I used to be pretty adept at self-service. I never even considered anything artificial. The men in my life were always more than willing to oblige, and when they weren’t around I had no trouble taking care of my business. The closest I came to an actual material encounter was when I moved in to the Hell’s Kitchen apartment of my now ex-husband. I found a vibrator in a paper bag under the sink. It was a sad imitation of a Star Wars phaser or laser or whatever they call it, in white plastic. It was also the last remnant of his previous relationship. Besides the fact that I wanted any reminders of past inhabitants away, away, away—I was kind of skeeved by the thing. I deposited it in the garbage can without so much as a discussion. That however, as S.E. Hinton once wrote, was then.
Two children and a divorce later, things have changed. On a recent girl’s getaway, a friend asked me if I had a “home helper.” I had never heard the term before, but I loved the expression and well, who couldn’t use a little help at home? Shortly after, another girlfriend—married, I might add— and I were having a sex discussion, or lack of sex discussion, I asked her about home help. “It’s changed my life,” she said with unabashed enthusiasm. It’s not like I was surprised by this information, I was just a bit shocked that she had kept it quiet. “I didn’t know what to get but I surfed the internet and bought three. I’m going to send you the one I like best.” That’s what I call a true friend.
So my home helper arrives via UPS in a basic brown box, and inside the box is another box with a kind of see-through window. Printed on the top is a name, “Doc Johnson.” I open it and pull out a flesh-colored silicon object that looks remarkably like a penis—life-like ridges and all. Underneath the window on the box are the, words in bold print “Thin Cock.” So let me pause right here, right now, to say that I hope I never, ever, ever have to experience what these folks would dub a “Medium.” Anyway, once I get beyond the sizing shock, I have a flash: Doc Johnson will hold his stiffness forever, which sure beats any guy—even one who’s having a bad reaction to Viagra. I can’t call him Doc though because that was my dad’s name, and the Freudian implications would cost me several college educations worth of therapy so I call him by his full name Doc Johnson.
At first, I’m afraid to take him out of the box. It was like when I moved to New York and it took me a few days to brave the subway. I just needed a little time to psych myself. Doc Johnson takes two double-A batteries, and you’re supposed to clean him after use. So right there, he’s cheaper financially than a guy and less mess. No stickiness on the sheets or aftermath drips in the undies. Doc is one no-muss, no- fuss helper. I don’t remember when I first pulled him out to experiment, but I do remember the sensation. It was like “Good night , Irene” and “uh huh” and the best Lucinda Williams moan you could imagine. I was as giddy as Diane Keaton getting her first in a while from Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give. Wow, I’m thinking, this guy is giving and giving and I don’t have to give back. It’s all about me and I don’t have to talk or give directions or approvals or worry that I’m not doing enough of either. I am in total control. I don’t wonder if it was good for Doc Johnson and, better yet, it’s ALWAYS good for me. What guy can possibly have a track record like that? On top of it, he’s so efficient. Knows exactly where to go, and how long to stay there, and voila, one more thing to cross off my “To-do” list. No messing with foreplay or pillow talk or having to discuss my day. Doc Johnson is all action and no talk. I have never met a man like that.
So what can’t Doc Johnson give me? Well, let’s compare him to the first man I became intimate with after I left my husband. I met him on a business trip. A golf tournament, if you must know. And though I’m not flattered by the attention of men on golf outings (the ratio is like six zillion men to every skirt in soft spikes) this guy was severely charming, funny, and intelligent. Already, three things that my home helper is not. He gave good repartee, which is always fun, and when I like a guy it’s all about what’s above the neck , not below the belt—so he had a huge advantage there. He also sucked at golf, which I found extremely refreshing because, though I write about the sport, I’m not that adept at it and I get very, very tired of listening to men boast about their prowess with a titanium-shafted stick. So when this particular fellow asked me what I liked to drink and then proceeded to buy me a thousand-dollar bottle of bubbly, I was not an unhappy girl. At this point in my existence, I love a guy who doesn’t think twice about throwing out a bit of green on a gal. I used to consider it showy, but now that the reality of single parenthood has hit, I find a guy’s propensity for financial generosity to be a large plus in the MAN column. He also had big strong arms, a warm body, was a good kisser and a good cuddler. Doc Johnson offers none of these things.
The man also expressed a desire to please me. Another big check in the asset column. We used protection, which, in a way, feels a lot like Doc Johnson, and while I have no complaints about the sex, it lacked the precision and pleasure of the good doctor. True, I didn’t have to clean him, or put him away, or worry —god-forbid—that my children would find him hidden in the closet. But this fine gentleman snored. It sounded like I was sleeping next to a house with a deviated septum. This is never a worry with Doc Johnson. Even if I’m too tired to put him away, he takes practically no room and as long as he’s not in motion, makes no noise.
Then there’s the-morning-after-bad-breath thing combined with the finding-yourself-in-bed-with-someone-you-don’t-really- know thing, but we really didn’t have much of that. We actually had a sweet moment before I announced that it was time for me to make my exit. He was adamant about wanting to spend more time with me and NOT having this be a one-night stand. This was an ego boost of rather major proportion and something that only a real red-blooded human being can give. And this knowledge that I was still attractive and interesting to a man that I thought was both—well, that gave me a spark for quite some time. He was extremely attentive the next time we met (which was later that day) and he continued to make efforts and show interest for several months after that even though we lived in different cities and were captive to crazy schedules. The friendship, however, fizzled but that had more to do with our different lives and philosophies. It would be completely unfair for me to take anything negative away from it. It was a good experience and I enjoyed myself and though I can’t quite articulate what it is I learned, I know I learned something.
I often joke about how much easier it is to have a relationship with someone who needs only two double AA batteries to function. And during this time of life transition, when everything is kind of complicated, it’s nice to have something simple, something with no strings attached, something that’s so perfectly on target and something that exists for the sole purpose of pleasing me. Do I prefer machine to man? Of course not. I can’t laugh with my faux friend, can’t dance, smooch or hide under the comforter or discuss why I think Barack and Michelle Obama are the coolest couple in modern history. I miss warmth, and caring, and having the eyes of someone across from me look like they’re actually happy to be right where they are, sharing linen with me.
But life, at least my life, has not proven to be anywhere near a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, so while I’m living the journey and washing the dishes and making sure I sign the homework folder—I’m grateful for Doc Johnson who can take care of me in my moments of need and who doesn’t care what I look like, what I weigh, or if I’ve worn the same t-shirt to bed three nights in row. He doesn’t notice that once a month there’s a zit the size of the Chrysler building on my chin. Heck, he’s even good when the batteries start to get a little low. Sometimes no negative feedback is a wonderful thing. In my darker moments, I worry if I will ever be as happy with someone who doesn’t vibrate. But that usually passes. Basically, I’m just grateful that in lieu of getting what I want in the flesh, I’ve got what I need in silicon. Not that Doc Johnson will help me, in any way, manage a relationship that is both sexual and emotional. There is, after all, no emotional learning curve with my battery-operated boy. There is no emotion, period. And sometimes that beauty of him.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the collection, “Over the Hill and Between the Sheets: Sex, Love, and Lust in Middle Age” by Gail Belsky (Editor))