Reclaiming your sexual self after cancer is as bad as it sounds.
Actually, it’s worse.
It’s like falling off a shining new Gary Fisher and then being given a unicycle with a flat tire and a rusty chain. It takes effort where effort wasn’t previously required and it forces the issue of how to exist in a foreign body in front of someone else.
None of my body parts work right, look right, and none of them are all that interested in being touched most of the time.
Post cancer, it feels as though my life pre-cancer rained down men who launched themselves into my orbit, my lap, my bed. It’s not that I was overly attractive, but I did have hair. And tits. Maybe men are attracted to assholes (by which I’m referring to mean people, not dark anal canals) or women they can’t pin down.
I have no idea exactly what transpired — certainly a little depression and self-esteem issues — but whatever sex magic I was wielding prior to cancer, chemo, radiation and a zillion surgeries, promptly ended.
When I first thought I was ready for sex following treatment—which lasted nearly two years—I seriously considered how to go about it. I weighed how everything after cancer was different, but not drastically; things are also kind of the same. Some things had become sharper, some blurrier, but overall, everything is harder to define.
I know I’m not the same person. I don’t feel the same. I don’t look the same. I don’t think the same.
Actually, when I can carry a thought through, I probably do still think the same, which is to say I still think about shit — all day long — that no one else is interested in. Like how my children, who I love with all of my heart, run curious parallels to terrorists. Or how I spend my whole day walking through things — like air — that I can’t see.
So what will this new person, I asked myself, want from a sexual partner?
I didn’t know (and in truth, even after having sex, I still don’t know) but I did realize that the first person post cancer had to be chosen carefully and with great intention. I knew that if I reignited my sexual self with the wrong person or put myself in the wrong situation, I would be in therapy forever and thirty years is long enough.
Treading lightly, I started with the easy stuff, but masturbation was weird for numerous reasons. One, I was afraid of touching my body. I worried that if I did something incorrectly, moved in a certain way, or inadvertently directed the negative feedback that I had been pelting my body with for years, I’d get cancer again.
Two, I’m on a drug that induces menopause and causes hot flashes. It’s really hard to get into a fantasy when it’s constantly being disrupted by Tamoxifen-induced sweats. Add to that my attention span, which plummeted from hawk to hummingbird.
Cancer taught me that we use a lot more of our brain than we think we do during self-pleasure.
Thus, my new solo adventures left much to be desired.
Finally, I turned to a few trusted male friends including one who I’ve fallen into bed with off and on for, I don’t know, twenty-three years? Yeah, he and I should marry. We both say this, but are more attracted to renewing the chaos in our lives than we are to stability so we keep bumping the nuptials up by a decade here and there.
I asked this guy and two others about the possibility of fucking again — which they were happy to help with — but in the end I knew I couldn’t do it. Fucking them would have been intimate, a terrifying, distant cousin of sex that I wasn’t ready to meet just yet.
Although I didn’t know what I wanted, the universe did. One day while furiously swiping left on the bearded, fourteener-climbing engineers that comprise the majority of the Colorado yuppy Bumble class, I ran across Jeff. Standing before a mountain vista in Marmot and jeans, his hand casually looped into one pocket, Jeff got me with a smirk — and a girlfriend.
Looking for a third, Jeff’s profile said.
Curious, I thought, so I swiped right and bam, we connected. This happened while I was writing a book for a CEO, which is what I do when I’m not thinking about masturbating or sex. I collected my little Type A self and made a list. It read: Threesome pros; Threesome cons.
The pros went like this:
- No risk of any attachment or romantic relationship. Five-star rating for me on this one. The short version here is that I’ve been married twice and after husband number two committed suicide, I had kids with someone who was incompatible.
- I don’t trust men. I love them, I’m raising two boys, but the choices I’ve made regarding men have not been wise. Women, on the other hand, are safe. My relationships with all of the women in my life are decades-long and founded on trust and authenticity.
- I wanted to test others’ reactions to my body just in case, someday, I meet someone who I not only want to fuck, but also want to love. Can a normal person love a mangled torso? Would the other person willing to love this torso be more likely to be male or female?
On the male/female question — Does being with a woman make me gay? Should I question my sexuality? — these were never questions that I asked myself. I’ve never wavered from being a straight woman who, if backed into a corner, would admit to enjoying the fantasy of two girls and a guy because women are soft and beautiful and probably understand the anatomy of the clitoris better than the fumbling tongues I’ve run into, but who really needs to be manhandled to satisfactorily cum.
It seems narrow that those questions should even cross a person’s mind when, like life, sexuality is every shade of gray.
I couldn’t think of cons other than judgement from others, which I don’t give a shit about. That, and what if the couple was creepy? To address the creeper issue, I developed a satisfactory exit strategy that included 007 code words and my best friend, Lera, who has happily nested in a Jetsonian land of gay men and small dogs.
Weighing the outcome of that list is how I dove back into the dating pool. It’s how I found myself sending Lera selfies one Thursday evening after yoga.
According to my planner, I had exactly 2.5 hours between yoga and the penciled-in threesome. I mean, what does one wear to a trio? The first ensemble got a “Mormon” rating from Lera, but the black silk and lace underwear got an immediate thumbs up so I entered the situation feeling a little Driving Miss Daisy, a little Mary-Louise Parker circa Weeds and a little girl-playing-dress-up.
You’d think with my loose sexual morals and cadre of husbands that I might have joined a trio many moons ago, but you’d be wrong. The ‘ol trio has been offered by many people at many different junctures in my life but it’s never come to pass. In part, opportunities have been missed because I’m always in a relationship and those relationships always sustain with people who are sexually more conservative than I.
Those partners wanted salt, I wanted paprika, cardamom and chili powder. The compromise was salt.
I agreed to meet Jeff in Boulder, which is an hour from my home. The arrangement was that he and I would have a meal and a few drinks and wait for his girlfriend, Desi, to get off of work. I wandered into the upper of level of some trendy restaurant and sat at the bar feeling awkward and out of place. I’ve spent many hours alone at a bar — they often provide the best angle for people watching while traveling — but hadn’t been to one in nearly two years because of cancer.
I can’t remember what Jeff and I talked about other than the reiteration of there being no pressure for anyone to do anything. When you’ve had cancer for a while, it takes time to understand how to sit with normal conversation, but since I had finished all major treatments six months before, I had learned how to avoidant-ly answer things like, how are you and what have you been up to and what do you do for a living. Also, Jeff let me know that Desi was only 21.
“Twenty-one?” I balked. Jeff and I were both 37. “Jesus.”
“She’s an old soul. Trust me, you’ll see.”
I wondered if the GeniusScan app on my phone would capture her license clearly. Just in case something happened and I landed in court. But then I had two glasses of wine and started feeling sexier than I had in years, which, admittedly, wasn’t saying much.
After chatting and eating a few apps, I got in Jeff’s car. We picked up Desi from the restaurant where she worked and went to some charming hole-in-the-wall where the thickly-accented owner knew both Jeff and Desi.
Desi was adorable and had one of those China-doll mouths that is full and heavily beaked at the top until the canines where it disappears into a straight line. She had long, dark eyelashes that matched her long, silken hair.
We each had some wine and I tried not to analyze them, tried not to think about how a threesome or many threesomes wouldn’t make their coupling a good one. Jeff was clearly a narcissist who lapped up Desi’s admiration, and while Desi did seem like an old soul, I wondered if it was because Jeff had told her to be one.
At the house, which was a modernized 1970s bungalow on the Southside of Boulder near where I had lived during college, we hydrated and smoked a joint. The ease of the smoke skyrocketed us to our cores. Jeff talked about being raised by an uncle or whoever else was around while his mom gallivanted and did whatever she did. Desi talked about leaving home when she was fifteen.
“Do you want to see my scars?” I asked after showing them the port that was just below my collarbone. I still needed it because the nature of my cancer meant I had to get non-chemo infusions every three weeks for a year following chemo to block a protein that might kick me out of remission.
“Sure.” They both said.
“Can I touch your port?” Desi asked.
“Sure. It feels like a doorbell. At least that’s what I tell my kids.”
After Desi rang my bell, I lifted my shirt and pulled down the black silk bra that held my prosthetic breasts. The prosthetics go in the side of the bra so with a shirt, I look normal. In just a bra, I look normal on the left, but the right side of my chest where the cancer was, had so many surgeries that the place where my breast was, is a sizeable pit, which creates a gap between the prosthetic and my chest. Even though I had had my double mastectomy a year before, my scars were still purple and angry, the skin of my massacred breasts rolled, tucked and sewn into corners near my armpits in case I wanted reconstruction. I didn’t.
“Wow. That must have been painful.”
We talked until 3 a.m. all snuggled on the couch, rubbing each other’s feet and just being comfortable. Finally, we went to bed. I waited to see how Desi and Jeff planned to undress before stripping to my undies and bra and settling in next to Jeff, who had Desi on his other side. For a moment, I thought we were done. I was kind of disappointed, but not really. I had shown them my scars and felt whole. I knew that the late hour was the reason the bed was calm, not my scars. But also, I wanted to see if my body still knew how to do sex.
The weight in the bed shifted and Desi started giggling, her girlish bubbles rising between the suck of kisses. Then Jeff turned to me.
Everything went smoothly aside from the presentation of an anatomical challenge unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. So there was that and the shock and awe management of that, but where there is a will there is always a way. While Jeff did the grunting and whatever else boys do, I stroked Desi’s long hair wondering when my three inches would once again tickle my back.
When Jeff finished, on the arch of my foot might I add, I took his middle spot in the bed. He held me for a minute, which felt nice and then crampy, but it was Desi’s touch that I held through the night. Right as I was drifting off to sleep, she grabbed my hand. I woke a quick three hours later, Desi’s fingers intertwined with mine.
They both took me to my car and bid me farewell so that I could drive to the mountains — whole and unharmed.