There is a question I would say I’ve been asked a lot more than most men my age. I should probably be offended. Indeed, I am offended. That question, as the title of this entry rather gives away, is: ‘Are you a
virgin?’ Ange asked it last night.
As it happens, I’m not. I’ve had sex with two women. Ange wanted to know about it. About them. I tried to play it down. I didn’t particularly want to tell her. ‘It was just, you know, normal. Jesus. What? Sex is sex, isn’t it?’
But of course I was lying. I get the feeling from people I know and books I’ve read that sex is never really ‘normal’, or at least it’s as ‘normal’ as people are, and everyone’s at least a little insane. But more than that, sex with a freakishly ugly man is never normal.
So. Here goes.
I lost my virginity when I was 24 years old. To Avril. Avril was my Diana Adams.
Diana Adams is a character in the film Mask. Not only did Mask establish Cher as ‘a serious actress’ and bring Peter Bogdanovich ‘back from the dead’, but it was also the film that for a long time gave me hope. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it was the most important film of my teenage years. It helped get me through what was one of the most difficult periods of my life. I thought about it a lot when I was at my lowest ebbs. When I was really, really down, really, really alone, weeping and wishing I had never been born, Mask came to mind and gave me hope. Before Mask it was The Elephant Man. But Mask was much more important, as it had kissing...
...No one kissed The Elephant Man. Poor guy.
Mask is the story of Rocky Dennis, who was born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, an extremely rare bone disorder which causes a calcium build-up in the skull. Imagine a boy with – instead of a head – an enormous Fisherman’s Friend in a ginger wig. That was Rocky Dennis. And Mask was the true story of how he overcame adversity. Well, at least until he died, aged 16. So it’s the story of how he overcame adversity for a while, and then succumbed to it.
For all of his physical misfortune however, Rocky had two things I never had when I was growing up – three if you count a cool name: he had a supportive circle of family and friends; and he had Diana Adams, played in the film by Laura Dern.
Diana Adams was – believe it or not – a blind girl. Which makes you think. Firstly, it makes you think, yes, that makes sense. For only a blind girl would see beyond the surface and discover the worth in such a shocking-looking geezer. But then secondly, hold on just a minute – surely, when she got round to feeling his face, wouldn’t she have pretty much the same reaction that other people would have when clapping eyes on him for the first time? Well, no, because she’d got to know him by then, without the impediment of having to judge his freakishness.
Which reminds me of a very cruel parody in Family Guy. I wouldn’t mention it, but it does make me laugh.
Diana: Rocky, I don’t even know what you look like. Can I touch your face?
Rocky: Of course, Diana.
Diana: Oh, God. Oh – oh, God, what is this? What – what is all this? Am I touching the outside of a house? Oh, God! You’re a monster!
Rocky: I’m beautiful on the inside.
Diana: Yeah, but, Rocky, there’s a limit. Oh – oh, what is this now? Does your face have a pelvis?
So, to get back to the point. I identified a lot with Rocky Dennis and to be perfectly honest, my face is not a million miles away from his: not quite as unshapely, but with more elbows and eczema disfigurement. So from the moment I saw the film I was on permanent look-out for an attractive blind girl who wouldn’t give a damn about my big, ugly face. (I did go as far as to volunteer at a college for the blind, but that’s a story for another time, when we’ve got to know each other a little better and I’m pretty sure you won’t run screaming.) Suffice to say, my search for a blind girl was very much in vain.
Then, quite by chance, I met Avril.
Avril was 33. She was not what you’d call good-looking, but she did have beautiful eyes and large, quite magnificent breasts. She was bright, articulate, funny and severely physically handicapped. In a word, phocomelia. It’s what lots of thalidomide victims got. Apparently it comes from the Greek for ‘seal limbs’, a reference to the flipper-type hands which are a common symptom.
Avril was in a wheelchair. She had two tiny legs and one tiny arm. Her right arm was almost normal length but still somewhat twisted, and the hand was smaller than it ought have been. Her breasts however, were, as I say, magnificent. And her other lady parts weren't half bad either. The first time I laid eyes on her, I must admit, I thought, ‘Now there’s a woman who might be desperate enough to have sex with me’. She later told me that she thought pretty much exactly the same thing. Another film that always springs to mind whenever I think of me and Avril is Freaks. One of us, one of us. We made a wonderful couple.
I became friends with Avril through her brother, Stu. I became friends with Stu through my ukulele, George. That’s right, I christened my ukulele George. And why the hell not? So, Stu had placed an advert on the noticeboard of the music shop where I bought my strings. He was a music producer currently working with a bunch of comedians on a sketch show for Radio 4. At least that was the plan, and they needed a ukulele player for a George Formby spoof song. It was cutting edge satirical stuff. It actually was in a way. It was a song about September 11th, and the terrible events therein. Within a month of it having happened. It was close to the bone for sure, but sadly, it wasn’t very funny. Anyhow I went along to audition and got along very well with Stu.
In the end Radio 4 thought the comedy element even less funny than I did and the show went nowhere. Which meant that I ended up – as I have so very many times in my life – doing work for no money. But Stu felt bad about that, plus he liked me, so he invited me over to dinner one night. At his place. With him and his wife. Super. I actually didn’t relish the idea of spending the evening with a happy couple in their happy home with their happy, well-adjusted baby gurgling close by, no doubt having happy, well-adjusted baby dreams, but I did relish the idea of a free meal, so I graciously accepted.
And it was actually very pleasant. Stu’s wife was lovely, Mick was charming and even the baby was inoffensive enough. I was enjoying myself, eating olives, drinking wine and looking forward to the food, which smelled succulent and meaty.
Then the phone went. It was Stu’s sister. She was outside in the car, fuming angry. She’d had a big row with their parents. Stu huffed and puffed, apologised, excused himself, then went outside to help his sister down the stairs.
While he was out of the room, Carolyn said, ‘I don’t know if Stu’s mentioned Avril before…’ He hadn’t. ‘Well, just so you know, she’s in a wheelchair.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s um… that’s great. Well, not great obviously. I mean, that’s fine. Which is to say, I’ve not got a problem with that. Obviously. I mean, why would I?’
Carolyn smirked at me and briefly limpened a wrist as if to put me at my ease.
I smirked back.
Avril was still in feisty mood when she whirred up to the table. Stu introduced us. Avril immediately picked up on my unsureness as to whether to shake her hand or not – she was used to it. I had already stood up and was wondering whether even that was not a rather insensitive manoeuvre. She held out her right arm. ‘Shake my tiny hand,’ she said. I laughed and did so, and even then it crossed my mind, the old adage about men liking women with small hands. But I thought better of sharing it. Instead I said, ‘Pleased to meet you. That reminds me of the EE Cummings poem.’ Then I felt embarrassed. I blushed. But I’d started, so I had to finish. ‘Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands,’ I quoted.
Avril pulled a face. ‘What are you saying?’
I blushed some more. ‘I don’t know really. It’s a poem.’
‘I’ve got absolutely no idea what that means,’ she said.
‘Now play nice,’ said Carolyn.
Avril laughed. ‘No, I’m not being mean. I genuinely don’t understand. The rain doesn’t have hands. Or am I missing something?’ She looked at Stu who shrugged unhelpfully.
‘I don’t think it was meant to be taken literally,’ I offered.
‘You don’t think he wrote the poem about a deformed girl then?’ asked Avril.
‘Actually I think he did,’ I replied. ‘Yeah, I remember now. He definitely did.’
Avril laughed again. ‘Marvellous,’ she said. ‘That’s marvellous.’ I drank some more wine, relieved.
At the end of the evening Avril and I were left alone. Stu and Carolyn were tidying up in the kitchen and making coffee.
‘You know the worst thing about my disability?’ Avril asked me, apropos of nothing.
‘Hold on a minute,’ I said. ‘Let me think.’
I thought. The answer that occurred to me was ‘Not getting enough sex?’ but I didn’t voice it, because I didn’t want to offend. So instead I said, ‘Going round in circles when you swim,’ which was just stupid. But she laughed, which was nice of her. ‘No,’ she said. ‘The worst thing about being in this chair, and having these fucked-up limbs…’ – she had quite a fruity vocabulary, Avril – ‘…is that most men tend not to think of me in terms of someone they might like to fuck.’
Perhaps over-enthusiastically I responded. ‘I know! That’s what I thought, I just didn’t like to say! But I do know exactly what you mean. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but I’m – well, I’m quite an ugly bloke.’
‘Oh, I dunno,’ she replied. ‘You’re not Tom Cruise, but you know, you’re not…’ She ran out.
‘That was a valiant effort,’ I said. ‘And it’s appreciated, it really is. But the fact is, I am a frighteningly ugly bloke, and I don’t mean to demean your condition when I say this, but ugliness of this extent is actually a kind of disability.’
‘How so?’ she asked.
‘In a way,’ I continued, ‘it’s worse. Because at least you have an excuse.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Let me explain. People look at me and their reaction – I’ll warrant – is similar to the reaction they have when they look at you. They think, you’re just not in the running. No pun intended. You’re less than human. You’re not someone they’d consider – whether for sex, for a job or, nine times out of ten, even for conversation… You know why I spend so much of my life writing stuff? Well, because I’m good at it as it happens, but also, probably equally importantly, I write because I can get a lot of work these days without having to turn up for an interview. Most of the jobs I get are on the strength of my writing. I don’t have to impress in person.’ I was getting into my stride now, and a little tiddly. ‘I’m pretty much good at everything I do – no arrogance intended – but I’ve never got a job if I had to go for an interview in person. Even if I’ve been perfect for the job. And this is because – again, no arrogance or self-delusion intended – I’m butt-fuck ugly.’
‘Yeah, laugh it up. At least you’ve got rights groups and laws looking out for you. Do you know it’s not illegal to discriminate against ugly people?’
‘That’s a disgrace,’ she said. ‘Maybe you should start a campaign,’ she said.
‘Maybe I should,’ I said. ‘Maybe I will.’
‘It’d be a complete waste of time though,’ she countered. ‘You’d still be discriminated against. Trust me. So where did you say you lived?’
The question took me by surprise slightly. ‘Herne Hill,’ I told her. ‘Why?’
‘Just making conversation,’ she said. ‘Do you live alone?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.’
‘Nice,’ she said. ‘Good for you. Maybe you should invite me round for dinner this weekend then? I promise I won’t discriminate against you.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Maybe I will.’
So. A few days later, in an act of mutual desperation, I lost my virginity. Actually, that sounds terrible. It was an act of mutual attraction as much as anything. And as I found out later, Avril wasn't remotely desperate. I was, however. I had waited an awful long time for this moment, and in the end, it was worth waiting for. It was fun, and it was passionate, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, it was actually incredibly kinky. We did things you people wouldn’t believe. Then, at half past midnight, she asked me to call her a cab.
‘Don’t you want to stay?’ I asked her. ‘You’re welcome to stay.’
‘I’d like to,’ she said, ‘but my husband likes me home.’
‘Your… You’re married?’
‘Did I not mention that? I thought you knew.’
I didn’t know. She’d been married for six years. She and her husband had an open relationship. He was also, as she put it, ‘a spaz’, and he liked her to go off and have sex with other men. They would relive it together. It turned them both on. He knew she loved him. She knew he loved her.
Is this weird? I have to say, it sounds weird to me. I asked Ange, ‘Do you think it’s weird?’
‘I think it’s fucking weird,’ she said. ‘Sweet though.’
‘It’s not as weird as guys getting off on sleeping with disabled people.’ Avril told me. ‘Blokes who can only get an erection,’ she continued, ‘if a woman has a stump. Or a flipper.’
I told Ange that too. ‘That’s just wrong,’ she said.
Maybe, Ange. Maybe. But it’s nowhere near as wrong as what happened the second time I went to bed with someone. She wanted to know more. But I was tired. And despite myself, I’m still ashamed, and I’m hanging on to that story for as long as I possibly can. I think at least until something else comes along to distance me from it.
To finish the Avril story however, I ended up seeing Avril every once in a while for around two and a half years. Then I started to feel somehow morally compromised by our relationship. At least that’s what I told myself at the time. In retrospect I think it was just that what I wanted was a proper relationship. Not that a long-term affair with a lady in a wheelchair is somehow improper – just that, you know, I wanted to be in love.
And there you have it.