Arm’s Length by Laurence Klavan

It started with the terrible urge to go—to pee, to piss, what was he, six? to go—to urinate, which awoke him at odd hours, when he wasn’t expecting it (it was a few years early for this, wasn’t it? He was only forty-six, not in his fifties and the I-gotta-go-every-hour situation he’d heard so much about—and at night, after fifty, forget it, four or five times at least, that’s what he’d been told, too), and it shook him up, coming on him all of a sudden.

That wasn’t the worst part of it, either: once Dieter found, made, groped, his way to the bathroom in the dark, standing there (or sitting sometimes, but don’t tell anybody), he wouldn’t be able to go, not really: There would only be this unfamiliar, insistent, pitiless pressure and then no release, follow-through, or flow, except for a few measly, snide-seeming drops, and those accompanied by the worst kind of searing and stinging pain, like that time he’d stooped and pressed his wet fingers to the kitchen floor to pat up some crumbs and found that there were also these tiny slivers of glass among them, missed when vacuuming up a broken bottle weeks before, which scattered across his palm, imbedding in and slicing him on all five fingers, hurting him in a way so weird—so big!—for objects so small, as if a teeny weeny invisible porcupine had lashed out at him, that’s what it felt like; only this pain was not in his hand but somewhere else, a place more delicate, oh, why be a baby, it was in his penis, and hurt so bad he sometimes had to steady himself with one hand on the towel rack so as not to scream and wake Naomi, producing little while being punished from within, “making” only those tiny glass pieces which came through and out of him two, three, four times a night.

Dieter avoided telling anyone, silenced by the strange shame one sometimes feels being ill (though it made sense: animals stayed out of sight when sick, panicked at becoming prey; their cat had stayed in the closet, hadn’t she, when she got cancer?). Then when it got too unbearable and wasn’t going away, not by itself, anyway, he finally told the truth and consulted a doctor, after Naomi, a doctor’s daughter, told him to go, assured him that it was probably just kidney stones or prostatitis and nothing serious (doctor’s daughters never thought anything was serious, because their fathers—or mothers, though probably their fathers—had discounted their own diseases in childhood, probably tired of dealing with hypochondriacs all day and not wanting to raise one of their own), which was both comforting and irritating, though Dieter had been hearing this sort of thing from her for twenty years now, since they’d met in college and married shortly after, so twenty-five years, incredible as it was to realize. (Naomi said it wasn’t insensitivity on her part or her father’s but just the desire to deal only with what was serious and not to encourage the kind of self-scrutiny that led to obsessiveness—or to self-pity, Dieter secretly thought, and she wasn’t wrong, though sometimes he would have liked a little coddling when he had an unserious cold or something, but you couldn’t have everything, some men were miserable in their marriages, and he had never been, not at all, not with Naomi.)

Anyway, the doctor Dieter saw—not “saw,” spoke to, for it wasn’t like he had to make an appointment, it was at their own house after a family dinner, discreetly, in the den—was his father-in-law. Dr. Jute Label was almost eighty, long since retired, but still an astute diagnostician and one who prided himself on that.

“So, Doctor,” Dieter said (he always called him “Doctor” as a first name, sort of jocularly, since using his first name, Jute, seemed presumptuous; he’d first met the guy as a kid in college, after all, and still didn’t feel comfortable saying it, and “Dad” was ridiculous, only sons-in-law on sitcoms said that, didn’t they?), “So, Doctor, what’s your best guess?”

Whenever Dieter had done this in the past—and it had only been maybe three times in twenty-five years—Jute had been affable about it, “bluff” was the word writers sometimes used, and either discounted Dieter’s worries or got him some drugs from a still practicing friend, played it all down, in other words, calmed his fears. But this time, his father-in-law didn’t smile or offer any help: he just avoided Dieter’s eyes and said, after pursing his lips, slightly, with distaste, “You better get somebody to look at that,” before leaving the room without a goodbye.

Naomi was silent for a second when Dieter told her what had happened, seemed surprised, but then shrugged it off as just generational discomfort with that whole physical area, and Dieter accepted her interpretation since it was cheering and, after all, he had no choice. He consulted someone else, a G.P. whom he’d seen for years but less and less often since the guy stopped taking any insurance. When the blood tests came back, Dieter had even greater respect for Jute’s diagnostic skills, if not his sense of compassion, for it turned out that he had an STD.

“What?” he asked Dr. Kell. “What do you mean?”

“You know what it means.” Kell was maybe twenty years younger than Jute and so wasn’t being discreet, just cursory, cavalier even.

“But what kind of—“

“We don’t know. It’s ‘non-specific,’ I told you,” and he had.

“Well, what does that mean?”

“That it’s not gonorrhea, and that’s all we know.
You’ll take some anti-biotics and you’ll be back on top in no time.”

This last phrase was an innuendo, apparently, for Dr. Kell laughed, huffed in a sniggering sort of way, a sound that would have been a smirk if he hadn’t been talking on the phone, hadn’t been simply heard and not seen, in other words.

“Okay,” Dieter said, coolly, at least that’s what he was trying to get across, but it wasn’t so easy, over the phone.

And Kell didn’t get it, or wasn’t listening closely enough to get anything and answered only, “Great,” before asking indifferently what drugstore to call, information which Dieter gave him as if in a dream, dazed and not remembering having done it only moments later.

In those moments, he was too busy asking himself what he couldn’t ask Kell, hadn’t felt allowed to, in a sense, been discouraged from asking by his coarseness and haste to hang up: How was this possible?

Dieter hadn’t been unfaithful to Naomi during their entire marriage—not since they’d been married, anyway: when they were engaged, he had necked and dry-humped (did they still call it that?) with a co-worker after a Valentine’s Day office party, freaked out, he later realized, by the prospect of marrying, but you couldn’t catch anything from doing that, except for herpes, maybe, and only in your mouth (it was most infectious before you even saw anything, he’d heard, most powerful in its absence, like love).

Dieter had had plenty of opportunities in the years since, being presentable and (for awhile) young; some had even said handsome; but his and Naomi’s sex life had been fine, much better than most, he thought, even after all this time, and—what with their having kids, Jared and Selma, who were both away at college—he had decided not to jeopardize it. It had been his choice; some never had the chance and so never had to choose, but he had and he had said no, and while he wasn’t proud of it, exactly, he wasn’t ashamed, either, for—look what he’d built instead, look what he’d put out into the world instead, what wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t, well, committed himself to it entirely, sacrificed a part of himself so that other parts would live, like a king who executes his jester so that he can succeed, like young Prince Hal in that Shakespeare show, who turns his back on old Falstaff to become Henry V. Drunken and dissolute Falstaff was Dieter’s sex drive and his family was his kingdom, and his career selling children’s swimwear was his St. Crispin’s Day battle, the battle he fought and won without being dragged down by fat Falstaff, who would have destroyed him, who was his desire.

Dieter rode the elevator to work, after speaking to Dr. Kell in his car, and felt the by-now familiar urge to urinate, mixed with, of course, the stinging, as well as an extra added element—like a part for a new instrument in an arrangement of music—itching. He burst from the car when it reached his floor, pushed his way into the men’s room and strained, agonized, against the urinal, glad no one was there to witness his wincing and hear his whinnying cries of distress. He had stopped to pick up the prescription and taken one of the pills on his way, but it wasn’t working yet, twenty minutes later—some wonder drug! he thought, he knew foolishly, yet not being able to help himself.

After eking out a few cruelly reluctant drops, which passed from him through needles, he walked toward his office, sensing he looked pale and knowing he was unsteady on his feet. He closed the door and, sitting behind his desk, pushed his thighs together, as if the huddled flesh might act as padding, protection against more pain, which it did not.

In a haze of discomfort, Dieter wondered whether he could have committed adultery without knowing it, been hypnotized, acted without volition, and when he awakened, retained only the awful result of the act without the pleasurable memory, had the ice cream headache, in other words, without the dessert. It was absurd yet vaguely erotic, to think of being forced into it like that, like a sexually functioning mannequin, the event existing in the past of the world while being scrubbed from his own mind, conceivably recalled only by the other person, the one who’d given him the disease. Or had they both, both he and the woman, been made to perform and then to forget, was that an even more arousing proposition? Dieter was impressed by his need to still feel pleasure, under the circumstances; it gave him new respect for the life force, the resilience of its forward movement despite the discouraging impediments thrown in its path. Of course, he was aware that he was thinking of this, and forcing pleasure on himself, as a distraction (the thing was a fantasy, there had been no hypnotizing, it was idiotic), in order not to conclude that Naomi must be responsible, for he knew it had not been him.

Driving home that dusk, Dieter felt flayed, the exhausted victim of—how many more by now?—six almost entirely failed attempts at evacuation, the medicine still refusing to work, like a sadistic jailer trying to get a tortured confession before setting him free. He knew that Dr. Kell had said the origin of the problem was unknown—would never be known—but the source of the problem was known, wasn’t it? It had to be Naomi, the way you knew water had been contaminated without knowing which particular fountain or stream or swimming pool was the first to bear the germ that polluted it. His wife was water.

Dieter had been evasive when Naomi called him at two from her own job (that was their deal, no matter what they were doing or where they were, one would call the other at two, trading off who made the effort and who replied: they had been doing this almost from the start, not just since the terrorist attacks and the climate changes, though those things made them never miss it now, when they had done so once in awhile before, when they were more devil-may-care, when the whole world was).

“What?” she said now, when he called her from the car and just mumbled “STD,” either ashamed to say it or wanting her to drag it out of him in order to punish them both but her most of all, and he was even louder when he repeated, “STD! STD!” yelling in the car at nothing—well, at the phone strapped in its holder like an insane, unruly, and restrained passenger—Dieter himself looking like a crazy man, though everyone else on the highway was doing the exact same thing.

“You’re kidding,” Naomi said.

“No! I’m not kidding!”

“Well, how is that possible?”

“I don’t know!”

Dieter had been prepared to blame Naomi, of course (it had to be her, hadn’t it, for it hadn’t been him), but he found he could not, he automatically shifted like his car into connecting with her, linking up, it was what he had done for decades, he could not stop doing it now, and he did not want to. In truth, he so little suspected her, actually believed her to be so blameless, that he didn’t even ask if perhaps, just maybe, she might have been involved in something that could have…and he offered no exoneration of himself, either, and she never asked him for one. (Still waters ran deep, Dieter knew: for him and Naomi, it referred to the depth of their attachment, the stuff they had gotten up to with each other—especially early on, the changes on normal intercourse and oral love that they had rung with each other, no one else—stuff he’d never told anyone about, and he knew she hadn’t either, he knew it the way he knew his own name, the way he knew she had had nothing to do with this at all.)

“Just calm down,” she said, of course caring about him. “And watch how you drive. We’ll talk about it when you get home.”

Yet they didn’t talk about it, not really: Naomi simply accepted the unknowability—the “non-specific” sense—of what he had: it was part of medicine, part of being human, part of life: her father, Jute, had taught her that when she was little, after the sudden deaths of one of his patients. He and Naomi drank a little more that night and for a few nights afterwards, but that was the extent of the change the event made in their lives.

 

 

That week, Dieter told himself the pills were working (he had five days’ worth), though he still itched and ached and the urine stream only marginally increased and maybe curved a little around the glass, bricks, and trails of nails with which it had washed out of him before. He trusted the medicine, he had no choice: he was still its prisoner but like a pet or child is prisoner, dependent on an owner or parent for security and care, not just incarceration.

He trusted Naomi, too, though, spurred on by the persistent illness, still sometimes secretly wondered how else, how else—and who could have been the one she’d—and when—and where—at work? (He knew there’d been a couple who did it on a desk in an office in her firm, and were seen by someone in an apartment across the way—so it happened—but would she—and why—and with who?)

That weekend, on the day the pills ran out, Dieter could not tell if he were cured, though he felt better—didn’t he?—or did he only imagine feeling better?—was that even possible? (And would one more day of pills make that much difference?) In any case, that weekend they threw a party, the kind they threw every few months, mostly for people in the neighborhood or on the block, though some were from work, as well, a gathering almost entirely of couples, like a Noah’s Ark for humans, no one unattached allowed, that’s how Dieter saw it, at least tonight, already feeling the effects of a few glasses of wine as the guests arrived.

It was always so sexless, too, that’s how he saw it now: if anyone unmarried ever came, they would always be kids (back when everyone’s kids were small) and that made it even more benign and wholesome, with little shoes on top of big shoes, dancing. Didn’t suburban parties used to be circuses of sin, with drunken people pairing off with other drunks, their keys thrown into bowls, everyone heading off to different addresses for the evening, with confrontations, with fistfights? Now everyone worked and everyone shared the childcare (sort of) so everybody suffered—in the same exact ways—and went home early.

But what if it secretly wasn’t true? Dieter thought, with one more Cabernet under his belt and then in his belly, an itch starting, he was sure of it, along with the need to let it fly—to please let it fly, unimpeded by pain. The STD—he was positive it was still there—was like a little devil goading him on to distrust, only in the old cartoons they sat on your shoulder and this one was in his groin, poking at him with his red-hot pitchfork and sending out a flame of fire breath.
Dieter turned left and saw Jason Stober from Naomi’s job, the senior partner—and partner at a ludicrously young age, too—with his full head of graying hair, treadmill body or handball body of what did people do to stay in shape these days? While Naomi professed to have contempt for him, to think him shallow and sexist, a frat boy, a jerk, was that just to cover up her attraction to him—and their affair? Or had she had to sleep with him to keep her job—been forced at first and then started to enjoy it—in the office, but with the curtains closed; they weren’t as stupid as the others, the ones who were spied upon? And what about—turning to the right—Adam Sing, his old college pal: hapless, unlucky in work and love, sleeping on their couch, his arm in a cast, after his awful divorce—annoying Naomi no end—or so he thought! Or was she not really annoyed but secretly solicitous, sneaking out of their bed in the early hours to give him solace of a certain sort—on the couch—obligated at first and then forced to enjoy it? (He always had this fantasy of mild force, forgive him—he couldn’t help it—but how many different fantasies were in anybody’s mind?) Or Brad Zander, coming in the front door, from down the street, a computer whiz, physically revolting (bald and fat and unkempt) but apparently brilliant—and Naomi responded to intelligence, didn’t she? It could make up for his physical flaws—Naomi repelled at first and then forced to enjoy it—all of the men at the party her potential lovers and carriers of the germ which she didn’t get but only gave to him, people he could no longer trust who until just a few days ago had been his friends—or something like it—their faces as familiar as all the phone numbers in his head, the ways he had to stay in touch and be known, the images and digits that formed a picture of himself, his hand now placing his empty wine glass on a table and moving to secretly scratch himself, to slap his devil, and put out his flame.

That night in bed, Dieter lay awake, weirdly sober again, as if the liquor could only make him so drunk and no drunker and then he had to start all over. Naomi was beside him, shifting, strangely, he thought, and smiling, too, he saw (or thought he saw in the bedroom’s dim light, the obscured moon shining a kind of Bat signal on certain spots and not on others). She had had a good time tonight, hadn’t she, chatting up all those men she’d slept with before spreading their—non-specificity—to Dieter, as if it were a game of telephone that had entered his ear and traveled and lodged lower, growing wronger and more hurtful by the moment (he wasn’t better, he knew it, it was still killing him, aching—or was it? Or was it gone? Did he feel nothing?)?

Then Naomi came closer, seemed to swim over to him and hold him, in the way she often did, with one arm flung over, as if to make sure he was still there, as much for herself as for him. This time he sensed something else in the embrace, an invitation (one not so unusual though generally not extended to him so late at night, not since they’d gotten older and often were asleep by eleven), a request for him to touch her, to do something with her, anything, she didn’t insist on intercourse, there were other things they could do (they had done them all in their day); and this made him think that she was telling him it was all right, that now that his treatment was over, she was unafraid and willing—eager—to move on with him, that this had been just a weird bump in their road, as if they’d both felt a pothole while driving and yet, looking out through the back window, had seen nothing, it would never be explained.

If Dieter had been thinking in a different way, the way he’d thought when driving home after the diagnosis; if he’d been thinking that he could not blame Naomi, no matter how much he in a way wanted to; or if he was actually looking out for her best interests and didn’t want her to get infected, since he knew the thing wasn’t gone and didn’t understand in which direction it went; if he had been thinking in those ways, he might have kindly turned her down. But what he really felt now was apart from her, for the very first time, not just across a bed but on the other side of a world. He couldn’t have performed if he had wanted to, felt as flat as a fish, soft— what was that the word he was seeking? Dead. However he wanted her to hear it, it meant that he would now be immobile, all parts of him, forever.

“It was you,” he said, suddenly, revealing that he wouldn’t do what she wanted ever again, feeling it burning and itching—it had come back worse now that it had never been gone—and then he fled to the bathroom, where he locked the door, which he had never done during their marriage (he used to pee with Naomi in there, doing her makeup—not defecate, though some did: leave a little mystery, that’s what they both believed), standing there and weeping, trying not to be heard, not sure what was happening to him, if he was completely well or deathly ill or what.

 

 

After he’d been living on his own for a few months, Dieter was convinced that the STD was finally gone. The third round of anti-biotics—reluctantly prescribed by Dr. Kell after Dieter had, there was no better word for it, begged—did the trick. Now, while Dieter experienced the occasional pinch or twinge, it was more like an aside, the way one’s so-called friend might elbow you—too hard—in the ribs lest you forget some shameful episode. He didn’t mind this reminder—even if he was imagining it—for it assured him that what he was doing now, how he was living now, was right, that he had made the right decision. It told him that somewhere inside him still lurked the possibility of contagion, he could still hand off what he had, whatever it was, to someone else, as it had been handed to him (by Naomi? It may not have been true but he’d never know: she’d denied it enough, first with tears, then in anger, and then, after days, with a kind of exhausted incredulity, looking at him the way you do a dependable and beloved old building that’s suddenly been toppled by a wind that wasn’t even strong, hardly a hurricane, but one that blew over after less than an hour and left most other things intact. Anyway, even if she was innocent, he could never forgive her).

Dieter knew how priests did it now, held back, kept themselves inviolate, out of a kind of conviction—from fear maybe, but with a belief, anyway, in something bigger than themselves. He had to admit that priests rarely found themselves doing what he did these days, but what they did was worse, wasn’t it, with boys, underage and against their will? He wasn’t hurting anyone; how could he, when he wasn’t touching them?

Not everyone went along with it, of course: he wouldn’t have expected that, it was an acquired taste, he was—but there were enough of them who said yes, more than he would have thought, and younger too: they had to be young, young enough to see it as something different and fun to do—or something just to do when you were drunk—and not as a way to actually live, not old enough to make it a habit, all formal and fetishized, that would have made it sad, and that’s not what Dieter wanted. Besides, if they were young, they would be better-looking, and that always helped. (Or was it because they would remind him of him and Naomi when they were young? He wasn’t sure, but, yes, probably, of course, now that it occurred to him.)

Dieter had started by declaring himself on any date (not a date, that was for kids, he hadn’t been on a “date” since high school, and he wasn’t about to start now), in any encounter only available to provide and receive pleasure manually, for who knows what he might spread with his mouth, let alone with anything else? (He gave no reason, just offered himself up in this limited capacity as a quirk or a kink and didn’t care what they thought, especially if they said no.) This was of interest to several women or was at least enough of a novelty to attract several women—but after it became clear that this was all he would do every time they were together, felt it was only fair to do, they would lose interest, anticipating (as did in fact teenagers on actual dates) that using their hands would just be the first step, so to speak, a way to gradually get to know each other intimately, one which would allow them to move onto mouths, groins, to all of themselves. It lasted the longest with one woman especially interested in using public (or at least peculiar) locations—his car, her elevator, the hallway to the restrooms in a restaurant after a particularly boozy meal—where the placing and pressing and moving of their hands and fingers would be the fastest and easiest way to proceed, given the small time they had at traffic lights, before they reached her floor or until someone else wished to use the john. Even this arrangement ended when, at an intersection, she began to move her head where her hand was, and he struggled away with vehemence, hurting her feelings and her neck in the process.

Finally, Dieter said he wished just to use his hand, deciding it was too dangerous for them to have any contact with him at all. While some found this seeming (once again, unexplained) selflessness refreshing, they did so for only so long, for no more than two or three times. Soon they would wish to participate, too, beginning to distrust this lack of reciprocation, to see it as weirdly and paradoxically stingy on his part or, if nothing else, rigid, one woman catching the pun in her use of the word, another not.

At last, Dieter settled on this, what he was doing now, which was watching couples—young couples, young as he and Naomi had been, he knew it now—and not joining in at all, though some invited him to, not even using his own hand on himself, teaching himself to become aroused without becoming erect, the way Yogis or whoevers teach themselves to feel no pain when passing pins through their lips, to not even bleed, he’d seen some pictures, it was true.

He watched the couples in his room or their apartments or once on a rooftop at night (it was the young man’s choice, the woman just warily went along—forced to enjoy it, Dieter’s old interest now come to life before him like a movie adapted for the stage or something—the girl’s stony silence as the boy moved in her against the terrace wall slowly shifting into responses, grunts and small murmurs of agreement, until she got so loud that he, the young man, not Dieter, had to shush her, the two starting to laugh, first at her change in attitude and then at the entire situation, laughing even as they climaxed, which Dieter especially liked, though they asked him to leave quickly afterwards, seeming embarrassed by the whole thing, what they’d gotten themselves into, which hurt his feelings a little, he couldn’t help it). (Had he paid them? He couldn’t remember—some would insist on that; others he could only convince to go along after making an offer.)

That night, Dieter had come home late, ignored one more message from Naomi on his machine, and then stayed up even later, almost until dawn, inspecting himself (like a gorilla grooming—though didn’t they do that to others? this was just him) in the bathroom’s harsh light (which had no fixture, was only a bulb) then going to work (he had kept his job, giving no explanation of his new email, home address and phone number), particularly beat, bleary even, napping during lunch time on his desk, the door locked, before being awakened by rude rapping to tell him that the weekly meeting had begun.

 

 

Dieter drove by his old home one night, after a particularly disastrous assignation in which his refusal to join in—to even move or come closer—had made the man, the boy, the young man (followed with his girlfriend from a club and then paid) shove and curse at him, ending any fantasy of the couple being like a young Dieter and Naomi (who’d both been so gentle; this girl had even egged him on), but also making Dieter wistful for the real Naomi and anxious to drive by their house again.

When he did, he saw another car parked outside and before he could suspect it was someone else’s, another man’s, he realized it was his son’s, the used Toyota they’d bought Jared to take to school. Dieter slowed, tempted to pull in behind their cars, as if sneaking into their party uninvited—but welcomed! They’d wanted him to come, thought he didn’t want to (he’d been avoiding both his kids’ calls, too). Then he felt something—not sure what: not itching exactly, but something, still—he’d been so free of symptoms, of anything for awhile, his new way of life was working—and, knowing it was a warning, not wanting to press his luck, instead pressed on the gas and drove on.

When he got home, Dieter rushed into the bathroom, pulled down his pants to pee, and saw something unexpected: a cloudy white discharge—like cake icing, that’s what occurred to him—dripping off the end of his penis. This had not happened before, not with all his pains and struggles, this was—well, the icing on the cake but less like icing than like seeing that your friend had a new white moustache now, you had no idea he’d gotten so old, had it been that long since you’d seen him? (See, his organ was his “friend” and it was unrecognizable.) In the naked, strident light of the bathroom, the thing—pus? what a word—changed color as it dropped into the bowl, turned yellow or green in the shaking toilet water, the way that beautiful lights from a summer camp had played upon a lake when he was a kid, he hadn’t thought of them in years.

As, pants still down, he leaned self-punishingly against the sink, its sharp edge poking and nearly piercing his bare thigh, Dieter realized it was a symptom of Chlamydia (though the color suggested it could also be gonorrhea)—oh, he had read up on all of them, don’t doubt it for a second, he was an absolute expert now!—and so it was no longer non-specific but very specific, though the cause was even more unknown, the idea even more impossible (if that were possible, which it wasn’t) than before.

He consulted a doctor the next day, with no appointment, just getting the name online (he’d long since left Dr. Kell, been encouraged not to come back, actually, and gone through two or was it three doctors since ), who was lackadaisical, if obviously repelled, not even doing a physical exam, just hearing his symptoms and prescribing him pills. It was a woman this time (the first name was Indian, so he hadn’t known the difference), a young woman, and Dieter knew he must seem to her an ancient polluted artifact, a fossil with a fungus on it still amazingly alive after many millennia.

Still, once he’d left her office, he knew he’d miss her youth, and everyone’s or anyone’s, for his nighttime adventures were over, he would watch no more young people—their chests and breasts and organs so big and buoyant, up in the air, lasting so long—for even keeping his distance had been contact and even that contact had caused disaster.

Soon the pills actually made matters worse. The doctor disputed it when he said so on the phone—when he screamed it, finally put through to her and not fobbed off on one more receptionist—but he knew it was true for he saw it and he felt it, and in his testicles this time, where he had never felt anything bad before. They were now as swollen as when he had lifted weights too fast a few years earlier after he’d laid off for an entire two-week vacation, raising nothing heavier than a Margarita, though then they had had, like, varicose veins leading to the balls and this time it was the sacks themselves that seemed to have—expanded—and were so tender to the touch that he could barely abide walking from the elevator to his office, let alone crossing his legs in his chair once he arrived.

Days later, sitting at all became impossible, for whatever was this new contamination had spread to his anus, which now opened in agony and inefficiently when dispensing stool, only small bloody shards of which emerged and after so much straining that Dieter was covered in sweat with tears peeled like the skins of potatoes from his eyes.

This went on for weeks before he saw the sore on himself. It was small and hard as a button—and this was the object every website compared it to when he looked it up, which he did over and over. It was impossible to miss upon his penis, which was still leaking sock-white gobs while also aching and itching and lying limply above his distended testicles and raw and desperate anus. He suspected—no, knew—that this was the first sign of syphilis, alongside the outbreak of Chlamydia and gonorrhea, the three diseases having definitely replaced the non-specific one that had started it all, like provisional lyrics to a love song that eventually give way to the actual words.

From his online homework, Dieter learned the manifestations that would eventually follow this first piece of evidence—the button—if the sickness were not dealt with. But he found that they appeared almost immediately, within days, before he could even find another doctor who would treat him. Scaly patches started to rule wide swatches of his body, making his skin look like lands cracked by endless drought, while more and bigger “buttons” emerged and harrowed the insides of his mouth. The anti-biotics he eventually received did nothing, acted only as placebos, as if he alone were living in a time before the cures to these scourges had been found.

Dieter’s persistent attempts to seek help were costly, especially since he’d lost his health insurance after being let go by his employer, a decision mutually agreed upon given the rickety state of his mind that followed his physical collapse, his inability to concentrate let alone form and express complete sentences that were audible to others.

At last, he stayed alone, unshaven or scrubbed, in a far corner of his bed, propped up against pillows, like an insane artist during a century in which whoring had doomed him to an early and ugly death. (Like Edgar Allan Poe? No, he was an alcoholic or liked laudanum, didn’t he? Dieter didn’t know, Naomi had always been the reader in the family.)

And it was Naomi who was next to him now—not next, across the room; was she keeping her distance with a hankie against her face like a fine lady would in a TB ward so long ago? He wasn’t sure, though he was almost certain she was there.

If he could have spoken to her, he would have said that he was sorry, that it wasn’t her fault, it had never been, it was his own—though he could hardly blame himself, either, not as he was now. It was the fault of his self that had not been expressed all those years, that had festered and gone bad inside of him, the self who should not have married so young, who should have been free to fuck (and suddenly his words were going bad, as well; he’d always been discreet, even clinical in the terms he used and was no longer) (and he had a big cock, too, that had gone to waste—use the word, who gave a shit, everyone cursed now, even kids on stupid sitcoms said “pussy” and “suck”—a cock as long as your arm! Not really, but you know—or so Naomi had said—but how would she know if she was so innocent? Well, she’d felt it, you idiot! Though he’d once overheard two women in a restaurant say they didn’t like big cocks, that it “hurt” if they were too big—that five or six inches were enough—well, if that was the case, what the hell was everyone always worried about? Well, maybe women didn’t worry, only men—it was just more competition between men—as usual!) and for this other self not just to fuck but merely to wake up not knowing what the world would bring. It was his other, unused self, that’s what he would have said, for he was sure of it now.

He thought Naomi pleaded with him not to try to talk, said she would go and get help, and then she was gone, as pale-white as those virtuous women of another age, if she had been there at all.

Dieter was glad she had left, at least for awhile, for he had to go—though getting to the bathroom was hard work now, he had to crawl, wiggling on his elbows and knees like a soldier under fire in that other century’s war. When he finally reached it, climbed up on the toilet and sat, nothing came out, nothing at all.

For a minute, it worried him. Then Dieter realized it was a great thing. He was empty, that’s what it was, been rewound, like an old-fashioned tape, and would soon begin again, as his other, true self. For the first time in what seemed forever, he didn’t feel pain (though it was there, the worst pain ever, or would have been for someone else, for anyone): in fact, screaming, he felt pleasure, the first and greatest and only real pleasure he had ever known.UG

Laurence Klavan wrote the novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” which were published by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the novel, “Mrs. White,” written under a pseudonym. His graphic novels, “City of Spies” and “Brain Camp,” co-written with Susan Kim, were published in 2010 by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their Young Adult series, “Wasteland,” has been acquired by Harper Collins. His short work has been published in Morpheus Tales, Cafe Irreal, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Alaska Quarterly, The Literary Review, Conjunctions, Natural Bridge, Louisville Review, Gargoyle, and Pank, among many others, and a collection is forthcoming from Chizine Publications. His stories, “Alert” and “The Dead End Job,” published in Sliptongue, were included in Best New Erotica 9 and 10. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to “Bed and Sofa,” the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London in 2011. His one-act, “The Summer Sublet,” is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001. His website is www.LaurenceKlavan.com.

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One Response to Arm’s Length by Laurence Klavan

  1. Tim Beckett

    Damn. And I just got married too. Hope this isn’t in my (possibly near) future. Good story nonetheless, vividly told.

    Tim

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