Following invasive prostate surgery Len Levinson finds himself questioning what it really means to be a man.
A few hours following prostate cancer surgery, as I lay stoned on Demerol in my hospital bed, my urologist in pale, green scrubs delivered bad news. Cancer had grown out of my prostate gland into surrounding tissue, necessitating removal of my lymph nodes and the nerve bundle that produced erections, in addition to cutting out my prostate gland. So my cancer apparently was eliminated and my life saved, but the subtext of his message was that my sex life as I knew it was over.
This verdict didn’t bother me much at the time, thanks to Demerol. If the urologist wanted to lop off my head, be my guest. Who needed erections or a head as long as I had Demerol?
During convalescence, I struggled to accommodate my new reality. Penis-oriented intercourse with women had been the greatest pleasure of my life. What was the point of living without carnal love? It was penis envy in its purest form. I didn’t feel like a real man anymore.
But I still was a half-baked intellectual and found myself wondering what exactly a man was anyway. Was it courage that made a man? No, because many women have demonstrated courage. Was it sheer physical strength? No, because women weightlifters and other athletes probably were stronger than flabby male couch potatoes. Was it leadership? No, because many women of my acquaintance, and certainly my literary agent, were far more assertive than I ever dreamed of being. It seemed that women could equal men in all areas except one. Women couldn’t get erections. Therefore, a man is a creature who gets erections.
Ergo, I wasn’t a man anymore. Thanks to surgical science I’d become some kind of neutered hound dog or sexless cyborg or postmodern eunuch.
Then I noticed a new, peculiar phenomenon. Women still attracted me in my mind but no eroticism manifested in my body, only unpleasant twinges in my lower abdomen. I concluded that erotic sensations and feelings evidently had been part of erections. I felt numb or dead inside, the new bionic Lenny.
I researched and found articles about men whose prostate glands were removed but their erectile nerve bundles remained intact, yet they suffered erectile dysfunction anyway for a year or two after surgery. I could find nothing about men who lost their erectile nerve bundles entirely.
Eighteen days after surgery my urologist and I had a long talk. He said I was cancer free based on new blood tests. Viagra wouldn’t help, but all wasn’t lost. I could utilize a hydraulic pump to draw blood into my penis, then clamp on a ring to prevent blood from escaping back to mainline arteries. Or I could jab a hypodermic needle into my penis, then inject a chemical that produced erections. Or I could insert a syringe into my urethra and squeeze in another chemical. These solutions seemed horrible.
A few days later, I dined with my literary agent. She asked how I was getting along after surgery. I explained some of the above, omitting darker speculations. She suggested I write a hands-on, consumer-information article about intercourse assisted by hydraulic pumps, hypodermic needles and syringes.
But I wasn’t married or involved with a woman with whom to conduct educational experiments. Even if I managed to undertake romance with a new significant other, I couldn’t imagine, at a tender moment, dragging a hydraulic pump from beneath the sofa and saying, “Ever see one of these?”
I tried to stop complaining and move on already. But an unimaginable encounter was on my agenda, to complicate profoundly my already tangled conundrum of no more erections.
The misadventure began innocently enough in Central Park around 18 months following surgery. I was circling The Lake on my usual late afternoon jaunt. Near 77th Street, I paused to gaze at ducks swimming across the iridescent watery expanse. During my reverie I heard a female voice: “Excuse me. Would you take my picture?”
I turned to a smiling, young Asian woman holding out a camera. “Sure,” I replied.
Her petite, curvy figure was silhouetted by the dappled Lake as I snapped a few shots. She appeared around twenty years old, five feet tall, wearing thick eyeglasses.
I handed her camera back, then she asked the classic question, “Do you live around here?” I told her yes. Her English was fairly poor, but we managed to communicate. She was a Korean immigrant, actually 28 years old, employed in a nail salon while studying English at Brooklyn College. In response to one of her questions I admitted that I was a writer. “Oh, I love writers!” she said.
We dined at Ollie’s, a Chinese restaurant near Lincoln Center. She explained that she’d grown up in the vicinity of Seoul, beside a U.S. Army camp. The soldiers had been great guys, giving her and other kids candy and toys. “I love Americans,” she announced happily. She also said that she wanted to start some kind of business and make lots of money.
As we departed the restaurant, she said, “I have always wanted to see a writer’s apartment.
Could I see yours?”
How could I deny a curious young mind opportunities to accumulate knowledge? “Sure.”
We proceeded to my Hell’s Kitchen residence, where disorder seemed not to faze her unduly.
I put on the Chopin Nocturnes by Daniel Barenboim. We relaxed side by side on the sofa, not touching, eyes closed, spacing off. If I’d been normal, I’d ease into Don Juan routines. Instead we listened to more music. It was getting late. She said, “I do not feel like going home all the way to Brooklyn at night. Could I sleep here on the sofa?”
Far be it from me it to banish young ladies to dimly lit subway platforms. “Sure.”
We showered (not at the same time) and went to bed around 11 p.m. I lay on my loft bed, she on the sofa. Mental pornographic movies starring her prevented sleep. If I were my pre-cancer self, I’d be on her like a lion on a gazelle. But I’d become an emasculated alley cat experiencing needle-like sensations in my groin.
Dozing, around midnight, I heard footsteps on the ladder leading to my loft bed. “I want to be with you,” she said.
She wore only a camisole and bikini underpants and dropped into my arms. My head nearly exploded with surprise, joy, ecstasy of skin surfaces, etc. As a half-baked intellectual, I couldn’t help remembering Lolita and Humbert. He feared to make the first move on a teeny bopper, so she seduced him. And something similar was happening to me.
Regrettably, there was one major obstacle to progress: no more erections. Instead, pressure increased inside my pelvis, along with occasional pinches of irritation. Although my senses were intoxicated by her young female warmth, I felt no eroticism whatever. The overall effect of this double whammy was extreme weirdness, but in the words of the immortal Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
I kissed her passionately, enacting all the usual motions while praying for a miracle. But no miracle arrived. She realized something was amiss. I explained my malady and she seemed genuinely touched, even seeking to comfort me. Activities then transpired during which I was tormented by near-total madness, augmented by dots of pain in my pelvic regions. For the first time I comprehended true implications of that old dichotomy: the agony and the ecstasy. I swore that I never again would submit myself to such fabulous but ultimately hellish sensations.
Around 2 a.m. we lay side by side, staring at the ceiling, pillow talking. Out of the blue she asked, “Why don’t we get married?”
I was speechless for several seconds, then replied, “We’ve only known each other around twelve hours. We’ll need to spend more time together and see if we’re truly compatible.”
In the darkness, she slumbered at my side as I lay awake, pondering her suggestion. The most likely scenario was: she saw not a handsome, irresistible older man in Central Park, sort of like Sean Connery, but American citizenship as wife of a harmless-appearing geezer with Midtown apartment and who radiated the aura of an ex-libertine. She only wanted to live the American dream, and how I could I fault her? I’d probably do the same if I were in her sneakers.
We saw each other twice more, never alone in my apartment. I was working on a novel, and she was busy with school and the nail salon. Our “relationship” faded away.
A few months later I spotted her sitting on a bench in Central Park, talking with a large forty- something man with shaved head. She and I glanced at each other but didn’t speak. Between us passed the clear understanding that she shouldn’t be disturbed. Regarding her companion, Brad Pitt he wasn’t but neither was I. He seemed completely absorbed by her unquestionable charm as I’d been. He probably married her about a month later and presently she’s an American citizen and successful entrepreneur on her way to her first million.
And I’ve returned to my usual predicament. What should I do? Obviously I must (1) accept reality because there is no logical alternative; (2) be grateful for abilities I still have; and (3) enjoy life to the extent I still can.
After all, I still have the love of my family, wonderful friends, good books, music, movies, hiking, the joys of travel, delicious Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants, and my unending passion for writing novels.
Best of all I still can enjoy the company of lovely women who truly are much more than sexual gratification machines, whose companionship has always stimulated me intellectually and spiritually as well.
In a larger sense, my misfortune seems relatively minor compared to soldiers recovering from mutilation by roadside IEDs, or people those who are paralyzed by strokes and confined to wheelchairs, or are stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and can’t recognize their children. No one can expect to go through life and get older trouble free, and thankfully I should be grateful that I got off so easy.
Photo: Getty Images