The Big Slip

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I used to wear Large condoms. I wasn’t sure I really needed them, but I could wear them and so I did. Regular condoms made me feel constricted — which, for all I know, they may do to most men — and I started worrying that they were cutting off part of my blood flow, preventing me from growing to my rightful size. Also, I liked buying the Larges, liked having them in my pocket, maybe dropping one on the floor accidentally, letting the girl I was with see the writing on the wrapper. When one of these girls wondered out loud whether Large condoms were only a marketing ploy — they did, after all, cost considerably more than the Regulars — I explained to her about the constriction and the blood-flow and about how I needed the extra room, but the truth was, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure who the Regular condoms had been designed for. The packages gave no measurements. Of course, I knew the length and width of my penis, knew them down to the sixteenth of an inch; my problem was that I didn’t know the size of everyone else’s. I had read once in a men’s magazine about a study that put the average length of a man’s penis at five inches. If this was true, I was doing quite well. I had once had a girl tell me that she thought the average was “probably around nine or ten.” If this was true, I was in some trouble.


    During the heavy summer after my freshman year in college, the summer I turned nineteen, these doubts ran constantly around the track inside my head. I was either a couple inches larger or a couple inches smaller than the average man, and these two possibilities came to represent two possible trajectories for my future. It was, of course, only the first possibility — the possibility that I was demonstrably greater than other men — that would lead to the macho-icon, next-Hemingway future I dreamed of. (Now, of course, at twenty-seven, with eight more years of wisdom behind me, I could make an argument for the second possibility — the possibility that I would always have to think of myself as coming up short — as more likely to create in me the need to constantly prove or reaffirm my manhood. This new argument — although I hate its polite, obvious, politically-correct reduction of machismo to nothing but a defense against insecurity — seems obvious to me now, just as the opposite seemed obvious to me then. But, of course, now, at twenty-seven, I no longer devote any time to thinking about the relative size of men’s dicks.)
   The first girl I slept with that summer was a waitress from East Boston who had previously slept with one of my high school football teammates and had, according to him, “been around.” During the second half of May and the first half of June, I slept with her thirty-one times — I counted; I was eighteen years old — and became (she said) the first man to give her an orgasm. I told myself I wasn’t surprised. My high school girlfriend, my one real girlfriend to that point, had never been able to have an orgasm, but I’d convinced myself that didn’t bother me. My rationalizations kept me strong. After all, it wasn’t as though she could have them when I wasn’t there — she didn’t even know how to give them to herself. Lots of women couldn’t have them when they were in their teens and then there was some small, unfortunate set of women who couldn’t have them ever.

My Large, non-restrictive, Johnny-Wadd-style, hero-sized condom slipped off and got lost inside her.

    I’d always been scared of sex, but the fear was (as far as I knew) only about diseases. I never had any doubts about my performance. Somehow this was one insecurity I’d managed to avoid. Until I’d gotten serious about boxing, sex had been the only physical endeavor I thought I had real talent for. This had been my attitude since the first time I had sex and it remained my attitude until two weeks before my nineteenth birthday when I went to bed for the first time with the second girl I slept with that summer, the girl I’d later decide was the first girl I’d ever really loved, and my Large, non-restrictive, Johnny-Wadd-style, hero-sized condom slipped off and got lost inside her.
   Actually, it isn’t right to call Jamie the first girl I’d ever loved, because she was a woman, twenty-five years old. Now that twenty-five has come and gone for me, I realize how young it is and how young she was, but then she felt like part of the adult world that I was so desperate to enter. She was beautiful (brown haired, green-eyed and smooth-skinned) and she had style, New York style, knew how to dress, how to talk, what music to listen to. Also, she had a fiancé and a dog and a monstrous diamond ring.
   I’d met her in the writing class I was taking on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. During the days that summer, I worked as a roofer on a construction crew, trying to seem more like a self-educated working-class hero and less like the son of a lawyer and a Harvard professor. (I knew, of course, that Hemingway was the son of a doctor, but somehow this didn’t change my view of things.) My father had insisted I take the writing class. I didn’t believe in writing classes — didn’t even believe in college. I talked about not going back for my sophomore year. My parents and I had a few screaming fights about it, but I don’t think anyone really believed I would drop out. Certainly the guys on the construction crew knew I was nothing but a tourist, that as soon as the summer ended I’d be back on track toward middle-class security while they would continue to spend their lives pouring steaming tar on July-hot Boston afternoons, or balancing (balancing while stoned, maybe, if it was after lunch) on the edge of hundred-foot drops.
   Jamie had grown up in Wellesley and had moved back to Boston to start writing school in the fall. Her fiancé had stayed in Manhattan, working some finance job she was never able to explain to me but that paid him an absurd amount of money. She was the first person who believed in my writing without knowing anything else about me. On the basis of my first story for the class — which was about marlin fishing, something I’d never done, and (I swear to God) included the sentence, “I did not know yet that you fought a big fish the way you would fight a strong army if your army was also strong and had better resupply and generals who were good and patient but not brilliant” — she told me I was going to be a writer. After class, we would go out to dinner together and sometimes to a movie and once or twice she brought me back to the apartment she was sharing with two girls she knew from high school, but, she made clear, that was as far as things would go. I shouldn’t get the wrong idea.

When I pulled out of her, my maybe-big-maybe-small penis was shiny and bare.

   This didn’t bother me. In fact, I almost never thought about it, except when I would lie in bed at the end of every day and feel waves of heat rising into my throat and choking me.
   At the end of June, Jamie spent a few days in New York and we didn’t see each other for almost a week. On the night she got back, we ended up in bed.
   I never really enjoy the first time with a new girl. Later, I’ll notice how she smells and tastes and how warm and tight and wet it is inside her, but the first time I’m too busy reminding myself that what’s happening is real. Sometimes I have to close my eyes to stop myself from laughing. This is how it was that first night with Jamie at my parents’ house in my childhood bedroom in the tiny twin bed I’d slept in since the fifth grade. We were straining not to make any noise, wincing every time the mattress groaned underneath us. I was holding on to the headboard to stop it from knocking against the wall. Then she came and I came and when I pulled out of her, my maybe-big-maybe-small penis was shiny and bare.
   We stared at each other for a while. Suddenly, we were strangers.
   “Didn’t you notice?” Jamie said.
   “I felt something,” I said. “I didn’t know what it was.”
   She put two fingers inside herself. “I can’t find it,” she said. She rooted around for a while and I understood that a pussy is just another body part, like a mouth with the teeth knocked out. I didn’t care if I never saw another one.
   Finally, Jamie dragged out the shriveled condom. It looked like a trash bag.
   “I know I’m clean,” she said.
   In that moment, I was certain that I’d given her AIDS. I’d always been pretty certain I had it myself. I ran through all the girls I’d been with (there were only four), trying to decide which one of them had infected me, remembering every close call, wondering whether some period-blood on my skin or a flood of vaginal fluid in my mouth would be enough to transmit the virus.
   “What about you?” Jamie said.
   “What about me what?”
   “Have you been tested?”
   “I’m sure I’m fine,” I told her.
   Later, during the two weeks between having my blood drawn and getting the results of the test, I would stare at my face in the mirror until I saw the beginnings of black blotches that would eventually cover my face. I’d think about how much better I’d feel if I’d been infected by a bad transfusion or by a knife that had just stabbed someone else. I’d even feel better if I’d gotten it from a heroin needle. Then at least I’d be able to die punk-rock. Best, of course, would have been to be a young gay martyr, stoically wasting away under the curse that the medical establishment had allowed to settle on me. Instead, I was a heterosexual, non-drug-using infant who had somehow, despite years and years of sex ed, managed to misuse a condom. My sexual confidence had just been fantasy; I was inept. Worse — maybe worse — I was evil. I saw this very clearly. I knew if I could have just one more chance, one reprieve — if it could somehow turn out that I wasn’t dying — I would change everything.

I could make Jamie come so hard she’d burst blood vessels in her eyes.

   In a good story with a good, upright moral center, this epiphany should have ended my affair with Jamie. But that’s not the way it happened. An hour after I got the positive news of my negative AIDS test, I was at Jamie’s apartment. That day, her pussy was not at all like a mouth with no teeth. I did stop using Large condoms for a while, because from then on Jamie and I didn’t use anything. She was on the Pill and besides, I’d never understood why anyone would be afraid of pregnancy.
   We slept together so many times I stopped counting them. She was wild and I was the sexual genius I’d always believed myself to be. My high-school girlfriend, the one I’d never been able to make come, was frigid; I felt sorry for her. I could make Jamie come seven, eight, nine times in a single night, come so hard she’d burst blood vessels in her eyes. There was nothing I couldn’t do.
   Part of me was nagged by guilty thoughts about Jamie’s fiance — especially after I met him and liked him — but a bigger part of me loved the idea of him, took his existence as more proof of my cocksmanship, proof that I was bringing it heavy enough to make a woman risk losing a man who carried a briefcase and bought her diamonds and wore suits and a watch.
   A few weeks before Jamie’s wedding, we decided we were finished and that her part in our affair had just been a case of pre-wedding jitters, that in fact it hardly counted as an affair since she wasn’t actually married. We closed my bedroom door and went at it one last time, just to say goodbye, after which we stayed away from each other for almost a full day, then we decided to say goodbye again. These last times went on for months, kept going on even after her wedding. This still didn’t count as adultery because she hadn’t yet legally changed her name.
   I was bothered by my lack of willpower and I was ashamed to be sleeping with another man’s wife, but it was easy shame, moral shame, the kind of shame I’d (humbly, reluctantly) bring up many years later to illustrate the misguidedness of my reckless youth. Even then, I knew the words I’d use, knew how my face would look as I denounced my former self. This was nothing like the feeling of lying next to Jamie that first night, the night I had AIDS and my dick was too small.  

Benjamin Cavell is the author of Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, a collection of stories which was named an Esquire Best Book of 2003.

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