the apathy of worthlessness, nearly rapeful as you laugh about what you’ll do once you get your hands on a whore like that.
You’re posed with folded hands in countless wedding album photos taken at the altar with entire wedding parties. You never mind giving up a Saturday afternoon since the groom always spots you twenty bucks. And as you hold the golden paten beneath the kneeling bride’s chin as she takes the wafer on the end of her tongue, you think, She’s gonna get fucked hard tonight. That guy’s gonna fuck her. He’s gonna fuck the shit out of her.
But on your own wedding night, you actually feign fatigue and headache like a sexless sitcom wife in order to get out of another unsatisfying performance you’ve now given up hope in ever trying to improve. Your new wife stays awake in the dark and tearfully wonders what’s wrong with her. She has no idea that you just can’t have sex with a woman you genuinely love, that the concept of making love hasn’t made its way around the oozing sewage you see in a fornication that would stain whatever love you can manage to offer from an otherwise loveless spirit.
The hands that do manage to hurt you belong to women. Nuns. Second grade, third, fourth. You’re only seven when Sister Innocent starts slapping you when you can’t figure out how to glue the picture of the Holy Family onto the plastic coffee can lid as an ornament to decorate the classroom Christmas tree. You try again. But the Holy Family is crooked or you aren’t strong enough to squeeze the hole punch through the plastic or you have trouble working the twine through, and so she stiffens her index finger and jabs it into your skull over and over and over and over, yelling, “Dummy, dummy, dummy, dummy!”
So there’s no mystery about why images of weak and humiliated women have such a hold on you for so many years. You can’t slap a nun back. And you can’t backhand her across the mouth or grab a fistful of her hair and knock her head into the blackboard until she’s so dizzy her vision beholds a world too blurry to want to live in anymore.
But in basements and garages you can leer damply at magazines with your pals, and in stuffy bedrooms that reek of sweat and a kind of rancid chlorine, you can stare at hours of groaning video, and you can join in the purple, throbbing rage of an imaginary gangbang and shoot load after load of sperm straight in her face.
Yet the hands of women finally find you and lift you from despair. Women like your Aunt Gail, who gives you the first book you’ve ever read to completion: Stuart Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. A collection of stories that instantly capture your interest because, though you don’t yet understand their layers of complexity, you find in them depictions of other children weakened by the weight of tyrants who wear black habits and white Roman collars. You decide to start writing your own stories. They’re of course bad knockoffs of Dybek’s, but what matters is that in art you begin to make sense of the wreckage you’ve somehow survived.
Women like Susan Straight, your first writing teacher and the first person who ever tells you that you do something well, so well that she urges you—the first in your family to finish college—to go to graduate school to make your writing even better. And you do get better, the hands of more women guiding your progress. Elizabeth Evans, Nanci Kincaid, all the talented students in your workshops. And your mother, who reads every word you go on to publish, no matter how rough the language is nor how violently your stories bleed.
Mentors, colleagues, friends, family.
And your wife, who is all of the above as well as your lover. She waits many years for the version of you that finally emerges, mature and mostly healed by a peace you discover when you choose not to take comfort in suffering. The version of you that leaves index card love notes on her dashboard so that her day can begin by knowing not only how much you cherish her, but how earnestly you’ll want her body later that night.
This weekend you’ll surprise her with strawberries and wine. Together you’ll indulge in the pleasure of romantic and loving seduction. You’ll linger in this space for some time, talking and holding hands, before you finally take each other to bed and exhaust yourselves with the gift of enjoying your bodies.
It’s a gift you’ve both earned after so many years of terror and confusion. And even though that’s behind you, you appreciate the gravity of the fact that Valerie had every right to secretly seek fulfillment elsewhere in a more adjusted or confident man. She’s a beautiful woman and so it wouldn’t have been difficult to find. She even had every right to leave you.
But she didn’t.
Patrick Michael Finn is the author of the novella A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich and the short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, which was named a Best Book of 2011 in GQ Magazine. He lives in Arizona with his wife, poet Valerie Bandura.