(This is part of a series of essays on the subject of manhood commissioned by Jason Brown at Men’s Health.)
I’m not proud of this story. It’s a story about trust, and who we hurt most when we betray it. It’s also about the kind of man I’d like to be.
In movies when a man can’t get it up, you always cut to the scene a few seconds later. He’s mortified and lifting the sheets to stare at his blushing limpness with dismay and disbelief, saying, “I don’t know what happened! I swear, this has never happened to me before!”
If she’s a new bride she’s always anxious and fretful. “Is it something I did?” she asks. “Is it something I didn’t do?” But if she’s been around a bit, she rolls her eyes at the ceiling and says wryly: “It’s okay, it’s no big deal, it happens to guys all the time.”
When I was younger I was never quite sure who to believe, him or her. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily ask your male friends because guys lie to each other, and we lie about our dicks most of all. I don’t know if we lie on purpose, knowing we’re lying while we’re lying, or if we temporarily blank out the past and think we’re telling the truth, but there aren’t many guys who reply: “Yeah, sure, there’s been lots of times I couldn’t get it up.”
The fact is, there’ve been lots of times I couldn’t get it up. It’s happened when I haven’t liked a woman enough and when I’ve liked her too much and when I’ve been drinking and it happened a lot in the days when I did drugs. It’s okay when you’ve been drinking, because you can usually just put your face in the pillow and mumble something apologetic and fall asleep, and if you’ve been doing drugs, there’s usually a kind of camaraderie in the bedroom, where you both try whatever you can to get it going, like two cats tormenting a mouse made of mashed potato, before you finally give up and go do more drugs.
But the worst time it happened, it happened for weeks, and it happened for the worst reason of all.
I’d been friends with Dan a long time, through school and university and life. We’d moved up to Johannesburg around the same time and we’d both had good and bad times and helped each other through and quarrelled and stuck it out. He was the best friend I’ve had, and possibly the best I’ll ever have, because friendship is like a slow drip of water onto rock – the more time it has, the bigger the space it can hollow out for itself in each other’s lives.
It hadn’t been a good time for me. I was losing my nerve professionally and I’d recently failed badly at a relationship and I knew the failure was down to me. I wasn’t surprised when she left me because deep down, truthfully, I could never see why anyone would stay. I didn’t feel like a real person – I felt like someone who has watched people for a long time and imitates how they behave. It’s the way many people feel when they’re teenagers, but I wasn’t a teenager any more.
I admired Dan. In some ways he could be annoying, but he knew who he was. He was authentic, and that’s attractive, and I wished I was more like him. It’s always dangerous when a certain kind of young man admires a friend too much, because when you’re not yet a fully formed human being, admiration becomes competitive, and then carnivorous, in the way that cannibals eat the hearts of their most admired rivals in order to gain their strength. There isn’t much difference between a friend you want to be, and an enemy you want to beat.
I used to hang around with Dan and his girlfriend. She found our banter funny, and that made us banter more. We both showed off for her, but when he did it he was just her boyfriend; when I did it I was flirting.
Something started happening between us: eye contact and meaningful glances, private jokes. He never noticed because he wasn’t looking for it, because he was happy we were friends, because he trusted us. There was a part of me that resented that trust, as though it meant he thought less of me. Back then I knew so little about anything that I thought her attraction to me meant that I was winning as a man. I didn’t realise that just by trusting me he was beating me all day long.
When we were all together, it was the usual pathetic betrayal story of knees touching under the table and hands casually brushing. I started seeing her without him. We shopped for furniture for my flat and went to her friends’ awful art openings and walked her dog in Delta Park. One day we went to the Pretoria Zoo to see the Komodo Dragon and we kissed beside the Red Colobus enclosure.
Dan trusted me but he wasn’t a fool. He came to me and looked me in the eye and asked what the hell I thought I was doing. There is no honour for me anywhere in this story, but I’d still feel a little better if I’d looked back and answered like a man. Instead I stammered and looked away and half-denied. He didn’t punch me; he cut me off and broke up with her.
I’d lost a friend and gained a girlfriend, and both those punishments served me right. The first night we slept together, it felt like we owed something to the universe: we broke at least two hearts to do this, so it had better be good. Ten minutes later I was staring at the ceiling, saying, “This never happens to me.” It wasn’t like the movies. She didn’t say it’s no big deal and it happens all the time. She didn’t say anything.
The next time we tried it was the same, and again and again after that. I tried getting drunk, staying sober, ginseng pills, secret hits of porn. She started shaking her head and laughing to herself. In the past I would have discussed it with Dan. We would have had a drink and he would have made fun of me for a while and then we would have brainstormed a solution. Instead I was alone with Sarah and she was saying, “Are you’re sure you’re not gay?” There are many mistakes that I’ve had to make twice before I understood them, but swapping someone you love for someone you don’t isn’t one of them.
When Ernest Hemingway left his wife Hadley and married her best friend Pauline, he couldn’t consummate the union either. For weeks he failed. One afternoon, after trying and failing yet again, he took a long walk from their Paris apartment and found himself in the Place St-Sulpice, in front of the fountain with its sheets of clean white water. It was 6pm and the bells were ringing in the stone church. He went in and knelt although he wasn’t Catholic and wasn’t a believer, and the way he tells the story he asked forgiveness, and then asked the Virgin Mary for the use of his cock again. Then he went back home and made love to his new wife for the first time.
I’m not a believer either, but guilt isn’t only for Catholics. I didn’t go to church to ask for forgiveness. One day when she was away on a trip to her parents I took a walk and found myself ringing Dan’s bell. He hesitated but let me in. I didn’t ask him for forgiveness either. I sat down, and when he asked how things were going I told him I couldn’t get it up any more. He only laughed for about 10 minutes. His laughter made me laugh, and it was always good when we laughed together. We drank some whiskey, he laughed some more, and finally he suggested I try not wearing underpants.
I went commando for the rest of the week and then she came back from her parents and we went to a movie together. It was a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and after that we went home and had sex. There are three explanations for how I cured my impotence. One is that hanging free did the trick. Another, which sometimes slightly troubles me, is that it was Tim Curry in a suspender belt, because you have to admit he’s kind of hot. The other is that a friend gave me absolution for being a fuck-up.
I went out with Sarah for a while, but really we disliked each other, and when she left to go marry an ex and live in Canada, she borrowed money and books and never gave them back. It took years for Dan and me to become friends again. He trusts me. I don’t think I deserve it, but I work pretty hard to make sure I do.