With every girl, I dreaded the same humiliating thing.
That morning I knew from the chill of evaporation on my skin that whatever love kindled and stoked and flamed overnight was now extinguished. You could smell it on the sheets. We had drunk hot cider and bourbon at an underground bar, traded shirts in a bathroom with no mirrors, driven home by stick-shifting on icy roads, and woken her roommates with our attempts at one more time. Now the sheets were dried of sweat but still suspiciously moist. Now my skin was cooled of lust but flushed with shame. It was the second time I'd ruined great sex with a beautiful woman by inadvertently pissing the bed.
Worse still, at the bar that night — spilling bourbon all over my sneakers, lighting the wrong end of a cigarette — I had told her about the first time it happened. In college I dated a girl more artistic than me, better looking than me, and more sexually adventurous than me. Lara admired fluffy, pink things and collected broken, discarded mirrors. I assumed at the time I was just another addition to her motley regard. One night, after attending a Heaven and Hell party, where I wore white and she wore red, and after shooting something called Ice, which tasted like mouthwash and burned like napalm, we returned to her dorm room for activities lost in a blackout that presaged yellow disaster. "Take your pants all the way off," I remember her saying. "Where are you trying to put that? Open your eyes. Drink some water." Who knew such a simple request could bring about such pedomorphic doom?
At dawn, waking with a dry mouth and wet sheets, I thought someone had poured a beer on my crotch. I was lying in a puddle of my own urine — oh, fuck me — but fortunately, Lara was still fast asleep. Neither scrubbing the sheets with my t-shirt nor aiming a desk fan at the bed helped to dry the telltale wet spot. Rather than waiting for Lara to wake and calmly, maturely explaining the situation, I left her room and ran home, pee-soaked tail tucked between my legs.
In the underground bar ("Below Ground, Above Expectations"), I told Jocelyn the story over hot toddies and borrowed cigarettes, stressing the comedy, glossing the tragedy. Of course, it was a line. Look at me, it said, I'm self-deprecating. I have the confidence to tell you an embarrassing story. Therefore, I must have a penis the size of a billy club, Guinness-worthy sexual endurance, and an encyclopedic knowledge of coital positions.
We overindulged in Kentucky sour mash, told tales of virginity lost, made a scene in the bathroom, and prank-called George Plimpton, who politely said we should send our queries to The Paris Review's offices. Afterwards we decided on her place. This was a time, mind you, when I regularly drank in excess, when I maintained a romantic notion of alcoholism, when I feared neither spiritual retribution nor physical consequence. That night was no different. Whatever doubts I had in my abilities and all worries I had over my skills vanished under the influence.
Jocelyn lived in a cabin in rural Vermont. Her bed, like that of Penelope and Odysseus, seemed to have been not only made of a single tree but actually carved into one. The sex was just as epic. Gone were my sexual apprehensions. Gone was my shyness of experimentation. We turned each other over and lifted appendages and stood up and turned sideways and reversed this and twisted that. Jocelyn made a saddle of my lap. Her lips pressed against mine as her ankles dug into my back. She drew blood with her nails.
That the sex was a vision made the next morning all the more tragic. They say urine contains expelled waste, dissolved salts, and other organic materials, but in the morning light, it also contained the lost hope of our remembering the previous night fondly.
"Hey, Jocelyn," I said. "Remember that story I told you last night?"
"Yes, I know," she said. "I can feel it."
What can one do in such a situation but ask forgiveness, offer to wash her sheets, feign disembarrassment, and make a joke of it all? She laughed, bless her heart. I would like to say it never happened again. I would also like to say it never happened again with the same woman.
Over the next few years, Jocelyn and I saw each other every once in a long while. The episodic nature of our relationship, as I then refused to realize, was the result not of the bourbon incident but of a mutual anxiety of permanence, an unwillingness to define ourselves. Throughout those few years, we slept together on occasion, unburdened by commitment and unstained by pee.
The last time we slept together I hallucinated. It was summer and the city was hot. One balmy night, after four long months of emails with the proper capitalization of business associates, followed by two weeks of voice messages with the implied air quotes of fuck buddies, Jocelyn and I met at a bar that, this time, was above ground and below expectations. There were shots: bottom-shelf tequila and top-shelf Scotch, cheap vodka and cheaper gin, lemon drops, buttery nipples, various ruinations of Jell-O. It was like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark except we were both Karen Allen. At the bar we played footsie without the cover of a table. On the street we twice fell to the ground in a heap of drunken laughter, our clothes and bodies all in disarray but cigarettes safe in hand. We decided on her place.
On her large brass bed in her brassy downtown apartment — the bed looked like a smelted tuba, and it sounded like one too — Jocelyn and I made love with our heads to the footboard and our feet to the headboard. Each shrill creak of metal forced me deeper and deeper into the silence of concentration. Every smack of my ass and thighs was lost to my numb and drunken imagination. I wanted to come but couldn't. At that moment, the hallucination: I was suddenly performing in front of an audience. I was surrounded by a crowd of people, dark figures standing in the corner, shadow persons posted around the bed. Not only were they my spectators, watching me, staring at me, studying me, but they were also my critics. They could see everything that was wrong with my performance. In the crowd stood old girlfriends, college buddies, one-night stands, high-school teachers, childhood crushes, and, most strangely, my own younger selves. Me at sixteen, me at twenty.
"God," I said, lost in the phantasm. "I feel like a piece of meat on display." Jocelyn asked what the hell I was talking about. "Nothing," I said. "It's over."
When I woke the next morning, I was greeted once again by my old friend, Mr. Nocturnal Enuresis. Why did this keep happening to me? You could hear the giggles of summer campers dipping a hand in warm water. The soiled sheets mocked me with their stink of ammonia. They teased me with their hue of school bus. Even as my hungover head throbbed guiltily, I looked at Jocelyn, beautiful in the sepia light, as a G.I. would a picture of his sweetheart back home. That's when I understood I could no sooner save our relationship than an alchemist could extract gold from urine, accidentally expelled or not. So, as Jocelyn slept and as the bed dried, I quietly dressed and left her apartment, knowing I would never again see Jocelyn, knowing also I would never again wake to damp sheets and regret.
I could tell you I learned from those experiences not to overindulge in drink, but that wouldn't be true. I could tell you I learned how not to put myself in such situations, how not to lose control of my alcohol-drenched bladder, how not to ruin a good thing, but that wouldn't be true either. I simply stopped. Yes, my relationship with Lara was fraught with sexual timidity and emotional immaturity. Yes, uninhibited lust and a fear of commitment stymied my relationship with Jocelyn. But I did not fix those problems with any conscious effort. I simply grew out of them. Whether children scared of the dark or adults plagued by doubts of love, all people through no volition of their own eventually grow up and stop wetting the bed.